Running Toward Love (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2

Charlie’s hand pulled away from Leo as fast as if his skin was on fire. He spun around and said, “Mom! You’re back! This is Leo. Another boy beat him up down on the beach. I brought him here to see if we could help him. You weren’t here, so I was doing the best I could to help on my own.” Charlie was talking so fast it was almost as if he didn’t want to give his mother a chance to respond.

“He’ll be lucky if you didn’t do more harm than good.” Mrs. Davis shook her head. “Move aside, boy. Let me look.” She sat on the ottoman and began examining Leo’s injuries. She looked back at her son. “Well, don’t just stand there. Go get me two ice packs and my nursing bag.”

Mrs. Davis looked intently at Leo. “Leo, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry for the intrusion. If you hand me my shirt, I can leave if you’d like. I am feeling better already. I don’t need the hospital. I’m sure of it and don’t bother calling my parents. They’re not home anyway.” Leo blushed and looked down under the intense gaze of the older woman.

“Nonsense. And my name is Helen, not ma’am. But I would like you to tell me why you do not want proper medical attention. And why you don’t want me to call your parents. Are you in trouble, son?” Helen stared at Leo with a look of concern.

“I told you. My parents are at work. And I don’t need a doctor. I’m ok.” Leo said.

Helen waved her hand at Leo. “I know when a teenage boy is lying to me. I have two of my own, and countless others have come through my emergency rooms. If you don’t want to tell me, just say so. Don’t lie to me.” Helen said, glaring up at Leo.

Leo was about to tell Mrs. Davis about the fight when Charlie came rushing back into the room. He stepped in between Leo and his mother and handed the nursing bag to his mom and set the two ice packs on the couch next to Leo. With his mom’s attention distracted, looking for her supplies, Charlie caught Leo’s eye. With a pleading look, almost on the verge of tears, he mouthed the words, “Please don’t tell her that you’re gay!”

Leo grimaced but nodded. Charlie sighed with relief. Mrs. Davis looked up from the nursing bag. “So, Leo, did you want to tell me what happened?”

“Yeah, um well, it was just a guy from school. We’ve been in fights before, and my dad would be mad if I got in another fight. Please don’t tell him.” Leo did his best to look as sad and pathetic as possible, so Reese’s mother would take pity on him. It worked.

“Ok. I won’t call your parents, but your dad is right. You shouldn’t be getting into fights.” While they were talking, Mrs. Davis wrapped Leo’s ankle in an ace bandage, applied the cream to his ribs and back, and had Leo hold an icepack over his eye. “How are you going to explain your injuries to your parents without telling them you were in a fight?” asked Mrs. Davis.

“I’ll come up with something before I get home. Thank you for not telling my parents, Mrs. Davis.” Leo reached over and grabbed his t-shirt from the couch.

“Here, you can keep this tube of ointment. It will help with the bruising on your ribs and back. You can put some on your face if that turns black and blue as well.” She handed Leo a tube of ointment, a couple of pills, and a glass of water. “Some Tylenol for the pain. Do you have some at home?”

“I’m sure we do. Thanks again. For everything.” Leo slipped his shirt back over his head, wincing with pain. He gritted his teeth and stood up. Seemingly out of nowhere, Charlie appeared by his side. Leo felt Charlie’s hand on the small of his back, supporting him as he attempted to put weight on his sprained ankle.

“You ok to walk?” Charlie asked him.

“Yeah, I’m feeling a bit better. I’ll have a bit of a limp for a few days, but I’m ok. Thanks for everything. I need to head for home now.” Leo starting walking towards the door.

Charlie followed Leo then he turned back towards his mother. “Mum, is it ok if I walk Leo back to his house. Just to make sure that he can walk and that that boy doesn’t come after him again?” Charlie looked uncertainly at his mum.

Helen thought for a moment and then said, “Yes. Walk him home, but then come right back. If that boy is a problem again, call the police this time no matter what Leo wants. Understand?”

“Yes, mum. Got it. Thanks!” Charlie ran out the door to meet back up with Leo.

The two boys started back down towards the beach. When they were away from the cabin, Charlie looked over at Leo. “Hey, Leo. I’m sorry I had you lie to my mum. She’s old school about the whole gay thing, and I didn’t want there to be a problem, at least until she finished helping you. I hope you’re not mad at me for asking you to lie.”

Leo leaned against Charlie’s shoulder for support as they walked. “No. I’m not mad at all. I understand. Most of the time, I wish I hadn’t told my dad about me either. My life would be a lot easier if he didn’t know. Overall, I’m glad I told him. It’s easier not having to lie even though I have to deal with a lot of shit sometimes. I understand, Charlie. I’m not even mad a little.”  Leo looked over at Charlie and smiled. Charlie smiled back, and the two boys continued walking down the beach towards Leo’s house.

Charlie wasn’t sure how much further they were going to have to walk when Leo motioned for him to turn towards the right. They walked past a couple of picnic tables and across a grassy area to a fence at the edge of the beach. “This is it. I live right over there.” Leo pointed at a house across the street. “Will I ever see you again?” Leo asked, looking directly into Charlie’s eyes.

“I sure hope so. We’ve rented that cabin until the end of the week. What are you doing tomorrow?” Charlie replied with a grin. “I’d love to hang out sometime when I’m not saving you from a maniac.”

“School starts tomorrow. I could meet up with you after if you want.”

“What year of school are you in?”

“I start my senior year of high school tomorrow. You said that you just graduated, right?”

“Yep! I’m so glad that I’m able to finally focus on what I want to do rather than what the school wants me to do! I would have guessed you for a college boy, too. You look about the same age as me. I’ll be nineteen next month.”

“I’ll be eighteen in two weeks, so not that far behind you. Anyway, I need to get home before my brother sends out a search party. Should I look for you after school tomorrow?”

“I’m not sure what my mom has planned. Give me your number, and I’ll text you when I know our plans,” Charlie said.

Leo took Charlie’s phone and put in his contact information. When he handed it back, he leaned in and gave a very surprised Charlie a quick kiss on the cheek. Leo grinned at a speechless Charlie, then turned and jumped the fence and walked home without looking back.

The kiss shocked Charlie. Leo kissed him! It was just a kiss on the cheek, but still, it meant that he probably liked him! Leo flirted the whole time, but the kiss was still a surprise. Charlie’s grin nearly split his face in two as he turned and retraced his steps back to the cabin by the lighthouse.

———————————————————————————-

Leo made his way across the street and into his house, where he found his brother Kam sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the door. As soon as Leo was in the house, Kam was on his feet, asking his brother question after question. “What took you so long? Are you alright? Hey, what happened to your face?”

“Kam! Stop with the questions, let’s go to my room, and we can talk there.” Leo said as he led his brother up the stairs and into his bedroom. Leo sat at his desk and motioned for Kam to sit on the bed. “I’ll tell you everything that happened, but you have to promise not to tell anyone, Kam. Not anyone! Understand?”

“Yeah. Of course. Like always. We always keep each other’s secrets and watch each other’s backs. We’re brothers.” Kam held his fist out to his brother. Leo complied, and they bumped fists and grinned silly grins.

“Ok. Well, here it goes.” Leo proceeded to tell Kam about everything that happened from the time they split up until Leo was back in the house. Kam listened without once interrupting. When Leo finished, Kam gave out a low whistle.

“Wow, bro. You had a busy morning after I left.”    Kam said.

“Yeah, I know, right! Scary. Awful. Amazing. Confusing. I don’t know what to feel right now!” Leo ran his fingers through his hair and slumped back into his chair.

Kam scowled, then looked at his brother. “First, we have to worry about dad and what he’s going to say about your bruises. If you tell him that it was about Jasper, he’ll flip out.”

“Hmm. Hey! I’ll tell him I went for a swim after our run and a surfboard clipped me. I’d rather he thought that I was an idiot and wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings than deal with him going off about Jazz again.”

“That might work for dad, but Jasper and Matt will have to be dealt with eventually. Now, what about this boy, Charlie? Do you think you’ll see him again? Should you even bother? You said he’s a tourist just here until the end of the week.” Kam stared intently at his brother, waiting for answers.

“He’s super-hot! That hair and those eyes. Mm-hm. I sure hope I see him again. I gave him my number and asked him to text me tomorrow when he knows what his plans are. Yes, I know he’s a tourist, but he makes me smile. I haven’t smiled because of a boy in a long time, Kam.” Leo said with a grin. “Plus, there’s just something about him. I can’t even explain it. The connection was immediate and strong. Maybe it was him saving me from Matt, but I looked up into those dark brown eyes, and my heart skipped a beat. In that one moment, I felt more for him than I ever felt in eight months with Jazz. So, yes. Yes, I plan to see him again. I hope he feels the same way! Who knows what can happen in a week? Maybe he’ll stay!” Leo spun the chair around and was leaning against the back of the chair, looking at his brother.

“You just met him, and he’s a tourist. Enjoy the week, but be careful. I’ll reheat breakfast. Mom, dad, and Allison all went to the mall for last-minute school shopping. Mom said she’d take you and me later today.” Kam disappeared down the hall, and Leo gathered some clean clothes and headed towards the bathroom to shower.

After Leo’s shower, he took a good long look at himself in the mirror. The bruises looked terrible, but he could move without too much pain. Nothing felt broken, Mrs. Davis was probably right about that. He had Charlie to thank. Matt probably would have done even more damage if Charlie hadn’t been there to stop him. Leo quickly shook thoughts of Charlie out of his head before he became distracted, and his food got cold a second time. He finished in the bathroom and went downstairs to join his brother for breakfast.

—————————————————————

After breakfast, the two boys went into the living room and played some Xbox. After killing each other a couple dozen times in Call of Duty, they turned the game off. Leo started channel surfing, and Kam took out his phone and started texting. Soon, their family returned home from the mall, and Leo and Kam left with their mom. Once at the mall, their mom gave Kam explicit instructions on what she expected him to buy but just handed Leo some money. They each went their separate ways to find what they needed.

Leo nearly finished his shopping, thoughts of the upcoming school year clouding his mind. Thoughts of dealing with Jasper, thoughts of Charlie, all these thoughts ran through his head. His vision started spinning, and he felt himself begin to sweat. He leaned heavily onto the checkout counter.

“Sir? Are you ok? Sir?” The cashier spoke to Leo and grabbed his arm as she saw him start to lean forward. To Leo, the entire store began to spin and go dark. He lost his grip on the counter and fell to the floor. He felt hands grab him, but the voices around him sounded far away, and everything was dark.

