The shadow moves smoothly into the room, black wisps trailing from its body as it approaches the small bed. Red eyes glow in sinister delight at sight of its prey. A gnarled, pale hand reaches for the thin sheet, the only protection the boy has, and flings it to the floor.
Only the boy isn’t there. This time, he’s been waiting, and he springs out of the closet and runs from the bedroom.
The shadow howls at the ruse and chases in pursuit.
The boy sprints as fast as he can, but the short hallway in his home has lengthened overnight. A mile? Two miles? Will it ever end? Every anxious backward glance shows him that the shadow is gaining on him. Reaching for him.
The boy finally bursts free of the house and darts into the forest. He knows these woods. He loves these woods. Surely, here, he will be able to lose his pursuer.
Cold air seeps into his bones. Twigs and rocks bloody his bare feet. Yet he dares not stop.
Up ahead, the path abruptly ends at a cave he has never seen before. He rushes inside and wedges his body behind a large rock. He pulls his knees up to his chest and hugs them close, willing himself not to cry, not to breathe. Not to do anything that might attract the shadow.
But it’s too late. It’s always too late.
The moonlight at the cave opening darkens and those awful eyes turn his way.
There’s nowhere left to run.
Chapter 1 - No Place Like Home
“Punch him again!”
At the shouted words, Cal jerked his head out of the path of imminent pain, but he wasn’t fast enough and the fist hammered into his mouth. An agonized grunt slipped from his lips as his face whipped to the side, a long string of blood and spittle trailing behind.
The two boys holding his arms shoved him to the ground.
“What’s the matter, little guy?” one taunted. “We’re just having some fun. Grow some balls, will you?”
If Cal could have opened his left eye, he would have seen the boot before it connected with his jaw. As it were, he saw nothing before another jolt of fire lanced through the lower half of his face.
“What a jackhole,” spat Bo Pervall, the owner of the boot. Not yet satisfied, he leaned down to grind Cal’s face into the snow before finally stepping away to join his two brothers. More Pervalls. Each bigger than the next. Star football players at Mendon High. All part of the waking nightmare of Cal Taylor’s life.
Amid callous laughter, the trio walked away, leaving Cal facedown on the ground. Snow seeped into his nose. The cold burned his skin. Yet he didn’t move, afraid they’d still be hovering nearby.
When the need for air finally won out, he got up onto his knees and saw that they were gone. He ran a tongue lightly over his swollen lip and tasted blood. Not bad considering that they cut his arms with a knife two weeks ago. Superficial wounds only, but they stung for hours afterwards.
Cal pulled his backpack close and stood. Luckily, he only had six more months of this and then he’d be done with school, done with the Pervall brothers and done with this town.
He gave a mental snort. Big dream for a kid who’s never stepped foot out of Pennsylvania.
And probably never would.
He had no money saved or jobs lined up or prospects of any kind. His technology teacher told him he had one of the brightest minds she had seen in a long time and tried to persuade him to give college a try, but that seemed just as farfetched. His mother couldn’t afford college and couldn’t even be bothered to fill out any of the applications that would allow him to apply for aid or loans.
No, at the end of the school year, he would just be trading one nightmare for another.
He hefted his backpack onto his shoulder and started down the road to his house.
“Cal! Wait up!”
He turned, surprised to see his little brother running toward him. “What are you doing here?” Cal asked when Landon skidded to a stop. “I thought you had basketball practice.”
“Nope, it got cancelled.”
Cal mussed the blond curls atop Landon’s head, so unlike his own dark hair. “Good, then you can clean my room for me.”
Landon groaned. “How about we go sledding instead? Or we could go hunt rabbits. Or,” he said, warming to his ideas, “we could go find Mom a Christmas tree.”
Cal smiled, doing his very best not to see his stepfather in those blue eyes staring back at him. “We’ll see.”
“Come on,” his brother whined.
“I said we’ll see. Now, shut up.”
A moment of silence passed—a record for Landon—and then he asked, “So what do you think we’re having for dinner?”
Cal shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably Frosted Flakes. Same as yesterday.”
“Probably,” Landon agreed, but then stopped Cal with a hand on his arm. “Wait. What happened to your face?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Yeah, I do worry about it. Was it Bo?”
“And his brothers.”
“Why don’t you ever fight back, Cal? Maybe then they wouldn’t bother you so much.”
The question caught him off guard. Especially coming from a twelve-year-old. The last thing Cal wanted was for Landon to think his big brother couldn’t protect him and keep him safe. Even if he couldn’t.
“Because the cowards are so afraid of me,” Cal said, dancing on his toes and thrusting out a few air jabs, “that they only come at me when there’s three or more. Don’t worry. I’ll get ‘em next time.”
