The School for Monsters
Copyright © 2015 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved.
No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the author.
Cover design by Rob Preece. Images licensed under Creative Commons License. Barbed wire image by Gautier Willaume. Rabbit image by Jinyoung Lee. Prison wall image by Alan Heartfield.
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
“Mathew Carnecero, do you accept your responsibilities as a member of the Fae community, to preserve our secret, to use your powers responsibly, to honor the elders in both your family and those of your totem beast, your true form, whatever that form may be?”
Matt looked around. Friends, family, and especially friends of his father’s had gathered at Frisco’s historic Wildebeest Hall to celebrate his first change. Smoke-darkened paintings of wolves, bears, tigers, and a solitary Tasmanian Devil hung from draped walls. Although Frisco was mostly a new suburb, Wildebeest Hall dated to the time when it had been a tiny farming community—founded by Matt’s ancestors.
On his magical thirteenth birthday, he was finally old enough to drink the mix of hormones and pain drugs that would enable him to transform to his true form. Today, he’d find his shape, his personality. Today he’d become a man—and a beast. He’d join the community of shapeshifters, become part of the great hunt.
He swallowed hard and his brother, Scott, slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry, Matt. Younger children are more magical than the older. You’ll probably be a tiger. Maybe even a dragon—wouldn’t that be cool?”
Matt nodded—his throat clamped so tight he couldn’t talk. The hall should probably have been named which-a-beast instead of wildebeest.
He looked around, halfway fearful, halfway hopeful someone might stand and argue against his readiness. The hormone mix was supposed to ease the transition but everyone said it was still the most painful experience they’d ever been through.
Nobody objected though. Which meant he was in. In moments, he’d join the ritual feast celebrating his first transformation.
His father, Arn Carnecero, surveyed the crowd, then looked down on Matt. “Are you ready, my son? Have you fasted for twenty-four hours, consuming nothing but water? Have you purified your mind with contemplation? Have you completed your reading of the lives of the great changers?”
Matt started to nod, but the experience of dozens of rehearsals conducted by his parents, Scott, and even his younger sister, Ophelia, kicked in.
“I have purified and prepared myself according to our traditions.” For once, his voice didn’t break—that would have been just too humiliating.
“The feast has been prepared,” his father said. “We will dine together in our true forms, once you have joined us as an adult.”
Again, months of practice made the response automatic. “I will savor the feast—and long for the day when I can contribute to the great hunt.”
“That,” his father chanted, “is the way of the world, as child becomes adult. Take and drink, my son, then look into the mirror as you assume your true form. From your animal form will flow your nature. A bear is strong and enduring. A wolf lends support to the pack. A hawk sees danger from far away and calls out warning. None is superior for every animal brings its special advantage to the hunt.”
Arn placed a mirror in front of Matt, who resisted the urge to make a face at it. So far, he looked the same as always. Then again, so far, he hadn’t swallowed the drink.
Satisfied with the mirror’s placement, Arn reached into a small red cooler and removed not a golden chalice but a chemistry beaker containing a steamingly cold jell-like liquid of an intensely green color.
Matt accepted the beaker. Rumor had it that the hormone mix was the nastiest thing anyone could taste. According to whispered confidences by older teens, more than a few prospective shifters had gagged in drinking it, embarrassing themselves and their families. Matt had promised himself he wouldn’t bring shame to himself or his family, but he took the moment to compose himself
It could be that his hands shook a bit but it certainly seemed as if the viscous liquid writhed under its own power as he grasped the beaker. He sniffed at the open top to the flask but could only smell the sizzling brisket and sausage prepared for the barbeque afterwards. In animal form, carnivores need meat—his mother, for example, was a panther and, like all cats, an obligate carnivore. He rather hoped he’d be a bear like his father—but a grizzly rather than a polar bear.
Still, his father’s words warmed him—whatever animal he became, from the lowest ferret to the Siberian tiger, he’d have special abilities he’d contribute to the pack. All were welcomed.
Matt blinked and realized he’d stared at the beaker for too long, that his audience was impatient. Although the ritual didn’t require it, his family had fasted along with him. Unlike him, their nerves wouldn’t tie their stomach into knots. They had to be hungry—anxious to get to the feast.
He tipped the beaker over his mouth and swallowed its contents in three practiced gulps—three being a number of power.
The jell stuck and burned when it hit his tongue. He nearly hurled but he’d been prepared for his reaction and swallowed a fourth time to keep it down. He managed to hand the now-empty beaker back to his father.
Arn examined the container, nodded, smiled, and set the beaker aside. “We have a new brother joining us,” he chanted. “Our true natures will be no secret to him just as his will be open to us. All may take their true forms now.
He raised his arms and began his transformation to polar bear.
The hormone mix hit Matt’s stomach like a sledgehammer. Supposedly, it served as a catalyst, making it easier for a body to find its true form the first time. Certainly it wasn’t necessary for the adults, who could flow between animal and human at will.
