Riley’s Zombie Thing – Chapter One

A/N: This is one of those ‘I don’t know what will come of it’ stories, but the majority of you were okay with that in the polls, so here it is! I don’t have a cover or an actual title for it right now, so we’re just going to go with what I have it titled in my drafts, lol. I hope you enjoy chapter one!**


Riley barely managed to get one salsa-dipped tortilla chip to their mouth before the door to the break room opened. They lifted their head, eyes finding a relatively short black man in the doorway. He wore a laminated ID card around his neck, but he was too far away from them to read it.

“I don’t recognize you. Are you the new intern?”

“Yes, ma’am. Are you Mrs. Johnson?”

“It’s actually Mx. Johnson or Doctor Johnson, but yes I’m the Johnson you’re looking for.”

“Oh, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know”

Riley smiled. “It’s not your fault. Whoever sent you to find me could’ve told you, and they didn’t. That’s not on you, so don’t sweat it. What can I help you with?”

“Umm, Doctor Murphy wanted me to tell you, and I quote, ‘Lunch break is over, get your ass to the lab now’. Umm… end quote, I guess?”

Riley couldn’t help but snort. “Yeah, that sounds like him. Thank you.” They shoved the chip into their mouth. They couldn’t have lunch yet–not until well after suppertime, if they knew anything about Murphy–but they could have one damn chip, if nothing else. Murphy owed them that much for all the hours he worked them without giving them the lead position in a new assignment. Or any assignment.

Riley folded down the top of the chips bag, clothespinned it, and put their salsa in the refrigerator. It’d still be there waiting for them when Murphy was done with whatever he wanted. Still fresh and homemade.

They walked toward the door, flipping off the light as the intern backed into the hallway. “So”–Riley glanced at his ID–“Morgan. What brought you to Cromwell Labs?”

“My mom worked here for a while before she got sick. Sick enough she couldn’t work anymore, I mean. I changed my whole game plan after that. I was gonna be a lab geek for some police station, do the whole crime scene analysis thing, but… Well, I wanted to make Mom as proud as I possibly could. Cromwell is the way to do that.”

“Well, we’re happy to have you. It’s always good to have young people around that are still interested in science and research, even more so when it’s at our facility.” Riley stopped at the elevator and swiped their ID card through the reader. The doors dinged open. “Are you coming down?”

Morgan shook his head. “Doctor Murphy said I’m not to come down to the lab until further notice.” Morgan rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t mean to… pry or be a bother, but do you know why that is?”

“He’s probably just feeling you out.” Riley stuck a foot in the track of the elevator doors to keep them from closing. “Murphy can be… suspicious of new people, even the ones he hires. He probably just wants to make sure you’re legit in your interest in working here instead of trying to steal company secrets or something. He can be a bit paranoid.” Riley smiled. “Don’t worry, Morgan. You’ll be downstairs in the lab in no time.”

Morgan offered a smile of his own, one far less timid or nervous than his voice. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“No problem.” Riley stepped into the elevator, pressed the button for the lab, and offered a little wave as the metal doors slid closed. With a sigh, they leaned back against the wall, hands wrapped around the bar that ran along it. Admittedly, the bar in an elevator gave Riley far more anxiety than comfort. Bars were usually reserved for stairs, where people could slip or fall. They were usually reserved for handicapped stalls for people who needed help standing or sitting. They were usually reserved for ‘oh shit we’re gonna die’ situations.

And if an elevator ever entered the ‘oh shit we’re gonna die’ roller coaster, the bar sure as hell wasn’t going to help Riley survive.

But they tried not to think about that. Sort of. It was kind of hard not to think about it, actually.

The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened. No oh shit roller coaster this time around, either. Riley stepped out into the hall, letting out the breath they’d been holding on the ride down.

The next inhale caught in their throat. The hall was dead silent. No doctors chatting. No equipment running. No music playing. It was eerily still and sterile.

Riley ran through a quick list of the bad things that could happen down in the basement of Cromwell Labs. Scientist thievery. Ghouls. Flickering lights. Power outage. Zombies. A mugging, surely. Good ol’ fashioned human-on-human homicide.

Or,” Riley whispered, “maybe you’re just crazy and everyone else decided now was a good time for a lunch break, too.” They clutched either side of their lab coat and forced themself to start down the hall. “You aren’t the only person who gets hungry around noon, Johnson.”

They stopped in their tracks as the door at the end of the hall opened. It was to the decontamination chamber that connected to the main lab in Cromwell. Riley couldn’t remember the last time it’d been used, the last time something had been considered dangerous enough or viral enough to require the extra precautions.

Two men walked out of the chamber, assault rifles in hand. Riley backed up toward the elevator, as if being silent and walking away  would keep the men from seeing them in the well-lit hall.

A third man stepped out. He wore the same black suit as the other two, but he lacked the BFG. “Doctor Johnson?”

Riley lifted their head, rifling through their mind in search of any answer that wasn’t acknowledgment. They settled on, “That’s me.”

Which was… so not cool.

The man and his armed goons came down the hall, and Riley did what they could not to shit their pants. “Doctor Johnson, you’ve been chosen for a very important job. You’ll be tasked with creating a vaccine for a new… virus. Disease. Sickness. We don’t care what you call it, so long as you fix it.”

“Did Doctor Murphy put you up to whatever this is?” Riley waved a hand in their direction. “Fake guns to try and scare me out of asking for an assignment of my own?”

“No. Mister Murphy knows nothing about what this assignment is. All he was told was to send you down here to speak with us. End of story.”

Riley shoved their hands into the pockets of their lab coat, hoping it hid at least some of the fear rolling off of them. “If the assignment isn’t from Murphy and it isn’t a joke… then what is this?”

“That would be the U.S. government, Doctor.”

“Oh,” Riley whispered. “What… does the government want with me? I-I mean, why me? I’ve never been a lead scientist on anything in Cromwell. Anywhere, for that matter.”

The guy in the middle–the shorter one, the one without the gun–chuckled, shaking his head. “Your government doesn’t care about which scientist Mister Murphy considers the best or the worst. We don’t care who he deems important. We care about who will do the best at this job. And that’s you.”


“Doctor Johnson, do we have to play this game?”

“Yes, we do. Because… because two of you have guns and just came out of the decontamination lab, and I can’t even remember the last time something we worked on was so dangerous that it was through decontamination.”

The shorter man sighed, but he tried to cover it with a smile. “Can you let me explain on the walk to the lab? You don’t have to go in until we’re done talking.”

Riley forced themself to nod. “I can do that.”

“Perfect.” He turned and started back toward the lab, but his goons didn’t move until Riley was in front of them. “You’ve done a lot of research that’s of great interest to us when it comes to this vaccine. You have a lot of theories you can finally test, too.” He offered a smile. “To say the least, you’re the only scientist we are currently aware of that has such an interest in such a unique situation. We need that interest. We need that intrigue, that curiosity. Curiosity drives discovery, and discovery is incredibly important.”

“I-I don’t understand. All of my research has been with other scientists here. It’s all been done with other people. They have the same ‘interests’ under the belt that I do,” Riley said.

The shorter man slid an ID card through the reader at the lab, and the glass doors of the decontamination room slid open. “It’s better if I can show you. It’s one of those things you really have to see to believe. So, Doctor Johnson… what do you say?”

A part of Riley–a very large part–wanted nothing more than to run away, but they couldn’t outrun bullets or goons. They couldn’t even outrun their neighbor’s dog, and he was a thirteen-year-old tripod who barely even walked out the front door to take his morning pee anymore.

Riley swallowed, forcing themself to nod. “Okay. Let’s see it and believe it.”

The man smiled. “Great.” He turned and walked into the room. With a harsh release of breath, Riley followed. “You’ll only need to go through actual decontamination on your way back out of the lab. On the way in, I need you to put on the neck gaiter mask, the face shield, and the gloves. You should also button up your lab coat in case your shirt rides up or lifts when you raise your arms.”

Riley glanced back over their shoulder as the doors closed. “That’s a lot of safety equipment for something I have to see to believe.”

One corner of his mouth lifted. “You want your skin covered, believe me.”

Riley stared at him for a moment before letting out a breath, shoulders sinking. Unless they had a death wish, there was no way out of the room. Doing as they’d been told was the only option now. They buttoned up their lab coat and put on the gaiter, pulling the mask portion up over their nose. The gloves felt like kevlar, like they were designed to be cut proof, and they went up to their elbows. They grabbed one of the face shields from the bench, though ‘shield’ didn’t quite do it justice. The damn thing looked form-fitted, more like a helmet than the standard shields they had in all the labs.

Once all four of them were outfitted with the required gear, the shorter man swiped his ID card and walked through the decontamination room. Riley followed him through the room and into the lab.

The usual hum of the lights was overcast by something else. Something low. Something rumbling. Something… dangerous.

Riley stepped out in front of the man. When he didn’t stop them, they kept moving toward the noise. The curtain by the back examination table had been pulled, but they could make out a shadow through it. A person sat behind it, rocking back and forth slowly. As Riley drew nearer, the shadow’s head shot back, and the terrifying scream stopped Riley in their tracks, hands flying up to their ears.

They flinched as a hand touched their back. The shorter man stepped past them and grabbed the curtain with one gloved hand. “Prepare yourself, Doctor Johnson. Even when you see it, it’s still a little hard to believe. But we need your head in the game. Okay?”

Riley forced themself to nod, hands still covering their ears, though the screaming had stopped.

The man pulled the curtain back.

Riley’s hands fell to their sides. “Oh… my… God.”

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Teaser: Searching for who the hell knows

A/N: I don’t have a chapter of The Surgeon ready for you just yet, but I wanted to thank the two people who have donated to help keep the website up and running. I’m about 18% of the way there now! If you’d like to help make sure I can keep posting free stories for you guys, you can read the whole post here, and you can find donation links at the bottom of that page.

I’m hoping to get The Surgeon updated today as a thank you, but in the meantime, here’s the first chapter of a new crime book I started. Not sure if it’ll go anywhere, but we’ll see!


