Xander stilled for the longest time possible.
The rain fell relentlessly, soaking through drenched clothes, his hair flattened along the nape of his neck.
The eyes were everywhere.
He could barely count how many, stopping after twenty, and simply scanning the environment sharply.
Despite the great number, the wolves maneuvered soundlessly behind the trees and bushes. Silhouettes fleeting back and forth, sight of golden lava eyes but nothing more. No body. No tail. No sound.
He knew outrunning them was a useless feat. And attacking would only harm Elliot and him in more ways than one.
“Xan—” he had forgotten about the child set on his shoulders, fingers gripping his wet hair in a vice-like grip. She too had sensed the wolves, pup senses pointing out movement though obscured by the rain.
They stood like that for minutes on end, until the electric surge of adrenaline thawed his limbs. If running and attacking was not an option, he only had one thing left to do.
Raising his hands, Xander gripped either side of Elliot and lifted her off of him before lowering her to his front. He could not risk her walking.
Their was a certain fear twisting her childish features, copper green eyes wide and dilated, skin paling to that of a palid hue. He could feel her terror siphone through her like a bucket of cold water.
“It’s fine,” he whispered carrying her and stepping away from the tracks. Elliot’s grip around his neck was strangling, breathing was the least of his worries. The downpour had shrouded their path but he found it nonetheless and walked along it.
Each step felt heavy, lead weighed limbs, and jolted a shard of horror through him. Breaths uneven, Xander focused on the distance before him, the thrashing of Elliot’s chest against his own. He could not see behind him but a gut wrenching perception had him knowing that the wolves had stepped out from their shadows and were blatantly following him in the open.
A game of predator and prey.
He did not need to turn and confirm for Elliot was peering over his shoulder, small breaths sharp and terror stricken, her grip on his neck tightened further.
Xander tipped his baseball hat over her face carefully, to conceal the sight. “Don’t look, Elliot.” Still, she peeked through the space of his shoulder and tilted baseball cap.
The scent of rain was dark and heady, he could smell nothing but it. A stillness fell over the path before them and the uncharted woods around, and in the silence came a low crackle of thunder, rolling across sky arched trees to the thickening of drops. For a moment, everything stops. The wind held its breath. A streak of hot silver split the sky, and the downpour increases exponentially.
Xander’s bare feet sink into mud, slipping ever so often and his grip on Elliot tightens. His heart thrashes wildly, the fear siphoned through him and he feels sick, breathless.
“They’re getting closer.” Her voice is terrified.
He can hear their steps, purposefully loud. He can feel their breaths, heated around his ankles. Teeth grazing skin. Growls vibrating through his bones.
Sight of the river had Xander exhaling a measured breath. It’s banks had spilled through, overflowing and rapidly crashing on rocks. Xander does not still as his feet touch banks then step forward. Water sloshes around his ankles, rising up to his knees wetting folded jeans that began to come undone. The rocks slip beneath the soles of his feet, a stray branch cuts his achilles tendon but he does not feel it. His body had spiraled into flight mode, adrenaline cutting off blood flow to his nerves rendering him numb.
“Did they cross?”
Elliot’s response is drawn and Xander begins to speak again when she interrupts, “No.”
The temptation to look burns him but he holds steady and treks the short hill up to her house. His bandages had soaked through, slumping against his burned torso pulling healed skin and it itches. Once the roof of her house comes into sight, Xander risks a look over his shoulder.
The wolves had stopped by the opposite river’s bank once they crossed onto Alpha territory.
He should have stopped once the woods ended and the backyard came into view, but Xander could not. His steps strode across the short field, hawk-eyes darting over lit windows searching for either of her parents. The alpha’s scent was faint. Most probably was not home. Her mother’s laughter echoed from the deeper rooms and Xander’s chest deflated briefly. Walking up the back steps, he crouched and set her down.
Elliot’s complexion had paled significantly, short curls drenched and matted to her forehead and neck beneath the baseball cap. She was shivering, but not from the cold and the sight swathed him with shame and regret. Xander picked his converse draped over her shoulders and offered a small encouraging smile, “You’re fine, Elliot.”
“Whose wolves are those?” She might have been young, but Elliot picked up their unfamiliar scents.
“I do not know,” his whisper drowned out by the rain. Sensing her heightening horror, Xander pushed back her curls, “It is fine, go home and get warm before you catch a cold.” If she fell ill, he would kick himself to the dirt. His eyes darted to her hearing aids. Wet. Xander rubbed his forehead frustrated.
She was safe. That was what mattered.
“How will you get home?”
I do not know. She did not need another reason to be terrified. “Taxi.” He did not have money.
Lights flickered on behind them and Xander took that as his cue to leave. “Remove the batteries and place them somewhere to dry, okay?”
