CHAPTER THREE - DETOUR
“You’ve still got shit on your face.” Scott glanced over at Ethan from the driver’s side of his grandfather’s old Buick as he drove down the street – or floated as the Buick was more a boat than a car.
“I do? Damn.”
Ethan tipped down the sun visor to look at himself in the mirror. His black hair stuck up in all directions despite his attempts to tame it with a comb before they left the apartment building. His hair always managed to look windblown. His large green eyes had a slightly more silverish sheen today, which caused a momentary unease to run through him. Like Mom’s. He didn’t look much like her in other ways. He had a straight nose, expressive mouth, and high-cheekbones. The “shit” that Scott had referred to was a streak of black on his nose that managed to also smear up along his right cheek. Ethan found some old napkins in the stuffed dash and tried scrubbing his face with them.
“Does he have to leave his pee kits in the car? I swear to God that old man does this on purpose to literally piss me off,” Scott growled as he kicked a white container away from the floorboards. It lodged beneath the driver’s seat.
“Is Grandpa Joe having more tests done? He’s not really sick is he?”
“Hell, no. He just likes going to the doctor. He says it give his day ‘structure’. That and he likes the nurses. Says there’s a cute one named Bambi.” Scott shook his head.
“He’s a one man Casanova.” Ethan laughed. “First Leticia and now Bambi.”
“Leticia is his long-term love plan while Bambi is eye candy. Grandpa Joe has levels of love interests,” Scott said with mock solemnity. His tone changed as he said, “Oh, this doesn’t look good,”
Ethan felt Scott braking so he flipped the visor back up to see out the Buick’s large windshield. What he did see was surprising. There were sawhorses and a flagger sending cars away from the one road that led to the high school. The school itself was on the edge of Winter Haven, which always made Ethan slightly uneasy despite what he tried to tell himself was his mother’s insanity that he couldn’t leave town.
“What’s going on?” Ethan asked, frowning.
Scott slowed down by the flagger and rolled his window down. “Hey, we need to get to the high school. Where are you sending us?”
The flagger was a woman in her forties with deep crow’s feet and a weary smile as she leaned. “They had a truck jack-knifed up ahead. It was carrying gravel. The whole road is covered. The detour will take you just a little ways out of town and then circle you back.”
“Out of town?” Scott’s voice rose and his eyes flickered over to Ethan.
Ethan couldn’t speak as his lips were suddenly numb. It was like fate was against him that day. Was he really going to be tested like this all at once? The party swam up in his mind like some Mt. Everest and now this?
Don’t freak out. There’s no reason to freak out. And if I do freak out, it will just prove Scott’s point that I’m a mess and I can’t be a mess. I can’t be my mother.
Horn were already honking behind Scott as the rolled the Buick’s window back up. He hit the gas and they were sent on a curving road that cut through the woods and led out of town.
“E, are you going to be okay with this?” Scott’s gaze slid over to him and then back to the road.
“S—sure. We’re just going less than half a mile out of town and back again. It’ll take like five minutes?”
“Maybe ten or so with this traffic,” Scott said. Again, his eyes darted over to Ethan and away.
“Right. Ten minutes.”
Ethan’s hands went to the strap of his seatbelt. His hands were trembling and he hoped to still them by holding onto something. He turned his gaze to the woods around them. The evergreens were still vibrantly bright even as the other trees were bare of leaves as winter had already set in. There were patches of squashy snow beneath the trees.
“You sure you’re all right?” Scott confirmed.
“There’s not exactly anything you can do if I’m not.”
“I can turn around.”
Turn around? Yeah, that sounds great. But if I make Scott do this then I really am like my mother. I mean what could happen if I leave Winter Haven? Are monsters going to come get me? Ridiculous.
Ethan stiffened as he saw the sign up ahead on the right hand side of the road that told them they were about to leave Winter Haven. The sign was hundred feet away then seventy-five then fifty then twenty-five. Ethan’s heart rate rose in parallel. His palms were slick with sweat and he trembled. He swore he could feel Alric’s waning influence as the Buick ate up each foot of road.