Landon nodded proudly. “I’ll help you.”
“No, you just stay away from them and let me handle it.”
Seemingly satisfied with the answer, Landon changed the subject to his day at school and kept up a running commentary the rest of the way home.
“…and then Ethan pulled out Joey’s chair and he fell right on his butt. Mr. Bolton slammed his fist on the desk and—”
They both froze.
As soon as they had turned onto the driveway that led to their small house set back at the edge of Burdick Forest, the familiar sounds of home reached out to them.
Every tortured scream felt like a knife to Cal’s heart. Every violent grunt a blow to his stomach that hurt far worse than anything the Pervalls could ever dream up.
He’s hitting her again.
Landon let out a small moan.
“Stay here!” Cal screamed and took off at a sprint. He raced up the driveway, flew up onto the porch and shouldered through the front door. The yells were louder here, fueling his anger even more and sending him into a reckless charge down the hallway to his parents’ bedroom. A well-placed kick crashed the door open.
His mother lay on the bed in a fetal position and his stepfather, dressed only in a pair of jeans, stood over the top of her with his fist raised.
“Leave her alone!”
Ross Taylor turned toward the door with bloodshot murder in his eyes.
Cal braced for his second beating of the day. His stepfather outweighed him by about sixty pounds, but it couldn’t be helped. It was the only way to protect his mother. Fortunately, he didn’t have to worry about Landon. The elder Taylor saved all of his alcohol rages for those not of his blood.
His stepfather roared and rushed forward like a maddened bull, hitting Cal around the middle, lifting him off his feet and slamming him out through the door and into the wall of the hallway beyond. The breath exploded from Cal’s lungs and he slumped down to the floor under a barrage of close-fisted blows to his head and ribs.
“You little punk,” Ross growled out. “How many times do I have to tell you to stay out of my business?”
“I don’t know why I put up with you!”
“I want you out of this house when you graduate! Do you hear me? Get out and never come back. You’re not wanted here. Never have been!”
If his mother heard any of those hateful words, she said nothing. Not that Cal expected her to. Although he knew that she cared for him on some level, Evie Taylor was simply worn out from life and had nothing left to give to those around her.
“Speak up, stupid! Do you hear me?” Ross hissed, stabbing a finger in Cal’s face.
“I hear you!”
“I don’t care where you go as long as you’re gone.”
“I’ll be gone.”
Ross kicked him one last time and went back into the bedroom and slammed the door shut.
Cal got up and stormed into the kitchen. He grabbed two beers from the refrigerator and walked out the door. Landon was still there waiting at the end of the driveway where Cal had told him to stay.
“Cal! Are you all right?”
Cal ignored him and ran into the woods, pumping his arms and legs as fast as they would go. Racing along all the familiar trails. Straining with the effort until his muscles burned.
I wish I could keep running and never stop.
With that thought in mind, he picked up his pace, every step taking him farther away from his family and his shitty life. Away from the screaming and the beatings and always feeling so damned alone.
He didn’t slow until he came to his favorite spot, a hollowed-out clearing used by most of the teens in town to hang out. Of course, he never joined them if they were there, and relief flooded through him to find it empty now.
Garbage littered the ground. Beer cans. Cigarette butts. Food wrappers. Someone’s sneaker. All strewn around the big fire pit carved into the center.
Cal kicked the refuse with a few choice words and sat down on one of the tree stumps that circled the pit. He pulled the tab on one of the beer cans and waited for the foam to subside before taking several long swallows. “Merry freakin’ Christmas,” he muttered aloud.
A small sound straightened his back, and he swung his gaze toward the heavy woods.
As he sat there, an eerie feeling crawled its way up his spine, sending the hair on the back of his neck standing up. The more he stared, the more he felt sure.
Somewhere, out among those trees, someone lurked.
And whoever it was seemed to be looking right at him.
The girl watched the boy—just as she had for more nights than she cared to count. He looked angry again. No, not angry. Sad would be a better word. The yellowed bruises of a few days ago had been replaced by a fresh, bloody gash on his cheek making her wonder if he might be a warrior. If so, he was not very big.
Yet he did have skill with the bow, and he was very smart. She had seen him hunt rabbits and deer by tracking their footprints on the ground. Once she saw him snap his thumb to create fire. He would sit there alone by the flames and play beautiful music with a small silver instrument that he brought to his lips.
But not all was well with the boy. Often he lashed out against the trees with his fists or feet. Sometimes he would cry.
She wished she could talk to him. Find out more about him. But that would never happen in her lifetime.
The boy was human.