The morning rain hit the awning outside the window with a soft pitter patter. As the day wore on, the pitter patter would grow heavier, sounding more like hail than rain, but for now, the pitter patter was easy to tune out. It was only day two of an expected week-long storm, far from Atticus’s favorite event to see in the summer forecast. How some people liked heavy rain and thunderstorms always escaped him. There was nothing appealing to him about a dark, overcast sky, thundering booms, or strikes of lightning exploding bursts of light into the sky.

Atticus reached down and scratched the top of Benny’s head. The pitbull threw his head back only long enough to confirm the touch belonged to Atticus, his chin quickly returning to its place atop his outstretched front paws.

A heavy knock broke up the soft pitter patter behind him. He glanced up at the ceiling, waiting for the sky to finally break, but it didn’t. He cast a look out the open office door, gaze landing on the angled mirror in the hall. The door knob of the front door was still, and he couldn’t see a shadow in the frosted window, either. When no one called out and another knock didn’t sound, he shook his head and dismissed it as the house settling. His paranoia over visitors had increased greatly over the years, and it always worsened even further–if that was actually possible–in March, but the facts always remained the same. Atticus lived out in the middle of nowhere. He could count his unexpected visitors over the last twenty-something years on one hand.

His eyes drifted away from the door’s reflection, falling back to the coin held between his fingers. The shiny piece of metal–a perfect circle with one triangular chip in one edge–served as a smoking gun for him. It was proof that the Lost City of Z was out there somewhere in Brazil.

He had found precisely two treasures in his lifetime, coin aside, and he planned to make Z his third.

Another heavy knock interrupted the rain and his plans for the day. With a sigh, he flicked the coin out of his fingers and snatched it out of the air as he rose to his feet. There was one girl scout that came around a few times a year–a short blonde who dealt Thin Mints and Samoas like they were drugs–but she had never stopped by in the rain. Atticus didn’t see a reason why she’d start now. Surely she wasn’t that desperate to break ahead in the leaderboard.

Atticus nudged Benny’s shoulder with his foot. The dog lifted his head, hauling himself to his feet as soon as he saw his human had already done the same. He followed Atticus out of the office and through the hall, where Atticus signaled for him to sit and wait with a simple lift of his palm. Benny dropped to his haunches, that worried look in his eyes. Sometimes, Benny looked at him in a way that no dog–rescue or not–should be capable of. Atticus had decided more than once that Benny had been a human in an old life. Often, he wondered if Benny’s reincarnation had been a reward or a punishment.

His placement with Atticus seemed to lean toward the latter.

Benny nudged Atticus’s thigh.

“I know, bud,” Atticus whispered, the three words falling on deaf ears. He gave the top of the dog’s head a good scritch and headed for the front door. He cast one last look at the coin, at his plans for the day, and pocketed it. Z would still be there after his unwanted visitor left. Just as a third knock sounded, he pulled open the door.

The woman standing on his doorstep was most definitely not a girl scout. Her dark hair was soaked with rain, little water droplets forming at the tips of the tendrils that had fallen around her face. A droplet fell from her hair and raised down her cheek, falling to the bag she held to her chest.

Atticus lifted his eyes back to her face. “Can I… help you?”

She held the bag out to him. Well, that was being a bit too kind. She had shoved it into his chest hard enough that he’d grunted his response. But Atticus did his best to give her the benefit of the doubt on her aggression, on her strength. She didn’t look… well. The bags under her eyes seemed to carry luggage of their own, and the expression on her face was empty and simply… off.

“My son’s gone missing.”

Gently, Atticus pulled her hands from his chest and pushed them back toward her. “I don’t work with Missing Persons anymore. I’m just a—”

“An adventurer. A treasure hunter.” She nodded. “I know. That’s why I came to you.”

“I’m, umm… I’m not following.”

“The bastard who took my son has been sending these riddles to me. Riddles. The police haven’t gotten anywhere with them, and the public’s been no help through the tip line. But you found Forrest Fenn’s treasure using his riddles. Y-you found the Golden Owl using his riddles. You’re my last shot at finding my son alive.”

Atticus watched her for a moment, unable to stop his brow from furrowing. It was so damn specific, so manipulative. But there was no change in her expression. No ‘Oh gosh I can’t believe I said that’. No ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry’. The woman either had no shame, no guilt, or she just… didn’t know.

He cleared his throat. “Four days?”

“Yes, four days. And I already know what you’re gonna say, and I know. I’ve been told. The first twenty-four hours are the best hours for search and rescue, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. The police haven’t given up either, but they need help that no one else has been able to give them.” She shoved a wet, tangled tendril of hair back behind her ear. “They need you. My son needs you.”

Atticus bit back the initial response that sprung to the tip of his tongue. This woman and her son weren’t his problem. They weren’t his job anymore. They hadn’t been for a long damn time. But it was hard to say that to a worried mother, to a terrified father, to a grieving parent of any variety. It would always be hard. “Look, ma’am, I’m sorry about your son–I am–but solving riddles in poems and pictures doesn’t mean I can help find a missing child. I haven’t been a part of that for a long time.”

“I’m sure it’ll come back to you. Just like riding a bike.” Again, she held out the bag. “Please.”

Atticus stared down at the piece of plastic in her hands. It was a bag from the grocery store in town, the material so thin he could see the photocopied letters inside. He wondered if they had come individually wrapped in brown paper, each one tied off with a little bow of twine, or if they had arrived on her step in a box or a gift bag. Maybe they’d shown up in the damn plastic bag. Who the hell knew.

A part of him wanted to ask, wanted some answers, but the much larger part of him wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.

He let out a sigh and grabbed the bag. “I’ll look into it.”

“Thank you so much! Oh, my God.” She practically lunged into the house, throwing her arms around him. Atticus tensed, and Benny growled from the hall. It was low, barely audible to most people. Atticus held a hand out behind his back, palm extended toward the dog. With a heavy exhale, the growling subsided.

The woman stepped away. “My number’s in the bag. Everything you need is in there. Thank you so much.”

“Don’t… don’t get your hopes up. I’m not a miracle worker.”

She smiled. “I think you’re a lot more than you think you are. You’re a very kind man. Thank you.”

Before Atticus could throw out another reminder about the dangers of high hopes, she turned and ran for her car. Atticus closed the front door and dropped the wet bag to the floor. He looked down, peeling his rain-soaked shirt away from his skin.

A change of clothes before he ripped open an old wound seemed like the least he could do for himself.

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Fighter 13


“I’m gonna die.”

The older man snorted, shaking his head. In the same Spanish tongue, he said, “You ain’t gonna die.”

Luca Gutiérrez looked down at his bruised hands, running a thumb over the still-healing crack across his knuckle. “I’m not a death match fighter, Papa. I don’t know… how to do it.”

“How to what? Fight? ‘Cause we both know that’s bullshit.”

Luca shook his head. “How to kill a man.” He turned away from the mirror to look at his father. “Fightin’ is one thing. How the hell am I supposed to kill someone?”

“You fight, but you keep doing it till the guy’s dead. It ain’t rocket science, son.”

“Why do I have to do it? You’ve fought in death matches before.”

“You know why.”

Unfortunately, Luca did know why. His father had been sick for a little over two years. Cancer, whatever the hell that meant. His dad wouldn’t give him specifics on the disease, but Luca knew the treatment wasn’t cheap. The cost was why Luca needed to take his father’s place in the fights, something he’d been doing since he’d shot up to well over six and a half feet soon after he turned twelve. He’d gotten his ass kicked a number of times since, but he had gotten better at winning. Enough nose bleeds and busted hands served as pretty good motivation to stop sucking at fighting.

“What happens if I lose?” Luca asked.

“You won’t lose.”

“It’s a fight to the death, I’ve never fought more than one round at a time, and I’m scrawny as hell.”

“You’ll get past that inability to gain weight and muscle when you get older. It’s your metabolism eating away at all of it.”

“What if I’m killed in one of these matches before I get to that point?”

A knock at the locker room door pulled both of their attention away from the focus of death. The man in the doorway said something in English, but the only part Luca caught was, “Mister G.”

Luca’s dad nodded. “Thank you.” After the man ducked out of the room, he turned back to Luca. Switching back to Spanish, he said, “Stop thinking about your death. You’ll get stuck in your head, and if you’re in your head, of course you’re gonna die.”


“You had to get out of your head to win the normal fights. You have to do the same for this.” Luca’s dad held out his hand. Luca blew out a harsh breath and crossed the room. Standing in front of his father, he stuck out his hands. His dad grabbed the wrap from the bench and used it to point at the boy. “You have done this before. The rules are different. The game goes on a little longer. But it is the same. You’ve done it before.”

“It’s not a game, though. It’s a fight. And someone will die.”

His dad stared wrapping the bandage around Luca’s wrist. “Yes, and it will not be you.”

Luca looked down, watching his dad wrap up wrists and hands. It was something Luca would eventually need to learn to do. If he didn’t die tonight. “You have far more faith in me than I do, Papa.”

“Because you’re my boy. Because I know you and your potential even better than you do.” His dad tightened the wrap before lifting his hands to Luca’s face. “Gutiérrez men are fighters, Luca. They will always be fighters. My generation, yours, and the next dozen down the line. It runs in our blood, my boy. I have faith in you because I know better than anyone what you’re capable of. You can do this. Just stay out of your head.”

Luca searched his dad’s face for what felt like an eternity before forcing himself to nod. “I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I can ask.” His dad dropped his hands to his thighs. “Well… I think it’s time to go, Luca.”

Luca looked toward the locker room door, where the guard from before stood, arms crossed over his chest. “You’ll be in the stands?” Luca asked, turning back toward his dad.

He nodded. “I will be. I always am.” He grabbed Luca’s arm and pushed himself to his feet, using the boy for support. “Stay out of your head and you’ll be fine. Don’t focus on fear or it’ll eat you alive. You go out there, and you win this. That’s all there is to it.”

Luca figured it was pretty easy to treat it like an ‘all there is to it’ situation when you weren’t the one going out to fight someone else to the death. Luca tried not to even think about the fact that, unlike himself, the guy he would be put up against wasn’t going to be a teenager. They were never teenagers. Not in the normal fights. He doubted they’d switch that up for the death matches.

“Go out there. Win it. That’s all there is to it,” Luca repeated.

His dad smiled and gave his shoulder a tight smile. “You’ll do great, mijo. Just like you always do.”