Elliot nodded. Approaching footsteps. He began to backtrack away from the temporary shade and into the woods just as the back door opened and Elliot’s mother towered over her daughter, horrified gaze scouring every inch of her drenched body.
She was yelling but Xander could not hear from the thudding rain. Her hand reached for Elliot’s and yanked her back into the house.
The door slammed behind them.
Returning home proved itself far more difficult that he hoped. Fortunately, there was no sign of the wolves that stalked them, but their scents remained. Phantom figures pressing onto the goosebumps of his skin.
Fear stunned his throat shut, each breath pained and rationed. And not until the familiar curve of Salem’s house come into view, did he allow himself the leisure of breath. Tightness of shoulders loosening only slightly. His steps followed the path up to the front steps only to halt at the sound of laughter from inside.
Climbing the steps, Xander expertly maneuvered around the creaks and leaned over the window whose curtains had been partially opened. From his point, the sight of Salem and Amina was slightly blurred but viewable nonetheless.
Salem sat by the head of the table with Amina on by his right. They were eating dinner, laughing over something she had said. His head tilted far back, thick neck bursting with shallow veins and guffawed- a deep, thick, rumble of laughter that only meant pure joy.
Xander’s chest squeezed, but only briefly. He had missed his interactions with Salem.
They had not spoken for the past two and a half weeks. He could not blame the man for avoiding him. Xander’s own inexplicable shame ebbed from the cavities of his chest, swathed him in its ugly cloak and with hunched shoulders, he accepted it.
Pivoting from the view as though it burned his sight, Xander made for his own shed and stepped inside, stripping off wet clothes down to gray boxers before unwrapping the soaked bandages.
Thin diluted blood matted with yellow pus, steady hiss as dead skin peeled off leaving splotches of uneven pink and brown all around the spread of his chest, the flat of his abdomen, thighs, calves- Xander paused and stared at the long mirror before him. Grotesque rejection on skin.
Cleaning himself, he wrapped another clean set of bandages before slipping on a dry pair of boxers and lying back on the bed. The downpour had faltered to that of a patter outside, drumming on the iron roof above his head.
Xander lay back on his bed and stared at the dark ceiling. As an afterthought, his hand stretched blindly towards the night stand, fingertips brushing over random objects until he finally felt the carved wooden figurines. Holding them above his head in the darkness, Xander waited for a strike of lightning- hot, white light that reflected on the figurines.
The fear collapsed his throat and he inhaled a rationed breath, gripping the figurines in his hand. He would tell Salem of the wolves the next day. Wolves he knew not of their scents had crossed onto their territory and the Alpha must have been completely oblivious to their presence considering he still let Elliot out of the house.
It mildly infuriated Xander, to think that his mate was exposed and vulnerable to attacks. And the anger stemmed from fear. Fear that he could not help her- he was far too young, he did not belong to the pack, he was weak, fragile.
Rolling onto his side, Xander thumbed the figurines and waited for sleep.
The next morning found him rising at dawn, barely had the sun lifted when Xander stepped out of his shed, pausing as his foot stepped on a piece of folded paper.
The field before him was wet. Xander stooped to pick the paper and unfold it.
Breakfast is at seven, we will be returning to the forest for work.
Salem’s familiar handwriting brought a sense of painful relief. Perhaps he had forgiven him. Or not. But that did not matter. As long as he wanted him to work. Work was the first step to mending their broken relationship.
Wearing a clean grey shirt and jeans, Xander tugged on a black jacket and zipped it, hands shoved deep into the pockets as he crossed the muddy field, converse shoes sloshing in the mud while approaching Salem’s house. Climbing up the front steps, Xander hovered by the door, wondering if he should ring the bell or simply enter.
Was it too early?
Were Amina and Salem still sleeping?
Exhaling a mouthful of mist, Xander peered over his shoulder at the brightening sky and back at the doorknob. His hand reached for it, clasping over the cool metal before twisting and gently pushing.
The first sounds that reached him were soft murmurs and a hum. Xander hesitated a moment, words seemingly lodged in his brackish throat before peering over one end of his open living room.
He stilled at the sight of Amina flanked in coverage from head to toe, the shade of light peach. Her face was concentrated, eyes shut and facing a direction parallel to him. He did not know what she was doing, neither could he comprehend the incoherent words that slipped past her mouth;
“Allahu Akbar.” Her hands rose to the height of ears before lowering to her navel and then bracing on her knees in a low bow.
Xander watched the fluidity of her movements, the tenderness in each gesture and wavering of expression as she spoke.
Suddenly he felt intrusive having stared for so long, and at the sound of heavy footsteps descending the stairs, Xander slipped back out of the house whilst silently shutting the door.
He moved towards the edge of the steps and leaned against the wooden pole, ear unconsciously tilted to the soft murmurs of Amina only to break as the door opened and Salem appeared dressed in his usual attire.