Arn was leader of the pack partly because he was an intelligent and charismatic man, but also because his animal form, the polar bear, was that of perhaps the fiercest and most intelligent land predator in the world.
Beside Arn, Matt’s mother dropped to all fours. Her skin seeming to liquefy, her face elongating as fur sprouted from her face.
Scott growled, becoming a dire wolf. His older sister, Camilla, gave a harsh shriek. Her arms extended, transformed, became wings, and she flapped over to the table and snared a hunk of brisket, then found a perch on one of the hall’s exposed rafters. Ophelia wasn’t there, of course—the ceremony was limited to those who already shifted both to preserve the mystery and to protect soft humans from dangerous predators whose human minds were partially submerged while in animal form.
Braced as he was for the pain, at first, Matt felt nothing although the gel’s aftertaste had a bitter feel. The mirror simply showed a teenage boy with dark hair, brown eyes, and a worried look on his face.
Then, with an abruptness that shocked him no matter how often he’d seen his parents and older siblings transform, his bones seemed to shatter inside him.
Despite the pain medicines in the hormone drink, his body contorted with agony and he swallowed one more time to keep the mix from coming back up.
He’d been warned of the pain, of course. Even bending a stiff muscle can hurt. Transforming both muscle and bone into radically different forms hurt even more—at least the first time. Supposedly, once he completed his first transformation, his muscles and bones would remember their animal shape and he’d be able to transition without artificial aid. At the moment, he could only think about how much everything hurt and wonder if the pain would go on forever.
His eyes blurred with tears, which he did his best to blink back.
Obviously, though, blinking didn’t do the job—his eyesight transformed. Around him, the hall expanded in his vision, becoming impossibly large. It’s an optical illusion, he reminded himself. He and his vision were one changing, not the building. Still, it seemed horribly real.
The sounds of humans assuming their predator shapes, went from a soft whisper to a harsh and frightening roar. Their raspy breathing, and what had been soft whispers, increased in intensity. If it weren’t for the pain, Matt thought he could make out every word spoken from the far end of the hall. That would, his frazzled brain managed, be kind of fun.
His sense of smell grew more dominant.
The muscles in his legs quivered and he felt as if he could jump a thousand yards. Could he have become one of the extinct carnivorous kangaroos that had once dominated Australia? Now that would be cool and different. Maybe it would be cooler even than a grizzly.
He blinked again and studied himself in the mirror. From the look of it, he’d halfway changed. His human nature remained dominant, but his ears had migrated upward on his head and grown larger. His black nose wiggled as it sniffed the air. Pale brown fur sprouted from his hands and face.
As he watched, whispers sprouted beside his nose and he hunched forward.
His eyes still watered, but he wanted, needed to see what form he would take. He didn’t look exactly like a kangaroo, but an extinct carnivorous kangaroo would look different from the modern vegetarian ones that roamed the Australian outback.
His father reached a huge white paw toward him and panic swept over Matt. This wasn’t a part of the ritual.
“No.” His mother halfway transformed back to human shape and knocked away his father’s paw. She stood over Matt, her snarls warning away the dozens of predators that circled her—and Matt.
Nothing in any of his rehearsals had prepared him for this. His body shook—possibly from the aftereffects of his shift—and he seemed frozen in place. The sensation of being impossibly small, weak, and helpless wouldn’t go away.
What was going on?
He looked up at his mother, which he hadn’t done in more than a year. She wasn’t especially tall as a human. In her jaguar form, she stood only three feet tall at the shoulder. A carnivorous kangaroo would be taller than she, right? So why did he cower under her four-legged stance like a man hiding under an elephant.
“He’s my baby,” his mother howled. “He shall not be prey to you.”
Shapeshifters were predators, participants in the great hunt. Perhaps, he reasoned, they’d mistaken a carnivorous kangaroo for the vegetarian kind?
Matt blinked one more time and the blur covering his eyesight finally cleared.
He took half a hop toward the mirror and stared.
Hop? Okay, that made some sense for a kangaroo.
The vision that stared back at him, didn’t make any sense at all.
Tall ears reached for the ceiling. Huge rear legs would propel him to ultra-fast flight. His wiggling nose could smell danger from hundreds of yards away. Matt had transformed not into a bear, not into a tiger, not even into a carnivorous kangaroo.
Could he really be a rabbit?
With what looked like enormous effort, his father shook his bear-body and became human once more. He stretched his huge hands down and scooped Matt up. “My friends,” he shouted. “Enjoy the feast. This one prey animal would not do more than whet your appetite and his loss would sadden my family.”
“Not to mention, if any of you tries to stick a tooth into him, I’ll claw your face off,” his mother, her voice a hoarse snarl. Then she licked her chops—staring at Matt with an expression that sent panic through his body.