Leo felt something cold and damp against his forehead, and he faintly heard someone saying his name and talking to him. He opened his eyes, and things weren’t so dark, and the spinning had slowed down. He closed his eyes again, leaned back against the counter, and listened to the voice that was talking to him. The voice sounded familiar. Leo opened his eyes again. The spinning stopped. He blinked. The first things he saw were the EMT uniform and the stretcher. Leo groaned. He did not want to end up at the hospital. Leo wasn’t ready to tell his mom that the dizzy spells were back. He looked up, and when he saw the face of the EMT, he smiled. It was Kyle, the same EMT who had saved his life six years ago.

“Hey, Kyle. Fancy meeting you here. I sure hope you’re not planning on putting me on that thing.” Leo pointed at the stretcher.

“Hi, Leo. It has been a long time. Which is good, considering my line of work.” Kyle reached over and removed the cold rag from Leo’s forehead. “How are you feeling? What happened?”

“Kyle, can we move over to the bench out of the store?” Leo started to push himself up off the floor.

Kyle helped Leo to his feet and held onto his arm as they paid for Leo’s purchases and then walked out to the bench and sat down. “So, what happened, Leo? The cashier told me that it looked like you got dizzy and passed out.”

Leo looked down, then looked back at Kyle. “I think it was just a bad anxiety attack. There’s been a lot on my mind lately. But I’ll be candid with you, Kyle. I’ve had a few dizzy spells and headaches. At least a couple a week. I’m a little worried.”

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital right now, Leo? With your history, it’s better to be safe than sorry. It might just be anxiety, but it might be something more.” As he talked, Kyle took Leo’s blood pressure and pulse readings. “All your vitals look good, but I am more than happy to load you into the ambulance and take you to the hospital. Is your mom here in the mall?”

“Yeah. Mom and Kam are both here. I appreciate you looking after me again, Kyle, but I don’t want to go to the hospital. If the dizzy spells continue, I promise to tell mom. I promise. I really do think it’s just the anxiety.” Leo told Kyle all that had been going on in his life. The breakup with Jasper, the fight with Matt, meeting Charlie, worries about school, everything.

“Wow. That is a lot. It could be the anxiety, but I’ll hold you to that promise about telling your mom if you get dizzy again. You know better than anyone how important this is. You can’t mess around when it comes to brain injuries. Don’t make me sic Doc Danny on you! Anyway, if you’re sure you don’t want to go to the hospital, I have to get going.” Kyle stood up and rested a hand on Leo’s shoulder. “You sure you’re ok, Leo?”

“Yeah. I’m good now, Kyle. Thanks a lot. I’m glad it was you that came for me again. Spilling my guts and telling you all that stuff probably helped more than anything else. I’m feeling much better.” Leo stood and gathered up his shopping bags as Kyle said one last goodbye, tossed his medical bag onto the stretcher, and left.

Leo glanced at his watch. “Damn!” He hurried off toward the mall food court, already fifteen minutes past the time his mom had said for him to be there.

—————————————————————————

After they got home from the mall, the boys put their things away and then went out to the backyard to help their dad set-up for the barbecue. “What happened to you?” Leo’s dad asked him.

“I was swimming this morning after my run. I guess I drifted out too far without realizing it, and the next thing I knew, a surfboard crashed right into me. It hit my face and my ribs. I’m pretty sore, but I’m ok, dad.” Leo said, hoping his father would believe the story.

“Hmph! Be more careful out there. You could have hurt yourself worse, or hurt the surfer. Pay attention to your surroundings, Leo. Now get the food from your mother. Kam, help your brother and bring the plates out, too.” Their father said.

When the boys came back out with all the food and other supplies for the barbecue, their sister, Allison, came out with them. The boys set the stuff on the picnic table, and Alli began setting it up.

“Nice shiner, big brother,” Allison said.

“Thanks,” Leo said, shaking his head, and repeated to her the same thing that he just told his father.

Alli smirked and whispered, “Matt?”

Leo sighed and shook his head, then motioned for his sister to walk with him. Once they turned the corner of the house, he said, “Come on, Alli, you know dad would freak out. Don’t get me in trouble. Please.”

“Of course not. You should talk to Jazz, though. As much of a dick as he turned out to be, I don’t think he’d want to see you get hurt.” Allison said.

“I know. I’m sure I’ll see Jazz at school. I’ll say something to him. Maybe he’ll keep Matt away from me. I hate asking him for a favor, but maybe it’s the only way.” Leo said. “Anyway, let’s get back before dad gets mad.”

—————————————————————————-

After dinner, Leo told his mom that he was going to go for a walk on the beach. As he was about to leave the house, Kam caught up to him. “Hey, Leo, want me to come with?”

“Nah, bro. I’m just going to take a walk and chill out for a bit. I’m not going too far.” Leo blushed and smiled. “Maybe just as far as the lighthouse.”

“Ah-ha! Ok, bro. Have fun! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” Kam laughed.

“Well, that leaves my options wide open!” Leo clapped his brother on the shoulder and turned and left the house. He jogged across the street and leaped over the fence onto the beach like he’d down a million times before, this time though he winced in pain when he landed. Mentally cursing himself for his stupidity, he turned and started walking up the beach towards the lighthouse, hoping to see Charlie.

About halfway to the lighthouse, Leo saw a lone figure standing at the edge of the water, throwing rocks into the sea. He looked close to make sure it wasn’t Matt, but it wasn’t. It was Charlie. Leo walked up behind the other boy. Leo saw a look of intense concentration on Charlie’s face, apparently lost in his thoughts and not paying attention to his surroundings. Leo leaned in close. “Hey, gorgeous. You come here often.”

Charlie jumped and spun around. “Leo! You scared the crap out of me!” Charlie clutched at his heart, took a deep breath, and then laughed. “I didn’t think I would see you again until tomorrow. How did I get so lucky?”

Leo shrugged and smiled. “I guess I wanted to see you again tonight. I can’t stay long, though. It’s already late and tomorrow is the first day of school. Walk with me back towards my house?”

“I’m glad you came. I wanted to see you again, too. Yeah, let’s walk.” Charlie held out his hand towards Leo. Leo took Charlie’s hand, and the two walked back towards Leo’s house, hand in hand.

About halfway there they heard someone yell from off to their right. “Hey! Hey, guys! Wait a minute!”

Leo cringed and nearly hid behind Charlie before he realized that the voice did not belong to Matt. He turned and saw a boy about his own age running from the beach parking lot toward where he and Charlie stood.

The boy ran up and stopped right in front of Leo. “Thanks for waiting. I… I’m kinda lost.” The boy huffed out a laugh. “We just moved here a couple days ago, and I was out walking around the neighborhood and now I don’t know where my street is. Can you guys send me in the right direction for Spruce Street?” The boy ran a hand through his short, sandy brown hair. He looked at Leo, but then he blushed and looked down, unable to maintain eye contact.

Leo smiled and blushed a little. This guy was cute as hell, but Leo was standing here holding hands with Charlie. Nearly seven months of being single and then me meets two cuties on the same day. What’re the odds?! Leo cleared his throat. “Uh, go back through that parking lot that you were just in then take a left. Take your first right and then a left. Spruce will be the second left. It’s actually only one street away from where I live. Welcome to the neighborhood! My name is Leo.”

“Thanks, Leo. I’m Reese. Maybe I’ll see you at school. Have a good night!” And with that, Reese turned and ran back toward the parking lot, disappearing into the growing darkness.

Leo and Charlie walked in silence for a while, each casting quick glances at the other before Charlie finally cleared his throat, breaking the silence. “So, are you excited for senior year? Have you decided on a college yet?”

“Yes, for the first question, and no for the second one. I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life. Probably business management, but my dad is trying to push me into something science related. Everything in my life is just so confusing right now. That’s why I’ve started running every morning with my brother. It’s really the only time that I can focus and think things through. I’m even considering trying out for cross country or track. Kam is, too. He’s going to be a freshman this year, so this is the perfect time for him to get involved. They might not want a senior who has never really run before.” Leo shrugged.

“That would be so cool if you both make the team! I’m sure you can do it. Is that what you were doing on the beach this morning? Training?”

“Yeah. We were running on the beach, but I stopped to rest, and Kam went on ahead. That’s why I was alone when Matt found me.”

“That dude was a jerk. I’m glad I showed up when I did.”

Before they knew it, they were at the fence across from Leo’s house. The sun was just setting, and it was dusk but not dark.

“I guess this is my stop.” Leo looked up into Charlie’s dark eyes; Charlie was a good three inches taller. “I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess. I’ll text you when I get home, and you can tell me what your plans are.”

“That sounds great. I’ll make sure that I have some free time to meet up.” Charlie leaned in, very close to Leo.

Leo leaned back and felt his back press firmly against the fence. Charlie was so close that Leo could feel his body heat. “O-ok. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Charlie leaned in even closer. He thought about kissing Leo, then chickened out at the last minute. Charlie wasn’t sure how far either of them wanted this to go, knowing that he was leaving in just a few days.

Leo sighed, still looking up at Charlie. “I have to go.” He leaned in and gave the other boy a quick hug. “Good night! See you tomorrow!” This time Leo went around the fence instead of jumping over it and headed back home as Charlie turned and started walking back towards the lighthouse, smiling like an idiot.

Running Toward Love (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1

Leo rolled over and reached for his phone, 4:47. Ugh. Even earlier than yesterday. Sleep, for Leo, was becoming harder and harder to come by. He just couldn’t shut his brain down. He felt his entire world collapsing around him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He needed to go for a run. Running focused his scattered thoughts. Leo slid out of bed, grabbed a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from the pile of clothes on his desk, and walked into the connecting bathroom towards his brother Kam’s room. Once in the bathroom, he splashed icy water on his face and ran his fingers through his tangled curly black hair. Leo desperately needed a haircut. He would start his senior year of high school tomorrow, and his hair looked like a giant black rat’s nest. Leo wet his hair some more and pushed it back out of his face. He slipped his shorts on over his slim hips and peered into Kam’s room. His brother still slept soundly.

“Kam, wake up. It’s time to run.” Leo flopped down on the bed next to his brother. The two boys looked remarkably similar, though Leo was three years older. The significant difference between the boys was their hairstyle. Both had jet black hair, but Kam kept his hair cut short in an almost military-style haircut while Leo wore his hair almost to his shoulders, and the long curly hair continually fell across his face. Leo flipped his hair out of his face again and pushed against his brother’s back. “Come on, Kam. Get out of bed. You said you wanted to run with me!”

