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
"You wanted to see me?" Elle asked nervously as she stood in
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
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
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? 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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?"
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"I never asked for any of this," Elle hissed from
between clenched teeth as she perched on the edge of her
"Yeah? Welcome to the club."