If he hadn’t been sick with worry, Matt would have cried. He wasn’t being welcomed as an equal member of the shifter community. He certainly wasn’t the guest of honor. Only fear of his parents kept him from becoming the feast’s featured entree.
He wondered if how long he could survive in a house full of meat-eaters.
* * * *
The buzz of overhead florescent lights at the Dallas Greyhound station created a jarring dissonance with the beat from Barley Harris’s iPod. The station walls had been painted gray once—perhaps to match the bus line’s name, but the color had long-since faded and blotched. The terminal stunk of vomit, old sweat, stale cigarette smoke, and fear.
Part of that fear, Barley knew, was his own. Other than a few scout trips, he’d never been away from his family. Now, he’d probably never see them again.
He stepped over to the counter, trying to walk as if his legs ended in feet like everyone else, as if he wasn’t on the verge of breaking into dance despite, or perhaps because of his sense of danger.
The cashier ignored him, finishing a solitaire game with a deck of cards so battered Barney suspected they’d been original equipment in the days when Greyhound used dog wagons. Barley waited at least three minutes before the man gave Barney a snarl. “Yeah?”
“A one-way ticket to San Antonio, please.”
The man gave the battered cards a couple of shuffles. Finally, reluctantly, he punched a couple of keys on his computer. “Thirty-eight bucks.”
Barney handed over two twenties and the cashier sniffed them. “You some sort of religious group. I saw a couple of other kids with those red tags you got around your neck.”
“Sort of like that,” Barley admitted.
“Hey. Good luck converting the heathen down there.”
Yeah, right. Still, Barley forced a smile. “Thanks. Where did you say those other students were?”
The clerk didn’t look up from his playing cards.
“There’s a kid, maybe your age, in the waiting room. A couple of chicks around, too.” He licked his lips. “Not bad looking if you know what I mean.”
Barley nodded glumly. It wasn’t that he didn’t find girls interesting—he did. When he tried talking to them, though, he tensed up and blurted nonsense—when he managed to say anything at all. Not that it mattered. He could be as suave as James Bond but when girls learned his secret, they ran away faster than Barley could stump in his cowboy boots.
As the attendant had suggested, the boy was easy to spot. With his red tag and a furtive look that said he was expecting an attack, the kid stood out from the panhandlers, homeless people, and bored passengers that made up most of the Greyhound terminal’s population.
Barney snuck a look at kid’s tag. Hand-lettered in what had to be female writing was the name ‘Matt.’ Barney had printed out his own label—his parents couldn’t be bothered.
Matt’s brown eyes looked intelligent and Barney noted the large ice chest beside him.
Barney’s stomach rumbled. He might as well try to make friends After all, if he was being sent to the School for Monsters and Misfits, Matt couldn’t be too fussy about who he hung out with. And maybe he’d share some of whatever he had in that cooler. Barley had long-since consumed the sack lunch he’d packed for the bus. He was really—
The words echoed his thoughts so closely that Barley suffered a moment of vertigo. Despite his unfortunate recent changes, though, his stomach didn’t talk. If it ever did start talking, he hoped it wouldn’t sound like a tired old lady.
That tired lady had bent over Matt, sticking her face in his and, not coincidentally, reaching a hand into his pocket while she distracted him.
“Hey, you,” Barley shouted. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Mind your own business, punk.” Still, she pulled her hand back.
Matt looked up, his nose wrinkling like he smelled something suspicious. No surprise there—the panhandler stunk.
“I’m making it my business.” Barley did his best to puff up.
“You and what army.”
“It’s all right.”
Typical. Matt thought Barney was butting in rather than saving him from a pickpocket.
“I’m a hungry woman,” the panhandler whined, holding out her hand.
She might be hungry but Barley doubted she was that interested in food. He’d grown up in Richardson where panhandlers were rare but not invisible. A couple of times, he’d followed after they’d collected their money. Every time, they’d headed for a convenience store for cheap wine, cigarettes, or, in one case drugs.
This lady might be different. Barley wouldn’t bet on it.
Matt fished a couple of carrots from his cooler. “These are really go—”
Barley wasn’t surprised when the panhandler slapped Matt’s hand, dumping the carrots on the floor. “I don’t want lousy carrots,” the woman screeched. “I want money.”
Matt scrunched back in his chair, his expression a mix of surprise and pain. “You said you were hungry.”
“Hungry for something that will nourish my kids—not rabbit food.”
She looked closer to eighty than thirty, but Barley had seen what life on the streets did. He tried to evoke his talent but couldn’t tell whether those children were real or figments of her imagination. His failure wasn’t unexpected. He always failed when it came to magic.
Matt reached into the pocket the woman had pawed at earlier and pulled out a five. “How old are your children.”
She snatched the bill. “None of your business, pervert.” She jammed a thumb into Barley’s chest, rocking him back. “None of yours, either, creep.”