Kam groaned. “Leo, it’s just after 5 am. What’s wrong with you? Sleep in. It’s the last day of summer break!” Kam glanced at his cell phone then looked at his brother. He saw the pleading look in Leo’s eyes, and he relented. “Ok, ok! Give me five minutes.” Kam threw back the sheet and got out of bed. He padded slowly to the bathroom, glancing back at his brother. “The beach again?”

“Of course! Maybe we’ll go for a swim to cool down afterward.” Leo grinned at his brother even though troubling thoughts clouded his mind. At seventeen, such heavy burdens should not continually invade his mind.

Leo tried to put the troubling thoughts out of his mind as he waited for his brother to return from the bathroom. Maybe the run would help. He was glad that Kam ran with him. They had some of their best talks while they ran. Kam stepped out of the bathroom dressed in tan cargo shorts and a red tank top. He wore no shoes since they would be running on the beach, and they preferred to run barefoot. Leo glanced up when Kam entered the room. “Ready, bro?”

“Yeah, let’s go.” They quietly left the house, trying not to wake anyone else up. They broke into a jog, crossed the street, and jumped the fence onto the beach, landing with a soft thump in the sun-warmed sand. Kam nodded his head towards the south. “To the lighthouse this time, Leo?”

“Sounds good to me. That’s just over three miles. Down and back should be about six and a half. Last time we went that way, we did it in fifty-seven minutes. Let’s beat that today. Let’s go.” The boys set the timers on their watches, bumped fists, and took off down the beach.

While they ran, Kam tried engaging his older brother in conversation. He knew his brother well enough to know that he had a lot on his mind. “Leo, what’s up with you? Talk to me. You know it’ll stay between us.” He gave Leo a light push to the shoulder.

Leo swatted his brother’s hand away. “Don’t make me hurt you, Kameron. Yeah, you’re right. A lot has been running through my head. I haven’t even been sleeping much.”

“Talk to me. I might not have any advice, but maybe it’ll help just to say it out loud.” Kam said as he kept pace with Leo, stride for stride.

Leo sighed. “Starting senior year is one thing. All that drama with Jasper last spring, I just hope everyone has forgotten about it and moved on to other gossip. The breakup was hard enough, but him outing me at school hurt bad. Ugh. I still have feelings for that jerk, even after what he did. I’m scared that if he asked me out again, I’d say yes.”

“You better not, Leo. I’d punch both of you. That asshole cheated on you! You walked in on them for crying out loud! That scumbag can’t even deny it, Leo. I know you can’t control how you feel, but you’d be an idiot to even think of going back to him.” Kam’s face showed the anger he felt. Not anger at Leo, but at Jasper for what he put Leo through.

“I know. I know. I won’t do it, but I’m just saying that seeing Jazz every day won’t be easy. We were best friends for ten years before we even started dating.” Leo said, trying to calm his brother’s anger. “I won’t go back to him, Kam. I promise.”

“You’ll find someone else before you know it, Leo. Forget about him.” Kam said.

“Yeah, well, that brings me to the second problem. Dad. He’s still not accepting that I’m gay. Hell, if I got a new boyfriend, it would probably make it even worse. And I feel like shit that dad and mom argue about me all the damn time. Allison’s attitude about it improved a lot from last year, but dad hasn’t changed even a little.”  Leo said, sadness creeping into his voice. “Why can’t they all be like you, little brother?”

“I am quite awesome, aren’t I?” Kam smirked. “I don’t know. You’re right about Alli, though, and mom. They have both turned it around. They’re not waving pride flags, but they’re getting there. I hope dad comes around, too, Leo. I really do.”

The boys reached the halfway point, the lighthouse. They started their return trip when Leo stopped and dropped to his knees. He felt dizzy. Kam noticed that his brother was no longer at his side, and he turned back, “Leo, you ok?” Kam knelt, resting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You don’t look so good. What’s wrong?”

Leo took a deep breath and looked up at his brother and smiled, even though the world still felt like it was spinning out of control around him. “I’m fine, Kam. Just a little tired, I guess. Go on ahead, and I’ll catch up. I know you planned on meeting up with Tommy later. Just go on ahead. I’m fine.”

“Bullshit. You’re not even close to fine. Tell me what’s wrong, Leo.” Kam kept one hand on his brother’s shoulder, and he placed the other hand under Leo’s chin, forcing him to look into his eyes when he answered.

“Ok. Ok. There’s been one more thing bothering me lately, but it’s probably nothing.” He pulled back from his brother just enough to sit down on the sand. “I’ve had these dizzy spells. And headaches. Bad ones. You can’t tell mom, Kam. Promise me. Not yet. I’ll tell her if they get any worse or if they don’t go away soon.” He looked pleadingly into his brother’s eyes.

Kam sighed. “It’s from the accident, isn’t it? You think it’s more than just your migraines. God, Leo, you have to tell her. I promise I won’t rat you out, but you have to tell mom soon. We almost lost you back then, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine losing you now.” Kam made a show of wiping the sweat off his forehead, hiding the fact that he also wiped tears from his eyes. Kam thoughts drifted back to six years ago, he was only eight, and Leo was eleven. Leo died, only for a couple of minutes, and the medic brought him back, but Leo still had a lot of lingering problems.

“Kam, it’s probably nothing. I’ll keep an eye on it. You know if I tell her, she’ll have me in the doctor’s office the next day. I’ve had enough doctors, hospitals, and tests to last a lifetime. The six-month check-ups are bad enough. I don’t want more tests if I can avoid it. I promise I’ll tell you everything and I’ll tell mom if it gets worse. Please? Ok?”

Kam still looked concerned but stood up to go. “Alright, if you’re sure. I’ll hold you to that promise, though. See you later at home. If you take too long getting back, I’m coming to look for you.” Kam turned and headed towards home, leaving Leo alone on the beach.

Leo took a few deep breaths as he watched his brother disappear into the distance. The dizziness started to pass, but now he had a severe migraine. Leo needed to get home and take one of his pills. He forced himself to his feet and started walking towards home.

Leo heard him before he saw him. Matt Henderson. The guy that Jasper cheated on him with. Leo started to walk faster. Matt yelled from behind him. “Kennedy! Hey, Kennedy!” He ran up beside Leo and grabbed his arm. “Hey, I want to talk to you. Stop walking.”

“What do you want, Matt? I have nothing to say to you. Not today. Not ever. Just leave me alone!” Leo tried to break free of the bigger boy’s grasp but couldn’t pull away. Leo pulled back harder, and suddenly Matt just let go, and Leo fell to the ground. Looking up at Matt with a scowl forming on his face, Leo said, “You’re an asshat, Matt. A boyfriend-stealing skanky asshat!” Leo fought back the tears, not wanting this jerk to see him cry. Leo started to get up, and the next thing he saw was Matt’s fist hurtling towards his face. Before he could react, Leo felt pain explode in the right side of his face, and he fell back onto the sand.

Matt roared, “Do you think you can say things like that and walk away, Kennedy? No way! And I didn’t steal Jasper. You couldn’t keep him happy. I can.” Matt drew his foot back and began kicking Leo.

Leo saw Matt’s foot swinging towards him and quickly covered his face with his arms. He felt the kicks strike his arms, his sides, and his back. He rolled himself into a ball to try and protect himself from the attack. Leo felt himself starting to blackout. Then he heard a yell and the thump of two bodies colliding. More shouts and more thumping sounds closely followed the collision, and then Leo heard screams of pain and rage. The kicking stopped.

Leo opened his eyes and found the most beautiful face he had ever seen hovering just above him. For a moment, Leo feared that he was seeing the face of an angel. He wasn’t sure if he was dead, dreaming, or just hallucinating. It had to be one of those. This guy was far too beautiful to be real. Leo blinked a few times to try and clear his head. The face above him smiled and spoke. “Hey, are you ok? My name is Charlie. If you’re feeling up to it, I think we better go before my new friend over there gets back up.” Charlie extended his hand down towards Leo.

Leo couldn’t even respond. The beauty of the guy in front of him left him speechless. Jet black hair combed back, framing a tan, smooth face. Slim features but a strong jawline. And those eyes. The darkest brown eyes that Leo had ever seen. He felt butterflies fluttering in his stomach, and he thought he could lose himself in those brown eyes forever. He blinked again and saw the boy’s hand extended down towards him, dripping with blood. Leo finally found his voice. “Oh, my God. Are you hurt? Your hand is bleeding. Did Matt do that? Is he still here?” Leo tried to get up but groaned in pain, clutching his ribs and falling back to the sand yet again.

Charlie lightly touched Leo’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about me. Most of it isn’t even my blood.” He pointed behind him. “If that’s Matt, then he didn’t leave. He’s too busy spitting up blood and deciding if he wants to get up or do the smart thing and stay where he is. Let’s leave before he makes his decision.” Charlie grabbed ahold of Leo’s wrist and gently pulled him to his feet. “Do you think you can walk with some help, or should I just carry you?”

Leo swayed on his feet and leaned into Charlie. “I couldn’t walk on my own, but with some help, I think I can. My left ankle hurts like hell, and I might have a broken rib or two, but if you help me, I can walk without you carrying me. Though that does sound divine.”

Charlie smiled despite his anger. “Save the flirting for later. Let’s get you out of here.” Charlie looked back at Matt and emitted a low growl. “If I didn’t need to get you out of here, I would pick him back up and knock him down a few more times. It didn’t look like he was going to stop kicking you anytime soon when I arrived.” Charlie slipped his arm around Leo’s waist. “Put your arm around my neck. I’ll help you to the cottage where my mum and I are staying. It’s just over there.” He motioned with his head towards the lighthouse. He couldn’t point as both his hands were busy supporting Leo.

Leo groaned in pain and leaned more heavily against Charlie, his head coming to rest on the taller boy’s shoulder. “I didn’t know anyone lived in the lighthouse,” Leo said. Even with all the pain, he didn’t mind at all the close contact with this boy. He let Charlie lead him down the beach towards the cottage near the lighthouse.

“Me and mum rented it while we see some of the sights around here,” Charlie said. “Let’s get you inside and look at your injuries. We can talk once we get you inside.”

Half carrying Leo, Charlie slowly made his way to the cottage. Once inside, he glanced around, looking for his mum. “Mum! Are you here? I need some help out here!” Hearing no response to his yells, Charlie guided Leo towards the couch and helped him to sit. He pulled the ottoman over and made Leo put his feet up. Charlie knelt next to the other boy. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the hospital or call your parents? You look pretty beat up.”

