PROLOGUE

 

“RUNNERS ON your mark… get set… go!”

Sam chuckled softly as he set off at a slow jog instead of rocketing to the top speed that had made him a star on his school’s track team. He wasn’t there to race, only to enjoy the solitude of the late August evening. He loved running, whether competitively or simply to clear his head.

No one else was around. The Dan Ryan Woods weren’t exactly a hangout spot, especially not after dark. Major Taylor Trail was his favorite place to run. The path began close to his house in Beverly, and unlike the running/biking/hiking trail on Lake Shore Drive, the track through the park was little used. At this time of night it was entirely deserted.

Sam had been running for as long as he could remember. His dad loved to say he learned to sprint before he could even walk properly. The activity was like second nature to him. He could lose himself in the effortless motion of his limbs and the rhythmic pounding of his feet against the pavement. Jogging at this sedate pace offered not only a way for him to keep in shape during the off-season, but it also afforded him the perfect opportunity to think away from the demands and expectations of his parents and his peers.

In a couple of weeks, he would be a senior. Entrance exams, AP courses, and the regional track meet loomed large on the horizon. He’d gotten one of the highest scores in the state on the PSATs the previous year, and everyone at school expected he’d at least grab the salutatorian spot if not valedictorian. Not to mention his coach was convinced Sam would take first place in his specialty event, the 400-meter sprint, at the finals in early October.

Sometimes the pressure of being perfect got to him, but Sam usually found it pretty easy to shrug off the stress. After all, he’d always been his own worst critic. The only person he worried about outdoing was himself, and as a result, he prided himself on being the best at whatever he strove to accomplish.

The intersection at 87th Street was clear, so Sam didn’t bother waiting for the red light to change. As he continued north on the trail, he grinned at the memory of the unexpected encounter he’d had at the track meet earlier that month. Several college scouts had attended the meet, and his accomplishments had apparently put him on their radar. Even the recruiter from Texas A&M had introduced herself, and they were the best Division 1 school in the country for track and field! Of course, Stanford was still sending him mail after the summer engineering program he’d attended there the previous year. His mom wanted him to concentrate on his academic interests while his dad was gung ho on his chances of making the US Olympic team for the 2020 games. Sam laughed when he remembered his dad talking excitedly about how he’d always wanted to visit Tokyo.

Having reached the heart of the park, Sam tipped his head back to peer at the sliver of sky visible between the high trees that lined the east side trail, stretching as far as he could see in the darkness. He slowed his pace slightly, then hopped up and down for a while before starting again, using the vertical movement to strengthen his calves. The park—a lightless expanse off to his left—was completely still, but a little of the vehicle noise from Hamilton Avenue reached him from the other side of the tree line.

He wasn’t sure when he’d started humming to himself. He didn’t like the distraction of headphones since the beat interfered with his running pace, but he didn’t mind creating his own music while he exercised. He was midnote when a dark shape darted across the path about six yards in front of him. The shadow came out of the trees from the direction of the park and moved so fast, Sam almost wasn’t sure he’d actually seen anything.

“Probably a cat,” he mumbled softly. Plenty of strays roamed the neighborhood, surviving off the garbage of the upper-middle-class families who lived in the area. Nevertheless, he checked his forward motion and hopped in place for a moment. He was merely keeping to his routine. He certainly wasn’t nervous about whatever the mysterious shape had been. Or at least that’s what he told himself.

He was just about to resume his jog when he heard a noise. He stopped completely and stared down the darkened path, cocking his head to the side to better focus his ears. Nothing greeted him but silence, and he was convinced he’d merely imagined the sound when he heard it again.

“Who’s there?”

A low growl answered. Sam exhaled sharply. A dog, then, and not a cat. He wasn’t afraid of dogs. He’d grown up with a steady succession of canine companions from the teacup poodles his mom adored to the Cane Corso his dad insisted on when his wife’s choice of dogs had threatened his masculinity. Still, he knew strays could be dangerous. Confidence was the best strategy when dealing with a strange dog.

“Hey, pooch!” he said loudly to announce his presence while remaining motionless so as not to appear threatening. “You lost, boy?” The dog may have been a girl, but it wasn’t like it would get offended at his mistake.

The path ahead of him remained clear, and after a minute he shrugged, figuring he’d been wrong after all. A foul odor wafted toward him, like animal excrement some jerk had neglected to pick up after walking his dog, but it was faint. He hoped he didn’t have dog crap on his expensive running shoes. He jogged onward a few steps but backpedaled to a rapid halt when a figure suddenly appeared in the middle of the trail a dozen feet in front of him.

“Shit!”

Sam felt stupid for yelling, but the figure had seemed to materialize out of nowhere. He squinted, trying to see through the gloom. The figure seemed to be a little under five feet tall and had a slim build. Basically, it bore the outline of an eight or nine-year-old child. Sam relaxed and laughed, feeling pretty foolish for being nervous.

“Hey, kid, your mommy know you’re running around out here so late?” Sam approached the kid slowly, guessing the child was a lot more frightened of him than he’d been. “Why don’t you go on home? Do you need some help?”

The path was unlit, but he was surprised he still couldn’t make out any part of the child’s features. His eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness, and when he glanced down at himself, he could clearly see the orange of his reflective running shirt and shorts and the whites of his gym shoes. But when he looked back toward the figure, all he could make out was a black silhouette.

“You okay, kid?” Sam slowed to a stop a few feet from the child, feeling oddly reluctant to move any closer. “You sick or something?” He was annoyed the child hadn’t answered any of his questions, like he didn’t have anything better to do than babysit some little brat. “Come on, kid. Cat got your tongue or something?”

