The Wolf at His Door (Book One of The Runes Trilogy)
Part One: Repentance
Standing at the edge of the courtyard of University Hall, Alec Rune raised his arms high above his head, stretching his back in an arch. The cool March sun peeked through a dusty window of clouds. His first class on Fridays, a three-hour biology lecture, had just ended—thankfully.
Across the courtyard, which separated University Hall and the Student Union, Alex spotted Sam and Celeste, two close friends, sitting on a bench on a rolling knoll. Jaunting down the stone steps from the hall, Alec headed straight for them. “Hey, crazy-man what’s up?”
Sam looked up from On the Road by Jack Kerouac. “Hey, Sandman,” he called him affectionately.
Celeste brushed her hair back from her forehead with a graceful gesture. “Alec, how was biology?” She asked with a giggle.
“Did you know that one of the single most destructive forces on the planet is cow farts?” He replied.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, that’s why I’m a vegan, man.” Sam corrected his posture into a strict pose. “Have you read Silent Spring yet?”
“Actually, yes,” Alec said, taking a position beside the two. Sam’s unruly, curly hair bobbed on his head. The mop of hair looked as though it hadn’t seen a brush in years. Slightly shorter than shoulder length and a dirty brown color, the hair made an odd frame for the delicate features of his face. He usually sported a couple days growth on his face, but today he was clean-shaven. His clothes were mismatched, per usual: a pullover cotton jacket, tie-dye shirt, and baggy jeans making him look almost like a vagabond. If Alec hadn’t known him, he would have thought that Sam stank; but he showered daily—almost.
As a couple, Sam and Celeste were a strange dichotomy. She looked meticulous in a plaid skirt and Abercrombie jacket. Her hair was cut in a stylish bob, and required little attention to look perfect. Her full lips parted often to reveal her large, white teeth and two dimples sat guard on either side of her charming smile.
Sam and Celeste had become a couple after a heated debate in a speech class; Sam had played devil’s advocate to her assault on mass transit availability. Silent Spring was a favorite read for both of them.
“I finished it last night,” Alec continued. “Her findings about pollutants and pesticides on nature were amazing and ominously foreshadowing, since she died of cancer.”
Celeste piped in, “It reminds me of Marie Curie.”
“How so?” Alec asked.
“She died of leukemia from her research,” Sam announced.
Alec nodded. “The price of furthering humanity.”
“Don’t get me started,” Sam said.
“I won’t,” Alec smiled. “Have you seen Adam?”
“Oh, the ugly brother,” Celeste kidded. Adam was Alec’s identical twin brother. At five foot eleven, blond and lean, neither had any problems with being called ugly. The same angular nose, wide eyebrows, and full lips adorned their faces. An aberration, Alec had cool green eyes, while Adam had his mother’s and father’s blue eyes.
Alec spotted Adam hustling across the lush grass, coming from the far side of campus, around the Student Union. Winded, Adam arrived. “Hey, bro.”
“Uh-uh,” Adam shook his head.
Alec turned to Celeste and Sam, “Have you two eaten?”
“Got it in the bag,” Sam said, patting his backpack.
“BurritoRama?” Adam interjected.
“Sure.” Alec said, turning as Sam and Celeste grimaced to each other at the name of the greasy fast-food restaurant. The brothers said, “See ya,” as they walked toward the Student Union. Alec and Adam paced in time across the grass and around the Student Union to the back entrance where the food court was located.
After ordering, they sat at a two-seat table near the outside windows. “What you got planned this evening?” Alec asked, his mouth full of taco.
“Studying. I have a bitch of a test on Monday, and I’m not studying the rest of the weekend.”
“Well, there’s this party Saturday, and I thought you might be interested.”
“What time’s it start?’
Adam made an unconcerned facial gesture, “Whenever we get there…ten okay?”
“Sure,” Alec nodded, taking another bite. “I’m volunteering at the Humane Society in the afternoon. Then I promised Sam I’d help him with his bike.” Alec shoved another bite in his mouth, “When I get home, I’ll just need to shower.”
“Cool. I think I’ll probably just go to the Rec and swim, then…” A tingling feeling crept across Alec’s skin as Adam spoke. Adam’s words began to slip off, like words spoken down a narrow, deep well. Alec placed his fingers to his temple, no longer able to concentrate on the conversation. The fuzziness crept across his fingers, gliding gently up his hands, to his wrists. Bringing his hands back down, Alec stared at them for a moment. The flesh looked fine, not discolored or anything. The feeling was slightly akin to the sensation of blood deprivation, like when he had sat on his foot too long, but Alec knew that was not possible. The sensation slithered over his elbows. A dull throb began behind his eyes.
“Alec, Jesus Christ, you okay?” Adam’s words—when Alec finally heard them—were slightly high in intonation, as if he’d asked several times.
Alec nodded. “Yep.” The feeling fell away. “I just got dizzy for a moment.” He feigned a smile. “Hey, I’m gonna walk home and skip my last class.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Just tired.” Alec stood and grabbed his book bag. “Catch ya later.” Alec trotted across the campus toward the bordering neighborhood. The neighborhood was a collection of early twentieth century mansions—brick, elaborate, and fenestrated to excess. The full-grown trees towered above him, blocking out the sun rays that intermittently tried to force through the cover of gray clouds. Remnants of winter-battered leaves tumbled across the damp sidewalk as a typical March breeze stirred the air. A slight mist was gliding from the sky.