“No. I’m fine. Just let me rest here. I don’t want to have to explain to my dad what happened.” Now that he could sit back and relax a bit, Leo took a closer look at his rescuer. His eyes raked up and down Charlie’s body, absorbing his beauty. Charlie wore a worn grey t-shirt, tan board shorts, white ankle socks, and red Nikes. He was slightly taller than Leo’s 5’9”. He must spend a lot of time on the beach or at least outdoors.  His athletic body was a deep golden tan, probably from lots of time in the sun. Leo’s gaze returned to Charlie’s face and that beautiful hair. How much hairspray did it take to keep it that perfect? Charlie had a sly grin and a twinkle in his eye as he looked back at Leo.

“See something you like?” Charlie’s grin opened into a broad smile.

“You’re not from here, are you? Your accent is pretty hot.” Leo smirked.

Charlie laughed, “No. As I said, we are on holiday. We’re from Australia, the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, to be specific. I just graduated from school, and we have always wanted to see America. This was the perfect time for a holiday. Perfect timing to save you, too.” Charlie continued to lock eyes with Leo.

Leo sighed. “I knew it. Even without the accent, I would have known you weren’t from here. I would have noticed you.”

Charlie’s smile faded a bit, and he looked at Leo with concern. “I enjoy your flirting, and I don’t care that you’re gay, Leo. But you don’t know me. I just as easily could have joined in with the guy that was beating you. You need to be more careful revealing your sexuality to strangers.”

Leo blushed and looked down. “I know. I know. You’re right, Charlie. I just couldn’t help myself when I saw you. I’m not usually this forward. There’s just something about you.” Leo sighed.

It was Charlie’s turn to blush now. “Anyway, let me check out your injuries and see if I need to talk you into going to the hospital or not. I’m going into nursing school when I get back home. Mum is an emergency room nurse, and I have learned a few things from her already. Tell me if anything hurts.” Charlie reached forward and lightly grasped Leo’s right ankle. He carefully watched Leo’s face for any sign of pain or discomfort. He grabbed Leo’s foot with his other hand to see if he could bend his foot with no pain.

Leo yelped in pain. “Ow! Yeah, that hurts when you bend it.”

Charlie let go of Leo’s leg and foot. “It’s swollen and tender, but it’s not broken. I’ll wrap it in an ace bandage and give you some Tylenol for the pain. Now let me check those ribs. Off with your shirt.” Charlie blushed just a bit as he said that. He looked up towards Leo’s face and gasped. “Holy hell. I didn’t realize he also hit you in the face. You have a big bruise on your cheek that extends down to your jawline. Does it hurt?” Charlie reached up and touched Leo’s face. “Let me go get you an icepack for that.”

“I’m still thinking about you asking me to take my shirt off. I usually expect dinner and a movie first, but I can make an exception in this case.” Leo reached up and pressed Charlie’s hand more firmly into his face. He looked Charlie in the eyes. “The icepack can wait. This feels better.”

Charlie blushed under the intensity of Leo’s gaze. He felt his body reacting to Leo’s touch. Charlie smiled but pulled his hand from the younger boy’s grasp. He stammered out, “I need to check the rest of your injuries. Let’s get that shirt off.”

Leo gave a half-smile and sighed. “To be honest, I need you to help me with that. My ribs and side hurt, and I’m not sure how high I can raise my arms.”

Charlie sighed and thought Leo might be exaggerating his injury to get him to take the shirt off. Their eyes locked as he grabbed hold of the bottom of the t-shirt. Charlie’s fingertips slid up Leo’s sides and arms as he pulled the shirt up and over Leo’s head. Leo’s body quivered and broke out in goosebumps, and he let out an audible moan. Charlie set the shirt down on the couch and adjusted the growing bulge in his pants while Leo’s gaze was elsewhere. He let out a low whistle when he looked at Leo’s right side. “Leo, how bad does that hurt? It’s already turning purple, almost your whole right side, and onto your back.” Charlie gingerly touched the bruised areas. He put his hand flat against the side of Leo’s ribs. “Hey, take a couple of deep breaths for me, please.” Leo took two deep breaths, groaning slightly each time he inhaled. Leo opened his mouth to answer, but movement over Charlie’s right shoulder caught his attention.

From the doorway of the cottage, the boys heard someone loudly clearing their throat, and then a female voice said. “Charlie Davis! What is going on here?”

The Cursed Wolf (Chapter 7)

Chapter 7

Kevin looked confused. “What could they be hiding from us? Why would they hide anything? What do you think happened, Brad?”

“I’m not sure yet, Kevin. What I don’t understand is that if there is a murderer loose, then why wouldn’t they warn us? If there isn’t, then what are they hiding? Why hide the facts from the town?” Brad paced back and forth while he talked. He was talking more to himself than to Kevin. He always did that when he was trying to figure something out.

“Hey, did you hear that?” Kevin asked, staring into the trees, “I think I heard something, but it’s too dark. I can’t see what it was.”

Brad barely listened to Kevin. “Dark? Oh, wow, I didn’t even notice it was dark already. No, I didn’t hear anything, but let’s get out of here. There’s nothing to see except broken tree limbs and mangled bushes, and I’m getting hungry.” Brad and Kevin turned back up the trail and started out of the park.

Before the boys took even two steps up the trail, they heard a snarling noise from behind them. They turned around and saw a large figure jump out of the trees and onto the trail. They froze in their tracks in disbelief. The creature standing before them was like something out of a horror movie. It looked like a wolf, except for the fact that it was standing on two feet like a man and towered over both boys by at least a foot. As Brad grabbed Kevin’s arm and started to slowly back up, he noticed that the creature appeared to be wearing the tattered remains of human clothing. Brad’s mind raced. A million thoughts were going through his head as he tried to figure out exactly what was going on. This just wasn’t possible. He took another step backward, and the wolf followed. The wolf watched their every move and matched them step for step.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Kevin stuttered, breaking out of the trance he had been in. “We have to get out of here, Brad.” Kevin pulled away from Brad and turned to run. Brad saw the wolf start to leap forward and tried to pull Kevin off the trail and into the woods. Before he could, the wolf landed squarely on Kevin’s back pulling him out of Brad’s grasp. Brad lost his footing and fell backward into the bushes. He sat up slowly and looked back towards Kevin. The first thing he saw was the blood dripping from the wolf’s mouth. Kevin was no longer moving or even making any sounds. As Brad watched, the wolf bent its head down and took another bite out of the back of Kevin’s neck. Brad knew that the sound of the ripping flesh would be a sound that he would never forget. He turned and ran out of the park while the wolf was busy devouring his best friend.

——————————————

By the time Brad got home, he was deciding whether or not to tell anyone what he had seen. No one would believe him, except maybe for Matt. The question was, would it only serve to upset Matt even more. Should Brad gather actual evidence first or tell his cousin that werewolves were real and not just in his dreams? He decided he had to gather proof first. That thing had to pay for killing Kevin, and he had to stop it before it could kill again. Brad had no idea how he was going to get proof, or how he was going to prevent something like what he had just seen without getting himself killed in the process. All he knew was that he had to do it. Brad went into the house and started to form a plan.

————————————————————-

Matt was sitting on the couch, watching Netflix with Terrie and Aunt Nancy, when Brad walked into the house. Hearing his cousin fixing himself a late dinner in the kitchen, Matt got up to go talk to him.

Brad heard someone coming into the kitchen. He looked up from what he was doing and saw Matt. “Hey, Matt. What’s up? Is Terrie here?”

“Yeah. She is in the family room with Aunt Nancy. Where did you disappear to after school? Me, Justin, and Devon looked all over for you. We went to the batting cages to get some extra practice in before tomorrow’s big game against Castle Rock. We thought you’d want to come along, too.”

Brad looked away from his cousin. “I had some other things to do.” Matt was about to question Brad further about what he had been doing that afternoon when Terrie rushed into the room, talking on her cell phone. She didn’t say much on the phone, but the longer she listened, the more upset she became. She ran to Matt as soon as she hung up the phone.

Matt put his arms around her. “What’s wrong? Who was that?”

“It was Juan. Kim is dead! It was her body that the jogger found in the park this morning. Juan went over to her house this afternoon to see why she wasn’t at school today, and her parents told him. They said that a large animal, probably a bear, attacked her. That doesn’t make any sense. How could a bear get all the way through town and into the park without anyone seeing it? That has never happened before that I know of. Not in this town. I have never heard of anyone seeing a bear anywhere near town, never mind right inside Lakeside Park. How could this have happened?” Terrie sobbed onto Matt’s shoulder. “I need to go over to Juan’s house to make sure he’s okay. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No. Go ahead. Juan needs someone like you right now. Kim was your best friend. I’ll call you later to see how you are.” Matt walked a little way down the street with Terrie.

Alone again, Brad thought about the situation he found himself in. He wasn’t sure what he could do against a creature like a werewolf. Although he didn’t think anyone, except Matt, would take him seriously if he told them precisely what he had seen, Brad knew that he had to stop this creature before it killed again. He needed time to think. Brad left the kitchen and went upstairs to his room before Matt could come back inside.

————————————————–

Skylar slammed his phone down in frustration. Why wasn’t David answering his calls or texts? With everything going on, Sky was worried. He hoped that David was ok and hadn’t had another blackout. Sky considered going over to David’s house to check on him, but it was late. He decided to go to bed and try texting David again first thing in the morning.

———————————————————————–

When it was time for Matt to go to bed, he wondered why David wasn’t home. He tried texting his brother a couple time but got no response. At first, he was worried, but then a slow smile crept across his face. David must be busy with Skylar. Matt put thoughts of his brother out of his mind and went to bed.

————————————————————————–

The next morning Brad turned on the television and saw that they found Kevin’s body. The police released a statement saying that they believed a rogue man-eating bear was in the area and coming into the park at night to hunt. They imposed an eight o’clock curfew on the town until they could capture or kill the bear. Brad didn’t know if it was an actual werewolf or not that had killed Kevin, but the police were wrong. He knew it was not a bear. Brad wanted to go to the police and tell them what he had seen, but he needed hard evidence first. Without evidence, they would laugh at him or call him crazy. Brad loaded up his backpack with some notebooks, pencils, his camera, and a few snacks. Right after school, his first stop would be the library and then the park.

Matt wandered down to the kitchen and was surprised to find Brad not only dressed but completely ready for school and watching the news. “Wow. What time did you get up? I think your mom is gone early again, too.”

“She is. There was another attack in the park.” Brad turned to face his cousin, tears streaming down his face.

“Brad, what’s wrong? Who was it this time?”

“It was Kevin. Kevin is dead.”

Matt rushed over and wrapped his arms around his cousin. “I’m so sorry, Brad. I know he was your best friend. This is so horrible. What has it said on the news?”

