“Boy!” Salem’s voice echoed from the other side of his door, heavy rasping knuckles on wood. “Did you return already?”
Leaping from his bed, Xander rushed for the door only to stop, relief flooding at the twisted lock. “I did,” he replied after a moment, forehead resting on the rough wooden surface.
Salem’s shadow shifted beneath the door’s space, “And did you get what you need?”
Xander licked his lower lip only to wince at the stinging taste of iron. The lie lounged on his tongue, ready to deceive Salem and let him know that he was fine and managed to get the groceries without drawing unwanted attention. But that was far from it.
A choking sound from the back of his throat, words lodged and the drawn out silence was enough of an answer as Salem heaved a sigh. “I’ll get it for you some time this week then.”
Xander nodded then responded realizing Salem couldn’t see him. “Okay.”
“Will you be coming for dinner? Heated up some left over meat pie and squash soup.”
“No,” he paused, eyes on scraped knuckles.
“Alright then.” A pause. The ground seemed to shake as Salem pivoted his wide body, backing away. “Get some rest, we’ve got to be up early tomorrow. Orders for ten more library tables.”
Xander waited for the footsteps to leave, following the heavy trudge on wood, soft crunch of grass, creaky climbing of steps and finally disappearing into his house. He turned away and leaned against the door, firmly banging the back of his head against it.
He had messed up.
The truth itself spread a fog of shame. He had one job; get in, get out, head down. To which he failed at miserably all because of one girl.
Did he regret it, though?
Xander touched his jaw and winced, the dull ache sheeting through bone and cheek, sure enough a bruise would have already formed.
No, he didn’t regret it. Far from it actually.
Elliot. He had finally seen her after so long.
Wild and loud and bursting with caffeinated energy.
He had bookmarked that word in his dictionary.
Attractively lovely and animated.
With a loud sigh he fell face first onto the bed, nails squeaking from the weight intrusion, and sunk deep into the duvet. Face pressed for far too long until all he could hear was the clarity beating of his loud heart. A moment passed before he rolled onto his back and stared at the wooden ceiling.
Suddenly the sight of her brought an onset of multiple emotions he could hardly keep up with. He felt overwhelmed by the confused adoration for the child, his soulmate.
What harm would there be in seeing her?
Xander glanced at the small black digital clock set on a stack of old thick telephone books, yellowed from years of disuse and falling apart-held together by wooden glue.
Would it be too late to visit?
He plucked at his thumb nail contemplatively.
No, he had screwed up more than once. He was lucky enough to walk out alive today, save for few bruises.
What harm would there be in seeing her? Xander coerced the reluctant side of him, one glance was all he needed to survive another year. Just one. It didn’t have to be up close, hell, he could stand fifty kilometres away and still be satisfied.
Mind made up, he got off the bed and grabbed the nearest jacket, one of Salem’s zip up cotton jackets that he had outgrown from years before. He grabbed his keys and red baseball cap, slipping it on Xander silently stepped out of his shed and glanced at the main house searching for signs of life.
The kitchen window was closed, vinyl vertical blinds opened partially letting out light from within. Salem’s silhouette moved across, carrying a plate in one hand, gazette tucked beneath his armpit. Slipping off the deck of his shed, Xander jogged through the small field, glancing over his back every five steps to see if he had somehow spotted him.
The forest’s silhouette seemed larger in the night, caving towards him from the sky as darkness slipped past his shoulders the moment he stepped inside.
The journey to her place of residence was shorter than expected, he cut through small hills crossed a shallow river; boulders set between acting as a bridge. Eventually his steps faltered to a slow walk once sight of the alpha’s roof came into view.
His home sat at the center of the town for security purposes yet considerably far enough for isolation. Fairly large Victorian home with a great backyard. It had been eight years since Xander last saw the place, walls painted fresh and the roof remodeled. What was once an empty space at the back now filled with a large swing set, slack kiddie pool yet to be blown out and herbal garden placed in its own corner.
All the lights had been turned on and faint music played from inside.
It was lively.
