Until that day, fear had been an idea, a concept. Now it was real: a feeling I would carry inside me for the rest of my life. The day began innocently enough, with me taking my usual route to school. There was no indication, or foreshadowing, or fate reaching out to yank on my attention chain to indicate anything about today was different.
Then I saw the neighborhood bullies drag Ford into the woods behind the bus stop. Ford was a nerdy slip of a kid, and it was almost too cliché that they picked on him. Of course, in a small town everything was a cliché.
Ford might not appreciate being rescued by a girl, as I assumed most guys wouldn’t, but I couldn’t stand by and let them kick the shit out of him. Again. The bullies—Dane, Hunter, and Seth—were all large, bumbling oafs who spent more time ogling guns, boobs, and inappropriate magazines than they did on their schoolwork. Ford was the classic, 4.0, full ride scholarship, soft-spoken, glasses-wearing, game playing geek. The boys picking on Ford was as expected as the sun rising in the east, and the adults were next to useless. Ford and I were distant neighbors, and not friends, but it didn’t sit right with me that the boys were assholes to him.
I tended to keep to myself, as did Ford, and maybe it was in that mutual weirdness I felt an obligation to help, even though my instincts screamed against it.
They’re bigger than you!
You know they have no problems hitting girls; just ask Kelly Jean and her black eye.
I let out a soft growl of frustration and pushed all those thoughts to the side. As I followed them into the woods, the distant taunting was smothered by the towering trees and low-hanging mist. They were still moving away, but I was gaining on them. It wasn’t easy navigating in the pre-dawn darkness, but I’d been in and out of these woods since kindergarten—the bus stop was the same for all grades.
The forest was eerily quiet. Not just the kind when people disturb nature and things pause until we stumble by. It was as though even the trees were holding a breath they didn’t have. It was…anticipation, thick on the air like southern humidity. It unsettled me enough that I picked up a few rocks roughly the size of my palm. I might not be into guns or knives like most of the kids and adults in these parts, but I was the pitcher for the county’s fast-pitch girls’ softball team. My aim was accurate, and potentially deadly if I hit the right body part.
I put a few in the pocket of my Egyptian blue, zip up hoodie, and kept one gripped tight in my right hand. My knuckles were white against the smooth, grey rock, and my heart beat heavily against my ribs. My lips were dry, so I licked them, and tried to take a steadying breath.
As I slipped through the trees, I frowned at how far in we were. It wasn’t a good sign. We were well beyond earshot of anyone that could potentially help us in case something went wrong. These boys didn’t have the brains to know when they’ve gone too far, until they did.
There was a small clearing ahead. Not anything special, just a spot where the uneven, rocky terrain converged with the towering evergreens, and years of dead leaves to create a spot where there was little to no brush or saplings.
I stopped near a familiar tree. It was my usual go-to from my middle school days of spying on my older sister, trying to figure out what it was about the woods that lured her there. Of course, the answer was that it tended to contain one boy or another, and it didn’t take me long to stop said spying, unless I wanted uncomfortable fodder for dinner conversation.
My back rested against the rough bark, and I winced as it caught the material and made a scratching noise. Of course, the boys were being so rowdy I doubt they heard me. I peeked around the side of the tree and sucked in a breath as Dane, their intrepid leader, shoved Ford down to the ground.
“You think you’re better than us, don’t you? You and your little clan are nothing but a dying breed of high-nosed weaklings,” Dane snarled. The absolute loathing in his tone made me flinch back as though I’d been slapped.
“Anyone is better than you disease-ridden mongrels,” Ford said quietly. He got to his feet and brushed off the back of his pants.
Disease-ridden? Did they have STIs or something? I wrinkled my nose and shuddered. I’d have to let Kelly Jean know. We weren’t friends, but it was the decent thing to do. She wasn’t the only who had dated Dane, but she was the most recent, and she might be able to help me let any of the others know. What an inconsiderate dick.
Dane let out an honest to goodness growl that made my mouth go dry and my heart pound. I rushed around the tree, rock ready to throw, thinking I’d see Dane and the others beating the crap out of Ford, but I was in time to see…three huge dogs leaping toward…a half-dog, half-human with blue fur.
“Wha—“ I started, my eyes wide. The rock slid from my nerveless grip and thunked when it hit the ground.
Four figures froze, and the three bullies crashed into the ground and skidded to a halt with not a few yelps of pain. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so confusing.
Ford turned toward me and glared. He’d managed to get up from the ground between the times I’d looked around the tree. Yep, not a fan of being, er, ‘rescued’ by a girl.
“You never did use your brain,” he said, his voice colder than Ryder Creek in winter.
I jerked back as though he’d struck me. “I was just trying to make sure they didn’t beat you up! Again!” I half-shouted at him, the words flying from my mouth before I could stop them.
He scoffed in disgust and shook his head. The blue fur along his body receded, like watching the reversal of plants growing. It was…unsettling, swift, and my skin crawled watching it.
“Humans are such a pain in the ass,” Dane growled in annoyance as he got to his feet. His reversal was jankier, was the best I could describe it. Clunky, in a way. His joints spasmed this way and that, while his neck cracked as his chin jerked from his right to his left. It looked decidedly painful, and the other two boys were going through something similar.
My wide-eyed gaze narrowed. “I’m a pain in the ass? You’re the ones acting like children, running off into the woods and getting into senseless fights!” I protested. Then I glared at them all in turn. None of them had the good sense God gave a goose to look the least bit ashamed. “Apparently, no matter what you are, you’re all still boys!”
I turned on my heel, not waiting for a response, and stormed my way out of the woods. I was still grumbling and glaring when the bus driver got to our stop. The boys were still nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t care if they missed the bus and had to walk to school.
I was still mulling everything over when I climbed the steps to get on the bus. The bus driver looked over my shoulder.
“You boys sure are quick. I didn’t see you when I pulled up,” he joked.
The blood froze in my veins, but I didn’t stop moving. I hadn’t even heard them approach, and their breathing wasn’t labored in the least from what I could tell. I went to my usual seat in the front row, right side, and next to the window. I’d sat there since kindergarten. We didn’t have many kids on the bus, so there wasn’t much competition for preferred seating. I was hoping we were going to go with the; ‘I’ll keep my mouth shut, and I never saw anything,’ mob route as far as the morning’s event went.
If only I was so lucky.
Ford slid in the seat behind me, and I shrank down into my seat, trying to avoid the stares of everyone but Dane and his crew as Ford broke from his usual routine to sit behind me.
There was a pause from the bus driver, as though this startled him, too, but after a moment he closed the door and we were on our way. The noise of the bus kept everyone else from hearing anything, but a voice spoke from the crack between the seat and the window:
“We need to talk.”