Brad relayed to Matt what the police spokesperson said. Probable bear attacks. Eight o’clock curfew until further notice. Stay out of the park.

“Let me finish getting ready for school. We can talk more on the way if you want.” Matt rushed off and then returned fifteen minutes later, and the two boys left the house.

Brad and Matt barely got to the walkway leading to Terrie’s house before she rushed out of the house and ran up to Brad. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, and she hugged Brad tight and sobbed onto his shoulder. “Why is this happening? First Kim and now Kevin!”

“It sucks. It makes no sense. Hopefully, your dad can figure out a solution quickly.” Brad said.

Terrie walked over to Matt and clutched his hand. The three friends walked the rest of the way to school in relative silence.

———————————————–

Matt groaned as he thought about going to chemistry class and seeing Elias. His first Friday in a new town and a new school and he couldn’t even be excited for the weekend. Two new friends were dead, and they also happened to be the best friends of his cousin and his girlfriend, a girlfriend that he should be taking out on a date on a Friday night. He shouldn’t be grieving over deaths and worrying about what weird thing that Elias would say next! What would he say today? Does Elias know what is happening in town? Just before Matt reached class, he heard a shout from around the corner. Curious, he went to see what the commotion was. Matt turned the corner and saw Elias on the floor and three boys standing over him. Elias’s nose was bleeding, and his left eye was already swelling shut.

“Hey, guys. What’s going on? Three against one doesn’t really look fair.”

One of the boys turned and glared at Matt. “Aren’t you Matt Montana? Your family was messed up in all that witch business back in the day. Maybe we should beat some answers out of you, too. Two kids are dead now, and it didn’t start until he started going into the witch house and then you showed up in town!”

Matt dropped his backpack and got ready to defend himself. Before the situation could escalate further, the chemistry teacher walked around the corner.

“What’s going on here?” Mr. Clark looked down at Elias. “Mr. Carrier, what happened to you?”

“I fell. Hard.”

“Are you sure that’s the story you want to stick with, Carrier?”

“Yeah. I fell.”

Mr. Clark turned to the three bullies. “You three get to class. Now! If I see you in the halls after the warning bell again, I’ll give you all detentions.” He looked down at Eli again. “Do you need to go to the nurse?”

Eli looked at the three older kids who were still lurking in the hallway behind the teacher. “Yeah. I should go to the nurse, Mr. Clark. Can Matt help me, so I don’t fall again on the way there?”

“Yes. Both of you are excused from class to go to the nurse. Stop by my office before you go home to get the homework assignment.”

“Thanks. We’ll see you after school.” Matt helped Eli to his feet, and they walked towards the nurse’s office.

“Why did you ask for me to go with you?” Matt asked as they turned the corner, leaving the teacher and the three bullies behind.

“To get you out of there. They might leave you alone if you’re not anywhere near me, but then again, they might not.”

“Which brings me to my next question, why didn’t you tell Mr. Clark what happened?”

“Because it would only make it worse. With two kids dead, things are probably going to heat up in this town. Warn the rest of your family. They’ll come for me first, but you all should be wary, too. Everything that goes wrong in this town, they blame the witches and the werewolf curse. Your family is tied up in all of that. You need to be careful.”

“Did you feel something again last night? Like you said that you did the night before? Do you really think the deaths are related to the curse, Eli?”

Eli sighed. “I can’t say for sure that the deaths relate to the curse, but I suspect they do. I feel the magic surrounding the curse getting stronger, and you are still having nightmares, right?”

Matt sighed. “Yeah, but I haven’t seen anything in real life to lead me to believe that anything from my dreams is coming true.” He stopped for a second. “Well, except for David getting bitten by what I know was a wolf.”

“It might be a coincidence, but it might not be. Come with me to my mom’s old house tonight. I want to show you some stuff.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Come on, man. It’s Friday night. I want to take Terrie out on a date, not go to the witch house with you!”

“Do you want to find out about the curse and about your nightmares? My mom’s house is a lot more than just a haunted house.”

“Ok. Ok. After dark, though. Oh shit, what about the curfew?”

“It’s dark by five-thirty. Meet me at my foster parent’s house at five. I’ll text you the address. I’ll do my best to get you home before curfew.” He winked.

Matt left Elias at the door to the nurse’s office and hurried on to his next class.

——————————————————-

Brad saw Matt walk into the cafeteria side by side with Elias, and he frowned. He was about to say something, but as the two boys approached, he noticed Eli’s black eye and Matt’s concerned look. Brad couldn’t help but sigh when Eli sat down at the lunch table right next to Matt. Matt raised a finger before Brad could speak.

“I know this isn’t ideal, but it is necessary.” Matt looked at Terrie for support.

Terrie reached over and held Matt’s hand. “What happened, babe?”

Matt turned to Elias. “It’s more your story to tell if you want.”

Eli’s emerald eyes narrowed, and he brushed the perpetually stray lock of curly brown hair back into place. He pointed at Brad. “He can probably figure it out anyway. It was Derrick and his goon squad. They’ve been mostly leaving me alone, but now, with everything that has been happening, of course they use it as an excuse to come after me again. I should show them just how much of a witch I really am.”

Matt placed a hand gently on Eli’s arm. “If you tried to fight back, it probably would have been worse. There wasn’t much you could have done. There were three of them. Hopefully, Mr. Clark will handle it. It’s Friday. Maybe things will calm down before Monday.”

Brad’s eyes darted from Matt’s hand on Eli’s arm to Terrie to Eli and back to Matt. “Elias, do you want me to talk to Derrick? Maybe if he knew other people were watching, he’d back off on his own.”

“Brad, I…” Elias stopped mid-sentence, his brow furrowed, and he got a sad look in his eyes. “No, Brad. Don’t bother. If you wanted to help me, you would have done it last year.” Elias’ gaze shifted to Matt. “Don’t forget about tonight. It’s important.”

“I’ll be there. Five o’clock. Maybe a little sooner.” Matt said.

Eli got up from the table. “I’m not hungry. I’m gonna go to class. I’ll see you tonight, Matt.”

“Do you want me to walk with you to class? Just in case?”

“No. I’ll be careful. I need to think. Enjoy your lunch.” Elias turned and left the cafeteria.

Brad looked at his cousin, one eyebrow raised. “You two seem chummy all of a sudden. You’re going over his house tonight?”

Matt chuckled nervously. “I’m meeting him at his house. We’re actually going to the old Carrier house.”

Terrie inhaled sharply. “You’re going to the witch house? Tonight? With everything that’s happened?”

Matt sighed, looking from his cousin to his girlfriend. “Come on, guys. If anyone should understand, it’s the two of you. I’m going because of everything that’s happening. I need answers.”

Brad sneered. “I need answers, too, but I’m going to the library, not a haunted house.”

“Elias knows stuff. I don’t know how he knows, but he does. He knew about my nightmares, and he knew that something happened when David got bit. I’m going with him tonight, and I don’t care if you approve or not.”

“I’m just worried about you, Matt. If you start hanging out with Eli, and if people see you going into the witch house with him, it might be you with the black eye next.”

“Derrick and his pals already threatened me, Brad. Elias got beat up because he’s connected to our family history. Maybe instead of abandoning him, maybe we should all stick together and watch each other’s backs.”

“Wow. That’s a low blow. I told you already that I regretted breaking up with him. He won’t let me back in, but I guess he’s got you now. Good luck with that, Matt.”

“Brad, come on. Be reasonable. I know you said you regret abandoning him. He may not be ready to be friends with you again, but he’s willing to hang out with all of us as a group/ Take that as a first step. Maybe you guys can talk. I don’t know. All I know is that he might have information that I need to help my brother. So, yes, I’m going with him to that house tonight. I also know that we all need to watch out for each other here at school. We’re all safer if we’re together.”

“He’s not hanging out with us, Matt. He’s hanging out with you.”

“Wait… what? Are you jealous? I… I’m with Terrie. I’m straight.”

“I know what I saw, Matt. I gotta go.” Brad got up and stalked away from the table and left the cafeteria.

Matt looked over at Terrie. “I… I don’t even know what to say to that.”

Terrie leaned over and gave Matt a kiss. “It’s been a rough couple of days, Matt. For all of us. I’m sure Brad didn’t mean everything he said. I’ll go talk to him.” She got up and left to go find Brad.

Matt now found himself sitting alone in the cafeteria. He looked around at mostly unfamiliar faces, not knowing which ones might be friends with Derrick, or which ones might be allies. He decided it was smartest to leave and head toward his next class. Matt dumped his mostly uneaten lunch into the trash and left the cafeteria.

————————————————————

Matt waited out in front of the school like he did almost every day. Usually he was waiting for Terrie, Brad, and Kevin. Today there would be no Kevin, and Matt knew that was at the heart of the drama that happened earlier. Everyone’s nerves were on edge because of the deaths of Kevin and Kim. Kevin had been Brad’s best friend, of course he’d be super sensitive about everything today. Matt kicked the dirt and wondered if his cousin would show up to walk home, or if he’d avoid Matt altogether. Matt knew that making friends with Elias may cause some tension, but he looked at it as unavoidable. Matt needed to know what Eli knew about the curse. That meant that Matt had to go to the witch house, no matter what. Brad would just have to accept that.

Matt looked up and nearly held his breath as he saw both Terrie and Brad walking toward him. Terrie held back and let Brad approach Matt alone. Brad kind of smirked and blushed. “Hey, cuz.”

“Hey. I wasn’t sure if you’d show up out here.”

“I was out of line. I started to realize that as soon as I walked away, but Terrie caught up to me and made sure to tell me how much of an idiot I was.”

“Nothing about this situation is ideal, Brad. I mean this doesn’t even feel like real life anymore. I do have to go to his house, though. We both know that. We have to know what is real and what is legend. He knows stuff that I’ve never told anyone, and we have to know if any of this is connected to Kim and Kevin. You agree with me, don’t you?”

“Yes. There’s more to what’s going on than what the police are telling us.” Brad glanced back at Terrie. “Your dad isn’t telling the town everything he knows.”

Terrie caught up to Brad and Matt. “He hasn’t told me anything different than his official statement, but, yes, I know my dad well enough to know that he’s hiding something.”

The three friends had been walking along the edge of the park, and they were now standing in front of the town library. “This is my stop.” Brad said, pointing at the library. “I do agree with you, Matt. We have to find out what’s happening to our friends, and the adults aren’t telling us. You go do things your way, and I’ll do things my way, research. I believe in facts, not legends and ghost stories. I am sorry that I got heated in the cafeteria. Hell, even if there was more between you and Elias than just the research, it’s not my business. Me and Eli have been over for a long time. He’s made that fact abundantly clear. Terrie might have an issue with it, but it’s none of my business, and I shouldn’t have accused you anyway. Can you accept my apology, cuz?”