Luca forced himself to nod. When his dad released his shoulder, he turned and walked toward the door. The man asked something in English, nothing more than a word or two, but it wasn’t directed toward Luca. The man was still looking back at his dad. Luca turned to look back at the old man too, who only nodded. The man at the door laid a hand on Luca’s back only long enough to push him forward and through the doorway.

The boy’s heart pounded in his chest as he followed the man down the long, dark hallway. As they walked, the bass of the music from the cage pulsed beneath his feet. He didn’t know if it was his heart or the music that made his chest tighten, that made it so difficult to breathe, but he tried not to focus on it. Focusing on the tightness and the breathing difficulty meant trapping himself in his own head, and his father was right.

That was a damn good way to get himself killed.

The man stopped walking and held out an arm to keep Luca from walking through the doorway into the main arena. The room itself was huge, filled to the brim with bleachers and a crowd of shouting drunks. In the middle of the room, down at floor level, the cage sat. It was a large battling area surrounded with tall metal fencing. Luca wasn’t sure what the fence had actually been made for, but it sure as hell wasn’t cage fights. He’d been shoved back into the wire more than once, the sharp edges ripping open the back of his shirt or digging into his arms.

Two men dragged another from the arena, his body thudding down the small set of stairs there. Luca swallowed. Maybe it was all a show for the audience. Maybe the guy wasn’t actually dead. Surely you couldn’t kill a man in front of hundreds of people and not be arrested for murder.


The men came toward the hall, still dragging the bloody man alongside them. Luca’s breath caught in his throat, nearly choking him. It wasn’t a show. The gaping slit in the man’s throat was proof enough of that. The gash was deep, so deep, in fact, Luca was certain he could see bone.

“Not happening to you.”

Luca looked up at the man that had practically led him to his death. Those words had been Spanish. “You speak Spanish?”

The man held up a hand, thumb and forefinger held close together. “Little bit.” He nodded to the corpse before it disappeared further down the hall. “That won’t happen to you. You’re strong.”

“Strong in fights. But I’ve never fought a murderer.”

The man tilted his head to the side for a moment before clearing his throat. “You have. You… you definitely have.” He grabbed Luca’s arm again and pulled him forward. The announcer said something, but Luca only caught the use of his own name. The man led him up the stairs and pulled open the cage door. “It won’t happen to you. Be strong and… and swift.”

With a less than gentle shove between his shoulders, the man pushed Luca into the arena. Luca couldn’t help but flinch as the door was pulled closed behind him, as the lock was forced into place.

Luca’s brow eyes settled on the pool of blood on the floor first, the bloody rag in his opponent’s hands second. He forced his gaze up to the man’s face. The man was shorter than Luca–most people were–but he was bigger. More muscular. Luca was tall and agile as hell, but he was a scrawny little shit, as his dad liked to say.

The announcer practically shouted into his microphone, but Luca picked up on absolutely nothing from it. His dad had been pretty firm in his belief that Luca shouldn’t learn English. Luca was certain that had more to do with being able to have secret conversations than anything else.

The thundering bass of the music grew louder, shaking the sides of the cage. The man pushed himself away from the metal and shoved the bloody rag out through one of the diamond-shaped spaces between the ragged metal wires. Unlike ‘legitimate’ matches, there was no bell or genuine signal to the beginning of a match. The deafening music served as the cue to attack.

The cue to try and kill each other.

The man snorted something from the back of his hand, shook his head, and charged at Luca. Luca jumped to the side, shoving the man into the cage wall. He growled, flinging himself off the fence. Luca barely managed to dodge him the second time. The third knocked him to the ground. Luca scrambled back, driving his boot into the man’s knee until he knocked the man down. He was used to doing little more than tiring the men out until he could get a few swings in and knock them down, but this guy was a lot faster than most of the others.

This guy had already killed at least one person during the fights tonight alone. Who knew how many lives those hands had taken in total.

Before Luca could get to his feet, the man charged him and knocked him to his back again. Luca pulled his knee up between them and drove it into the man’s chest, but the guy didn’t budge. Luca’s heart thundered in his chest. It was the only damn sound he could hear. It drowned out the music, the crowd, whatever the hell the guy was shouting at him.

He’d never been so fucking scared.

A hard shake on the cage drew Luca’s attention to his father. He had exactly enough time to register the confused anger on his face before the man drove a hard elbow into Luca’s throat. Luca gasped, his chest and stomach seizing, struggling for air. Tears clouding his vision, he clawed at the man’s face until his nails sunk into what felt like an eye.

God, he hoped it wasn’t an eye.

The man jumped away from Luca, stumbling back into the fence around the cage. Luca scrambled away on shaking hands until his back hit the fence. The clatter of something behind him pulled his attention away from the man again.

A knife.

Luca rolled onto his stomach and shoved one shaking hand through the fence. His fingers brushed over the handle of the knife, but he couldn’t get a grip on the damn thing. He let out a desperate sound, shoving his shoulder into the pointed metal tips of the fence to try and give himself enough room to grab the knife.

A hand on his ankle yanked him back. Luca grabbed the fence with both hands, wincing as the points dug into his palms and tore at his fingers. He kicked at the man’s hand with his free foot, but it didn’t do any good. He tried to shake the man’s hand off. Nothing.

With a distressed groan, he drove the tip of his boot into the man’s jaw over and over again. It was the slip of his foot into the man’s throat that caused his grip to loosen. Luca yanked his foot free and drove both boots into the man’s chest. He stumbled back into the fence. Luca shoved his hand back through the fence. “Come on!”

He grabbed the knife just as the man yanked him away from the fence. Luca rolled onto his back and kicked at the man with his free foot, fingers tightening around the handle of the knife. Don’t get stuck in your head. Try not to think about it. Just don’t think about it. Just do it. Do it. Luca lifted the knife with a shout, driving it toward the man’s head.

The man caught his wrist, a twisted smile on his face. He jumped forward, twisting Luca’s arm. Luca tried to fight the knife coming toward him–the knife he still held in his own damn hand–but the man was a hell of a lot stronger than he was.

Luca’s breath nearly strangled him as the knife pierced his chest. He kicked at the man with everything he had left, shoved at him with his free hand. When the man fell to the side, the knife came out with him. Luca’s hand flew to the wound as he rolled to his stomach, reaching for the knife with his other hand.

His fingers closed around the handle before the man could get back to it. Do it. Just do it. Hauling himself to his feet, Luca drove the knife into the man’s chest over and over again, only stopping when the referee grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet, announcing him as a winner.

Luca’s chest heaved, his stomach convulsing with each labored breath he took. He dropped the knife and forced himself to step over the body and walk out of the ring.

His father grabbed his elbow and practically dragged him down the hall. “What the fuck was that?” he asked in Spanish.

“I-I’m sorry, Papa. I tried to stay out of my head. I—”

“Not you. He was high. Not you.” His dad pointed at the guard near the door to what served as a medical area. “What the fuck?”

The guard offered a shrug and said something in English. Whatever it was hadn’t been a good enough answer for Luca’s father. The rise in volume of his own English was proof enough of that.

His father shoved the man to the side and pushed open the door. Switching to Spanish once more, he said, “Go sit down. Doc will take care of you. I’ll be back, okay?”

“Okay,” Luca whispered.

His father moved his hands to Luca’s shoulders and gave them a tight squeeze. “You did great out there. I know it was scary. I know it was not easy. You did great. I just need to figure out what the hell happened.”

Luca forced himself to nod. His father squeezed his shoulders again before heading down the hall. Luca walked into the room, and the guard closed the door behind him.


Luca turned to the man seated at the desk. The white coat insinuated he was some kind of doctor. The bottle of whiskey in his hand begged to differ. “Umm… yes?”

He gestured to the exam table with his booze hand. “Let’s get those cuts looked at.”

Okay. Somehow, the whiskey was wrong. Luca lifted himself onto the exam table. “You speak… You speak Spanish?” Luca asked.

The guy snorted. “Someone has to.” He took a swig of his drink and set the bottle on the table. He rolled his stool over to the table and pulled Luca’s hand away from his chest. “This one probably hurts the most, huh?” Luca nodded. “How old are you, kid?”

“Umm…” Luca cleared his throat. “I-I’m not supposed to answer that.”

The doctor glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Tells me about all I need to know.” He rolled back to his desk and prepared a rag soaked with something. If Luca had to guess, it was probably alcohol. Maybe even from the guy’s personal supply. “You know our fights are for soldiers eighteen and older?”


“So you’re over eighteen, huh?”

“This isn’t my first fight. I’ve been doing these for over a year.”

“I know. But we only figured out how long you had been taking your father’s place very recently..” The doctor came back to the table. He pulled Luca’s hand away and pressed the rag to his chest. Luca hissed. “How old are you? And don’t fucking toy with me. Don’t fuck with the guy in control of your healthcare.”

Luca stared at the doctor for a moment before shaking his head. “Withhold whatever care you want. I’m not a tattler.”


“How long have you had your son subbing in for you, Javier?”

Luca’s father, Javier, crossed his arms over his chest. “Who cares? How about instead we talk about that drug addict you put up against him tonight?”

“If we’d known a child was fighting, maybe we would’ve made sure the guy he was put up against wouldn’t be snorting anything mid-match, eh?”

“Fuck you,” Javier said through his teeth. “You almost got my boy killed.”

The suited man shook his head. “No.” He shook a finger at Javier as he lowered himself into his desk chair. “No, see, Javier, you almost got your boy killed tonight. You know how many soldiers we have that go through these fights. You know we add new rotations every single week, new fighters. You had no idea who he would’ve been up against tonight, and you still sent a child out to fight to the death. That isn’t my fault. You made that decision.”

“You’re going to come down here and start enforcing rules now, Lucchese?”

Antonio Lucchese Senior shook his head. “Not necessarily. But I did come down here to make you an offer, one that will keep your son alive.” He waved a hand vaguely in Javier’s direction. “One that will continue paying for your treatments.”

Slowly, Javier sat down in front of his desk. “I’m listening.”


Luca turned toward the door as it opened. His father walked into the room, a suited man behind him. The suited man said something in a language that wasn’t English, and the doctor stood and left the room. Clearing his throat, Luca’s father closed the door. Luca’s brow furrowed. “Papa?”