The woman smelled like she hadn’t bathed in years. That didn’t bother Barley too much. Until his horrible thirteenth, he’d played football. He was used to sweat.
Apparently Matt was more sensitive to stink. His nose wiggled like it wanted to be a long ways away. “I’m not trying to get their address or anything,” he said. “I was just concerned about them, that’s all.”
“Worry about your own kids.” The panhandler rolled her eyes rolled backed away, clutching the five like it was a religious symbol.
It looked to Barley like she was getting ready to attack, but then she scurried toward a pretty teenage girl in a cut-off public school uniform—way too skimpy for the chill wind blowing from the north.
When Barley put a hand on the kid’s shoulder, Matt jerked in the seat like he’d been hit with an electric prod.
“You’d think,” Barley said, “they’d lock up crazy people like that—sort of the same as locking us up.”
“You think she’s crazy?” Matt scratched his head. “I thought she was hungry.”
“Could be both. For sure she’s crazy. They shut down all the institutions years ago. The nice suburbs hire cops to keep them out so they end up in the cities wandering the streets—when they’re not in jail.”
Matt looked sad. “At least they don’t lock everyone up.”
“Tell me about it.” Barley grabbed the empty seat near the cooler. “You don’t look like a monster. What are you in for? You give your instructor a bar of Ex-Lax or something?”
Barley tapped the red card on his chest. “You know, School for Monsters and Misfits. If you’re not a monster, you’re a misfit. Come on—what do you do? Start fires by staring? Turn girls’ clothes invisible.” Barley was nervous about talking to girls but he didn’t mind talking about them. “Just so you know, I’ll happily pay to see the invisible clothes trick.”
“Of course I didn’t do anything like that.”
“Hey, no need to be ashamed. You’re going to do the time, you might as well be proud of the crime. I’m Barley, by the way. Barley Harris.”
They shook hands. “So, Barley,” Matt asked. “Why are you being sent to the, ah, School for Advanced Fae Studies?”
Barley had known that question would be coming ever since his parents had informed him of the council’s decision. Fortunately, he’d come up with an answer. Now he’d get to try it out—anything was better than the truth.
He ticked them off on his fingers. “Let’s see—I torture and kill cats and dogs, wet my bed, and start fires. My parents—”
“Really?” Matt’s mouth formed an astonished ‘O’ that gratified Barley considerably. Since his terrible thirteenth, he’d come to love telling stories—whether on himself or on others. That might have been a part of the reason he was being sent down, of course. That didn’t mean he could stop.
He laughed. “Not really. I was messing with Wikipedia this morning before my folks dragged me to the bus station. Supposedly, that’s the FBI profile for serial killers. Do you think, if I told the school administration those were my issues, they’d treat me with a little respect?”
“I’m sure they’ll treat everyone with respect. I mean, we pay their bills, right?”
Barley laughed. “We don’t pay anything, we’re just kids.”
“You know what I mean.”
He leaned closer. “As far as I can tell, people who go there just vanish. Sort of reminds me of this story I once read about a guy who drives around the country picking up hitchhikers and turning them into dogfood. It’s—”
“You can quit trying to scare me because I’m not buying it. My family wouldn’t send me anyplace where they’d turn me to food.” Matt looked very certain of that.
“Right—your loving family. If they loved you so much, why are you going to the school?”
From the frustration that raced across Matt’s expressive face, he didn’t have an answer to that question.
The Greyhound P.A. system grumbled something, which Barley ignored because it had been making screeching noises ever since he’d gotten there and he hadn’t understood any of them. The speakers probably hadn’t been state of the art in the 1950s when they’d been installed. They’d suffered a lot since then.
Matt, apparently, had other ideas. His ears wiggled and he grabbed his cooler. “That’s our bus.”
“They just announced it. Weren’t you listening?”
“I was listening but I didn’t understand a word.”
“If you say so. Anyway, they just announced our bus.”
Maybe Matt’s problems should have been his own business but Barley couldn’t help being interested. Super-sharp ears and a super-sharp sense of smell added up to a clue. Unless he missed his guess, Matt was some kind of shapeshifter. Considering the reputation of the school, and the types of shapeshifters who didn’t get sent there, the kid was probably a lot more dangerous than he looked.
“You see anyone else going to the school?” Matt asked as he held out a carrot to Barley.
Barley really would have preferred a cupcake, but he took the carrot and waggled his eyebrows. “The ticket seller said there were a couple of girls. I saw one with a badge at the snack counter.”
Annie Fish had noticed the two boys with red tags when they were sitting together talking about whatever boys discuss.
A couple of times, when they’d appeared to reach a lull in their conversation, she’d strolled by, close enough that she almost brushed against them as they sprawled, like boys do, in the Greyhound waiting room. They ignored her, of course. Boys pretty much always ignored her.
Which was part of what made her an outcast. Among her people, the females got noticed—except for her.