March was Alec’s least favorite month. All through March, the sky would be the canvas of a lazy painter: little texture, little color, a few brush strokes through shades of gray.
Continuing on, Alec pulled his jacket collar around his neck, wishing he had worn his winter coat instead. He approached his house, the grand architecture of the brick mansion now commonplace to him, though it had been featured in a magazine. Like many of the houses in the neighborhood, his house set up on a gently rolling hill. Alec crossed his yard, kicking at the damp leaves that covered the still brown grass. Opening the front door, the scent of baking alerted him to his grandmother’s presence. His grandmother’s sole joy sometimes seemed to be inundating Alec and Adam with cookies and other desserts.
“Hey, Granma!” Alec yelled.
“In the kitchen, Alec.” His grandmother, Geraldine, had the uncanny ability to tell him and Adam apart simply by the sound of their voices. “I’m baking homemade lemon poppy seed muffins.”
Dropping his book bag to the floor, Alec crossed the entrance hall and passed the main stairwell. It was a grand staircase which split and came down on two walls, then rejoined on a landing before continuing up to the second floor. The entrance hall had cathedral ceilings.
The entrance hall was bordered on one side by a small parlor and on the other side by a large living room with a fireplace and built-in bookshelves. The living room stretched the length of the house, from front to back, with French doors that opened onto a brick terrace in the backyard. Beyond the stairwell, Alec passed the formal dining room. The dining room and kitchen were joined at two junctures: by a swinging door and on the far wall by a butler’s pantry. He glanced quickly into the room then continued into the kitchen.
The scent of baking hovered in the air. The lemony smell of the muffins was intoxicatingly sweet. “Smells delicious.”
“Of course,” Geraldine kidded. “So how was school?”
“Boring. Biology. I hate general requirements.”
Geraldine nodded, “But well-roundedness is important.”
“True,” he conceded. Geraldine was a huge proponent of higher education. Since his grandfather, Tom, had died, she’d taken a few classes herself. Alec knew better than to argue the validity of education with her. She could be tenacious.
Oven door open, Geraldine sighed, “Done…golden edges and dark yellow.” She removed the pan, setting it atop of the stove. “Do you want milk?”
“Yeah, I’ll get it,” Alec said. He ambled across the kitchen and removed a glass from the cupboard. “You want some, Grandma?”
“Do people in hell want ice water?”
“Judeo-Christian or Existential?”
Geraldine giggled. “You amuse me.” She stacked muffins on a plate and brought them over to the breakfast nook. Alec joined her with two glasses of milk and the butter dish. After buttering a muffin, she handed it to Alec. “How’re things, really?”
Boy is she intuitive, Alec thought. “Mom and Dad still fight bitterly sometimes, but I think…” Alec hesitated, deciding not to lie to himself. “I think they stayed together as long as they did because they had children.”
A plaintive look shaded Geraldine’s face. “I’m not sure it’s that exactly.”
“Maybe the things they had in common they don’t share anymore. People change,” she picked at her muffin. “It can happen to anyone.”
“You and Grandpa?”
She chuckled, “Well, not us.” Her eyes glanced far off, looking back across decades of a life shared. “We collaborated on so much, we never had the opportunity to grow apart.”
“Who knows? They’ll probably work through this. I think they still love each other.”
“Oh, I know they do,” Geraldine said. “But their lives are changing right now. It’s hard.”
Stern faced, Geraldine asked, “But what about you?”
Alec raised his eyebrows. “Meaning…”
“You know,” she added a telling emphasis to the words. She picked the muffin apart and took a bite.
“Grandma, no offence, but I really don’t want to talk about my non-existent love life with you.”
She chuckled merrily. “Just so that you know that you can.”
Alec held her gaze for a moment, thinking how lucky he had been since coming out of the closet just a few months before. The revelation had been more than a ripple on a placid lake, and his grandmother, and sister, Lucy, had since seemed especially intent to make sure that he found love.
“What about your headaches—dizzy spells?”
“They’ve gone away,” he lied.
“Oh,” she nodded and snapped her fingers. “Just like that?”
“Well, I mean, they’re not as severe,” Alec stuttered. The fact was, he had to take his medication daily. The headaches lately seemed to reach a crescendo. Pangs throbbed through his head several times a day and, during the night, often jarred him awake. If he were a hypochondriac, he would have been convinced it was a tumor.
“Well, you look a little peaked, today, dear.” Geraldine folded her hands together on the table. Alec watched her stare at the plate of muffins. “Alec, I have something to tell you.”
Alec stopped mid-bite. “Sounds serious. You’re not ill, are you?”
“Not that exactly,” Geraldine smiled. “When I was young I got headaches very similar to the ones you’re having.”
Geraldine glanced out the window to the naked trees. Gray clouds swirled behind them, moving like a silent predator, stealthy and sure. “They usually came when something bad was going to happen.”
Alec felt a smile rising across his face but fought it down. He could tell his grandmother was serious. “Like precognition?”
“So am I foreseeing my parents’ divorce? I think that’s just intuition from obvious clues.”
“Alec, I don’t know what you’re getting the vibration from.”
Vibration. Such an accurate word. That’s how his body felt when the feelings came over him, like he was some cosmic tuning fork picking up invisible vibrations, then moving to its frequency. “Huh. So what have you been set aware of?”