Matt smiled, relieved. “Dude, there’s nothing to apologize for. With everything that’s going on, there’s bound to be tense moments for everyone. And there’s nothing going on with me and Elias.” matt rolled his eyes dramatically.

“That’s good to hear.” Terrie said with a smile.

“Ok. Cool. We’re good then?” Brad asked.

Matt pulled his cousin in for a hug. “We’re better than good. Dude, you’re practically my brother.”

Brad grinned and ran up the steps and into the library. Matt and Terrie clasped hands and continued walking toward Terrie’s house.

About halfway there, Terrie looked over at Matt. “I trust you. You know that, right? You can tell me anything.”

Matt pulled Terrie to a stop and turned to face her. “We’re a couple, aren’t we? Like officially a couple, not just hanging out?”

“Yes. Definitely. As long as that’s what you want.”

“It is what I want. I would never cheat on you, Terrie. Not with a girl or with a guy. I could never do that to anyone. If there’s ever a time that there’s somebody else, I’d talk to you first, but I don’t see that happening. I like you a lot, Terrie.”

“I like you a lot, too, Matt.” Terrie wrapped her arms around Matt’s neck and pressed her lips to his. His hands slid to her waist as he returned the kiss. When they finally had to part in order to breath, Terrie looked up into Matt’s sky-blue eyes, her lips swollen from the kiss and her eyes glazed over with desire. “I think I believe everything you just said, Mr. Montana. Now please finish walking me home. I have homework, and you have a date with Elias.”

“A date.” Matt scoffed. “Fat chance.” He reached out and took Terrie’s hand in his and walked her home.

Matt walked Terrie up to her front door and stopped. “When I get home from Eli’s, I’ll text you. It’s freaking Friday night. I want to take you out on a real date tonight, but with the thing with Eli and the stupid curfew, I don’t know if I’ll even be able to see you at all. It’s not like the daughter of the sheriff could sneak out.” He smirked.

“I am not sneaking out. My dad would totally freak if he caught me. We can FaceTime when you get home. Hopefully, whatever is happening is sorted out soon. For now, we can plan a Saturday afternoon date.”

Matt pulled Terrie close and stared down into her eyes. “That sounds like an amazing plan. I wish I could just stay here with you forever. I’d be the happiest guy on Earth.”

“You’re such a sweet talker, Matthew Montana.” She grinned up at him. “Go. get this over with. Find out what he knows. I’ll be waiting for your text.” She kissed him one more time, and then she turned and went into her house.

The Frog’s Prince

The Frog Prince

Once upon a time in a land far away, there was a boy named Jonah. Jonah sat in the shadow of the old oak tree and chuckled quietly to himself. He watched the parade of prancing princesses proceed down to the pond, kiss the poor frog, and then storm angrily away when nothing happened. He chuckled because he knew his best friend in the entire world, Lucas, was having yet another dreadful day. He continued to watch until all the princesses were gone, and the frog sat alone by the edge of the pond. Jonah left his hiding spot and walked down to the pond and sat facing the poor little frog. 

“No luck again today I see, Lucas. Just how many princesses are there in the world anyway?” Jonah grinned down at the frog.

“Ribbit.” Said the frog. The frog made a face as close to annoyance as a frog’s face can get.

“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Jonah said and reached down and touched the frog’s head.

“UGH! Thanks. That’s much better. I still can’t figure out why that only works for you. I can’t even talk to my father or brother. As far as the princesses go, there seems to be an unending supply! I wish one would finally break this spell. I’m sick of being a frog!” The frog darted its head to the side, flicked out its tongue and caught and ate a fly.

“That’s so gross, Lucas!” Jonah pretended to gag but ended up laughing.

“I know, right! But I can’t help it. It seems to be instinct for this body. This curse really sucks!” Lucas groaned.

“Why were you cursed, Luke? We’ve never talked about that. Obviously, I know you are the prince of this kingdom, is that why she cursed you?” Jonah asked.

“Get me out of this pond for a while. Let’s go for a walk, and I’ll tell you.” Lucas said. Jonah reached over and picked up his friend. He set the frog on his left shoulder, stood and walked onto the path into the woods.

Lucas began his story. “Even as a small child, I was a spoiled rotten brat. My dad always told me that I’m meant to lead our glorious kingdom, but all I wanted to do was play and have fun. Book learning and army training were boring. I avoided my duties as often as I could. Then I turned thirteen, and my mind switched from my toys to girls. If I’m honest with you, I didn’t treat the girls any better than I treated my toys. They were princesses who were sent to woo me and win the heart of the crown prince of Lerithia, and I played silly games with their hearts, kissed them once or twice and sent them on their way.“ Lucas blushed, well as much as a frog can be said to blush.

“That just doesn’t sound like the Lucas that I know.” Jonah turned his head, so he was looking at Lucas. “You’ve changed so much. Cut yourself some slack. Hell, maybe being a frog has been good for you.” Jonah snickered.

“Anyway.” Lucas rolled his little froggy eyes at Jonah. “To continue my story, I was mean to a lot of people, especially girls. One night at dinner, this old lady burst into our dining hall and pointed right at me. She shouted at me about how I broke her granddaughter’s heart.” Lucas sighed. “Jonah, I couldn’t even remember what her granddaughter looked like. Anyway, then she drew a wand out of her cloak and pointed it at me. My father’s guards reacted, but not in time. The wand glowed, and she said ‘Shallow Prince with much vanity, like a frog you’ll now be. No cure for you shall they find until True Love’s Kiss clears your mind. If no love finds you before eighteen, you’ll end your days with skin of green.’” Lucas sighed again. “I’m doomed, Jonah. Tomorrow is my eighteenth birthday!”

Jonah let out a gasp and sat down on the side of the trail on an old tree stump. “Oh my god, Luke. Why didn’t you say something before? Tomorrow? Is that why your dad has been bringing in even more princesses than usual the last couple of weeks?”

“Yeah. My dad thinks if enough girls kiss me, one will be the right one. Trouble is, I can’t even talk to any of them like I can talk with you. How can I know if it’s true love? Do I want some silly spell to decide my future even if the curse is broken?” Lucas sounded depressed even in his froggy voice.

Jonah wanted so bad to reach out and comfort him, but how do you hug a frog? “What kind of girl would you want it to be if you could choose?” Jonah thought maybe he could get Lucas talking and get his mind off tomorrow.

“Someone kind and caring and compassionate. Someone who listens to me and doesn’t just want to talk about herself and her clothes. Someone… well someone just like you, Jonah. Why can’t you be a beautiful princess?” Lucas laughed.

Now it was Jonah’s turn to blush. “Shut up, Luke. I’m trying to help figure this out for you.” Jonah got back up and started walking back towards the pond. Suddenly, Kings Guards burst through the trees. One scooped Lucas off Jonah’s shoulder, and two more grabbed Jonah by the arms. The one in charge said, “Aha! We’ve found you! How dare you kidnap Prince Lucas. To the dungeon with you!”

Lucas was yelling at the top of his lungs for them to unhand his friend, but all they heard was the ribbiting of a frog. Jonah proclaimed his innocence, but they wouldn’t listen and dragged him off to the castle dungeons. Jonah was yelling, “You don’t understand! He’s my friend! You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t even know who I am!” The guards refused to even talk to him and locked him away in the dungeon.

That night and the next day passed slowly for both Lucas and Jonah. Jonah couldn’t find a way out of the dungeon. No one even came to talk to him. He was concerned and scared for his friend. He wanted to be with him, especially since it was such an important day for Lucas.

Lucas was also worried about Jonah and blamed himself for Jonah getting locked in the dungeon, possibly forever. If he couldn’t break this curse, and talk to his father, there would be no way to convince his dad to free Jonah. So, in hopes of miraculously breaking the curse, instead of running off to be with Jonah, Lucas stayed in his pond and submitted himself to today’s parade of princesses.

Night fell without the curse breaking. The princesses were gone, and the guards were out of sight. Lucas decided that, since he didn’t know if he’d still be able to talk to Jonah after the curse became permanent, he wanted to spend his last few hours before midnight with his best friend. He hopped out of his pond and headed for the tree line. Once in the trees, he hopped as fast as he could towards the castle. Lucas knew precisely where his dad would have locked up Jonah, and Lucas knew how he could get to him. He snuck in, undetected, through the back-kitchen doors when the cooks were bringing the night’s trash out. He stayed hidden amongst the pots and pans and brooms and finally found his chance to sneak into the cellar when a cook left the door open. From the basement, he made his way to the dungeons. He hopped right into Jonah’s cell. Jonah curled tightly into a ball and crying, didn’t see Lucas at first. Lucas hopped over to him. “I’m here, Jonah, I’m here.”

Jonah looked up and saw Lucas was still a frog and started crying even harder. Through his tears, he said, “No luck with the princesses again? I’m so sorry, Luke. I’m just so sorry. If that witch could see you now, maybe she’d undo the spell herself. You’re not a spoiled, arrogant brat anymore. You’re the kindest, sweetest guy I’ve ever met.”

Lucas blushed. “Thanks, Jonah. You’re a pretty great guy yourself.”

“Luke, it’s almost midnight. What’s going to happen? Will I still hear you like now?” Jonah asked.

“I don’t know. I hope so, but I just don’t know. I’ve never understood why you’re the only one who hears me anyway.” Lucas said.

Jonah reached down and picked up Lucas. He stared directly into the frog’s eyes. “If this is our last conversation, then I have to say this out loud for you to hear. I love you so much, Luke. More than you know. You’re my best friend in the entire world. I… I think if you were a boy and not a frog that I might love you even more than that.” Jonah blushed a deep, bright red. “You have an amazing soul, Lucas. I’ll love you forever.” He bent down and kissed the frog.

Electricity crackled around the boy, and the frog and a purplish colored smoke swirled around them. When the smoke cleared, Jonah was looking up into the bright, crystal blue eyes of, a now human, Prince Lucas. Lucas brought both hands up and cupped Jonah’s face between his hands. He bent down and kissed Jonah. After he broke the kiss, Lucas smiled and said, “I love you, too, Jonah.”

——————————————————————————————————————————–

A small army led by the neighboring King entering his lands, interrupted King Samuel’s night of worry over his son Lucas’s predicament. King Samuel personally led a small force out to greet the other king. King Edmond rode out from his army and greeted King Samuel.