That didn’t mean she couldn’t watch them, though.
Apparently the boys interpreted the squawk of the loudspeaker as instructions to get on the bus. They collected their sprawled legs and arms and shambled to their feet.
It seemed like a good time to meet them.
She pasted on a smile—and instantly dropped it when she remembered. “Hi, guys.” She tapped the red badge hanging in the clear plastic container on her chest. “Looks like we’re all heading the same direction.”
The two had been involved in an intense discussion. They replaced that with slack-jawed stares.
“Huh?” the bigger one managed.
“Oh.” The smaller boy popped what remained of the fourth carrot he’d eaten since she’d first noticed him into a pocket. “You’re going to the School for Advanced Fae Studies, too?”
She nodded glumly. “Yep. My parents finally gave up on trying to take care of their local monster.”
The bigger of the boys swallowed audibly, his Adam’s apple chunking up and down his throat. “I’m Barley. This is Matt. Don’t bother asking what we were sent up for—neither of us is talking.”
“That makes three of us.”
Barley might think he was keeping secrets, but he wasn’t hard to guess. He looked like a guy searching for a party, his cowboy boots tapped in time to music only he could hear—and while he had an iPod attached to his belt, the earbud drooped from his T-shirt pocket. When she’d seen him walking earlier, he’d moved with just a hint of awkwardness—as if his boots didn’t quite fit. Putting it all together, she suspected he was another throwback, something that shouldn’t exist in the modern world.
The smaller kid, Matt, was harder to figure—but she’d been watching him. His face had more expressions than a normal human’s. She guessed he was a shifter of some sort. Not that the Fae had anything against shapeshifters in general. But she could imagine forms that would cause big trouble. Maybe he turned into an elephant or something and rampaged.
While the two boys were obvious, Annie hoped the same wasn’t true of her. As long as she kept her mouth shut, neither of them should be able guess her condition. She hoped.
“You have any idea how long they’ll keep us there?” Matt asked.
“Keeping us is sort of the point.” Annie was surprised they didn’t know that.
“Really?” Matt wiggled his nose. “I thought we were supposed to learn—”
“Learn how to deal with what makes us different from other members of the Fae community so we can assimilate?” She fed back the School’s official line as they stood outside the bus, waiting for the door to open. With the noise from busses coming and going, they could speak freely without worrying about violating the prime secret.
“Yeah. Assimilate and all that stuff. It wasn’t safe for me to stay with my pack, so I have to learn to…”
“Oh, brother. You are so pathetic.”
Annie whirled around to see the speaker, an exceptionally pretty girl in a too-short plaid school uniform skirt and white blouse unbuttoned two buttons deeper than Annie would have dared. The barest hint of a red tag poked from under that top.
Although Annie had just met the boys, she felt protective of them. “It isn’t Matt’s fault his people didn’t tell him what was going on.”
“You and I figured it out, didn’t we?”
The girl had a point—but boys tended to trust more than girls did. She held out her hand. “I’m Annie”
The other girl ignored both the hand and the introduction. Instead, she stared at the guys for a couple of seconds. Finally, she shook her head. “I’d hoped for better. They’ll chew you up and swallow you.”
Barley swelled his chest. “Like you know any more of what we’re getting into than we do.”
“Like I don’t.”
Annie suspected the other girl was right. A badly concealed satyr and a shifter whose pack had rejected him would have a hard time if the stories she’d heard were true. So would a murdhuacha, if she had nobody to watch her back.
“Maybe if we stick together, uh…,” she snatched the red tag from the other girl’s top, “Taylor Bang, we’ll have a better chance.”
“Sticking with losers is like gluing your feet to the Titanic.” Taylor turned and walked onto the bus.
Annie wondered if it was coincidence that the bus doors opened just when Taylor got there. She hadn’t seen the other girl make any gestures or mouth any words, but then, if a witch with any kind of power doesn’t want you to see, you just don’t.
The guys both stared at Taylor’s rear as she stepped into the bus—which wouldn’t have hurt as much if they’d even acknowledged that there was another girl right there with them.
If Annie had just been normal, they would have noticed her, would stare at her like they did Taylor. Instead, she might as well have been invisible to them. Unfortunately, she was stuck with them—her kind didn’t do well as loners.
“We’d better go, too,” she said.
* * * *
How much would it have cost to buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines and let her avoid this miserable trip? Sure Taylor’s mother and stepfather had wanted to get rid of her, but she’d had never known them to be cheap. So, now she was stuck on a bus with two dweeby guys and a nerdy girl who… well, she hadn’t figured out the girl—but she would.
By air, San Antonio was an hour from Dallas. By car, might be four hours. The bus was scheduled to take eight—assuming it didn’t break down along the way.
Taylor headed for the back of the bus, then rolled her eyes as the three losers clomped after her.