“Oh, lots of things.”
“Yes. I knew a week before it happened.”
“Do you think you picked up on physical clues?”
Geraldine smiled and reached across the table to pat Alec’s hand. “You are too rational for your own good. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a gift and a curse.” She gave his hand a loving squeeze. “You have to learn to use it.”
Alec stood abruptly and carried his empty milk glass to the sink where he rinsed it. “I guess I’ll try,” he said to pacify his grandmother.
“That’s all you can do.”
“Have you ever talked with Mom about this?”
“She isn’t a believer. I guess you get that from her.”
Alec turned to face his grandmother, leaning against the refrigerator door. “You said you used to get headaches.”
Geraldine nodded. “As I learned to accept them, they became less painful. More of a…just a tingling.”
“Okay.” Alec crossed the kitchen back to his grandmother then offered his hand to her to help her up. He hugged her. “I appreciate you talking with me.”
She tweaked his nose. “You think I’m a crazy old lady.”
“Nah.” Alec separated his index finger and thumb about an inch apart. “Well, maybe just a little.”
Geraldine slapped his shoulder and chuckled.
* * * *
Not much time passed since Geraldine had left when Lucy came bursting into the house. Alec listened to her hurried footsteps as she rushed into the kitchen where he was laying his head on the table.
Lucy threw him a quizzical glance before launching into a rapid spiel. “So I have this friend I want you to meet.”
“Not now, I got a headache,” Alec said, grimacing.
“Funny,” Lucy said, sitting. “Then why aren’t you in bed?”
“Because until two seconds ago the kitchen was quiet.”
Lucy strummed her fingers on the table, and Alec could feel the sound reverberating in his ear. He lifted his head up and glared at Lucy. “Who’s this friend?”
Lucy smiled. “Actually he’s Celeste’s friend, too. You told her you were ‘in a dry spell.’ You know, telegram, telephone, tell-a-Celeste.”
“When did she tell you?” Alec asked, wondering how the conversation could have possibly taken place.
“Called me on my cell. Said to go with plan B.” Her face was bright.
Alec felt a cocoon of conspiracy forming around him. “You talk about my love life? You have both plans A and B?”
“Chill, baby brother, chill. We totally got your best interest in mind. You are so habitually single, you know, we thought we’d help you…out,” Lucy said, stumbling on her words, trying to gauge just how angry Alec was becoming.
Alec sighed. Despite his anger, he had to admit there was a level of truth to her words. Somehow he managed to fumble every relationship he’d ever had since his first date.
“It’s not like we’re talking bad about you,” she said. “We love you and all that crap.”
“Good to know,” Alec responded stonily.
Lucy rolled her eyes. “So about this friend.”
“Forget it,” Alec stood, realizing that—surprisingly—his headache was not worse, but gone. And that he was angry. Sure, Lucy and Celeste’s meddling was annoying, but it didn’t fully explain the anger he felt bubbling under his skin, like when something in the background has annoyed you for hours—and suddenly, you explode.
“I think you two will hit it off,” Lucy added, smiling up at Alec. “You got a lot in common, like, you know, you both like to talk and hike and camp and—”
“A sportive guy, Lucy, just what I need.”
“No, not sportive. Earthy. And beautiful,” Lucy said, clasping her hands together, turning her face dramatically toward the heavens, “I mean beau-ti-ful.”
“Then why don’t you date your friend?”
Lucy smiled brightly. “Believe me, if I could, I would.”
Alec studied his sister’s face for a moment. “I bet Rene loves that.”
“Not really. He’s a bit jealous.”
Alec stopped walking and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not interested in meeting your friend. Give it a rest.”
Lucy nodded, looking defeated, but from the tone in her voice, Alec knew it wasn’t over. “Okay. I won’t fix you guys up.”
Walking away, Alec stopped short of saying thank you. He wasn’t sure there was a reason.
Ilene Rune dropped her knees onto the soggy ground and steadied her camera as she prepared to snap a photo. Through the lens, she studied the composition, balancing the image with her keen eye. Winter’s frosty feet had already danced across the countryside, leaving mottled footprints of browns and grays. Driving through the countryside, she had spotted a bright red combine idled, possibly for winter. The contrast of the red against the barren field and stricken trees at the edge of the farm was magnificent. She snapped the shot then snapped it twice more with the aperture at different settings.
She rested back in the seat of the car and breathed the spring air. March was such a harsh month. She often had a hard time finding the beauty in the world when the light came so directly from the north and was filtered so heavily by a shroud of clouds. Her heart felt heavy and dark.
March. Is that all?
Ilene knew the lack of light was not the source of her dread and ennui. But she knew the real reason March maligned her: it was twenty-one years ago this month that she had considered killing her twin sons. Twenty-one years already? How time flew. And now? She and Jason were facing such difficulties. Again.
They were planning a trip to mark the re-awakening of their relationship—and the personal triumph of a gallery opening of her photography in New York. The trip, as Jason put it, would be the re-birth of their love. He recalled March fondly, thinking it was the time that they had learned to love and trust one another again. Ilene turned the car on and looked at the road cutting a straight, unbroken line into the gray landscape.
