Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
  Welcome to the Club - Julie Klumb
 
 

Elle strode warily down the hall, knowing the announcement didn't bode well.  Ms. Branson calling her out of lunch screamed trouble, but hard as she tried, Elle couldn't remember doing anything wrong.  She reached for the office door and paused to force her trembling hand into submission before turning the knob.

She opened her mouth but didn't get the chance to say anything before a voice called from inside, "Come in, come in."

"You wanted to see me?" Elle asked nervously as she stood in the doorway.

Ms. Branson waved the young girl in and mimed closing the door as she returned to her phone call.  "Yes, Frank, I'm well aware."  She paused.  "I don't have much choice but to take your word for it.  I suppose if they took the other one then maybe, just maybe, it will work out.  Yes, yes, I'll speak with you later."  She hung up the phone and turned.  "Elle, I said come in, and if you don't mind, please close the door."

Elle's muscles tensed when the door latch snapped into place.  She hated being shut in, especially if the room was small.  And rooms didn't come much smaller than Ms. Branson's office.    Choking the dread down into her gut, Elle moved to one of the cheap folding chairs.  She clasped her hands in her lap and tried to ignore the urge to apologize for something.

Nina Branson stared at Elle for interminable minutes.  Then she ran a deep brown hand through her salt and pepper hair.  When Elle started eying the door, she spoke at last, "We've found a new foster home for you."  She watched as the girl's thin frame sagged in the chair, and her heart ached.  She stood, walked around the desk, and dropped into the seat next to Elle.  Squeezing the girl's hand she said, "Maybe it will be different this time.  Better.  They have another foster child already."

"Great," Elle whispered, "I'm sure that will decrease the odds of problems tremendously."  Elle struggled not to cry; she didn't want to show weakness or fear.  This was her lot in life, at least until she turned eighteen.  Two and a half years.  She could last that long.  She had to.

Wrapping an arm around Elle's shoulders, Nina said in her most nurturing tone, "The other girl was a lot like you.  In and out of homes her whole life, bounced around the system until this family took her in.  She's been with them for over two months now.  That's longer than she's lasted since she was a toddler."  Nina pulled Elle toward her and squeezed.  "Give them a chance."

Elle shook her head.  "I'll try, but I can't promise you anything."  She pulled back from the embrace.  "Can I go back to lunch now?"  At Ms. Branson's silent nod, Elle stood and walked out the door, shutting it quietly behind her.

Nina sat in the cold metal chair and watched her leave.  The poor child had been through so much.  Despite the recommendation from her friend, Frank Barker, Nina feared this time would be no different.

Down the hall, Elle stopped and rubbed the heels of her hands against her temples.  "No trouble this time.  I just need to behave myself and everything will be fine."

*****

Elle stood outside the door to Nina Branson's office for the second time in less than six hours, battling for control of her trembling fingers.  "Screw it!" She yanked open the door and strode inside.  Three adult faces beamed at her, but the scowling distrust of the small blonde girl perched in the farthest chair made the smiles vanish from Elle's view.  No one else seemed to notice how the tiny girl glared at Elle.  Either that or they didn't care. 

Nina's voice broke the silence that had descended on the room with Elle's entrance.  "Elle, this is Eric and Jennifer Smith, and their other foster daughter, Cassidy Wegner."

The Smiths stood as one, and Eric reached his hand toward Elle.  "Ellery, right?  It's a pleasure to meet you."

Tearing her gaze away from what she could only assume was her soon-to-be foster-sister, Elle glanced at the couple.  The man reaching toward her stood just over six feet tall with short dark brown hair and eyes that seeped kindness.  The woman could have been his sister as easily as his wife; a few inches shorter than Elle's five foot eight, with wavy brunette locks and a smile that lit up the room.  They barely looked old enough to be parents, much less parents of teenagers. 

Elle stared at his hand as if it would bite her, then took it apprehensively in her own.  "It's Elle actually."

Jennifer closed the distance between them and wrapped a board-stiff Elle in her arms.  "Elle then.  Welcome to the family."  Jen pulled away from the hug, and Elle gave her a nervous smile as she took a step back.

Glancing back at Cassidy, Eric asked, "Well, Cass, aren't you going to say hello?"

The tiny blonde jerked her chin up and said, "Hey."

Elle glanced at Cass then back toward the Smiths.  "You do know me right?  You know what you're getting into?  I mean, I don't want there to be any surprises."  She toyed with the hem of her oversized shirt.

"We've read your file, Elle," Jen said in a soothing voice.  "No surprises, we just want to offer you a place to call home."

"Home?  That's a joke, right?  The last time someone offered …" Elle scoffed, glaring at the Smiths as if daring them to say something else.