Was it completely impossible for destiny to give her someone cool to arrive with? Kids like them, nice kids from rich families, might as well wear kick-me signs on their backs.
Because they were rich kids, Matt lugged on a cooler stuffed with a mix of super-healthy things like celery sticks, and treats. As she watched, he handed a baggie of what looked like homemade cupcakes to Barley and nibbled on a celery stick. Taylor was more interested in Annie.
Finally, when she thought nobody was looking, Annie gave her a clue. She snatched a couple of ice cubes out of Matt’s cooler and just held onto them.
Not a single drip hit the ground and when Annie opened her hands again, they were dry, with no sign there’d ever been any ice at all. What was that about?
For a weak second, Taylor considered asking for a cupcake but she fought the temptation. She wouldn’t be a hypocrite even for cupcakes. She wouldn’t pretend to be their friend just to get them to share their stuff.
Instead she sat, alone, and tried not to listen to her stomach growl while the other three chattered like cockatiels.
The second the bus rolled out of the station, already half an hour behind schedule, Barney reached into his backpack and pulled out a stack of comic books at least six inches thick. He handed a bunch to Matt and a few more to Annie. When he glanced in Taylor’s direction, she purposely stared out the window as if she cared about the abandoned warehouses and boarded up gas stations that seemed to make up most of the buildings on their route out of Dallas.
She had a feeling something bad was coming. Like Cassandra in the old-time stories, her feelings were always bad and they always came true. This time, though, knowing trouble was coming didn’t take magic—it came from knowing where they were going. The School for Monsters and Misfits was dangerous—deadly.
Trouble hit them before they even got close.
The Austin Greyhound Station was close to downtown and they were scheduled for a forty-minute wait.
“Come on, kids. Off the bus.” The driver, a fat, sweaty man with no eyebrows, gestured them forward.
Her apprehension reared up. The bus wasn’t much protection but the seats would slow any attacker. “You’re not making them get off.” Taylor pointed to an old couple who looked superglued to their seats.
The driver ran his fat fingers through greasy hair. “That’s because they’re not going to tear things apart if I leave them alone. Now, off.”
Taylor was tempted to refuse, to grab onto one of the seats and demand that she be allowed to stay. Except, the only thing that would accomplish was that he’d call the cops. Arriving at the School with a couple of losers would be bad. Arriving in the back seat of a cop car would be far worse. Or at least that’s what she thought.
“I’ll let you on in half an hour,” the driver promised. “Stay out of trouble.”
Like that was going to happen.
Texas’s state capitol gleamed from just a couple of blocks away, but the bus depot might as well have been in another world. Diesel fumes danced across the parking lot like living things and the waiting room, with its depressed coffee shop, seemed a million miles away.
“Anyone want ice cream?” Matt gestured at a machine in the coffee shop, oblivious to the air of dread hanging over the station like a dung-covered horse-blanket. Then again, why shouldn’t he be? Being sent to the School for Monsters and Misfits was probably the first bad thing that ever happened to him.
Barley and Annie trotted after Matt, anticipating their sugar rush, leaving Taylor to watch for the danger she knew was coming. Sometimes it helped to see trouble before it got there.
Usually, of course, it didn’t.
* * * *
Taylor was being weird, and hadn’t even responded when he’d offered to buy ice cream, but Annie and Barley joined Matt at the freezer, selecting from all two flavors available.
Although it was barely noon, a couple of big guys who looked like they had either snuck out of school or had just graduated were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer at a table near the ice cream machine. They didn’t look friendly, so Matt led the others back out to the bus lot where a couple of benches had been set up under an overhang.
The bus depot wasn’t the most beautiful environment and the summer sun beat down like an overly-energetic microwave, but the benches were better than inhaling someone else’s smoke.
He opened the door for Annie and Barley and, once they’d passed him, started out himself.
He didn’t make it.
One of the big guys grabbed his arm and jerked Matt toward him, pressing his face down until it was only a couple of inches away. “Funny, you don’t look like monsters to me. What makes you so dangerous, kid?”
Matt dropped his ice cream as he struggled to get away.
“Watch out,” Annie shouted. “He’s a troll.”
Sure enough, the guy who’d grabbed him swelled up, growing to almost seven feet in height with shoulders so broad he had to turn sideways to make it out the door.
“We’re not looking for trouble,” Matt tried.
The troll jabbed his red tag. “Too bad, loser. You found it anyway. Right, Ryan.”
The other guy dropped his cigarette and transformed to troll himself. He shoved past Matt and poked Barney in the gut. “We’re only trouble for scum, Eric.”
“That’s what I thought. That’s why cleaning up this mess from Dallas is our job.”
“Let him go.” Annie grabbed Eric’s hand and tried to pull it from Matt’s arm—but the troll stuck an elbow in her face and she reeled away.