Unfamiliar faces fleeting from room to room, sounds of natter and laughter following close by.
It was the alpha’s house after all, parties were a staple. Guests to entertain. Pack members to welcome.
Xander was an introvert by heart and just the sight of the boisterous home wracked him with nervousness.
He stood by a tree, lowering him to sit on the ground, legs crossed and back pressed against the bark.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long as he figure bound down the back steps along with two other children, the same from the grocery store. Charles and Clarissa. The girl seemed to have gotten over their recent feud, now laughing loud trailing behind Elliot whose mouth was stained with chocolate and cake crumbs. Charles too.
Their figures raced for the swing set; Charles jumped on one and Elliot dove for the other, landing belly down on the swing pad. Clary slowed to a stop and glared at them, face reddening almost instantly; “That’s not fair! You guys had a head start!”
“Not true.” Charles stuck his tongue out and began wiggling back and forth, an attempt to get himself moving.
“You’re just really sssllloowww.” Elliot rolled upright and dug her toes into the ground, pushing the swing back before sitting just as it gained momentum and swung forward.
Clary’s eyes watered, lower lip pushed out and wobbling slightly.
Her emotions, it seemed, were short fused.
Charles snickered, “Come push me cry baby.”
“I’m not crying!” She snapped, angry tears shedding.
“Bet I can water mum’s plants with your tears!”
“My dad said if you cry a lot, you’ll probably die drowning.” Elliot spoke as a matter-of-fact, pushing herself harder on the swing set. The wind whipped her short hair back and forth, “That’s how my uncle died.”
She nodded firmly, “In his tears.”
The statement seemed to have stilled Clary’s tears as she rubbed at them viciously. “It’s my turn to swing.”
Charles glanced at Elliot who watched him with the same expression.
“No.” They said at the same time.
“MUM!” Her high pitched shriek had Xander jumping faintly from shock. The power in her lungs left his sensitive eardrums beating, “MUM! MUM! MUM!”
“Stop that Clary!” Charles hissed, Elliot seemed unbothered by the sound and swung higher.
Eventually her screams drew attention from the house as two adult women stepped onto the patio. Xander recognized the women from the convenience store. Mothers to both children.
The blonde cradled her wine glass, wary eyes moving through the backyard and towards the source; her daughter standing in front of the two children. Her alarmed eyes dimmed to expaserated, she sighed. “What now, Clary?”
“They’re refusing to share the swings.”
Elliot was silent, playful eyes on both women, still swinging unbothered. Her mother snapped her fingers, “Elliot!” her hand rose and she began gesturing, quick finger movements that had Xander wondering what she was doing.
With an exasperated sigh, she turned back to her friend and rolled her eyes, “She does that all the time, tries turning off her hearing aid to prevent listening.”
Elliot was still smiling until her mother signed something else.
Begrudgingly she slowed down on the swing and jumped off, hand reaching for her ear and turning something. Xander had noticed it earlier, a sort of machine that clasped around the back of her right ear. “Fine.” Elliot droned out a loud sigh and moved as Clary took precedence on the swing.
“Good girl.” Her mother mused and the two ladies disappeared into the party.
Xander felt a subtle sadness for his mate, now hovering idly by the swing set. She kicked at an invisible rock and moved away from the two siblings who had somehow started another ruckus of fights.
She bent over to pick a stick and began whacking at the short blades of grass while walking obliviously heading in his direction. Xander tensed and gently got to his feet, backtracking into the woods and away from her, he slipped behind a tree just as she past; mumbling incoherent words.
“...hope she drowns in her snot and tears...” His mate bit out, swatting at a fly that buzzed near her hair. “I’ll show you-” she whacked at a branch that stood in her way and continued onward.
Xander glanced back at the house and Elliot, wondering just how far she was allowed into the woods. Cautiously, he began following her.
“Elliot this, Elliot that-” her childish voice took on a high pitch and he realized she was mimicking her mother. More whacking.
Xander’s mouth twitched into a small smile watching her small frustrations which eventually faded into curiosity as she took interest in the environment, previous anger dissipating.
