What's That Sound
This Isn't The 1800s
Your Average Girl
Don't Make Me Go
Dress-Up Game
Alone With the Enemy
Some Strange Magic
You Only Live Once
What Are You?
A Wrong Turn
A Deal's a Deal
The Secret Inside
Helicopter, Helicopter
Mind Your Manners
A Maze and Delight
The Lost Seed
A Secret Escape
Getting Hot Inside
Seriously, What The
Got a Bad Feeling
Let's Try Something
Breathing is Overrated
In the Meantime
Nice Day for a Drive
Can't Turn Back
A Wrong Turn
The next day at school, Mercurius was just as aloof as always. He hardly looked at me, not even when we passed each other in the hall. No one who saw would have guessed we'd gone out the previous night. And that was just fine with me.

Addi met me in the locker room before PE, asking, "You wanna come over tonight?"

Wait, someone was asking me to hang out? This was the first time I'd been invited to a friend's house since we moved!

And since it was Friday night--"Sure! I'd love to!"

But Addi had piano lessons first so I went home to drop my school things off. Just in case I could sleep over, I grabbed my toothbrush, stuffed them in my backpack, and headed back out the door. Thankfully, I managed to escape again before either of my parents got home and I had to ask their permission.

That's how I ended up halfway to nowhere an hour later, uncertain where I'd taken a wrong turn. The walk was long but not overly strenuously, just a lot of hills and similarly named streets. Somewhere along the way, the sprawling manors and gated driveways had faded into narrow apartments and rusted window bars. I pulled out my phone and started scrolling through the map.

I must have taken a left when I should have gone right because somehow, I realized, I'd ended up down at the waterfront. Not the nice, touristy part, either. The shops here had more graffiti-tagged boards than windows.

I was on the strip near the highway, yes, the part of town my parents had warned me never to go to. I didn't know what I was more afraid of--that something would happen to me, or that my parents would find out where I'd been. Either way, I wanted to get out as fast as possible and get back to the main road on the way to Addi's.

As I passed, an older man watched me from where he leaned against his porch rail, smoking a cigarette. I kept my eyes on my phone until I was out of sight, pretending I was texting someone. The way he was looking at me made me uncomfortable.

But maybe the whole pretend-to-be-on-the-phone thing wasn't my best idea because I was distracted looking at the map when I rounded the next corner and found myself in the entrance to a narrow alley between two tall buildings. They had no windows below the second story and looked like they could have been warehouses at one time, but now the corrugated metal siding was so rusted it looked like they'd been unoccupied for years.

Unoccupied by legitimate business activity, that is. The only windows they did have were broken out and half boarded-over. The boards themselves were spray-painted in streaks of rough graffiti. I didn't mean to go there, but the first thing I thought was, I hope this isn't like some sort of gang territory.

Now all this would have been unnerving enough if it weren't for the heavy crunching behind me as someone turned and followed onto the gravel alley. I didn't want to let on that I was frightened, so I sped up. The other side had to be only a couple hundred feet away, the distant light of late afternoon sun between two buildings. I could make it.

Or, that was what I hoped. But the footsteps behind me grew louder and faster as several more pairs joined in. I risked a glance back, only to realize I was being followed not just by one guy now, but a group. Not a friendly looking bunch, either. More than the rough clothes they wore, it was the way they walked with a swagger in their steps, like they thought they owned the road--and everything in it.

Finally the other side of the alley came in focus and--Oh my God. It was fenced! I was such an idiot. How could I have missed that? I hadn't seen the chain-link against the bright light of the sun. But still!

"Hey little kitty, don't look so frightened," said the man at the front of the group as they circled to pin me in. "We don't want to hurt you."

"Yeah," added another, "We'll make you feel real fine, if you play nicely."

Oh, crap. Crap, crap, crap. Was this really happening? This was really happening. Crap.

My mind raced through the motions of self-defence I'd learned in class years ago. Something about the palm and the nose. Or the eyes--I didn't think I could do that. But if I had to... Maybe I could talk my way out first.

"Hey," I said, taking only a small step back. There wasn't much else I could do, what with the fence right behind me. Maybe I could climb it--but could I do that before they caught me? "You guys, uh, going for a walk?"

"That's right," said another, moving to stand close to me. "You think you're a funny one. How about you walk with us, huh, sweetie?"

He put his hand on my shoulder, the other reaching for my wrist. I was about to throw my palm-to-the-nose maneuver when--

"Holy fu--" came a shout from the back of the crowd, "What is that?"

A low growl rumbled from the shadows behind the men. I couldn't see what was going on at first, but I felt the grip on my shoulder loosen. And then the man holding me was yanked away, yells echoing as the group picked themselves up and ran, scattering down the alley and out of sight.

The fence swayed as Chance dropped onto the gravel on my side.

"The hell," he breathed, "Are you doing here?"

Behind me, his lyoken growled down the alley after the men.

I stared up at Chance from where I'd sank to my knees, gripping the chainlinks of the fence for support. To say he didn't look happy would have been a bit of an understatement. The glare he cast over my shoulder was sharp enough to kill.

What else was there to say? "I got lost," I said, surprised at how small and shaky my voice came out.

Something soft and warm nudged my back from behind, and I twisted to find the lyoken nuzzling its snout against me.

"Looks like she likes you," said Chance, letting out a harsh exhale. "That's good."

I patted the strange cat-wolf beast, then watched in amazement as she padded to Chance, rubbed her cheek against his hand, and then--yes, really--faded into this sort of blue light that dissolved into his palm.

In the silence after the lyoken had disappeared, I said, still kinda shaken, "You... found me. What were you doing here?"

"Me?" He grinned at me like that was a dumb question. "I live here. Of course."

I pulled myself up at last. "You, uh, live here?" Glancing between the two buildings at either side, I couldn't get the pieces to fit together.

He laughed. "Not here, no, but nearby. Come on. I'll show you."

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© Hopeful Romantic ,
книга «Just a Kiss».