Men’s hearts were simple. They beat and moved and spoke little but hid little and felt little pain for their indecision. But women’s hearts were scarred and pot marked with a life of longing and aching and schisms between what they wanted to be and were expected to be. Freedom was a sharp dagger that cut a woman’s heart from the inside.
If he only knew the truth and darkness that twisted in my heart, he wouldn’t care to rekindle any love he may have ever felt for me. Ilene felt the dull pang of regret in her chest, knowing that dull daggers cut for the longest time.
* * * *
Alec walked through the front door of Lucy and Rene’s third-floor apartment. Alec loved the open feel of their apartment—the ceilings opened to the roof peak, and skylights offered sunlight down into the room even on cloudy days. Rough-hewn wooden beams crossed the ceiling from wall to wall, where the wall met the roofline, affording the apartment an industrial chic look.
Celeste and Lucy sat on the couch. Alec felt a certain apprehension as he entered the room and Celeste and Lucy looked up (and it almost seemed planned to Alec) smiling in a too friendly manner. “Where’s Adam?” Celeste said.
“On his way,” Alec said and squatted on the floor next to Sam and Rene. “‘Sup?”
They both nodded. “Just chilling right now,” Rene said, and they bumped fists.
“Sandman,” Sam added. “Lucy was just telling us about her master’s thesis on semiotics.” Sam flashed him a “save us” look.
Alec stifled a smirk. “My sister loves anthropology.”
“And languages,” Lucy corrected.
“Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but I invited my friend to join us,” Celeste said.
Alec felt the muscles in his back go rigid. “Look, guys, we talked about this. I don’t—”
Sam cut in, “Jared’s cool.”
A quizzical look crossed Rene’s face as he watched the exchange, then he shrugged as his eyes met Alec’s.
Alec heard footsteps on the stairs outside. “That’s Adam coming. I’ll give him a hand.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Rene said.
“He’s got fucking bat ears, man,” Sam said.
Alec crossed the long living room to the front door. “Need a hand, Adam?” He asked as he yanked the door open. A young man, about his own age, (maybe a little older, Alec thought) stood at the door with his hand raised, about to knock. A plain white V-neck tee shirt hugged his torso, and Alec could see sprouts of chest hair in the V. Black rimmed glasses framed his eyes and his glossy dark hair was parted on the side and slicked back. His scruffy beard added an air of carelessness to an otherwise polished look.
His eyes met Alec’s and his face brightened with a warm smile that made his green eyes sparkle. “Knock, knock,” he said.
Alec leaned out the door, “I was expecting my brother.”
“Jared,” the young man said, extending his hand.
Alec shook it. “Nice to meet you.” Alec turned his head, quickly shooting a narrow-eyed glance at Lucy and Celeste. They both blinked innocently. He turned back to Jared. “Celeste said you were coming.”
“Ah, she warned you.”
“Did I need warning?”
Jared gave another easy smile. “Perhaps.”
Alec began to speak, but Adam pulled in, rolling his car window down as he did. “Got bags, bitches, let’s give me some help.”
“How are you two places at once?” Jared asked.
“I guessed,” he put his hand on Alec’s shoulder as he brushed past. “Did he call us bitches?”
“It’s my brother’s way of showing affection.”
Following Alec, Jared asked, “This makes it better?”
Adam had parked the car and was unloading beer and bags of groceries. “Got snacks—pretzels, crackers, and chips. And hey, Alec, before you ask—yeah, I got you some hummus. Who’s your friend?”
“Not my friend,” Alec said with a snicker. “Adam this is Jared. Celeste’s friend.”
Jared nodded. “Good to meet ya.”
“Same. Here’s a bag.” Adam plopped a 24-pack of beer on one shoulder and handed another to Alec. “They start without me?”
“Nah. Just chatting right now. Come on, Jared.”
Jared followed them into Lucy and Rene’s apartment. “Beer,” Adam yelled, leading the charge.
Rene stood to greet Adam heartily. “Adam Bomb, how’s it hangin’?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” At this, Lucy and Celeste winced. Alec shook his head slightly.
“Crude, bro,” Rene said.
Adam smiled and lowered the 24 case of beer to the floor. He ripped the flap open, grabbed a beer, shook it fiercely, and tossed it to Rene.
“Asshole,” Rene muttered, tapping the top of the can.
Jared hovered by the door, watching the interaction of the group with little emotion on his face and the bag of snacks still in his hands. Celeste noticed his hesitance and waved him over. “Jared, come on in,” she called. She patted the seat next to her.
“Hey, everybody,” Jared said somewhat under his breath as he entered. He crossed through the room, past Adam, who was slurping down a beer, Rene who was still tapping the top of his to bring down the foam, Sam, who nodded his hello and gave a cheery smile, and Alec who stood just behind his brother, arms folded across his chest. As he sat, Jared whispered to Celeste, “Don’t like outsiders much, do they?” He set the grocery bag on the floor.
“They’re just being cool and stoic.”
“Feel like I’m in Children of the Corn 10: Machismo Harvest.”
Celeste guffawed and leaned against Jared, “Oh, I love you.”
“Outlanders must prove themselves worthy of brotherhood,” Jared continued in a mechanical, nasally voice. “Must chug beer and beat chest.”
Giggling, Lucy leaned over and hugged Jared. “Good to see you.”
“Hey, toss me a beer,” Jared said in the same breath, dropping his voice to its normal tenor. Alec was retrieving himself a beer, so he pulled it out and tossed it underhand to Jared, who caught it in one hand. “Thanks.”