Ms. Branson stood, immediately reducing the tension in the air.  "You know what, why don't you two girls go for a walk or something and get to know each other.  I need to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Smith."  She waved a hand toward the door.

Elle glared at her for a few seconds before spinning around and stalking into the hallway.  With an exaggerated eye-roll, Cass hopped to her feet, smoothed her pink flowered skirt, and followed.  Watching the girls traverse the hall for a moment, Nina Branson worried that perhaps Elle was right.  She shut the door and turned to address her concerns with the Smiths.  "You are absolutely sure about this?  Elle has been through a lot in the past few years.  I almost think she is better off staying here than going with another family that 'can't deal with her'."

Jen stared at Eric for a long, silent minute before he nodded.  "We're sure, Nina," Jen said.  "Eric and I both grew up under less than ideal circumstances; it's what made us decide to seek out kids like Cassidy and Elle to foster.  We want to be a haven for those kids that no one else understands."

Eric smiled and wrapped an arm around Jennifer's waist.  "We can't guarantee Elle's happiness, only she can control that, but we can promise we'll do our best to make her feel safe and loved."

The silence that followed stretched out until Nina Branson couldn't handle it any longer.  "I certainly hope so.  Elle needs some sense of stability and normalcy in her life."

*****

"So," Cass said as she strode the length of the makeshift balance beam in the yard, "what do you do for fun, Ellery?"

Elle glared at the wisp of a girl.  "It's Elle, and I do what I want for fun, Goldilocks."  She watched as Cass performed an Olympic-caliber dismount from the beam then promptly stuck her tongue out.  "Jeez, what are you, like eleven?"

At barely five feet tall and about eighty-five pounds, the age seemed to fit Cass.  "No, I'm fourteen, fifteen in November."  She cocked her head to the side, taking in Elle's tense form.  "Let's try this again.  I'm Cass.  I like computers and cheerleading.  I've been kicked out of over a dozen foster homes.  I'd call it one for every year of my life, but there were too many years that I stayed at a state home for girls a lot like this one."  She raised a pale eyebrow at Elle.  "Your turn."

Brushing her long, dark blonde hair from her face, Elle couldn't help but think how plain she looked in comparison to the platinum dynamo in front of her.  Elle was taller and looked her age, if not older, but Cass looked like the girls immortalized in famous works of art.  She looked like an angel. Trying desperately to shake the image from her head, Elle said, "This is stupid." 

Cass stood so still she could have been mistaken for a statue, if not for the slow smile that crept over her face.  The smile taunted Elle, daring her both to say something and to walk away.  As if either choice would be both right and dreadfully wrong.  She narrowed her eyes at Cass, wondering just who or what the little sprite thought she was. 

"Fine."  Elle's features hardened.  "My name is Elle.  I like books and running.  I was orphaned after some rabid animals attacked my family on a camping trip five years ago.  Maybe I haven't lived with as many families as you, but the crap-holes I've been thrown in more than make up for the lack of numbers.  Sometimes they just beat me.  Another one locked me in my room and starved me to the point that I ended up in the hospital for a couple weeks.  The last one boarded up the windows because they caught me sneaking out once.  I was smart enough that time to request to come back here."  With every sentence she stepped closer to Cass until at last only an arm's length separated them.  "So, little girl, don't act like you are queen of the crappy existence club - I'll challenge you for dominance there any day."

Whirling around in a fury, Elle stormed from the yard.  Watching her leave, Cass's small smile burst into a full-fledged grin.  "Ellery, my dear, you have no idea what kind of club you are stepping into."

*****

           Elle's meager belongings fit into a box and one small suitcase.  Eric didn't have to stuff them into the trunk of his car - there was enough room left for a dead body.  Though the Smiths tried to make conversation, Elle sat quietly in the back and gazed out the window, trying to pretend that Cass wasn't staring at her.  She also tried to ignore the fact that someone in the car smelled weird.  She couldn't quite place the odor, nor could she identify why it troubled her so much.

           Cass, on the other hand, had sized up her new sibling.  Certain Elle posed no threat, she contented herself with trying to figure out what made the new girl tick.  She wanted something to use in case she had underestimated Elle's weakness and naivety.  By the time the car pulled into the garage, she had to admit the only thing she knew was that Elle wanted to be left alone.  Which suited Cass just fine.

           Elle climbed from the sedan and strode to the trunk, but Eric had beaten her there and already had her belongings in hand.  "No worries, Elle, I'll put these up in your room."

           Standing there, her own fingers flexing restlessly, Elle looked around, unsure of what to do with herself.   Jen wandered over, laid a hand on her shoulder, and said, "We ate before we came to pick you up, but I forgot to ask if you'd had dinner.  If you like, I can warm something up for you."

           Despite her nerves, Elle's stomach let out a loud grumble.  Casting Jen a shy smile, she admitted, "I am a little hungry; food would be great."