That’s insane. Totally, utterly crazy. Nothing’s going to happen. Nothing at all. But Ethan’s shaking got worse and nausea clenched his stomach. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
Fifteen feet from the sign, Ethan screamed, “STOP! STOP THE CAR!”
Scott let out a shout of surprise. He slammed on the brakes and the large car’s back end fish tailed even as Scott aimed for the shoulder of the road. The nose of the Buick stopped one foot from the wooden sign marking the edge of Winter Haven. The wail of angry car horns flew past them. Neither boy spoke for some time.
Ethan unclipped his seatbelt. I’m like my mother. Just like her. Just as crazy.
“E?” Scott reached across the car to touch Ethan’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Ethan mumbled. His heart was still thudding heavily in his chest still. His limbs felt weak.
Still in Alric’s land. Still inside. Safe.
“Are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.” Scott’s face was drawn as well.
Ethan pulled the door’s lock button up. “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.”
“Hey, hey, where are you going?” Scott tried to grab hold of Ethan’s jacket.
“I’m going to walk,” Ethan said. “Through the woods. I’ll meet up with you where the road curves back into town.”
“Wait! Wait! We’ve got to talk about this, Ethan!” Scott scrabbled after him but Ethan was already out of the car.
“There’s nothing to talk about, Scott. I’m crazy. Just like my mother.”
He shut the door, cutting off Scott’s dissent, and ran into the two miles of woods that separated this length of the road from the other where he’d meet up Scott again.
Or maybe I’ll just stay here all day. The way things are going it might be better if I never see another person again.
As soon as the trees surrounded him and the sounds of the road died away, Ethan felt the familiar calmness flow over him. Whenever he was in the woods, he was at peace. He drew in deep draughts of pine-scented air. Snow and freshness.
I’m like her. I’m like my mom.
Ethan scrubbed his hands through his short black hair making it stick up even more in all directions as he walked. He listened to the crunch of the snow beneath his feet and the twitter of the few remaining birds that stayed through winter as if they couldn’t bear to leave Alric’s lawns.
I didn’t think – I didn’t want to think I was. But I am. Why did Scott have to show me this? Hold up a big mirror and … there I am. The crazy boy with the crazy mother.
He wrapped his arms around himself. The cold never truly bothered him though he loved the heat. He always drew himself as close to possible to fires. But he could bear frigidity. He was hugging himself more to hold at bay the sense of self-loathing that threatened to overcome him. He felt the terrible burning hunger in him rise higher at that moment. He dug his fingernails into the soft flesh of his hands.
Will I die like her, too? Becoming an empty husk on a thin mattress in a dump? Then buried out back in filthy soil that won’t grow anything?
He shuddered and his legs trembled. He reached for one of the tree trunks to rest against for a moment. The bark of the trees looked almost black against the pale blue of the sky. While he loved summer’s profusion of leaves and green, the stark landscape of the woods in winter was just as magical for him. He imagined that he felt the tree quiver in its sleep beneath his palm.
“Stay quiet, old friend,” Ethan murmured. His mother had said that the trees could hear them and obey.
Because of our Elven heritage.
Or maybe it was the trees that were in control and not him at all. The longer he touched the powerful trunk and allowed his mind to empty as he studied the intricate bark, the better he felt. He took in a deep steadying breath.
Heart rate back to normal. No longer shaking. Not sweating anymore either. Thank you, old friend. He patted the tree trunk affectionately.
He started walking again. Scott was already going to have to wait for him on the side of the road for quite a while as it was. He shouldn’t dawdle. But he found himself moving slowly through the massive trees. Sunlight streamed down through the branches ahead of him. Every time he stepped into a puddle of the gold light, he imagined that he was drawing strength from it just as the trees did.
He smiled as he heard the burbling of a small stream that had not yet frozen over. There was a dip in the ground ahead of him where the stream passed through. He lightly jumped over it, smelling the clean scent of the water.
He realized as he walked that he still sense the invisible border of Alric’s territory even without the sign to tell him where it ended.
Why do I feel this? Is it real or is it only in my imagination? If people naturally can have a sense of direction, can I have a sense of borders?
The woods he traveled in snaked through Winter Haven, and almost amoeba-like, stretched out feelers in all directions. This particular ‘feeler’ extended for five more miles beyond Winter Haven’s borders. It was rumored that Alric was in negotiations to purchase the land.