“So where’s the fucking music?” Adam blurted out. “And none of that boy band shit.”
“Get off it, Adam,” Lucy called, standing and walking toward the iPod. “I’ll play what I want.”
“Just don’t make it crap, huh?”
Lucy ignored him as she scrolled through playlists. She considered playing something just to piss off Adam, like Shania Twain. She decided on Carol King. Who could object to that? She thought.
“I’m gonna get the snacks together,” Alec said.
“Want help?” Jared asked.
Alec nodded toward him. “Grab the bag.”
Jared tossed a look behind him to the bag he had carried in and gave a mirthless laugh. He snagged the bag from the floor. In the kitchen, Alec pulled bowls from the cupboard. “So how do you know Celeste and Lucy?”
“I met your sister through Celeste. These?”—Jared said, holding up potato chips—“Celeste and I had a class together and hit it off.” He tore the bag open as he talked and poured chips into the bowl. “Actually, she took a class of mine a couple of semesters ago.”
“You’re a professor?”
“I’m getting my Ph.D. In psychology. Technically, I was her TA. Got anything besides beer? I’m not much of a beer drinker.”
Alec smiled, a warm, friendly smile. “Neither am I. I keep a stash of Stoli.”
“Sounds great. What do you mix with it?”
“Cranberry juice, club soda, you know, whatever.”
“Cool,” Jared said, leaning against the counter. He absently fiddled with a chip before eating it. “Want me to get the glasses?”
“Sure, they’re in the cupboard to your left,” Alec said, nodding. Alec walked across the small kitchen to retrieve the vodka stashed in the freezer. He returned with the vodka bottle and an ice cube tray. The ice cubes clinked in the glass as he dropped them. Alec grabbed the bottle and poured it into the glasses.
“No shot glass?”
“I can eyeball it.”
Jared simply nodded. “So you’re not the friendly sort, are ya?”
“Already psycho-whatevering me?” Alec stopped pouring and looked Jared in the eyes, a coy smile parting his lips. “How friendly do you want me to be?”
Jared picked up his glass and swished the ice around. “Ask again after I drink this.” He turned his back to Alec and left the room.
Jason Rune turned off his monitor and looked at a stack of case files on his desk. He admitted to himself that he was a bit of a workaholic, but it afforded them a comfortable life. His position required late work nights as well as social appearances, mostly benefits, cocktail parties, golf outings. Ilene usually accompanied him (though she detested golf), and she schmoozed the wives while he worked the husbands. In the last few weeks she had become more guarded, less agile in conversation, almost absent.
Something had changed.
Jason had no idea what exactly was causing the change in Ilene, but he blamed his late hours at the office. This had happened in their relationship in the past, before the boys were born, and he wasn’t about to let work undermine his marriage again. He left his office just before five.
Ilene said she’d be gone most of the day, taking photos for a project she was working on. He knew the boys were out for the evening, so he planned to transform the house into a pleasure palace for the two of them. He set the timer on the hot tub to warm for them, he chilled champagne, and he arranged to pick up prepared fondue from a restaurant on his way home from work.
Jason Rune was determined to make the evening one of poetic reminiscence. I love that woman no matter what, he thought. Jason felt the instant warm calm that he felt whenever he intently thought of Ilene; the feeling had never changed in twenty-five years of marriage. Smiling, he glanced around the house. He was ready.
* * * *
Steam rose from her coffee in small wisps as Ilene stared out the window and across the street at the sign for a “Spiritual healing clinic.” The idea made her smile. Often, she felt like her soul needed healing, cleansing, but not that any other person could do it for her. Redemption was something you had to earn yourself. She looked away and down at her watch.
Geraldine, her mother, had just stepped to the counter to refill her coffee cup, but they already had been sitting at the coffeehouse longer than she realized. She’d need to leave for home soon. Jason had made an offhand comment about coming home early, and she was sure he was up to something. Geraldine returned.
“Saw you looking at your watch, dear.”
“I’m not in too big of a hurry, Mom.”
Geraldine nodded as she sat. “You have plans with Jason?”
Ilene hated it when her mother did that—just knew what was going on. And the way she stressed words sometimes, as if she knew all about anything that was happening, any argument, any indiscretion. She’d been hell to live with, especially as a teenager. Growing up in the seventies, Ilene had her share of fun, a few drugs—nothing major—some late nights, but her mother always knew. It was maddening. “How do you do that?”
“Call it Mother’s intuition.”
Ilene sneered. “I don’t have it.”
A gently sweeping smile swooped across Geraldine’s face, bright, like a happy jack-o-lantern. “Sure you do. You just use it differently.”
Ilene sipped her coffee, ruminating. “I hope you’re wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
Again the tone. It had changed, chilling the room. Something in her mother’s voice, the inflection, alerted Ilene that Geraldine knew exactly what she meant. “Something feels wrong, just wrong.”
“Then you feel it, too.”
Ilene straightened in her chair. “I should go.”
Geraldine grabbed her hand lightly. “Let’s talk about this later, please.”
“Later, Mom, sure,” Ilene agreed and strode toward the door.
Watching her go, Geraldine felt the same somber note, like a slow chord on a violin, ache within her. Someone bad is coming into our family. Someone very bad.