Minutes after Elle reached the warm oak table, she found herself confronted with a steaming plate of lasagna and garlic bread. Regardless of the fact she'd had a full dinner before the Smiths had arrived to meet her, Elle plunged into the meal like she hadn't seen a scrap of food in days.

*****

           Settling into the lower bunk, Elle rested a hand on her full belly.  "A girl could really get used to this whole 'not going hungry' thing," she thought.  After several minutes, a dream tickled the edge of her consciousness, and her eyes started drifting shut.  The bed overhead shifted and creaked.  Elle's eyes shot open and darted back and forth, alert for signs of trouble.  Realizing the noise was just Cass moving around in the upper bunk, Elle snuggled under the blanket once more.  However, when Cass's legs dangled by her head then hit the ground, curiosity got the best of her.  The clock blazed a time of shortly after midnight.  "What is she doing?" Elle wondered, her eyes narrowing to slits.

           Cass provided answer soon enough.  She pulled on a long black coat and slid the window open silently.  Elle leapt from the bed, dashed across the room, and seized her arm.  Cass glanced at Elle's fingers with disdain.  "Let go of me. Now."  She paused struggling long enough to spit out one final word, "Please."

           Elle glared and her fingers tightened.  "Where do you think you're going?" 

           Cass gave a tight-lipped smile.  "Out."

           "Oh no you aren't.  Are you insane?  These people actually seem like they might be decent human beings.  After what you told me, why would you risk that?"  Something about Cass seemed different, but Elle didn't believe she was an idiot.

           Lowering her head, Cass shook it and tried to hide the laughter that bubbled up inside.  "Because going out at night is part of what keeps me here.  Trust me; the people in this house don't want me skipping out on my little excursions.  Especially you."  She pulled away from Elle's grip with surprising strength for someone so small.

           Reaching for her shoulder this time, Elle whirled Cass around and away from the window.  "Are you threatening me?" 

           "Silly human, that wasn't a threat," Cass tipped her head up to stare directly at Elle with jet black orbs where her eyes belonged, "it was a warning."

           Elle stopped breathing for a moment, her gazed fixed on Cass's face.  "Oh my God, what the hell are you?" she whispered.

           With a toothy grin, Cass listened intently as Elle's heartbeat sped up.  "I'm the thing that haunts your nightmares."  The smile dropped off her face.  "Now go back to bed, Ellery."

           Rather than leaving, Elle tightened her grip on Cass's shoulder and dropped to her knees, dragging the smaller girl with her.  Elle's face contorted in pain and anger as she growled, "Wrong answer!"

           "Do you have a death wish, or are you just really stupid?  I mean…"  Cass's arrogant raving cut off as she caught sight of the writhing muscles in Elle's arm.  "Crap.  Out the window.  Now."  Cass yanked away from Elle and jumped from the windowsill to a brilliant red and gold maple tree.

           Biting her lower lip to keep from screaming in pain, Elle followed.  The girls clambered to the ground and Elle hissed from between clenched teeth, "Shelter.  Trees."

           With a curt nod, Cass said, "A couple blocks away, can you make it?"

           Elle gasped.  "If we run."

           Cass took off at a jog, but Elle urged her faster with keening whines.  The trees where Cass stopped were sparse but far from the houses, and their proximity to the freeway provided a secondary form of concealment.

           "Wait here," Elle snarled as she darted into the seclusion of the pines.

           The tiniest part of Cass wanted to be polite and do as Elle requested, but when the cries of agony from within the trees battled the traffic noise for supremacy, she stifled the little voice inside her and moved in for a closer look.  She found Elle shivering in her underwear, with fur sprouting and retracting over various parts of her body.  "Wow, all I can say is eww.  If that's what it's like to be a were-whatever, I'll pass."  Elle growled, but Cass just scrutinized her further.  "Could you just pick a form and stick with it?  The repetitive fur eruptions are a bit nauseating."

           "I did, and I'm trying.  If it's making you sick, you can always leave."  Elle clutched her abdomen and doubled over in pain.

           Fascination completely subdued Cass's human half; she stayed and kept talking.  "Which one did you decide on then?"

           "What?"  Elle's chest heaved as she struggled for both breath and control of her change.

           "Which form did you choose, silly?  Or is this half-way thing one of them?"  Cass cocked her head to the side.  "Seems an odd form to pick, I don't understand the advantages of it at all…"

           "I'm trying not to shift; I chose human."  Elle's breathing grew steadier, and the last of her fur retracted and a few pieces drifted to the ground.

           Cass furrowed golden brows over her still black eyes.  "Why on earth would you do that?"

           With her pajama bottoms half-way up her long legs, Elle froze.  "Um, because I am human."