“My guards last saw my son, Prince Jonah, entering your kingdom, King Samuel, and he has not returned home. I’ve come looking for him. Have you or any of your people seen him?” Edmond described Jonah to Samuel. One of the King’s Guards spoke up and told his King what had happened at the pond and that he thought Jonah might be that boy. Samuel relayed that information to Edmond with his apologies, and they rode together to the castle.

The two kings walked together into the dungeon, turned the corner, and saw the two boys curled up together, sound asleep in each other’s arms. Both kings were speechless for a moment, and then King Samuel yelled out, “Lucas! You’ve broken the spell! How? Who broke the spell? Why are you in this cell? Guards, unlock this cell at once!”

The boys, shocked by the sudden intrusion, untangled from each other’s embrace and stood up. Jonah noticed his father standing behind the other king. Lucas spoke first. “Dad!” He ran and hugged his father as soon as the guards opened the cell door. “I hopped in here when I was still a frog. I wanted to spend my last few hours with Jonah. Then, just before midnight, Jonah kissed me and broke the spell!”

Both kings audibly gasped and turned and looked at each other. Samuel looked back at his son. “How do you feel about this son? Do you feel like he is your True Love? The spell said only True Love’s Kiss could break the enchantment.”

Lucas blushed and looked down. “Yes, dad. I’m in love with Jonah, and he’s in love with me. We want to be married. You always told me that whoever broke the enchantment was who I would marry. I couldn’t talk to you, but I heard everything you said to me. I want you to keep your word. I want to marry Jonah.” Lucas told his father that, for the last year, Jonah could hear him, and they talked for hours every evening after the princesses left. He told his father everything.

“Jonah? Son, is this what you want also?” King Edmond asked, stepping forward.

King Samuel stepped aside to let King Edmond to the front. Samuel said to Lucas, “Lucas, this is King Edmond from Garlandia. He is Prince Jonah’s father.”

Lucas’s jaw dropped, and he turned to Jonah. “Prince Jonah? You never told me!”

“It wasn’t and still isn’t the most important thing about me. I love you, not your kingdom and I wanted the same in return. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I didn’t want it to get in the way of our friendship.” Jonah said.

“It’s fine, Jonah, I definitely understand,” Lucas said.

Jonah turned towards his father. “Dad, to answer your question. Yes. This is what I want. I know I’m just sixteen. I know you planned on me marrying some princess and having lots of babies, but I’ve never wanted those things. I just didn’t know how to tell you. I’m in love with Luke. Like head over heels type in love. The love I still see between you and mom. Please let me have this.” Jonah was looking at his father, but his hands were gripping Lucas’s arm, and he was leaning into the taller boy.

The two kings looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement. King Samuel spoke. “I’ll put the proclamation out to the other kingdoms. The marriage of our sons, the crown princes of Lerithia and Garlandia, will take place one month from today. May fortune smile on you both and upon both our kingdoms.”

Even with both their fathers and a dozen guards right there, Lucas pressed his forehead against Jonah’s and whispered: “I love you.” Jonah leaned in, and they kissed.

CinderEli

CinderEli

Elijah finished cleaning the fireplace and went to wash up. He didn’t even get to the washbasin before he heard one of his stepbrothers yell for him.

“Eli, get back in here! You’re not done. This fireplace is a mess.” Robert yelled.

Elijah went back into the front room. “Robert, I’ve told you guys a million times, my name is Elijah, not Eli. And I cleaned that fireplace already. You jerks must have spread more ashes all over it.” Elijah yelped in pain and surprise as his other step-brother hit him in the back of the head.

“You will not talk back to us, little brother. And your name is what we say it is. Look at you all covered in ash and soot. Your name isn’t Elijah or even Eli. Your name is CinderEli.” Edward said.

Elijah rubbed the back of his head and scowled at his step-brothers. He didn’t bother saying anything else. He knew it was pointless. Their mother had his father wrapped around her little finger. Elijah felt like he was just a servant and not even part of the family. He knelt and started cleaning the fireplace all over again. He nearly finished cleaning it for the second time when his step-mother rushed into the house.

“Boys! Edward! Robert! Come here at once!” She yelled. Elijah stopped what he was doing and turned around to see what was so important. His two step-brothers returned to the room and said, almost in unison, “What is it, mother?”

“You’ve both been invited to a Royal Ball at the castle. A notice went up in the village requiring all boys of royal blood and at least fifteen years of age to attend the Princess’s eighteenth birthday ball. It is tomorrow night. We’ll have to spend all day tomorrow getting you both ready. People say she’s looking for a suitor. She just has to pick one of you!” Their mother said.

Elijah spoke up. “I’m fifteen. Will I be going to the ball, too?”

All three laughed at him. His step-mother said, “Of course not, boy. Look at you. You’d be an embarrassment. Now be quiet and go back to your cleaning.”

Elijah was furious. He considered going to his father, but he knew that would do no good. He turned back to his work and tried to put the ball out of his mind.

The next day, the house was a constant hive of activity. Rebecca was ordering her two sons around, getting them ready for the ball that evening. Rebecca sent Elijah out on numerous errands to pick up things his two step-brothers needed. Each time she forced him to help, he got madder and madder.

The evening arrived, and Elijah watched as his father, step-mother, and two step-brothers got in the carriage and left for the ball. He finally allowed the tears of anger and of sadness fall from his eyes. Elijah left the house and headed straight for the clearing in the woods behind the house. At the far edge of the clearing, he found his mother’s grave. He dropped to his knees in front of her headstone and cried. “Mother, everything is horrible without you. Father has remarried, and she’s a mean and wicked lady. She has two sons of her own, and I’m cast aside and treated as a servant. Papa won’t even help me. He does whatever she tells him to do.”

Through his tears, Elijah noticed a little blue light flickering back and forth over the headstone. It was a weird little light. It distracted him for a moment, but he continued with what he needed to tell his mother. “They are all at the Princess’s Birthday Ball, Mama. They made me stay home. I have more right to go than Robert or Edward! My whole life now is just cleaning up after them and putting up with them bullying me. I wish… well, I wish a lot of things, but right now, I wish I could go to the ball.”

His tears were flowing heavier now. When he first saw it, he thought it was his imagination, but the little blue light was growing larger. Before Elijah’s astonished eyes, the blue light grew into a brightly dressed man with glowing blue wings. Elijah blinked, wiped the tears from his eyes, and looked again. The winged man was still there. “Uh… hi… who… what are you?” Elijah asked.

The man huffed. “I’m a who, not a what, Elijah. I’m your fairy godfather, and I’m here to grant your wish.”

A broad smile crossed Elijah’s face, but a suspicious frown quickly replaced it. “If you’re my fairy godfather, why wait until now? I’ve made a million wishes since my mom died. My step-brothers have bullied and tormented me for months. Why haven’t you helped me before now?”

The fairy sighed and looked at Elijah. “I’m not allowed to guide every event in your life, but I’ve watched for a key moment to intervene. This is that key moment.” He waved his wand over Elijah.

Elijah looked down at himself and smiled at the fancy, crisply pressed black and white tuxedo. Then his suspicious frown returned when he noticed the “Hello. My name is Elijah” sticker just under his left lapel. “Hey! What’s with the nametag?”

“You will be working with the caterers, serving drinks to the guests at the ball. I’ve arranged it, so they won’t notice that you aren’t really their employee.” The fairy said.

Elijah’s eyes welled up with fresh tears. “Great. Some fairy godfather you are. You grant my wish to go to the ball, but instead of sending me to dance with the princess, you send me as a servant.”

“Elijah, you know as well as I do that a princess is not what you seek.” The fairy smiled and patted Elijah’s shoulder.

Elijah looked up at the fairy, eyes wide. Then he looked down and blushed. “That may be true, but then why should I go to the ball at all?”

“Trust in me that I know what is best for you. It is my job, after all. More than princesses are at the ball.” The fairy grinned.

Elijah looked up at him, the suspicion fading from his eyes. “Ok. I’m used to people looking at me as a servant anyway. I may as well be a servant at the Royal Ball, too.”

The fairy smiled. “Trust in me, Elijah. And leave the ball before the last stroke of midnight, that’s when the enchantment will wear off.” The fairy waved his magic wand again, and Elijah disappeared.

Elijah blinked his eyes in surprise. One second, he was standing in front of his mother’s grave, and the next, he was in the most massive kitchen that he had ever seen. The kitchen was bigger than his house! Before he had much of a chance to look around, an older man stormed up to him. The man glanced down at his nametag and then said, “You. Elijah, grab that tray of drinks and get out front. The guests are thirsty. You’re not here to gawk around at the kitchen like some dumb country farm boy. Move it!” Elijah picked up the drink tray and walked through the door and into the main ballroom.

After an hour of walking the floor handing out drinks, Elijah found himself at a stationary bar along the back wall. In between serving drinks, he watched longingly as everyone danced. He knew that the fairy was right, that he didn’t want to marry a princess, but he still longed to dance at the Royal Ball.

He ducked down behind the bar every time he saw his step-brothers. Not that they would notice him anyway. With his perfectly pressed black and white tuxedo and his blonde hair clean and combed back off his face, they’d never even recognize him. From off to his left, he heard someone clear their throat, and a boy’s voice said, “Excuse me, Elijah, can I get a glass of ice water, please?”

Elijah turned and nearly dropped the glass he was holding. His breath caught in his chest, and his heart skipped a beat or two. The boy sitting at the bar smiling up at him was the most gorgeous boy that Elijah had ever seen. He had light brown hair, cut short in the back, but the bangs were long. He combed his hair to the right, and the bangs partially covered his right eye, and that was a shame because he had stunning bright blue eyes. They were a bright blue to make a cloudless summer sky jealous. Elijah set the glass he was holding down on the bar and tried to steady his nerves. “Sure thing, sir. One ice water coming up.” Elijah gave the boy a nervous smile and prepared the drink.

“Here you go, sir. Enjoy your water and enjoy the Ball.” Elijah said.

The boy shot Elijah a killer smile. The ruby red lips and perfect dimples nearly left Elijah in a melted puddle on the floor. The boy leaned forward. “I’m only just now enjoying the Ball. It was boring me until I spotted you over here. You’re not one of the usual servants. I’d have noticed. My name is Will, by the way.” Will stuck his hand out to Elijah.

Elijah shook Will’s hand and blushed. “Pleased to meet you, Will. As you noticed from my nametag, I’m Elijah. And you’re right. This is my first time here at the Royal Castle.”

“Welcome to the castle. What do you think of it?” Will asked.

“I’ve only seen the kitchen and the ballroom, but it’s stunning,” Elijah replied.