“Things are going to change, and they’re going to change fast.”

“What… what do you mean? What’s going to change?”

Luca’s father sat down on the stoll and rolled it closer to the exam table. He clasped his hands between his knees. “You know these fights are supposed to be closed to anyone below the age of eighteen.”

“I know.”

“Well, that rule is… It’s to keep kids safe. Street kids. Kids of immigrants. It makes sure they aren’t getting themselves killed. But because we’ve been breaking that rule, we aren’t keeping you safe. And tonight, I… I almost lost you to a fight I signed you up for.”

“I’ll get better at fighting, Papa. Now I know that not all of my opponents will be slow or easily tired.”

He shook his head. “He wasn’t slow because he was high. He wasn’t easy to tire out because he was high. He was difficult to shove away because the drugs messed with how his brain registered pain. He isn’t the only soldier you’ll face that will be high, and I can’t have you risking your life to pay for my treatments.”

“I-I’d risk my life all day if it kept you alive.”

“I know you would. But you shouldn’t have to.” He pushed himself to his feet and moved his hands to either side of Luca’s face. “It’s my job to take care of you, to keep you alive. Not the other way around. And right now, while I’m sick, I can’t do that the way I’d like to. So… so things are going to change. You’re going to work for Mister Lucchese.”

“But… he’s a mobster. Papa, he is the mob,” Luca said.

“I know.” Luca’s father nodded, dropping back into his seat. “But it’s the only way I can make sure you’re fed, that you have a roof over your head. And you won’t have to do death matches ever again. You’ll be safe. It’s the only way I can guarantee that.”

“But what about you?”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “Lucchese needs new soldiers, and someone of your height is appealing.”

“But I’m weak. Papa, come on, you’ve said it yourself. I’m scrawny as hell! I’m not intimidating. I can’t be a mobster.”

“You’ll be a soldier, a bodyguard. Your height gives you all the intimidation factor you need for now. They’ll train you for anything else they need you to be able to do. You’ll learn to fight, to defend yourself. You’ll learn everything you need to know to survive there.”

“What about you?” Luca asked again. “Your treatments. Y-you can’t work, Papa. Who’s going to take care of you?”

“Lucchese will be paying for my treatments for as long as you’re working for him. And in the meantime, you’ll have a room and three meals a day. And hopefully no more knives to the chest.”

“And you’ll have a room too?”

He let out a breath. “I’ll be at the house. You’ll be living with Lucchese. It’s easier that way. But I’ll make the trip out there every weekend.”

“Papa,” Luca whispered. I-I can’t—”

“You can. You’re a Gutiérrez. You keep fighting. You’ll win. Yeah?”

Luca swallowed roughly, forcing himself to nod. “Yeah.”

“That’s my boy.” He gave Luca’s arm a tight squeeze. “The doctor’s going to fix you up, and then I’ll… I’ll stick around to see you off. And then I’ll see you soon. Okay?”



The goodbye had been hard, but Luca had done everything he could not to cry. Crying was a emotional response not granted to men. In men, it served as a weakness, as proof that one was easy to defeat, easy to break. Luca didn’t want to stand for any of those things. He was a Gutiérrez, and he only planned to make his dad proud. If his dad thought working with Mister Lucchese was the right thing to do, then he’d do it. If it kept his dad alive, he’d do it.

The car pulled into a long, curved driveway, and the driver cut the engine in front of one of the biggest houses Luca had ever seen with his own eyes. As he climbed out of the car, Antonio Senior said something in the language Luca couldn’t identify.

The doctor cleared his throat. “Let’s go inside. Lucchese wants you to see your room.”

“Okay,” Luca said quietly. The doctor pushed open the back door, and Luca followed him out of the car. Hands shoved into the pockets of his ripped jeans, Luca followed Antonio Senior into the house, the doctor trailing behind them. Luca did his best to ignore the suited men staring at him, but it was easier said than done. He was used to getting stared at to some degree, but his experiences had only involved two or three people at a time. There were dozens upon dozens of men lining the halls and rooms they walked past, and almost every single set of eyes was on Luca.

“Why are they staring at me?”

“They prefer the idea that the mafia remain Italian,” the doctor said. “We have one other non-Italian serving as a made-man. You will be our second.”

Antonio Senior opened up a door and said something in the language Luca couldn’t place–though he was beginning to think it was Italian.

“Mister Lucchese would like to welcome you to your room. Go ahead and make yourself at home. Supper will be brought to you so you don’t have to eat around a bunch of strangers, and tomorrow we’ll work on a few introductions and get you slotted into some training sessions. Until then, enjoy the room.”

“Thank you,” Luca said. He walked into the room, and once the doctor closed the door, Luca wrapped his arms around himself. The room was empty, save for a bed. Luca’s room back home had been pretty empty too, but the emptinesses were different. The empty room he’d spent his life in felt like home. The empty room here felt… empty. Lonely.

The empty room here just made him miss his dad.

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Announcement: Thank You and Progress Update

Hey, guys. I just wanted to take a moment today to thank you all and to give a quick update on writing and my books in general.

First and foremost, I know updates have been lacking greatly, and I thank you all for my patience. When I was posting on Wattpad, I would get messages every single day asking when the next update was. This was despite updating at least once every day. So when I say I appreciate you for your patience, I mean it. It’s about the only thing in my life right now that doesn’t stress me the hell out, and that goes a long way.

Secondly, I’ve had a strange relationship with writing for quite a while. That’s partly because of Wattpad. It’s partly because of my Letters from a Madman rewrite, which greatly changed my relationship with the crime genre. And it’s partly to do with my work being associated with my last name.

Though I can’t change my past with Wattpad, much as I wish I could, I can work on the other issues. I’ve been in the process of changing my name on my published works for about a month now? Give or take. It’s a long process, lol. And I’m currently working on trying to reignite my love of the crime genre.

I’m writing a new story called “Promise Not”, and I’m about 5,000 words into it right now. You can read a bit more about it here on my Instagram. I don’t start posting it just yeat because there’s still a chance I won’t be able to finish it.

Now, let’s talk a bit about the stories I’ve been posting on my website here.

If you read “The Happy Face Killer”, you probably saw the note about me wanting to–needing to–restart the story again. I currently have absolutely no passion for the story, and I can’t even remember the last time I worked on it. It’s a rewrite as is, and that should make it the easiest book on my list, but it’s actually the most difficult. Once I read through the Bo Austen series, I’m going to decide some things about the series. In the meantime, I’ll keep you as updated as I can on all of it.

I’m also struggling with my romances. I’m 100% stuck on “Hashtags and Homicide”, ad I have been for a very long time. I’m not sure how to fix that one right now, but I imagine it has something to do with my issues around the crime genre at the moment.

I’m also struggling with “Truths and Chains”. Though I have some days where I make good progress, most of it is being forced. The story was supposed to focus on Elias researching for his story, and that hasn’t been there. Things are moving way too fast for Vito, and that’s entirely out of character for him. Time needs to be expanded there, and that’s something I’m going to work on fixing ASAP so we can get back to the story. I know you guys love Elias and Vito, and I love the hell out of them too. I just need to do some rewriting and tweaking before I can move forward with the story.

In the meantime, I have a short story I can post for you all. I was going to wait until we hit 2K reads in a month, but until I start posting more, that’s going to be impossible. So, instead, shortly after this post goes live, the short story “Fighter 13” will be posted. This is a story about Luca from the Jamal Pitman series, and it focuses on how he joined the mob. It’s something I’m pretty proud of, despite how long it took to write, and I’m hoping you guys will enjoy getting some back story on Luca.

For now, this is about all I have for an update, but I’ll do my best to keep you guys as in the loop as possibly can. I suffer pretty heavily from brain fog and memory issues, so you might have to remind me to give you a progress update on my books every now and then. Until the next one, I hope you guys enjoy “Fighter 13”, and I’ll see you soon. Thank you for your patience and understanding. 💜

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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Ten


Landon locked the door as soon as Miguel pulled it shut. He leaned back against it, closing his eyes as he tried to stop his heart from bursting. Investigating the likelihood of Eliseo’s mother creating a psychic with Miguel was not his best laid plan, that was for damn sure. Christ, he had almost blurted out he liked the man before he even had the chance to put his shoes on. How the hell was he supposed to survive an entire monster hunt without saying anything?

He forced his eyes open and looked down at his phone. Desire for Miguel or not, he had a job to do. He’d been a chicken shit about his feelings for Miguel the whole time he’d known the man. Surely he could continue to chicken out for the duration of a monster hunting expedition. He was totally more than capable of that.


He lifted his eyes to Eliseo’s face. “What’s up, bud?”

“Are you thinking about how you want to kiss my daddy?”

Landon scoffed. “Get outta my head, twerp.”

The boy only smiled. “Are you really gonna chicken out forever?”

“I don’t know. I hope not.” Landon laid his free hand on Eliseo’s back and steered him to the living room. “I like your dad. He’s a good guy. But I also like this job. I enjoy babysitting you, and I don’t want to risk losing that because your dad doesn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t like you?” Eliseo asked.

“I… I don’t know. I wish I knew, but I can’t really do the whole mind reading thing,” Landon said. He lifted Eliseo onto the couch and sat down beside him. “Your dad doesn’t have to like me just because I like him. So there’s always a chance he won’t like me back, and then things’ll be awkward, and he probably won’t have me around for babysitting anymore.”

“That’d stink.”

Landon nodded. “Yeah, I’m not a fan of it, either.” He elbowed the boy in the side. “Who’d be my best little psychic friend then?”

Eliseo offered a small smile before it faded away. “I didn’t wanna worry Daddy before he left.”

Landon’s shoulders sank. He set his phone on the end table before turning to face Eliseo. “What happened?”

“I had another bad dream. Not… as scary as yesterday, but still kinda scary. Father Whipper didn’t know I was there this time, so it wasn’t as bad.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t as bad, but I’m sorry it was still scary.” Landon reached out and gave the boy’s arm a comforting squeeze. “When happened in the bad dream?”

“He was out in the woods, I think. It was dark, and there were a lot of trees. He was humming and putting something into a barrel.” Eliseo’s gaze fell to the floor. “Someone.”