           "Oh, you're a delusional were-whatever, got it."  Cass turned and started walking away, leaving Elle to yank on her remaining clothes and catch up.

           "Wolf," Elle said, making Cass turn around with a cocked eyebrow.  "I'm a werewolf, and I'm not delusional."

           Cass snorted.  "Of course you are.  You claim to be werewolf and human -- clearly delusional as you can't be both."

           "I'm human.  At least as human as possible," Elle hissed while they slunk behind houses.  "Nobody asked if I wanted this; my family died, and I was left with this curse.  I don't want it, but I'm stuck with it; so the best I can do is learn to control it.  I ran today and had a full stomach; I wouldn't have shifted at all if it wasn't for you and your idiotic display in the bedroom.  And why the heck are you so damn calm about all of this?"

"Because I tend to expect the unexpected.”  She waved her hand dismissively.  “Real nice, by the way, blame the cheerleader.  So what is your other form like?"  Cass stopped at a short wooden gate and let out a low whistle.

"A … brown … wolf…"  Recognizing the house next-door as the Smith's, Elle broke off her sentence and cast a questioning glance at Cassidy.  "What are you doing?"

Cass held up a finger for patience then an enormous Rottweiler bounded around the corner of the house and skidded to a stop in front of her.  His nub of a tail wiggled faster than Elle would have thought possible.  "This," Cass said, opening the gate and kneeling down to scratch the dog behind his ears, "is Rex; my dinner date with him was interrupted by your ridiculous half-shifting.  So if you don't mind…"

Elle made a face.  “Dinner date?  What the hell do you…?”  She gaped as a pair of fangs extended in the cheerleader’s mouth. 

           Cass grinned then turned to the dog and plunged her teeth into its neck.  The Rottweiler's eyes rolled back in his head like Cass was giving him the world's most exquisite belly rub. Elle gagged as soon as the sucking sounds reached her; she turned away and squeezed her eyes shut.

"Oh quit being such a baby, I'm done."  Cass strode ahead of Elle, back toward the Smith's house.

           The entire ordeal had lasted only seconds; Elle turned to see the gate latched tight and Rex, the rottie, strolling back to his doghouse.  "That's it?  You're done?"  She jogged to catch up to Cass at the base of the tree.

           Cassidy grinned, showing startlingly normal teeth and eyes once more.  "Sure, what did you expect?"  She jumped to grab the lowest branch.

           Elle swatted her down.  "I didn't expect to end up living with a vampire." 

           Finding herself backed against the tree trunk by Elle, Cass shook her head and laughed.  "Stupid werewolf-human-thing, I'm not a vampire."  She ducked past Elle and tried for the branch again.

           "You grew fangs, you drank blood from the dog next door, and you're trying to tell me you aren't a vampire?  You really must think I'm stupid."  She reached for Cass again, but the cheerleader swung herself onto the branch and out of reach.

           She shook her head.  "Elle, Elle, I don't think you're stupid on this one, just a little uninformed.  You've seen me out in daylight."  She stood on the branch and reached for a higher one.  "Vampires have this really nasty sunburn issue, and as you can clearly see, all I've got is what's left of my summer tan.  So, not a vampire."  She flashed a cheeky grin and pulled herself onto another branch.

           Before Elle could respond, Cass was up the tree and through their bedroom window.  Grabbing the lowest branch, Elle raced up to join her.  In the darkness of their bedroom, she caught the glow of Cass's platinum blonde hair.  "Do you ever drink from humans?"

           Cass could hear the note of disgust in Elle's voice, but she didn't bother lying to make Elle feel safer. The truth would have to do.  "Yeah, but not in a very long time."

           "So, if you aren't a vampire, what are you?"

           Cass turned, and the moonlight danced on her hair, entrancing Elle.  "I'm a freak with some special talents who needs blood to survive."  She stripped off her coat and climbed into the top bunk.  "I'm kind of like you if you think about it."

           "I don't drink blood, and I've never hunted people," Elle scoffed.

           Hanging her head over the edge of the bunk, Cass said, "Maybe not, but you don't exactly live a normal existence.  Sprouting fur.  Hunting and feeding in the woods, if I don't miss my guess."  Elle tried to hide the expression of shame that crossed her face.  "A couple of those extra abilities that the average person doesn't possess.  Like it or not, you are like me - a freak of nature."

           "I never asked for any of this," Elle hissed from between clenched teeth as she perched on the edge of her bed.

           "Yeah? Welcome to the club."

 
 

About the Author

 
Over the course of the last two years, Julie Klumb has worked as a ghostwriter for web content and  joined the online writing group on Kelley Armstrong's website to improve her prose.  One of her poems, "I Remember", was published last year in "Nothing but Red" (edited by Skyla Dawn Cameron), an anthology dedicated to raise awareness of violence against women.
   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.