Then my world will grow a little more, too. Will I sense the border move the day the ink is dry on the documents? Or only when its announced and my craziness will just incorporate it into my mad view of the world?
Ethan didn’t know the answer to that. He wasn’t sure which frightened him more. For if he somehow knew the moment Alric’s lands increased without being told that meant there was something to his mother’s madness. On the other hand, if he didn’t know then he was just mad.
Not much of a choice there.
Alric was said to ride through these woods on his horse daily. Ethan though had only seen a few photographs of Alric upon his white steed, Teufel, in one of the horsey lifestyle magazines. Ethan remembered in one interview that Alric had explained that ‘Teufel’ meant ‘demon’ in German, but he hadn’t named the animal that because he was bad or evil in any way. Quite the contrary. The name came from the horse’s swiftness and fiery, protective nature.
Alric was dressed so beautifully in the magazine’s photographs. Ethan had trailed his fingers over the photographs, relishing the man’s long legs encased in form-fitting black breeches. He wore a crimson shirt beneath an long-tailed black coat with intricate silver thread embroidery. After that article, the riders of Winter Haven had sought in vain for that particular coat, according to the fashion blogs, but it was one of a kind, sewn by Nyssandra. She only sewed for her brother. Tailors who tried to recreate that coat for their clients were not as successful.
It’s not the tailor’s fault. It’s the wearer’s. No one is built quite like Alric. Over six feet tall with narrow hips, powerful thighs and chest. Perfectly formed arms and face. And that hair like a silk waterfall. And the way he moves with grace and surety makes him even more beautiful.
Who could blame Ethan for falling a little bit in love? Or even a lot? Gossip showed Alric squiring around town the most beautiful women and men. Speculation ran rampant if he was ever seen with the same person more than twice. Ethan’s heart would pound acidly in his chest when he saw Alric conveying some beautiful woman on his arm through the crowd to the opera or sitting across from a gorgeous man in one of the hottest restaurants. He couldn’t compete with these people with his odd face, his ratty hair and his too thin body hidden in secondhand clothes. Yet still he felt jealousy as if Alric was in some ways his already.
Sometimes, in his dreams, he imagined that he was riding with Alric in these woods. His arms would be snugged around the older man’s trim waist. Alric’s muscular, warm body would be a comforting and arousing presence against him. Ethan would rest his ear against Alric’s back and would listen to the man’s heart over the sound of hoof beats.
Ethan eyes would be half shut as they rode over the snow-covered ground. He would see Alric’s black hair streaming above him like a silken black banner. In some of these dreams, Alric would speak, but Ethan wouldn’t be able to understand what he was saying. He’d ask him to repeat what he’d said, but no matter how hard Ethan listened, the words would race past Ethan’s ears uncomprehendingly. He’d wake from those dreams with tears in his eyes and heart thudding. He’d be sick with disappointment with himself as if understanding what Alric said would somehow bring them together.
There is magic in words, his mother had always said. They are powerful.
Just thinking about those dream had Ethan swallowing down a trace of acid.
They aren’t real! They’re just dreams! I’m not meant to hear his words, because they aren’t his. They’re mine … But he didn’t quite believe that.
Ethan had never actually seen Alric in the woods in real life. Once, he thought he’d heard rich, masculine laughter and the rush of horse’s hooves beating fast across the ground right in front of him. His hair had actually stirred as if by an unseen wind of a rider’s. It was almost as if Alric invisibly raced past him.
Mom would have said he wasn’t invisible, but in another Realm that just barely touches ours. Sometimes in the woods, I can almost believe her. His shoulders hunched. Maybe I believe more of what she said than I ever thought I did. Otherwise why can’t I leave Winter Haven?
Even now, he could feel the edge of Winter Haven just fifteen feet off to his right. His steps slowed. He closed his eyes and slowly turned in place towards the border. Whether it was imaginary or impossibly real, he saw the border represented by a green-gold glowing line.
The light of the border flared as his head swung around. The color of it reminded Ethan of new spring shoots. Life waking ever new. If he looked long enough, like he did now, the green-gold flowed from the line backwards towards the center of Winter Haven to Koenig Manor. The line seemed to have a scent like flowers, new grass and fresh earth. The light of the border flared again, but this time Ethan felt like it was a warning, as if something evil was near and trying to gain entrance.