Landon’s heart skipped a beat. “I-I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“They were alive,” Eliseo said, looking back at Landon. “They were yelling and screaming, asking him to please stop. But they were alive.” Before Landon could work up a response, Eliseo grabbed his arm with both of his little hands. “Are my dreams real?”


“I’ll know if you’re lying to me.”

“You… you should talk to your dad about that, Eliseo. I’m willing to talk about a lot of things and answer a lot of questions, but that’s one I shouldn’t answer without talking to your dad first.”

“So… yes, they’re real.”

Landon shook his head. “That’s not what I said. There are just things I don’t want to take away from your dad. Like, your dad’s really good at sports, so if you asked me to teach you how to play baseball, I’d only do it with permission from your dad because I wouldn’t want to take away his ability to be the one to teach you.”

After a moment, Eliseo nodded. “Okay. I’ll talk to Daddy, then.”

“Okay,” Landon whispered with a short nod.

Eliseo scooted closer to him and leaned into his side, hugging his lamb toy to his chest. Landon wrapped an arm around the boy’s shoulders, letting out a relieved breath. The last thing he needed was to get in trouble for telling Eliseo that, yes, his friends were being hunted by a monster, and yes, the monster was very, very real. That was Miguel’s job.

He looked back down at his phone and opened up his text message thread with Nora.

Landon: I told Miguel about the Reaper thing.

Nora: And? How’d he react?

Landon: Better than I thought possible for someone… normal. I told him we need to see if the Reaper in this area is dead.

Nora: Do you want his number, or do you want me to arrange for him to meet you two somewhere?

Landon: Umm I’m NOT going to text the devil. You do it

Nora: Lol

Nora: Okay. Let me know when works best for you and Miguel and I’ll see what I can do.

Landon: Thank you

Nora: Of course. I’m all for taking down a monster that’s killing kids.

Landon glanced down at Eliseo before sending back a quick, ‘Me too’. He wanted nothing more than to guarantee Eliseo’s safety against at least one danger in the world, and with Lucifer’s help, he and Miguel would be able to do just that.


Miguel made it back to his desk without too much trouble. When you were the detective working the brutal murder of a three-year-old, most of the officers kept their heads down and avoided talking to you. Miguel was more than okay with that. He didn’t know how many more smiles he could fake or how many chats by the coffee maker he could take. He just wanted to get in, get Bo’s report, and then leave. Nothing more, nothing less.

He sorted through the papers on his desk twice, coming up empty on anything from Bo both times.

Letting out a harsh breath, Miguel closed his eyes. Maybe Bo hadn’t finished it yet. Or maybe there was something the analyst wanted to talk about. Miguel prayed for the first option and forced his eyes open. “In and out,” he whispered, pushing himself away from his desk.

He found the lab empty, but a folder sat on the table, ‘Pareja’ written on the sticky note stuck to the top of it. The smallest smile came to his face as he grabbed the folder. If nothing else, he had the report. No matter how successful or unsuccessful he and Landon’s investigation of the day was, at least he could officially say something had gone right.

“I watched the security tapes from the butcher shop this morning.”

Miguel flinched before turning around to face Bo. The blonde stood in the doorway of the lab, hands tucked behind his back. “Why?”

“I had already finished the report, but I still didn’t have a good picture of what happened,” Bo said quietly. “You’ve watched them?”


“And… you’re the only one who’s been inside that shop for more than a couple seconds?”

Miguel wasn’t sure where Bo was going, but he was pretty sure he didn’t like it. “That’s right.”

Bo nodded, taking a small step forward. “You and I both know it would have been impossible for a human being to get into and out of that room without at least a hand or shoulder being seen on camera, even if only for a split second.”

“I’ve seen stranger things in investigations than that. Cameras stop working, recordings stop saving to the DVR. Files get corrupted.”

Bo shook his head. “I watched the timestamps. Not a moment was skipped.” He nodded toward the file in Miguel’s hands. “The average height of a U.S. male is approximately five-foot-nine. Your killer is seven feet tall.” He lifted his shoulders. “Now, I’m not saying that no human being has ever been seven feet tall, but I am saying that you’d probably know about them. This is a relatively small town. Unless this killer came from somewhere else simply to murder children in a butcher shop, I think you’d know them.”

Miguel cleared his throat. “I don’t know what your angle is, Mister Austen, but I’ve got a case to work.”

Bo glanced up at the ceiling before letting out a breath. “I’m an open-minded person. So when you find the thing that did this… you’ll have an open case file for the rest of eternity. Once the thing is dead, if you need a warm body in a prison cell,”—he held out a business card—“Jamal can help.”

Miguel took the card from him. Bo turned around and walked out of the room without another word. “What the fuck,” Miguel whispered. Was he the only damn person in the world who hadn’t known monsters were real?

He shook his head and looked down at the card in his hand. Rather than an actual business card, it was a small notecard. Neat cursive handwriting filled the card, but it wasn’t anything more than Jamal’s name, a phone number, and instructions to call from a cheap prepaid phone.

Miguel wasn’t really sure how much he trusted Pitman, but he’d keep the card, if nothing else. Landon knew more about monster hunting than he did. If they needed someone in a prison jail, surely Landon would know.

Miguel barely made it into his car before his phone rang. Pulling the damn thing from his pocket, he couldn’t even begin to describe the wash of relief that rolled over him at the sight of Landon’s name on his screen.


“Hey. Are you still at the station?”

“Yeah. Just got into the car. Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Everything’s fine. Just wanted to make sure you didn’t get caught up or anything.” Landon cleared his throat. “I talked to Nora. She said she’ll set up a meeting with Lucy for us. She just needs to know what day, time, and place works best for us.”

Miguel set his phone in the cup holder in the side of his door. “Does the devil really let you call him that?”

“All the time.”

“Your family is… wild, Landon.”

The younger man let out a little soul-warming chuckle. “That’s one word for it.” A pause. “Did you get what you needed?”

“Yeah. But, uh… speaking of that. Am I the only damn person in the whole world that didn’t know monsters were real?”

“No. People who know about it are definitely the minority in the whole deal. Why?”

“The forensic analyst we had to bring in for this case came into the lab, told me we both know I’m hunting something rather than someone, and told me to call Jamal Pitman after the thing’s dead in case I need a warm body in a prison cell to close the case.”

“I… think Nora’s worked with him a time or two. Pitman, not the analyst. I don’t know how much he knows about the supernatural aspect of things, but, umm… he’d probably do just about anything if Nora called in a favor. He takes care of his own.”

Miguel’s brow furrowed. “Your sister is one of Pitman’s?”


“In which way?”

“I still think it’s best if I don’t answer that,” Landon said quietly.

“Landon, if I’m going to let your sister around my boy, I need to know what kind of person she is. Not all siblings are cut from the same cloth, you know?”

“Nora’s one of the best people I know. She’s strong and generous and smart as hell. But for a while, she worked with the mob. End of story.”

Miguel blew out a harsh breath. “What’d she do for them?”

“End of story,” Landon repeated. “What Nora did or didn’t do is the reason she and I are alive today. It’s the reason we didn’t go into foster care or starve to death. I’ve never asked what she did for them, and I don’t care to. I never will. I beg that you don’t care, either.”

“Okay,” Miguel said, his voice a hell of a lot softer than he had expected it to be. Of course, his lack of ability to ignore Landon’s best wishes probably had something to do with his crush on the man, a word he hated but an accurate one, nonetheless. “So… these people who do what your sister does. The hunting thing. What do they do once they kill the thing? That case remains open forever. The analyst is right about that.”

“Well, most hunters aren’t cops. They travel the country–sometimes the world–to kill these things. The open case it leaves behind isn’t their problem.”

“And the cops don’t know about the supernatural suspect for the case?”

“Not usually.”

“Jesus. Do you know what that would do to a department if the case was heavily reported in the news? Like… like Son of Sam. You’d have to fire the damn detective working the case just to please the public.”

“I know it’s not ideal, but the other option is trying to convince every cop in a department–the ones that matter to the case, anyway–that the supernatural isn’t just a fairytale. That’s a good way to get yourself marked as a crazy person in at least part of the country or part of a state. If people think you’re crazy, you can’t do your job. You can’t… you can’t kill the things that hide in the shadows.”

“I guess you’re… probably right.” Miguel sighed. “I’ll be home soon. Just gotta stop for breakfast. And then we can see what you and I can figure out about this fucker while Eliseo’s busy watching cartoons. Sound good?”

“Sounds good to me. We’ll be here when you get back.”

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Chapter Eleven

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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Nine


Miguel hadn’t been able to sleep. He had needed to know Eliseo was safe throughout the night, and he couldn’t exactly do that while sleeping. Instead, he had sat beside his son’s bed, his back to the wall, his eyes on the door. He had checked the locks on Eliseo’s bedroom windows an unreasonable amount of time in the few hours between Landon dropping him off and Landon pulling into the driveway.

But it was better to be safe than sorry, especially when it came to his son’s life.

Miguel checked in on Eliseo one more time before walking out to the foyer. He unlocked the door and, after letting out a heavy breath, opened it. “Landon.”

“We have a problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

Landon stepped into the house, closing the door behind him. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I know this has all been a lot for you to take in, and i-it’s about to get even harder, okay? Are you ready for that?”

“Do I have a choice?” Miguel asked.

“Technically. I can just not tell you, and I can do this on my own. It’s not the first time I’ve hunted for a monster.”

“It’s… not?”

Landon shook his head. “I don’t do it very often, and it’s normally only after Nora drags me into it. But no, not my first rodeo.”

“How many have you taken out?”

“Nora does most of the heavy lifting, but I’ve taken down… maybe ten?” Landon offered.

“Jesus,” Miguel whispered.

“It’s not as many as it sounds like. I mean… it is ten of them, and it sounds like ten of them, but you know what I mean. In comparison to the people who do this on a stronger basis, ten is nothing.”

Miguel blew out a harsh breath. Landon spoke about it all like it was nothing, like it was normal. Monsters being real, supernatural beings hunting down and killing people, people hunting down and killing those very same beings. But it wasn’t. None of it was nothing. None of it was normal. Monsters were supposed to be nothing but fairy tales, nothing but stories meant to show children that the good guys always won.