Barley tried to help as well, but Ryan caught him as he charged past and twisted both arms behind him in a full-nelson. “What do you say we clean up this filth and save our parents the money it costs to send them to the School for Morons.”
“Good plan,” Eric said. “My mother always tells me to flush when I find a mess.” The troll shoved Matt into the wall hard enough he bounced off it, then whirled around and punched Barley, still being held by Ryan, in the stomach.
Barley turned green and gagged.
Matt looked around, desperate for any type of assistance. In the early afternoon, the bus station should be full of people. He’d seen a couple of cops when they’d first climbed off the bus but that was then. Whether it was just bad luck or if the trolls had planned ahead, the lot was deserted now—except for his two friends, the two trolls, and the mysterious Taylor.
Annie wasn’t going to be any help—she’d sagged to the ground after taking Eric’s elbow. Taylor, of course, pretended she didn’t know any of them.
But they’d let go of him when the two trolls had ganged up on Barley. That left him free.
Few bunnies turn on larger predators and hunt them down. But his father had always explained that bullies are fundamentally cowards. If he just confronted them, maybe…
He put down his head and charged. If he could catch Eric from behind, possibly Barley could get free, and then, perhaps, the two of them could figure a way to help Annie up and get away from the trolls. Maybe…
Instead of Eric’s back, he ran into the older boy’s fist.
Something went crunch and his nose twisted sideways.
He told himself to keep going but his knees wobbled under him and abruptly he was sitting on the concrete parking lot.
“Guess these monsters aren’t so fierce after all,” Eric announced. He had blood on his fist and, for an instant, Matt wondered if he’d at least injured the troll. Then he realized the blood was his.
“I’ve been thinking about this,” Ryan observed. “I’m thinking, if they’re not people, killing ‘em isn’t murder. More like vermin elimination. My pop always says there’s no off-season on vermin.”
“Excellent thinking, Ryan. An apt comparison.”
If he transformed, Matt might get away. But rabbits are vermin and he’d simply confirm what these guys already thought. Then they’d take out his escape on Barley and Annie.
Matt had never been the kind to crybaby home to his parents. Now, though, he didn’t see any alternative.
Pain and the damage to his nose made Matt’s eyes water so hard he couldn’t make out the buttons on his phone, but he didn’t need to see the numbers to dial home.
He knew he was just confirming his father’s judgment that he was a coward and a disappointment. He knew a real man would stand and take whatever these guys chose to dish out. But Matt thought they were deadly serious about killing him and the others. Maybe he was less than a real man—the part of him that was a rabbit had no bravery in it at all. But he’d swallow his pride if doing so kept him and his friends alive.
He pushed the speed dial number. “Dad, it’s Matt. Some Fae kids are beating us up in Austin. Their names are Eric and Ry—”
A heavy boot smacked into his hand, sending his phone flying.
It landed with a thunk—followed by the tinkle of electronic parts scattering across the parking lot asphalt.
“Now that was stupid,” Eric told him. “Do you really think your mommy is going to—”
“You’d better hope there are a lot of trolls named Ryan and Eric.”
Taylor might as well have been on another planet until then. For some reason, she’d decided to pick that moment intervene. Maybe she’d realized that the trolls would have to kill her too if they didn’t want witnesses.
“Otherwise,” she continued, “you might as well buy your own bus tickets for San Antonio.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t even know who you’re beating up on?” Taylor laughed. “That’s Matt Carnecero. As in the Carneceros of Frisco. His daddy, the one you just broke up is call to, is head of the Dallas shifter community.”
“Good thing you’re in our neighborhood, then,” Eric said. “We’ll just—”
Whatever they would “just do” was interrupted by Eric’s phone.
“Yeah? … Yes, dad.” Eric looked like his winning lottery ticket turned up counterfeit. “But dad, I’m just cleaning up some … Okay. If you say so.” He snapped his phone shut.
“Guess you’ve got a pretty important father.” Eric hauled Matt off the ground where he’d fallen after running into Eric’s fist. “Guess you think that makes you important too.”
“I didn’t hear anything about your friends being important, though.” Eric hit Barley twice more in the stomach, then stomped over to Annie and drove a knee into her belly.
He strolled back to Matt, pretended to brush him off, then picked him up like a football, and drop-kicked him. “Oops. Sorry.”
Matt wasn’t a football and he didn’t fly far, but the kick hurt more than the punch in the nose had, more than anything he’d ever experienced—except his first and only transformation to animal form.
“I’d say we’ll see you losers later,” Ryan taunted. “Except we won’t—because where you’re going, they don’t come out.” Let’s get out of here, Eric.”
As they headed out, the trolls exchanged high fives and bragged on facing monsters and prevailing.
Matt wondered if he’d just got his first taste of the rest of his life.
The thought was not reassuring.