In Alec’s opinion, the game of spoons was a skillful balance of timing and agility. Don’t focus too much on the cards, Alec warned himself. Alec watched as cards whizzed by him. Everyone sat in a circle with spoons set in the center. Cards were passed player to player as long as they were unwanted. Adam dealt the cards and was tossing cards at Celeste frenetically. She couldn’t keep up, and cards were piled between them. Alec had three fives and was waiting for the fourth—the only thing from keeping him from grabbing a spoon from the center. He glanced to the center of the floor where the spoons were placed; all six were still there.
More cards flew past him, coming from Rene who was next to Celeste. “Hurry up, Celeste,” Rene said with a light-hearted urgency.
“Sorry. I can’t keep up with Speed Racer over here.”
“Vroom…” Adam sneered without looking.
One more card… Alec thought. He passed cards to Lucy. He glanced to the center. Only one spoon remained. His hand clutched the handle just as Jared’s grabbed the round end. They both tugged, leaned toward the center, their bodies prone. “Let go,” Alec snarled.
“Not a chance.”
Each pulled, tugging the other forward in small increments. “Go Alec,” Sam said.
“Go, Jared,” Lucy cheered.
“Traitor,” Alec hissed, tugging.
“You have friends here, so I have to be nicer to him.”
“Thanks?” Jared gritted, and added to Alec, “Drop it.”
Alec gave a hearty tug, pulling Jared across the floor. Jared jerked back, and Alec could feel the metal slither through his palm, digging, burning. “That hurts.”
Alec twisted his arm and tugged, and suddenly felt himself tumbling backward as Jared tumbled into the coffee table. “Alright,” Alec yelled.
But Jared was cheering, too.
They looked into their palms and saw that they each had a severed end of the spoon. “I guess they both get a letter,” Celeste offered.
“This calls for booze,” Rene said.
“I can’t believe you broke my sister’s spoon,” Alec said.
“I said ‘let go,’” Jared grinned.
The faint scent of humidity and chlorine alerted Ilene that the hot tub was cranked up and was bubbling maddeningly. She pushed the front door closed behind her and dropped her purse to the floor. Ilene tugged her coat off and hung it in the hall closet. A smile slipped across her face and she looked down at rose petals on the floor. She kneeled. Her fingers rubbed across the petals, and she lifted her fingers to her nostrils to take in the muted scent.
Ilene stood and followed the trail of petals down the hall and around the corner into the kitchen. A spread of paté, chutney, and crackers was on the table. A chuckle escaped her mouth. She dug a cracker into the pate and slipped it into her mouth as she continued on her quest.
Many years ago—twenty-seven?—Jason had designed a similar rose-petal trail for her. At the end waited an engagement ring. Ilene walked from the kitchen into the dining room, passing a mirror. She paused to study her reflection. Had that much of her life passed by? When? Raising children? Fighting with Jason, making up? And waiting? Waiting for…Ilene shook her head and cast her eyes back to the trail of rose petals.
The trail led from the dining room back into the living room. The petals arced around the room and back toward the front hall. Ilene wasn’t sure why Jason had her walking in a circle, but followed. Where the living room joined the main hall, just in front of the main stairwell, the trail turned up the stairs. The trail was not there when she entered the house. “Jason, I’m catching up with you,” she called.
She ascended the stairs, loosening the top button of her shirt. She had the sudden urge to make love to her husband, an urge she seldom felt overwhelmed by. Sure, occasionally, she asked for and enjoyed his touch, but so infrequently she was consumed with passion and desire to feel his body against hers. Her pace quickened as she mounted the stairs.
At the summit, the trail led toward their bedroom. Ilene felt her breath catch in her throat as she pushed the door open. Jason had strewn his clothes across the room in a haphazard, hurried, manner. His tie was draped across the bed, his shirt on the floor with his socks. His pants and jacket had been tossed on the bed. She followed the trail toward the master bath.
Plumes of steam poured from the door as she pushed it open. His boxers were cast near the hot tub. “Hello, Mrs. Rune. Care to join me?”
She tilted her head coyly, and rolled her shoulders. “Maybe.” She unbuttoned two more buttons on her blouse. She sat on the edge of the hot tub and dipped her fingers into the bubbling water. She pulled her fingers away. “Ooh, maybe it’s too hot,” she cooed.
“For you?” He chuckled.
Ilene slipped her blouse off her arms and dropped it to the floor. She unfastened her skirt and let it fall to the floor at her feet. She kicked it off. With one leg stretched along the edge of the tub, she rolled her nylons down. Jason eyed her hungrily. He shifted in the tub. Undressed, she slid into the water and moved her body next to his.
Jason looked down at her, pulled her close to him, and breathed across her cheek. His kiss was soft and sweet. He was a good man. How could she not love him with all her heart?
Ilene wrapped her arms around his neck, trailing kisses along his wet skin. His body was still so taught and lean, and felt so firm against her. “Make love to me,” she murmured.
Jason caught her face between her hands, letting his eyes stare into hers. He leaned in, placing soft, small kisses on her lips, then he kissed her deeper. He lifted her up onto him. Ilene sighed with satisfaction and the water began to slosh from the tub and dribble onto the floor.
“Jared, do your block trick,” Celeste interrupted suddenly, not waiting for a break in conversation.