Jesus Christ, it was so far from normal.

Miguel cleared his throat. “What, umm… what did you need to tell me, then? That’s going to make it worse?”

“You’re sure you wanna know? Because there’s a lot to this world, and once you know about it, you can’t go back. I-if you don’t wanna be in all this, I don’t want you to be forced into it just because the monster ran through our town.”

“This is about my boy. Even… even if it wasn’t for the psychic thing, this fucker told my boy that he was going to die. I need to know, even if I don’t want to.”

After a moment, Landon nodded. “Before you called me to babysit when you needed to go out to that crime scene, I spoke with the kid’s ghost. I talked to him again when I got home, and it, umm, it turns out he never saw a Reaper after he died.”

Miguel was certain these little supernatural chats with Landon would eventually stop his heart so hard it wouldn’t start again. “Reaper? Like… the grim reaper?”

“Sort of. But there isn’t just one of them. There are a lot of them, and they’re assigned to specific areas of the world. The one for this section of the world didn’t come to claim that boy’s soul, which means one of about three things.”

Miguel forced himself to nod. “Walk me through ‘em.”

“One, the Reaper is dead. Two, this is a no-signal zone for Hell, or three—”

“Hell? He’s a child.”

Landon shook his head so fast, Miguel was surprised he didn’t break his damn neck. “The Reapers live in Hell. I-it doesn’t mean the souls go to Hell. God won’t let them in Heaven because they deal with souls that… that go to Hell.”

“So God is…?”

“Real. Yeah. Not quite the guy in the Bible, though. Anyway, umm, option three? It means this monster can hold souls. Trap them.”

“Why would it want to do that?”

“Couple reasons. Umm…” Landon cleared his throat before swallowing. “Trap them as an energy source. Trap them for sport. Or… for snacks.”

“Jesus Christ,” Miguel whispered. He scrubbed a hand down his face. “How do we find out which it is?”

“Identifying the monster is a surefire way to figure out what he could be doing with the souls. Talking to Lucifer to see—”

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“No, Lucy and my sister are sort of… close-knitted friends at this point.”

Miguel couldn’t help the laugh that burst past his lips. He raked a hand through his hair. “What the hell is your family, Landon?”

Landon offered a smile and a little shrug. “I wish I knew. I bet I don’t even know half of what Nora’s done with the supernatural. She’s always been a bit on the wild side.”

Miguel snorted. “So it’s your turn to catch up, huh?”

Landon’s smile grew. “Maybe a little.”

“Okay, so…” Miguel shook his head. “I don’t even know how to begin to ask anything without sounding crazy.”

“You’re talking to a psychic who accidentally dated a Vampire in college, who was only using me to make his allegedly Gorgon ex-girlfriend jealous. So no judgement.”

One corner of Miguel’s mouth lifted. He wished like hell there was time for that story now. As long as they all ended up with their souls intact by the end of this bullshit, maybe he’d ask about it then. Once Eliseo was safe.

“How do we go about talking to Lucifer, and what are we supposed to ask him?”

“We need to make sure the Reaper in this area is alive. Lucy won’t know much, but Fate or the Reaper–if they’re alive–will. We can find out more about the boy’s soul that way. We need all the info we can get our hands on. It’ll help us identify what the hell this monster is, which will help us figure out how to kill it.”

“How do we… get in touch with him?”

“I’ll text Nora. Like I said, they’re basically close-knit friends.” Landon pulled out his cell phone. “Pretty sure she has his number.”

“I’m not even going to tell you how crazy that sounds.”

Landon only flashed a smile.


Miguel pushed away from the wall and turned to face Eliseo. “Hey, mijo. What’re you doin’ up? Did you have another bad dream?”

Eliseo shook his head. “You weren’t there when I checked for you. Needed… to know the monsters didn’t get you.”

Miguel squatted down to the boy’s height and lifted his hands to his cheeks. “Daddy is never going to let any monsters get him or you. I’m not going to let anyone or anything take me away from you.”

Eliseo’s hazel eyes scanned his father’s face. “Promise?”

“I promise. I’m not going anywhere, buddy. You’re stuck with me for another forty years. Maybe sixty.”

A little smile spread across Eliseo’s face. “Eighty.”

“That means you have to take care of me when I’m a hundred and twenty-three.”


Miguel snorted. “I’ll see what I can do.” He pressed a kiss to Eliseo’s forehead and pushed himself to his feet. “Daddy’s gonna work from home today, so you’re stuck with me all day. But first, I have to run to the station to get a report from the forensics guy. So you’re gonna hang out with Landon for, like… an hour. And then I’ll be back with coffee for the grown ups, chocolate milk for you, and breakfast donuts for us all. Okay?”


“Okay,” Miguel whispered. “How about you and Lamby go find some cartoons, huh? Landon will be there in a few.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Miguel watched the boy run off to the living room. He turned and wrapped a hand around Landon’s bicep. “Lock the door when I leave.”

“And don’t open it. You have a key. I know, Miguel.” Landon laid a hand over his. “You go get your report, our coffee, Eliseo’s chocolate milk, and our donuts. Then you’ll come home, and Eliseo will be here, safe and sound.”

“Thank you,” Miguel whispered. His eyes fell to Landon’s hand, which quickly dropped away. Miguel cleared his throat, pulling his hand away. “I’ll, uh… Yeah, I’ll head out. I won’t be long.”


Miguel bent down and grabbed his shoes. “What, uh… What donuts do you like? Casey’s? HyVee?”

“Casey’s. I like the ones with the light brown frosting, preferably with sprinkles.”

Miguel smiled. “Eliseo likes those the most, too. Two sprinkled light brown frosting donuts coming right up.” He tapped Landon’s chest with the toes of his shoes. “Back in a bit.”

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Love Tends the Garden – An M/F Romance Short


Spring had finally sprung in Iowa, enough so that the biggest worry for the blooming flowers would be if they got enough rain or too much rain rather than if the overnight and morning frost were going to kill them.

Kate Webb buried her fingers in her hair and gave her scalp a good scratch as she walked into the kitchen. She was never sure if the scalp scratching triggered a yawn or if she was just an incredibly yawny person in the morning, but either way, it was routine, no matter what time she rolled out of bed and got around for the day.

Kate turned on the coffee maker—pre-filled with water and coffee grounds the night before—and crossed her arms over the counter. She dropped her forehead to her arms and closed her eyes. Kate was far from a morning person. Hell, she wasn’t even really a daylight person. Even her eleven AM wakeup call that morning was a little too close to sunrise for her, but if she had any hope of scoring eggplants early in the season, she needed to get to the greenhouse well before the ‘just got off work’ evening gardeners walked through the place.

She had missed out on eggplants from the greenhouse three years in a row. She didn’t much care for them herself, but they were her dad’s favorite vegetable out of everything one could grow in their garden, and he wouldn’t eat any dish made with eggplants that came from anywhere but their local greenhouse. In previous years, her neighbor had been kind enough to ‘loan’ her the eggplants needed to make a birthday dish of some sort for her dad, but before winter’s cruel fingers had sunk into the town at the end of last year, her neighbor had moved for warmer weather and sunnier days.

With a groan, Kate lifted her head as the final bit of coffee dripped into the glass pot. She couldn’t wait to get back home and get back to her much-needed rest.


Though Kate wanted like hell to keep her hopes up and her thoughts positive, the greenhouse shelves looked even emptier than they had by the time she had arrived the previous three years.

She managed to get a plant or two for just about everything she usually put in the ground, save for onions and peppers. That was fine. As long as she could find even one eggplant on the shelves she hadn’t checked yet, she could make something for her dad’s birthday later in the season that didn’t require onions or peppers. There were plenty of recipes to choose from, so long as she could get her hands on the ever-elusive eggplant.

Kate’s heart sank as she rounded the corner to check the last shelf. Her dad’s good days got fewer and farther between with every passing month, and she wanted to make every good day the best it could be. Was it so much to ask for the universe to help her out just this once?

She checked every shelf in the greenhouse once more just in case someone had hidden an eggplant away behind the lonely squash plant in the back.

No one had.

Admitting defeat, Kate made her way up to the counter.

“Early riser today, eyy?”

Kate set her basket on the counter and offered a smile. “Not early enough, apparently.”

Eli Peterson nodded. “Jenny bought us out of a lot of our stock right around opening. I even asked Mom and Dad if I was allowed to place a limit on plants per customer.”

Kate snorted. “I’m sure they were appalled.”

“Oh, absolutely. Can’t rob a paying customer of their well-earned plants or… something like that. I don’t understand the rules. I just follow ‘em.”

Kate chuckled softly, shaking her head. She had known Eli and his parents her whole life. Before her mom’s passing, she and her dad had gone to the greenhouse every year for their vegetables, and Kate had always come with them. On occasion, the Petersons had even let Eli show her how to water a plant or two with his tiny watering can.

But Kate had stopped attending the annual greenhouse shopping trip when she’d hit her hormonal years as a teenager, and her mom’s passing hadn’t sparked the urge to go back. Her dad’s inability to go for the last five years had been the only thing that had changed her mind about her greenhouse attendance, and Eli had been just about her only in-person human interaction since.

God, that was sad.

“We should get a restock in two weeks,” Eli said, his voice quiet.

“That’s okay. Dad prefers the ones bought in the first week. He says they’re just not the same if you wait any longer than that.”

“Will… he know?”

One corner of Kate’s mouth scrunched up. She had gotten her fair share of questions phrased that way about her dad, but she always struggled to answer them in a way that didn’t piss someone off or make her seem ridiculous. Eventually, she had given up on trying and had settled on the only answer that had ever made any sense to her.

“No, but I will. I like to keep my lies limited when and where I can.”

Eli’s expression was far more understanding than any greenhouse clerk’s face should be allowed to be. Maybe it had something to do with those soft brown eyes or the way his brow always furrowed just a little when Kate talked about her dad every year. Maybe it was because he was the only person she’d let into her home more than once since her dad’s diagnosis. Maybe it was because he was the only person in town who had seen her dad’s dementia in person for more than a few seconds.

Or maybe it was just pity. She got that one a lot too.