Xander straightened at the sight of him, heart racing ever so slightly and he struggled for the right words, coming up with none he nodded briefly while stepping aside for him.
“Good morning.” His mouth felt dry, toxic anticipation thinning his veins and Salem paused by his side holding out a sandwich wrapped in clear foil.
“Egg sandwich,” Salem explained moving down the steps and towards the open shed where their tools lay, “Eat up, we’ve got to get a move on before the rains start again.”
Peeling the clear foil from the paper, Xander felt his stomach squeeze in hunger- he had skipped lunch and dinner from the previous night. And the ache was returning. Gratefully, he bit into the sandwich while following the burly man’s steps into the shed.
“Where are we going?” Their usual routine would include walking into the forest but Salem did not seem interested in that.
“We’re heading into town.”
Xander stilled, sandwich pressed in his mouth.
Sensing his sudden unease, Salem sighed in deflation. “It does not regard you.”
“Oh.” Hurriedly finishing the last of his sandwich, Xander aided in picking the planks of wood, hauling them over his shoulder he faltered at his partially healed wounds stretched.
He inhaled sharply— hollow suck of air in the back of his throat, like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon, and shifted the planks higher on his shoulder before making it towards Salem’s truck.
Loading took half an hour and by the time everything was done, Amina stood by the front steps having changed out of her previous outfit and into a casual pair of jeans and cashmere sweater. She fixed her hijab whilst approaching Xander with the faintest of smiles.
“I thought I heard you.” The tone of her voice had him peering at her nervously. “Back in Salem’s house.”
“Oh,” his hand rose, awkwardly scratching at the nape of his neck, “I apologize. I did not know that you were...”
“Praying,” Amina corrected with a smile, “The Fajr prayer.”
“Fajr prayer.” Xander tested and she nodded beaming.
“It is Arabic for dawn prayer.”
The door to Salem’s truck slammed shut indicating the need for their conversation to end.
Amina stepped towards her uncle’s open window and kissed his rough cheek affectionately as Xander entered the passenger side, “Wdaeaan eamiun , ’abaq amnaan.”
Xander did not hear Salem’s reply. His gaze was fixated on the rearview mirror.
The drive into town was short and silent. Hands clasped between his thighs, Xander cracked his knuckles and unconsciously plucked at his thumb nail. His knee bobbed up and down, stomach awash with nerves as familiar buildings crossed his sight.
The truck slowed and Xander peered over at Salem’s side, watching him gaze at a crowd of people circling the mayor’s hall.
“Interesting.” The man mumbled and Xander bit his inner cheek.
At their designated sawmill destination, he leaped out and proceeded to unload cargo as Salem disappeared inside the blaring building. Men of all sizes and shapes walked in and out, depositing wood and leaving with money for their part.
Adjusting his baseball low enough to block his eyes, Xander tipped his head down and trekked up to the saw mill with elongated weighted planks balancing on his shoulder.
The strain was far too great for his weakened state, still healing and he felt mildly faint after two rounds.
Breathless, Xander leaned against the truck and ducked his head once two men walked past.
“... Yeah town’s gonna lock up for the next week or so... Word of wolves crossing over reached the Alpha.”
One man spat on the ground, “Which pack d’you think they from?”
“Beats me... All I know is tonight we’re boarding up all windows and doors until the Alpha gets hunters.”
Xander watched their retreating figures.
After placing the last load into the miller, he bee-lined back to the truck, hesitating at the familiar voice.
“... Fucking wolf pack ruining all the fun shit. My party’s getting cancelled.”
Her voice spread an ache through him, like a sore tooth that is not content to
throb in isolation, but must diffuse its own pain to other parts of the body—making breathing difficult, vision distorting momentarily as his feet stilled.
He wanted to glance up. He wanted to see the girl who had betrayed him. He wanted to witness the friendly face that contorted to malice and disdain.
But he did not.
Her voice was like an earache in the brain yet he fought the urge to glance in her direction.
Forget, let go.
Inhaling a measured breath, Xander pocketed his hands and made for the truck.
“Work will not be resuming for the next two weeks,” Salem’s voice drew Xander and Amina’s attention from their plate and onto him.
Amina’s fork halted mid-twirling pasta. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“There’s been a breach in territory.” He grimaced, a certain edge to the reefs of his wrinkles. Suddenly, he seemed much older than he let on.
“Mmh,” Salem stabbed a meatball and ate it, “an unknown pack crossed the borders last night.”
Xander reached for his glass of lemonade and sipped it. His hand trembled.
“Oh no,” Amina seemed stunned, visibly paling, “What pack?”
“No one knows,” his gaze hardens, a flicker of sharp fear— something Xander had never witnessed— crossed Salem’s face. The fear was brief, carefully hidden beneath a facade.