Jared, who wasn’t in the conversation but was listening a little shyly, turned his eyes to her. “I didn’t bring my block,” he said with a shrug that indicated the trick wouldn’t happen.
“Yes, but I brought mine,” Celeste said. She turned to face the others, who were now listening. “He used this example in my psychology class—and it’s really…clarifying.” She looked back at him over her shoulder. “He’s a very good instructor.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Since you have a block, this feels premeditated.”
“Would I do that?” Celeste dug in her bag sitting on the floor next to her and wrapped her hands around something that she then handed to Jared, keeping it concealed.
“So, is this like magic?” Adam asked.
“More like perception,” Jared said. He stood, his shyness seeming to fall away as he took on instructor mode. He moved so that he was in front of everyone, and they were all facing him. He lifted one hand, and he held a red cube between his thumb and index finger. “What do you see?”
“A red square,” Rene said.
“Nope, it’s a red cube,” Sam said, elbowing Rene.
“Very good,” Jared said. “It is in fact a cube, not a square. Seeing just one side might make you think it’s a square, because you’re only seeing that one side.” Jared twisted the cube in his hand, turning another side to the front. The side facing them was green. “Now what do you see?”
“A green cube,” Rene said, knocking Sam with his knee.
“But what happened to the red cube?” Jared asked. “Celeste, you stay quiet.”
Celeste ran her fingers along her lips like a zipper.
“The red cube’s still there,” Alec said. “But now we know we only got to see one side of it. We thought it was a red cube, but it wasn’t.” Alec smiled. “It never was a red cube.”
“What’s the point?” Adam asked.
“This cube’s like the human personality,” Jared explained. “We see one side, and we think we know who a person is. But we have to see their other sides, how they act in other situations, to know what we really have.”
“I work with this guy,” Rene said, “And he’s really fun outside work—I’m talking about James,” he said, turning to Lucy who nodded knowingly, “But at work, he’s all business. Doesn’t crack a joke or anything. I thought he was dull until we hung out once after work.”
“That’s a great example,” Jared said.
“Teacher’s pet,” Adam butted in, nudging Rene, who returned the playful shoulder nudge.
Jared continued, “Our personalities are multi-faceted, and we let one side show through more in certain situations.”
“See! Isn’t he a great teacher?” Celeste asked, practically glowing.
“That was cool enough,” Adam said. “Let’s have more beer!” The socializing broke back into various conversations.
“Where do I smoke?” Jared asked, lifting up a pack of cigarettes.
“Outside, buddy,” Rene responded gruffly.
“Sorry, house rules,” Lucy said, scrunching her face apologetically.
“No problem,” he said, standing with his drink. “It’s a terrible habit.”
“I’ll go with you,” Alec said and followed carrying his drink.
“You don’t smo—ow,” Rene said, as Lucy kicked him. He turned to her and whispered, “What?”
“Just shut up, okay?”
Jared held the door open as Alec followed him outside. Mild night air drifted past his cheeks. The air was still and not too damp. Jared took a seat on the steps. Alec set his glass on the landing and sat next to Jared. “Want one?” Jared offered as he climbed onto the stoop.
“Don’t smoke?” Jared asked with a smile. He lit his cigarette, and the flame flared, making his eyes gleam.
Alec felt his face redden, unsure why. “I just thought—”
Jared brushed Alec’s chest with the back of his hand. “I’m glad for the company.”
“So, you said you’re getting your Pd.D. And you teach?”
“Just a couple classes while I get my Ph.D. I’m basically an indentured servant to the university,” Jared said, exhaling a cloud into the night. Alec watched the smoke fade into the cool air.
An intrigued, happy note entered Alec’s voice. “How old are you?”
“I dunno, just because I want to know.” Alec picked up his drink, sipped it.
Jared looked at his own drink then took a swig. “You didn’t ask?”
“Huh? I just asked,” Alec replied.
“No,” Jared said, exhaling smoke. “You didn’t re-ask your question.”
Alec’s posture stiffened in concentration then eased in realization. “Oh.” He smiled and looked down at his feet. “I was just playin’ with ya, man.”
“Nothing,” Jared said coolly. “Just hmm.”
Alec leaned his back against the step, resting his elbows on the step above the one he was sitting on. “I dunno if I like you.”
“Oh, you like me.” Jared stubbed out his cigarette. “How could you not?” He looked into Alec’s eyes for a moment, his face soft and reassuring. “You’re just not sure if you want to show me another side to your cube just yet.” Standing, he smiled. “Come on, little boy, before you catch cold.” He extended his hand to Alec.
Alec took his hand and stood. “Little boy. That means you’re much older than me.”
“Give me your number. Let’s hang out again, and maybe I’ll tell you.”
If Darius Lamb told a stranger that he was thirty-five, that stranger would never be able to guess that Darius was actually much older. His sharp eyes, dark hair untouched by gray, firm jaw, and fit body all spoke of a man years younger than he really was. Standing on the sidewalk outside a café, sipping a latte on a downtown street, he glanced at his reflection in the café window, noting that his skin had but a few fine wrinkles around the eyes.
He looked around at the few straggling members of the lunch crowd. His eyes shifted from passing face to passing face, these people feeling special…average people, leading average lives, living in average homes in average suburbs. Their lives were so completely mundane he just wanted to rip them apart like a packet of sugar.