“I understand. Lying sucks. I’d want to keep it limited too.” Eli looked down at the basket of plants. His little notepad resting on the counter, he went about adding up the total cost. His parents had never invested in a cash register, instead settling for a notepad, a pencil, and a lockbox. Eli had once quietly muttered something about getting a ‘damn register’ when he took over someday, but Kate didn’t know how true that was.

Old habits were hard to break, even the time-consuming and less efficient ones.

“All righty, Kate. Fifty-two dollars and sixty cents.”

“Am I still allowed to write you a check?”

“Yeah, but Mom and Dad will hunt you down if it bounces.”

Kate snorted. “Deal.” She rifled through her purse for her checkbook. Her heart skipped a beat. “No, no, no,” she whispered. She set her purse on the counter for a better vantage point, like being able to pull it apart a little more would make her checkbook jump out of the house and run down to the shop.

“It’s okay,” Eli said. “Mom and Dad left for lunch, and they won’t check the lockbox until tomorrow.”

“It’s not okay. I have it. I just…”

Eli laid a warm hand on her forearm. Kate stopped digging, lifting her eyes to meet his. “Kate, it’s fine. I’m not offering to just let you just take ‘em, okay? I know you don’t want that. But I can swing by your place tonight after work and pick up the check then. Or cash. Whatever works for you. In the meantime, take the plants and get some gardening done.”

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

“You’re welcome.” Eli gave her arm a gentle squeeze. He grabbed the small strawberry plant from the edge of her basket and smiled. “I’ll hold this one hostage until you pay its ransom tonight.”

Kate couldn’t help the smile that crept across her face. “Just don’t hurt her. I won’t pay a single dime if you hurt any leaves on her stem.”

Eli stuck out his free hand. “Deal.”

Kate snorted and grabbed his hand, giving it a firm shake. “Thank you, Eli. I’ll have the check ready tonight. Thank you.”

Eli smiled that warm, polite smile of his. “You’re welcome. Enjoy your day, Kate. I’ll keep Miss Strawberry safe until tonight.”

Kate lifted her purse over her shoulder. “Oh, you better. Or I’ll spill the beans on your little under the counter deals.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

She pointed at him, grabbing the basket of plants with her free hand. “Don’t test me, Peterson.”

Eli held up both hands—strawberry plant and all—in surrender. “I won’t hurt her. You pay your ransom, and she goes home safe and sound.”

“Deal.” Kate mouthed one more ‘thank you’, not quite having the strength left to say it aloud one more time.

Eli’s smile spoke far more understanding than pity.


Kate had searched for her checkbook in every nook and cranny she could find when she got home. The cupboards, the drawers, the dryer, the dressers. Hell, she had even checked the refrigerator.

Letting out a breath, she walked into the living room. Her dad sat in his rocking chair, eyes on the television. She leaned around the corner for a look at what was playing. It was a relatively new show in comparison to what he watched on his more distant days. His lack of complaint or confusion was usually a good sign. “Hey, Daddy?”

He glanced up at her, smiling before his gaze shifted back to the television. “Hey, sweetheart. Back so soon?”

“Yeah. Traffic wasn’t too bad.” Kate cleared her throat. “Any chance you’ve seen my checkbook?”

“Checkbook?” he echoed. He chuckled. “Baby, aren’t you a little young for a checkbook? Lord knows I’ve got you covered until well after you graduate.”

Kate closed her eyes for a moment. Well… not as good of a sign as she had hoped. She smiled. “You’re right, Daddy. Sorry. Umm… do you know where your checkbook is?”

“It’s in my nightstand. Do you need something?”

“No, I was just cleaning. You know I like knowing where the important stuff is so I know I’m not gonna lose it.”

“Ah, that’s my girl. Well, you can go check if it puts you at ease. Just don’t overwork yourself.”

“I won’t. Thanks, Daddy.” Kate hurried past the television and walked into her father’s bedroom. True to his word, the checkbook was in his nightstand. Kate grabbed it, tore off a check, and tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. Just in case he still believed the book was his the next time he found it, she put it back in his nightstand and closed the drawer.

She headed back into the kitchen. She wrote out the check for fifty-two dollars and sixty cents and tucked it beneath the basket of fruits and veggies waiting to be planted in the garden. She’d wait to plant them until after her still much-needed nap.

Kate pulled her phone from her pocket and checked to make sure the camera feed from the little camera hidden in the living room was connected to her notifications. Her dad didn’t move much during the day, but the camera helped her feel safe about her daytime naps. If her dad switched over to his wheelchair or left the room, she’d get a notification about the movement, and she’d be able to check the feed to make sure everything was okay. It helped keep accidents to a minimum, and it helped prolong his time in the house with her instead of in a nursing home.

She raked a hand through the part of her dark brown hair to push it away from the sides of her face. “Nap first,” she whispered.


Eli felt stupid for going home and changing his shirt four times before driving out to Kate’s house. Even as he had done up the buttons of the fourth shirt, he had told himself it was just because he didn’t want to go over there in what he’d worn to work. That was, of course, bullshit, but everyone was allowed to tell themselves a white lie now and then.

Eli pulled up to the curb outside Kate’s house and cut the engine. She had waved at him from the garden when he’d driven past, so he wasn’t too surprised to see her coming out of the house, check in hand.

Her hair was a mess, pushed back from her face with a blue and white bandana rolled up like a headband. Her tank top was a little wet around the hem and a little dirty on the sides, like she’d wiped her hands on them more than once. The older women in town tended to judge her for the little things like that. It wasn’t rare for Kate to make a run to the grocery store in her pajamas or her gardening clothes.

According to one of the regulars at the greenhouse, Kate ‘thinks about her dad too much to even pretend to care about her own appearance’.

Eli didn’t much care if her clothes were a little dirty or if her hair was a little messy. She was still a beautiful woman. Eli didn’t think any amount of dirt could change that.

Kate stopped on the sidewalk as Eli climbed out of his car. Her hands went to her hips. “I don’t see my strawberry plant, Peterson. I was promised she’d be returned undamaged.”

“Ah, as promised.” Eli leaned back into the car and, after allowing his hand to hover over the two plants in his passenger seat, grabbed the strawberry plant. He closed the door and walked around the front of his car. “See? Didn’t touch a single leaf.”

“Thank God. I don’t have the energy left to kick your ass today.”

Eli snorted. “Reasonable.” He handed over the plant and accepted the check she held out to her. “Thank you.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah. Thanks again for letting me hold off on that until tonight. I completely forgot to make sure everything was in my purse before I left.”

“I think you have the right to forget something every now and then.”

“Maybe,” Kate said quietly. She held up the strawberry plant. “Thanks again, Eli.”

“No problem.” He took a step back toward his car and pulled open the passenger side door as Kate headed back up to the house. “Hey, umm, Kate?”

She stopped and turned back around. “Yeah?”

Eli grabbed the second plant from the seat and walked up the drive. “I didn’t want anyone in the shop to think there was some sort of favoritism going on, but I-I saved you one this year.”

Kate searched his face for what felt like an eternity before her gaze fell to the nursery pot in his hand. “You… you saved an eggplant for me?”

He shrugged, like saving it wasn’t something he’d been thinking about for the last two years. “Yeah. It’s no big deal. I just know you’re not really a morning person, and since Mom and Dad refuse to allow pre-orders, I made sure to buy one first thing this morning.”

“For me?”

“For you.”

Kate bent down to set the strawberry plant on the ground. Before Eli could promise there were no strings attached, Kate straightened out and threw her arms around him. Eli grunted, holding the plant out to the side before wrapping his free arm around her.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“My pleasure, Kate.” Eli expected her to pull away, but she didn’t. She twisted the material of his shirt in one of her hands, the fingers of her free hand biting into his shoulder. Eli closed his eyes, hugging her just a little tighter.

Kate was more or less alone in the world. It hadn’t been too long after her mother had died that she had switched from daughter to caretaker. She had stopped attending parties in high school, she had skipped out on just about every event but prom and graduation, and she had taken a ‘gap year’ between graduation and college.

Of course, her ‘gap year’ had gone on a bit longer than three hundred and sixty-five days, and now the only people really in her life were her dad and his doctors.

Kate patted him on the back and stepped away. Her cheeks were a little red, her eyes a little wet. She smiled. “Sorry. Haven’t had a good hug in a while.”

“That’s okay. I’m not opposed to hugs.”

“Thank God.” She took the eggplant from him, holding the pot in her cupped hands like an injured baby bird. “Eli?” she asked, eyes still on the plant.


“Do you… do you have plans tonight?”

Eli shook his head, though she wasn’t looking at him. “No. Just me and probably some gaming.”

Kate lifted her eyes just enough to meet his gaze. “How would you feel about giving up gaming to attend a little supper here?”

Eli did his best to conceal at least some of his joy at the idea. The last time he’d been invited to supper with Kate had been their pre-prom dinner, and that had been with a group of five girls and one other guy.

Tonight’s supper would just be him, Kate, and her dad.

“I’d love that,” Eli said.

Kate smiled. “I’m just going to plant this little guy and Miss Strawberry, and then I’ll get into making food. Is spaghetti okay? I know it’s not a very… sexy food, but y’know.”

Eli snorted. “I don’t normally get my hopes up that the food will be sexy.”

Kate laughed. “That’s probably a good thing.” A pause. “I’ll, uh… see you around six?”

“Six works for me. See you then, Kate.”


After planting the remaining two plants and watering everything in the garden, Kate headed inside to start supper. She wasn’t sure what to classify the night as. ‘Date’ felt like the wrong word, but not because of Eli. Kate liked Eli. Never making themselves official in high school hadn’t changed that, and since then, he had grown into a handsome man with a good sense of humor and a sense of fashion she’d be willing to ‘borrow’ on occasion.

But ‘date’ felt wrong since her dad would be there with them. Thankfully, if anyone in town understood that, it was Eli. He was the least judgmental person there was when it came to her position as full-time caretaker and breadwinner.