“I’ll have to give you a private tour sometime,” Will said and winked at Elijah.

Elijah blushed a deep, bright red. “Are you the Royal Tour Guide, Will? If so, sign me up for that tour.” Elijah grinned.

Will reached over and took one of Elijah’s hands in his. “What’s with these gloves anyway? I want to feel your hand in mine, not these stupid gloves.”

Elijah shrugged. “The Royal Family doesn’t want us, lowly servants, to touch the things that they serve to them and their guests. I was told to wear gloves all night.”

Will rolled his eyes. “That’s ridiculous. Wait…” Will squinted, looking at Elijah with a look of intense concentration. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

Elijah scowled. “No. Should I?”

Will gently took Elijah’s face in his hands and leaned in and kissed him. Elijah’s eyes nearly popped out of his head in shock, but he soon recovered and kissed the younger boy back. After several minutes, Will pulled back from the short make-out session, smiling broadly. “Sorry to be so forward, but I wanted to see if you wanted that before you found out who I am. I could probably have any boy in the kingdom, but I want one who wants me, not my title or family.” Will said, looking a little sad.

“Any boy in the kingdom?” Elijah scoffed. “Just who are you? The crown prince?”

Will sighed. “I am who I said I am. I’m Will. Most people insist on calling me William, though.”

Elijah looked confused, and then his jaw dropped. “No way. You ARE the crown prince?! Oh my god. No way! But… you’re here. Talking to me. You freaking kissed me! Why aren’t you up there with your parents and sister?”

“I was. Then I saw you. Now I’m here.” Will smirked.

“I… I don’t know what to say.” Elijah blushed and looked down.

“Say you’ll take off those stupid gloves and dance with me,” Will said with a grin.

“I’m not allowed to take my gloves off by order of the Royal family, though.” Elijah laughed.

Will stood up straight and puffed out his chest. He spoke in as deep a voice as his fourteen-year-old vocal cords could muster. “I hereby order, by Royal Decree, that you, Elijah the Beautiful, must remove your gloves so that I can feel your hand in mine.” Will burst out into a fit of giggles. “Just give me the damn gloves, cutie.”

Elijah blushed a deep red, but he smiled and took off the gloves. “Here you go, your Royal Highness.”

Will rolled his eyes and stuffed the gloves into his pocket. He took Elijah’s hand and led him out onto the dancefloor.

Elijah didn’t know how to dance, so he let Will guide his movements, and he soon caught on. An hour later, they were still out there and were attracting more stares than any couple, except for the Princess and her chosen companion. The music slowed, and Will pulled Elijah close. Though he was a year younger, Will has about three inches taller than Elijah.

“You have the brightest and most beautiful green eyes that I have ever seen. Brighter even than the emerald in my father’s treasury.” Will said, looking down at Elijah.

Elijah just couldn’t seem to stop blushing around this boy. “Hey now, don’t even talk about pretty eyes with those beautiful baby blues of yours.” Elijah reached up and pushed the hair out of Will’s eyes. “And your hair is perfect, too.” He smiled.

“Listen, blondie, don’t get me started on perfect hair,” Will smirked.

Elijah couldn’t help but smile. “You’re gonna have like a million princesses come calling when it’s time for your own Royal Ball. You’re as sweet as you are gorgeous. She’ll be a lucky girl, whoever you pick.”

Will pulled Elijah even closer and bent down close to his ear. “What makes you think I’ll pick a girl?”

Elijah looked up at him, confused. “Won’t your father make you? Royal heirs and all that?”

Will leaned in and kissed the side of Elijah’s neck. You’re so cute but so thick-headed. We’ve been dancing right in front of my parents for over an hour. They know I’ll never marry a girl. We’ve already talked about it. As the first-born son, I will be King. But, I’ve already said that I will designate my sister’s children as the heirs to the throne. That’s why they’re so formal and so careful with who she chooses to marry.”

Elijah’s eyes widened. “Over an hour? What time is it?”

“Time doesn’t matter when I’m with you. You fit perfectly within my arms, Elijah. I think I want to keep you around.” Will leaned in, about to kiss Elijah. Then the clock struck the first stroke of midnight.

Elijah pulled back from Will’s embrace. “Will, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I really, really like you, but I need to go. Right now.”

Will’s face showed surprise and disappointment. “Elijah, if it’s the job, don’t worry. You’re with me. You’ll never be a servant in this castle again. Stay with me.”

Tears stung Elijah’s eyes. “It’s not that. I can’t explain right now. I just need to go. I’m so sorry.” With that, Elijah turned and ran out of the castle as fast as he could.

Elijah’s sudden departure stunned Will. He wasn’t sure exactly what just happened, but he was confident that Elijah didn’t really want to leave. He felt something was wrong, and he was determined to find out what. He took off at top speed after the other boy without even calling for his Royal Bodyguards.

Will couldn’t catch up to Elijah, but he managed to keep him in sight as they passed out of the Royal Compound and out into the town. Will lost count of the number of streets they passed and side streets they turned down. He nearly lost sight of Elijah, but he turned the last corner just in time to see him dart off the road and into a backyard. Will couldn’t find Elijah anywhere. He searched the nearby woods and other yards but couldn’t find him. Finally, Will gave up and headed home. He vowed inwardly to order the Palace Guards to perform a more thorough search of the town. He would see Elijah again if it was the last thing he did.

Elijah was even more depressed than usual. He had the absolute best night of his life last night, and now here he was, cleaning the fireplace again. He had to put Will out of his mind. He, of course, would never see the Crown Prince ever again. It was an awesome night, but that’s all it was just one night. Just then, his step-brothers interrupted his daydreams of Will.

“There’s a palace carriage stopping out front. Get out of here, little CinderEli. We can’t have your filth embarrassing us. Go clean the kitchen.” Robert said.

“Yeah,” Edward added. “No one wants to see dirty old CinderEli.” Both boys laughed as Elijah left the room in silence.

A loud knock on the door echoed through the house. Robert and Edward raced to the door and pulled it open. The palace guardsman looked them both up and down and then asked, “Is the Lord or Mistress of the Manor at home?”

“Our step-father is out of town on business. I’ll go get our mother at once, sir.” Edward responded and turned and ran into the house. He returned not a minute later with his mother.

Edward stated to the guardsman. “Sir Guardsman, may I present Duchess Wainwright, Lady Rebecca.”

The guardsman entered the house, followed by a smaller figure who, wrapped in a hooded cloak. The hood completely shadowed the second person’s face. The guardsman bowed to Lady Rebecca. “A pleasure to meet you, my lady.”

“How may we be of service to the Royal Guard?” Rebecca asked.

The guard took a small item from his pocket. “I have been sent out in search of a boy who left this glove behind at the Royal Ball last night. We are ordered to find the boy whose hand fits this glove.”

Robert and Edward elbowed each other to get up close to the guard. They looked expectantly back and forth between the guard and their mother. Rebecca nodded to them.

First, Robert and then Edward tried on the glove. Neither boy could even fit all their fingers into the glove. They growled in frustration and handed the glove back to the guard.

Rebecca looked sympathetically at the guard. “Sorry to waste your time. Good luck with your search.”

“Thank you, Lady Rebecca.” The guard started to turn away, but his cloaked companion grabbed his arm and said in a whisper, “This is the manor I followed him to. Make sure there is no one else here. I have to find him!”

The guard turned back to Rebecca. “I’m sorry to bother you, my lady. Are there any other young boys in residence here? A servant? A distant relative? I have to check everyone.”

Rebecca frowned. “Well, my step-son Cin… Eli lives with us, but he did not go to the Ball. You can’t possibly be looking for him.” She scoffed.

The guard said. “Call him here at once. If the glove doesn’t fit, we’ll be on our way.”

Rebecca turned and stormed off into the kitchen and returned moments later with a dirty, disheveled Elijah, covered from head to toe with cinders and soot. Elijah brushed himself off and started to walk towards the guard.

The cloaked figure stared intently at Elijah as he walked forward. Robert reached out and roughly grabbed Elijah’s arm. He said to the guard, “Are you sure you want this little soot-covered CinderEli to dirty the glove. There’s no chance that they belong to him.”

The cloaked figure leaped forward, the butt of his staff striking Robert squarely in the abdomen. Robert doubled over in pain. The cloaked figure grabbed him by the hair and bent in close to Robert’s ear. “If you touch him again, you will lose the hand you touched him with.”

Edward jumped to his brother’s side. “The King will hear about this! Just who do you think you are?”

The cloaked figure reached up and lowered his hood. “Go ahead and tell my father what happened here today. While you’re at it, tell my mother that your mother ignored her order that ALL boys fifteen or over of royal blood attend the Ball.” He pointed at Elijah. “He is fifteen and the Duke’s blood heir. Yet she did not allow him to attend. Though I will say that it worked out for me that he got there on his own without the need to dance with my sister.” Will smirked at Elijah as he took the glove from the guard and took the other one out of his own pocket. “Make it official. Put those stupid gloves back on. I know it’s you, though. The ash can’t hide those pretty green eyes.”

Rebecca inhaled sharply and bowed deeply to the Crown Prince. “Your Majesty, Prince William, I and my sons beg your forgiveness.” She glared at her sons, and they bowed to the prince as well.

Hands shaking, Elijah put on the gloves. They fit perfectly. His step-mother and two step-brothers were in shock.

Will smiled at Elijah. He reached up and brushed some of the soot and ash out of his hair. “Elijah, I knew from the moment I saw you that I wanted you in my life. I don’t want you staying here with these cold-hearted bullies. Come live at the castle.”

Elijah took both of Will’s hands in his. “But what would my role be there? Servant? Friend? Why would your father allow it?”

Now, Will was the one who looked nervous, with unsteady hands. He got down on one knee in front of Elijah. “I know we just met last night. I know I’m just fourteen and you’re fifteen. I know you have absolutely no reason to say yes, but I am hereby officially asking you to be my betrothed. We can be married after my eighteenth birthday. What do you say?”

“Oh, Will!” Elijah gushed. He pulled William to his feet and kissed him. “Oh, yes, Will, yes! A thousand times, yes!”

The boys kissed again. Will looked over at Rebecca. “Give anything belonging to Elijah to the guard. We’ll be leaving immediately. His father is welcome to come to the castle upon his return home. You and your sons would be best served to stay at home.” He slipped an arm around Elijah’s waist and guided him out to the Royal Carriage.

The guardsman exited the manor with all of Elijah’s possessions, and then the carriage rode off into the distance towards the castle and, more importantly, towards a bright new future for Elijah and William.