He glanced at his watch and took another quick sip of his coffee. Generally, Darius felt unconstrained by time; it was on his side. But in the coming weeks he had a specific mission; time was of the essence. He glanced again at the bovine faces of the passersby; they had no idea just how close they were to rotting like a long abandoned building. Once Darius finished his mission, all the people of all the cities of all the world would be hollow, stinking shells, like old warehouses.
His footsteps echoed off the pavement and mingled with the clatter of cars and roadwork as he hurried down the street.
* * * *
Sun beating down through the leafless trees fueled an unseasonably warm day. Alec was grateful for a break from the clouds, but enjoying weather so warm in March always came with a twinge of guilt, as if he were enjoying global warming. Alec looked around the park, pretty sure he was where Jared had texted to meet to play Frisbee.
A few minutes later, Alec saw Jared crossing the grass toward him, wearing a backpack. “Warm today,” Jared said. He was wearing a concert tee shirt and print shorts and tennis shoes.
“I know, right,” Alec said. “So, are we doing Frisbee golf or just Frisbee.”
“I didn’t bring discs, just a Frisbee,” Jared said, pulling the Frisbee from his backpack. “Go back,” he said, waving Alec away.
Alec ran backward away from him and watched as Jared launched the Frisbee. It arched in the air and turned toward him. Alec ran and leaped in the air, catching the Frisbee, and then whipped it back before he landed. He watched as Jared darted for it, and making a flying catch, whipped it back without missing a beat. They played for a while, unsuccessfully trying to make the other drop the Frisbee or miss a catch.
Jared made a catch, then stopped and leaned over, his hands on his knees, breathing hard. “I can’t believe how hot it is,” he called.
“I know,” Alec called to him. He watched as Jared peeled his sweat-damp shirt off. Dark hair covered his muscular chest and trailed down to his stomach, disappearing into the line of his shorts. Sweat glistened on his skin. Alec turned his head away and looked at the trees briefly, to break his stare.
Jared tucked his shirt into the edge of his shorts, and without warning, whipped the Frisbee at Alec. Alec launched into the air and snagged the Frisbee. “No fair,” he said, though he caught it.
“Gotta stay on your game, Rune,” Jared called.
Alec whipped the Frisbee back. “You, too—Hey! I don’t know your last name!”
“Kincaid,” Jared yelled, catching the Frisbee. “I need a drink. Want one?”
“You bet,” Alec called, walking toward Jared.
Jared dug in the backpack and pulled out two bottles of water. He tossed one to Alec and opened the other, draining it in one gulp. Alec slugged his water down. “I’m beat,” Alec said. He plopped onto the grass near Jared.
“Me, too,” Jared said. “But it’s been fun.” He sat in the grass, his hands dangling between his knees.
Alec stole a closer look at Jared, noticing five thin, pale scars crossing his side. “What happened?” He asked, nodding toward the scars.
Jared pulled on his shirt self-consciously. “Oh, it was an accident,” Jared mumbled.
Alec immediately felt like as ass. “I didn’t mean to make you feel self-conscious. They’re not that noticeable. I mean, you look fine with your shirt off.”
Jared straightened his shirt and smiled. “So you like how I look with my shirt off.”
Alec blushed. “I, uh,” he stammered.
“I think it’s really cute that you get embarrassed so easily.”
Jared was silent for a moment, looking at the grass, still mostly brown from winter. “My parents and two younger sisters were killed. But I survived. That’s what the scars are from.”
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
Jared smiled. “It’s okay. You didn’t know.”
“I don’t always think. I just say what pops in my head.”
“I think too much, sometimes.”
“Maybe we can balance each other out,” Alec said.
Jared leaned back, resting his elbows in the grass. A slow, sexy smile slid across his face. “That sounds like it could be pleasurable.”
* * * *
The mild day filled the park with parents and children, couples holding hands, joggers. Darius Lamb sat in the parking lot in his black, 1988 Chevrolet Impala, letting the sun through the windshield warm his hands. The side window was rolled down, and the sounds of laughter carried to him. A playground nearby was dotted with screaming children running back and forth, but he paid little attention.
His eyes trained on two young men in the distance sitting in the grass, talking. Jared found Alec, just like Darius knew he would. Darius and the others expected it—wanted it—but no matter what Jared tried, he could do nothing to save Alec from suffering the same fate he had. The pendulum was already swinging; time was running out for Alec and his family.
“You can’t change who you are, little boys,” Darius said aloud. He cast his eyes to the playground and two anxious mothers looking in his direction. He started the car and backed out. He kept his eyes on Jared and Alec as he drove away. “See you soon, Alec,” he said and laughed.
Twenty-one-year-old Alec Rune is annoyed when his older sister, Lucy, ambushes him with a blind date with her friend, Jared. But Alec is immediately attracted to the intriguing, intelligent young man.
But the past has claws…
Ilene Rune nearly collapses when she meets her son’s new boyfriend. His black hair and startling green eyes are the same as a man she knew years ago—an evil, violent man with strange powers.
The present has teeth…
Investigating a string of missing persons cases leads Detective Carmen Salazar into the dark world of fairy tales and fantasy—and shakes her belief in what is possible or imagined.
And the future is filled with blood…
Alec awakes from a coma with no recollection of the night his twin brother was torn to pieces. As a madman closes in on him and his family, can Alec learn the werewolves’ plan before his entire family is destroyed?