“Word is, the Shadow pack crossed our lands.”
Xander did not know about the Shadow pack. It seemed neither did Amina as she stared on in confusion.
“What happens now?”
“For now, we all stay home. The town will be in lockdown. Tomorrow morning we’ll go grocery shopping and stock up for the month.”
Xander watched their interaction in silence. He was listening but not hearing.
The lockdown meant he could not see her. He drank his lemonade, gnawing appetite deserting him.
“Xander,” Xander blinked glancing at Salem who watched him with a shadowed gaze, “tomorrow Amina and I will go into town and pick up the necessities. You will be left to fix up the shed, wash and grease the tools before storing them.”
Salem nodded at his words though clearly looked affected by the news as he pushed his plate of food away.
With a sigh, he rose and walked out of the room.
The week went by quietly. Lockdown had began with everyone isolated in their homes. Guards crossed every night, patrolling the borders and streets.
Fear siphoned through the atmosphere and tensions rose rapidly.
Xander spent his days building a fence along Salem’s property with him. His gaze kept drifting back to the familiar path that led him to Elliot’s.
He hoped she was safe.
She was the Alpha’s daughter, of course she would be safe.
Majority of his nights were spent in Salem’s house, something Xander had yet to grow accustomed to. They ate dinner, him in silence while the two spoke animatedly. Played board games until ten before Salem retired. Amina and him would sit by the front steps in silence, drinking hot chocolate and pointing out the stars.
When she was tired, he found his way back to the shed, alone and detached from the rest, and carved the piece of wood hidden beneath his pillow.
Xander sighed chipping away at the piece of wood, glancing at the calendar and knowing he would miss that date due to the lockdown.
It was far too dangerous to trek at night and though he wished to give her the gift, the risk proved itself not worth it.
When July fourteenth arrived, Xander fell into the casual routine of fixing the last barbed wires on Salem’s fence and leaned on the post gazing at the path.
The figurine in his pocket burned.
“No.” He murmured pulling away from the fence and making his way back to Salem’s house for dinner.
They ate homemade pepperoni pizza, courtesy of Amina, and drank tall glasses of coke that Xander rarely tasted. It felt like a treat. But the food lodged itself in his throat.
A nagging ache twisted his guts.
Salem retired to bed. Amina and him played chess. She bade him goodnight and climbed the staircase.
Exiting his house, Xander paused by the steps and glanced up at the velvet night sky.
It was a full moon.
The phantom ache returned. A gut wrenching feeling that something was wrong.
Something was definitely wrong.
Xander exhaled mist, gaze dropping to the fence.
He had to make sure she was safe. Only then would the ache be soothed. He needed to be reassured. Just the sight of her would extinguish the bike that scalded his windpipe.
Mind resolved, Xander clambered down the steps and jogged towards the fence, unhooking the barbed edges, a sharp hiss escaped him as stray wires tore into the soft flesh of his palm.
His senses sharpened as alertness surged through his limbs. Quickly working a space open, Xander slipped through the space, yanking at his shirt which got caught on one of the wires. It ripped along with the bandage that was wrapped around his torso.
Ignoring the stinging pain, Xander jogged down the familiar path.
He should not have been afraid.
The fear should not have plunged through him with each jarring step.
Elliot was fine.
Elliot should be fine.
Why did he not believe that?
In the dark, trees seemed far taller, more intimidating as they caved in from all sides. The air was frigid and its shards cut through his lungs with each pained breath.
Elliot was fine.
Elliot should be fine.
However, if she was fine—
Why could he smell her?
Her scent lingered in the wind, increasing in concentration with each jogging step towards the river that separated her father’s property from the rest.
The river where he taught her how to fish.
The river in which she nearly drowned.
The river’s bank on which they lay in the summer heat, pointing out random figures.
The river’s bank on which she currently stood on.
Xander stilled as the forest broke away from him. He released a pained breath at the sight of Elliot crouched by the opposite side of the bank, swirling a stick in the water.
She wore her pyjamas and beside her was a plate with a slice of cake, clumsily wrapped in clear foil.
The wind of terror that blew somewhere within him settled and Xander huffed a breath of incredulous laughter.
“Elliot.” He called but she did not reply. Xander’s head tilted to the side, studying his young mate who was humming tunelessly.
“Elliot.” He tried again only to realize she had switched off her hearing aids.
Xander made to step forward only to halt as a bush stirred a distance from her.
His attention snapped in the intended direction.
Ember eyes appeared from behind.
A cold wind blew somewhere in him, lifting little leaves of terror and obscure horror as another pair of ruby glazed predator eyes appeared on the opposite side of Elliot.
They were all watching her.
She remained oblivious.
Xander felt the world before him blacken.
The darkness shifted again, this time lightning fast as it parted—
And the wolf lunged for Elliot.