Then the growling began.
Ethan’s eyelids shot open as the hair on the back of his neck stood up on end. His mouth parted and a gasp escaped his lips. Just beyond the border were two wolves. Their fur was black as pitch and their eyes were …
Red. Wolves don’t have red eyes. We don’t have wolves in Winter Haven.
But despite those two facts, two wolves twice the size of German Shepherds were standing fifteen feet away. Their white teeth glinted and their growls grew in intensity. They were staring intently at the ground between them. Ethan’s palms went slick with sweat.
What do they have there? What have they cornered?
Ethan instinctively recognized their predatory stance even though he had only seen wolves on television before. He expected to see a paralyzed bunny or perhaps a wounded bird that was now at their mercy. Ethan let out a low moan when he realized what exactly the wolves had.
A little girl.
Maybe two years old. Still a baby. She had curly blonde hair. She had the plump limbs of an infant. He could see them because the wolves had shredded the arms of her parka. Ethan suddenly imagined how they had gotten this child. They’d waited in the woods near the edge of a parking lot. A parent had been completely unaware of their presence as she was loading groceries into her car when the wolves slunk over and snatched the child by the back of her coat and took off with her before the mother even turned around.
The child let out a cry and his imagined vision of what had brought her to this terrible place vanished. Her chubby cheeks were stained with tears and she let out another high-pitched wail when one of the wolves snapped at her. Ethan straightened up, electric tingles ran down his spine. Saliva dripped from the wolves’ open mouths. Their hot red tongues lolled out. They lowered their heads, preparing to advance on their prey.
They’re going to kill her. They’re going to eat her.
But they were also beyond the border of Winter Haven.
They’ll kill her.
“HEY!” He threw his arms up in the air and yelled, stomping his feet wildly. “HEY! GET AWAY FROM HER! YOU GET AWAY FROM HER!”
Neither the wolves nor the girl looked at him. It was as if he were invisible and silent to them. The wolf to the right took a step towards the little girl. It lips writhed back from its teeth. So white. So sharp. Saliva in long strands just dripped and dripped and dripped. Ethan raced towards them, yelling and waving.
“GET AWAY FROM HER! GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM HER!”
The little girl let out a shrill scream and helplessly brought her hands to her eyes as if she could hide from them by simply not seeing them. He was just five feet away now. But neither the wolves nor the girl reacted to his shouts.
They’re not ignoring me. They don’t see me. They don’t hear me. I’m invisible to all of them.
It was insane, but he closed his eyes. The border line was there, sizzling across the ground. Just six inches in front of him.
It’s a barrier. And they can’t see nor hear nor sniff beyond it. Alric’s grace keeps them out.
He knew that sounded mad. But he also knew that somehow it was true.
I have to get across the barrier.
The wolves were closer now. The baby was snuffling, her nose running, her eyes red with wails. The wolves’ red eyes flared with hunger and he swore that they were enjoying the little girl’s terror.
Fell. Fell Wolves, he swore he heard his mother whisper in his ear. Dangerous. So dangerous, my son. They have learned that feasting on Elven and now human flesh is best.
The wolf on the left snapped its powerful jaws at the little girl. She screamed and curled into a protect ball.
I have to step outside to save her.
Ethan thought he would have had doubts at that moment. He would have thought he would be afraid. Just like he had been when Scott simply threatened to drive him out of town for ten minutes. The girl was going to die unless he did something and that gave Ethan strength and courage he didn’t know he had.
If you go outside, Ethan, you’ll accelerate the change. You could even lose yourself because of it, his mother whispered nonsensically.
If it was the girl or some of his mother’s mad prophesies, he would choose the girl. He wasn’t going to let an innocent die.
That’s what you taught me, Mother. Please understand. I have to do this. Give me the strength to do this.
Ethan grabbed an old tree branch. He hefted it up in his hands.
I love you, my son, he heard his mother whisper. Perhaps this is your way to change your fate. Not to hide from it, but to confront it head on.
Ethan walked out of Winter Haven.