* * * *
“Good thing you’re all looking out for each other’s backs.” Taylor had hoped it wouldn’t work out like this, but she probably had more experience with the whole monster thing than the others—except, maybe, Annie. She’d seen a flash of green when Eric had rammed his knee into Annie’s stomach and had a guess why Annie never smiled.
Barley glared at her. “What’s that mean?”
“You might have gotten into trouble if you weren’t.”
“We got out of it.”
“You wouldn’t have if I hadn’t given Matt the chance to call his dad.”
It should have been easy for her to watch. They were three spoiled kids from the rich side of town, children of the powerful elite in Dallas’s Fae community. She probably shouldn’t have interfered as much as she had, but mentioning Matt’s parents had seemed harmless.
She’d waited a good three minutes after the fight to make sure the trolls were really gone before coming over and helping Matt to his feet.
“Thanks for your help.” This time Annie didn’t bother hiding her smile—which was more of a grimace. Yep, Taylor had seen right. The girl had green teeth that came to sharp points. The punks had attacked Matt and Barley. They’d barely bothered with the real monster.
She’d read about murdhuacha, the Irish version of mermaids, who never sat combing their hair and being beautiful, but instead dragged sailors into the water and drowned them. Annie was one of those.
Unfortunately, just because she was a monster didn’t mean she could fight like one. Annie might as well have been a fully human girl like Taylor for all the help she’d been.
“Did you expect me to do more?” Taylor laughed, pretending she didn’t mind they hadn’t thanked her for interrupting. Without her, Eric’s father’s call would have been too late. “I don’t remember being part of the ‘stick together’ gang. Like I said, though, sure worked well for you.”
“At least we tried.”
“Did I say stick together?” she continued. “Sink together is more like it.” She wished she could believe that “trying” and good intentions resulted in good outcomes, but she’d never seen that. Maybe the meek would inherit the earth—but the tough guys would ruin it and move on to something better first.
Annie jerked Matt away from Taylor as if staking a claim—as if she might be interested in a kid doomed to be stepped on by everyone.
She hadn’t figured him out yet. Coming from the Carnecero family, he had to be a shifter. She wondered if he was a kitten—he certainly seemed skittish enough. And they might not like the image of a humble house-cat being part of their pride.
The beating had taken its toll—he looked about as steady on his feet as her stepfather did when he stumbled home from a twenty-four hour drunk.
Her guts tightened when she remembered what that man had tried to do the last time he’d come home drunk and found her alone.
“Come on, Matt.” Taylor would have shaken him, but Annie held both of his hands and looked intently into his eyes. “You’re a shifter,” Annie said. “Transform into animal form. When you shift back, a lot of your injuries will be healed.”
“How do you know that?” Barley demanded. “You a shifter.”
Annie sighed. “Didn’t you pay attention to anything they told you when you were getting ready for your thirteens?”
“Uh, sure. Anyway, I’d love to be able to become a T-Rex myself.”
“I’m getting back on the bus.” Taylor shook her head in disgust. “It really doesn’t matter to me, but if you have any sense, you’ll get back on, too. And think about this, Annie. If Matt wouldn’t transform when he was in a fight, why would he do it now, just because you ask? Maybe he can’t transform, or maybe he transforms to something out of place—like a miniature shark.”
That was a clever slam—and hinted to Annie that Taylor had seen through her secret. “Maybe that’s why he’s a magical misfit.”
Annie gnashed her sharp green teeth and growled at Taylor. “Considering how much help you’ve been to us, I don’t know why we’re even listening to you. Come on, guys. Let’s get on the bus. You’ve got a broken nose, Matt. And Barley, you look like something you ate didn’t agree with you.”
Barley rubbed his stomach. “Right now, nothing I’ve ever eaten agrees with me.”
The three clomped over to the bus just as the driver headed out of the station coffee shop.
Once, Taylor would have been hurt by their attitude. But that had been a long time before—back when she’d let other people’s opinions matter. She’d learned her lesson the hard way. Never depend on anyone, never count on anyone. And watch your own back.
She pretended she didn’t mind the way the kids shut her out, found her seat at the back, and stared out the window as they headed down Koenig Lane toward the onramp to I-35.
Her stomach growled as she sat, but she glared at Barley as if accusing him of making the noise. She’d recognized Matt’s offer to buy everyone ice cream for the trap it had been. Accepting it would have committed her to, if not friendship, at least a vague alliance with the others. She couldn’t afford to hang her future off their sinking ship. That didn’t mean she wasn’t hungry.
She opened the celebrity magazine she’d lifted at the station from a lady who’d probably finished it. She planned to spend the rest of the journey pretending she was fascinated by the supposed lives of the supposedly glamorous.
She wondered how ordinary people would react if they learned how many of their idols were Fae. Maybe they wouldn’t care—maybe the whole idea of keeping the Fae secret was about control rather than to protect the people.
One thing was certain—there was nothing glamorous about being sent to the School for Misfits and Monsters—a place where people went and never returned.
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