He hadn’t realized just how close he had been following her until his foot caught on a root, tripping forward. The stumble was loud enough for either parties to hear and he froze, ducking beneath a bush, Xander pressed himself to the earth and waited in bated breath.
She must’ve heard him.
He prayed she hadn’t.
Raising himself from the ground, Xander peered over the bush at where she once stood-
His eyes scoured the environment warily, nostrils flaring for her scent and none came. Confused, he stood and waited again, listening. Nothing
Stepping out from behind the shrub, he walked up to her spot and stood still, feet slowly turning in circles- eyes searching. She was eight.
How far could she have gone?
Where would she even g-
“Freeze!” The voice came from above and not a moment later a silhouette appeared dangling upside down, pointing a stick at him. Startled, Xander jumped back, a surprised choking sound from the back of his throat once he came face to face with Elliot, copper green eyes blazing and intent. “Hands in the air, stranger.” She demanded.
His eyes swept up to the low branch where her legs had been securely wrapped with newfound horrific curiosity. Then again, it was almost normal for a child her age to scale a tree that quickly. He had done it as well.
Heart slamming, he blinked somehow unable to form a proper sentence.
Elliot nudged the stick, poking his chest. “No English?”
“I speak English.” He replied slowly.
“Oh,” Elliot blinked, “Then put your hands up.”
Frustrated, she let her hands hung loose. “Like this.” Swaying them back and forth.
“Because you’re a bad guy.”
His eyebrows creased at the center, “I am?”
“Yes,” impatient nodding, willing for him to catch up quickly, “and I just caught you. So hands up.”
Xander raised them uncertainly.
“Alright, good.” The stick’s tip poked his adam’s apple, “name?”
“I-” he inhaled catching himself. What harm would there be in telling her his name? “Xander.”
“Why are you in my dad’s territory?”
“I was lost.” The lie slipped past his mouth before he could stop it and fortunately enough, her guard melted. Elliot’s head cocked to the side, regarding him with a blank expression.
“Where you headed?”
“Don’t I know you?” she blinked hard and hands rose to the branch, adjusting herself. Xander’s eyes followed, wary of the branch and its stability. “Oh! You’re the ball guy. Ma was real mad at you for some reason, she kept shouting into her phone on the way home and swore to ground me. Luckily Charles and Clary arrived.”
“So,” she lifted herself back onto the branch and scooted towards the tree bark, feet lowering themselves onto the branches below. “Where you headed?”
Xander stepped towards the tree, tensing as she began descending only to relax once she leaped the remaining few feet to the ground. “Town.”
Elliot rose, brushing dirt from her hands, “What you doing in town?”
“Dog food.” That came out of nowhere. Maybe he was hungry.
“You have a dog? I’m not allowed to have dogs, ma thinks my allergies will act up. What’s your dog’s name?”
Her mouth was an engine running and he could barely keep up. If anything, he was still trying to process the fact that they were speaking. “Salem.”
“Awful name for a dog.” He breathed a small laugh at her serious expression and she turned, pausing to beckon him forward. “Pops showed me a quick path to town, should be down by the river.”
He didn’t want to go to town, if anything he was forbidden from even setting foot there, nonetheless Xander followed her. They didn’t go far for she stopped after five minutes and pointed her stick towards the river, “Go straight, take a left, take another left, two rights, three corners, step back, hop three times and you’ll find yourself in town.”
He stared. This kid didn’t know the way to town.
“Elliot! Elliot!” Her mother’s voice disrupted their moment and Elliot craned her neck, blowing out a breath of frustration.
“That’s my ma,” her shoulders slouched forward, dreading the inevitable.
Xander watched her curiously. “It will be fine.” He spoke awkwardly not knowing what else to say.
She straightened then and turned, “Right, bye stranger!” Her short feet broke out into a run, figure disappearing between trees, his gaze followed her as she moved uphill only to pause halfway and pivot, hands cupped around her mouth and shouted.
“Remember to brush your dog! It’s flea season!”