Kate hadn’t had time for dating since before she graduated high school. She had spent most of her junior and senior years trying to hide that her dad had gotten sick. She hadn’t wanted a judge or a police officer poking into their business, into their lives. She hadn’t wanted some stranger to decide if her dad was ‘dangerous’ or ‘unfit’ to be a parent anymore. It was a narrative she hadn’t planned to let the town put on her family, and she had managed to succeed. It hadn’t been until after graduation that it had finally gotten out that her father was sick. Though she had hated the way some of their neighbors had acted when that sickness was discovered, it hadn’t mattered.

By then, she had legally been a grown ass woman, and no one could take her or her dad away anymore.

Eli had been one of the few who stuck around as time went on, as she pulled away from her social life more and more to take care of her dad. They didn’t see each other or talk to each other every week by any means, but the time they did occasionally spend together was time Kate always appreciated.

If Eli Peterson wanted to use an eggplant to make his move instead of any of her previous trips to the greenhouse or any of his grocery runs for her, so be it. Kate sure as hell wasn’t going to reject any kind of garden variety veggies from a man like Eli.


Eli had changed his shirt twice more before heading back to Kate’s house. He owned primarily button-ups, some more solid in color than others. He had settled on a simple plaid button-up and left the house before he could change his mind again. He knew Kate liked flannel and plaid patterns, so he hoped she found it more charming than creepy.

It was a shirt after all. He hadn’t bought it specifically because Kate liked it. There was nothing creepy about wearing a shirt he hoped a woman he was interested in liked.

He hoped.

Eli let out a breath and shut off the car. He really needed to shut off his brain before it exploded. He had a habit of thinking himself out of dates, his mind conjuring up things to worry about that no one else would even really notice or care to acknowledge.

He opened the door and climbed out of the car. He leaned back in to pull his keys from the ignition, pocketing them as he heard the front door open.

Kate’s dad stood in the doorway, a hand wrapped tightly around his cane. He lifted his free hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Now, do my eyes deceive me, or is that Eli Peterson I see?”

“Seems like they’re still running twenty-twenty.”

Joshua snorted. “Somethin’ oughta still be working at top speed, huh?”

“Pfft, you aren’t too worse for wear.” Eli closed the door and made his way up to the house. “I didn’t know you were up and walking around with a cane now.”

“Only for about the last week,” Kate said as she came into the small foyer. She finished drying her hands and slung the towel over her shoulder. She laid a hand between her dad’s shoulders and offered a smile. “We’ve made a lot of progress with the new physical therapist. Things are going well.”

Joshua nodded. “The new therapist is a great gal. Doesn’t let me give up too easy, which I needed.” He cocked his head to the side as he adjusted his grip on his cane. “Is there something you came over for, Eli?”

“I invited him over for supper, Daddy. Eli was kind enough to save an eggplant for me at the greenhouse this year.”

“ ‘Bout time. I was starting to think both of you lacked any romantic awareness.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Get your butt back inside.”

Joshua smiled. “Of course. Leave you two alone.” He patted her on the shoulder and gave Eli a thumbs-up before heading back into the house.

“He’s doing okay today, it seems,” Eli said.

Kate looked back over her shoulder, offering a nod. “Not too bad. He thought I was in high school this afternoon, and we had an incident with the stove at lunch, but…” She lifted her shoulders. “But today’s been good. We happily accept as many of those as we can get.”

“I wish you guys had even more of them.”

She smiled an almost sad little smile. “Me too, Eli.” She nodded over her shoulder. “Come on in. Supper’s on the table.”

Eli stepped into the house and closed the door behind him. He followed Kate to the dining room, where she pulled out a chair for him. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She looked him up and down with tired eyes. “You look nice in plaid.”

He couldn’t help but smile. Proof he’d been overthinking it: check. “Thanks. And you look nice in a gardening tee.”

Kate snorted, amusement dancing amongst the exhaustion in those light brown eyes of hers. “Thanks.” She slid an empty plate over to him. “Spaghetti here, meat sauce here, veggie sauce here. Have at it.”


Supper had gone well, at least as far as Eli knew. Conversation had been pleasant the whole evening, even after their food was eaten. Eli had never felt like a third-wheel to Kate and her dad, and he’d never felt like he and Kate were excluding her dad either.

It was the most successful date Eli had had in a long time.

Now, with Joshua back in his chair in the living room, his cane on one side and his wheelchair on the other, Eli followed Kate back to her room.

She set her phone on the nightstand and dropped to the foot of the bed. “Thanks for coming over tonight, Eli. It was nice having someone else around. I love Dad to death, but…” She laughed softly, shaking her head. “But I don’t get out much.”

“Me neither. Thanks for having me over.” Almost gingerly, he sat down beside her on the bed. “How, uh… how are things with your dad? I mean, really?”

“I don’t know.” Kate clasped her hands between her thighs. “I’m going to have to put him in a home eventually, but I’m trying to put it off as long as I can. As long as I can work from home, as long as I can keep the cameras around the house connected to my phone… As long as everything keeps doing what it’s supposed to do, I can keep him here. I can keep taking care of him.”

She swallowed roughly, shaking her head. “The good days are few and far between. Today was… was good, and I’m happy for that. But recently, the good ‘days’ are turning into good afternoons or good mornings instead. He loses who I am and where we are a lot of the time. He thought I was in high school just today, and he thought my checkbook was his. He even had it in his nightstand drawer to keep it safe, like it always was. Stuff like that is the usual now, and once he progresses further into… into it, the things he starts moving or forgetting are going to be more dangerous.”

“Like the stove incident today?” Eli asked.

Kate nodded. “It was stupid. I didn’t take my damn phone into the garden with me. I left it on the table at the front of the house, and I didn’t hear it go off when he rolled his chair out to the kitchen. He just wanted a snack. Turned on the stove, filled a pot up with water, and set it on the burner. And then a pot holder on the lid of it, which… fell off and landed right next to the flame. I-I went inside to put my hair up because I broke my damn hair tie, a-and thank God I did. I could’ve lost Dad if I hadn’t.”

Eli laid a hand on her back. “You can’t be expected to be there one hundred percent of the time, Kate. It’s too much to ask of one person. A pot holder caught fire, and it could’ve been worse, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t worse because you were there, and that’s all there is to it. You were there, even if it wasn’t before it happened. You still stopped it.”

“I guess so,” Kate said quietly. With a heavy sigh, she dropped her head to Eli’s shoulder. “You don’t have any people or animals you need to get home to, do you?”

“No, not unless you think my PlayStation is lonely.”

Kate snorted. “It might be. I don’t know.” She stayed silent for a moment. As Eli slid his hand up to her shoulder, she laid a hand on his thigh. “You can say no if you want to, but, umm… do you wanna stay with me tonight?”

“Like a sleepover? Or like sex?”

Kate chuckled. “Like a sleepover. I’m an exhausted mess.”

Eli rolled his eyes and turned to press a kiss to the top of her head. “You aren’t nearly as much of a mess as you think you are.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.” She cleared her throat, lifting her head from his shoulder. “I need to take a shower. If you’d like to join me for a sex-free water-saving mission, you can.”

Eli watched her stand up. “Are you sure?”

She smiled. “It won’t be too much different from freshman year. I’m just a little less skinny, and you’re a little more muscular.”

“You make a damn good argument.”

“I try.”

Eli grabbed her outstretched hand and rose to his feet. Kate grabbed her phone from the nightstand and gently tugged him to the bathroom connected to her bedroom. Once she shut the bathroom door, Eli barely managed to undo the buttons on his shirt before she pulled her own over her head and dropped it to the floor.

His eyes skimmed up her bare torso, past her belly button ring and the short hairs that led up to her bra. Part of him felt guilty for looking—for ogling—just like he had as an inexperienced freshman. The other part of him simply said, “You’re beautiful, Kate.”

Though her head was bowed as she pulled off her jeans, he could still see the smile on her face. “Thank you.” She nodded toward him as her hands came up to unclasp her bra. “How about you shed that shirt and show some skin so I can say the same about you?”

Eli snorted. “Deal.”


Their shower the night before had been far less awkward than it had been for Eli when they were younger. Kate’s back pressed up against his front as he had scrubbed her chest and stomach with her soap-covered loofa. The little smile on her face as she had stolen it from his hand to wash his chest instead. Her soapy hands on his cheeks as she had leaned up to kiss him.

Eli wouldn’t mind having more nights end that way, but whether or not Kate felt the same way was a mystery.

He had woken up alone, afterall.

Eli ran a hand through his hair, scratching the back of his head. He couldn’t smell anything coming up from the kitchen, not even coffee, so it was unlikely she had left the house. Her phone wasn’t on the nightstand, so she had left for more than a quick trip to the bathroom.

He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. He grabbed his jeans from the floor and pulled them up his legs before heading downstairs.

He found Joshua asleep in his rocking chair in the living room, and after a little bit of searching, he found Kate outside. She sat on the table at the front of her house, feet resting on the seat of the chair beneath her.

Eli walked outside and cleared his throat before leaning back against the table. “Everything okay?”

Kate nodded, her eyes focused on the garden. “I had a dream last night that someone came and tore up everything I planted because they didn’t want Dad to have any eggplant.” She chuckled softly, shaking her head. “It sounds so stupid, but I had to come out and check. I needed to know everything was okay. And when it was, I totally lost it and had a good cry.” She turned to look at him, cheeks still red. “I’m gonna have to put him in a home, Eli,” she whispered.

Eli lifted himself onto the table and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his bare side, her skin a little cold to the touch. “I won’t let you do it alone if you don’t want to. And if you’re not ready yet, that’s okay. You don’t have to do it right this second, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan made up. Maybe you’ll feel more… more at ease that way. Knowing what’s going to happen can help calm the mind a little, you know?”

After a moment, Kate nodded. “Maybe you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead.”

“Exactly. We all like being prepared for something.”

Kate shifted just enough to kiss his shoulder. “You probably have to head in for work soon, don’t you?”

“Yeah, in about an hour.”

“Maybe… you can come over again tonight?” Kate asked.

“For planning and preparing?”

“Maybe a little bit. Maybe for another date.”

“I’d love that,” Eli said.

“Perfect,” Kate whispered. She lifted her head and jumped down from the table. “In the meantime, let’s scrounge up something for breakfast so you don’t go to work totally starved.”

Eli chuckled and got off the table. He grabbed Kate’s hand and gave it a tight squeeze. “Sounds perfect.”

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