The last comment finally got a reaction. The shadow that suggested the lower half of the child’s face seemed to split apart, revealing teeth bared in a grin. Only they didn’t even come close to resembling human teeth. Sam choked, his throat constricting in horror, as he stared at the double row of needle-sharp spikes jutting from the figure’s jaws.

“What the fuck?”

His eyes bulged as he struggled to accept what he was seeing. He opened his mouth to do something—scream maybe, or perhaps cry. But the instant the rumbling growl he’d thought he’d only imagined reached him, he spun around and pelted back down the trail. He didn’t care if he’d been mistaken, that it really had been some kid wearing a Halloween mask two months early. The second he’d seen those teeth, a sliver of ice had lodged itself in his gut. Fear instantly took over, a surge of adrenaline preparing him for fight or flight.

Flight was his specialty, and he put on the afterburners as he tore southward down Major Taylor Trail. He’d gone over half a mile before running into whatever the hell that thing had been, but less than two minutes later, he could see the traffic signal indicating the intersection where he’d begun his run.

Almost there!

He felt instinctively that, if he could just reach the thoroughfare, he’d be safe. It wasn’t all that late, and 87th Street was always pretty busy, even in the middle of the night. People would be there, people whom he could beg for help. If he was lucky, maybe he’d even find a police cruiser making its rounds. It would be worth the risk of interacting with the cops if it kept whatever was chasing him at bay.

But was he really being chased? He’d been so focused on running, he hadn’t been listening too closely for sounds of pursuit. Turning his head slightly, he concentrated on the path behind him, but he didn’t hear anything. No footsteps, no sounds of crunching from the dead leaves that always littered the path, not even that creepy growling.

All of a sudden he felt like the biggest idiot on the planet. Hadn’t he already figured it out? It was nothing but some little asshole wearing a mask. He was glad he was alone and that no one had witnessed his foolishness. Although, he added with a smirk, if those scouts had seen the burst of speed he’d just put on, they’d be begging to recruit him even before graduation!

The light was red when he reached the intersection, and he stopped, obeying the jaywalking laws for once in order to catch his breath. While he hadn’t gotten through his entire routine, which usually took him to the end of the trail past 83rd Street and back a few times, that last sprint had certainly gotten his blood pumping. He didn’t want to admit his racing pulse was due in no small part to fear.

The light turned green. He started forward, but before he’d moved more than an inch, he was suddenly yanked backward. He hit the ground hard, a shock of pain traveling up his spine as he landed on his butt. The agony was easily ignored, however, as he was dragged backward up the trail by the collar of his jersey.

“Stop! Let me go!” he choked, the front of his shirt digging into his throat as he was hauled through the dirt.

Sam dug his heels into the ground, trying to halt his passage and thwart his captor, but the grip on his jersey was too strong. He reached up and grabbed the hand holding him, intending to pry it loose so he could escape. But his scrabbling fingers didn’t encounter a hand, or at least not one recognizable as human. The appendages holding him were too thick to belong to a person. They made Matt Rakowski’s ridiculous mitts look like a little girl’s, and he was the largest kid on the school’s wrestling team.

Sam’s panic kicked into high gear when he realized he was being pulled off the path and into the trees. The Dan Ryan Woods might barely deserve the name, but in the dark, it looked like the freaking jungle. The rational part of his mind knew the tree line that bordered the trail wasn’t all that wide, but all he could see was trunks and bushes. He might as well have been in the middle of the forest instead of in the heart of Chicago’s south side.

Something raked at the back of his neck, and he screamed at the pain. He felt warmth running down between his shoulders and experienced an awful moment of confusion as to whether it was sweat or blood.

“Help!” he shouted, but of course, no one was around to hear him. Wasn’t that what he’d always loved about running in the park at night? The solitude? Well, fuck that.

“Get offa me!”

Sam dug his fingers into the dirt, clawing at the soil with his hands and feet in a desperate effort to get away. For a moment he thought his abrupt release was due to his own efforts. But when he flipped over onto his hands and knees, he realized his horrible mistake.

He could see the creature clearly now. A faint glow emanating from the thing’s misshapen form cast a small radius of illumination. For the first time, Sam missed the ignorance of darkness. The glow strengthened, growing brighter as the creature stared at him with a hideous mockery of a grin. Its teeth parted, and a tongue lashed out as though tasting the air. Slime dripped from the grotesque appendage, which flopped obscenely against the creature’s thin lips.

Sam opened his mouth, but he had lost the ability to call for help or to make any sound at all. The light froze him in place, and his skin burned as the illumination touched him.

A small flock of sparrows took off from the trees above when the strange light reached them, and then, in an instant, the brightness vanished.

Silence returned, broken only by the honk of a car horn from the nearby road.

 

 


Chapter ONE

 

“NEXT STOP, Madison and Clinton. This is the twenty, Madison to Austin.”

Tyrell barely heard the bus driver’s announcement. The music blasting through his headphones was just loud enough that he could really enjoy the beats of the new 2 Chainz album while not disturbing his fellow passengers. Not that he really cared about that, but Big Momma’s admonition to always be considerate of others wasn’t easily ignored. He’d been hearing it all his life, and he guessed it had stuck at some point. He stared out the window, having been lucky enough to nab a window seat when he got on at Madison and Wabash after transferring from the #6 Jackson Park Express. The early September weather was showing out, and downtown Chicago teemed with those hurrying to their office prisons as well as those simply enjoying the beautiful sunshine. The bus driver had opened the upper windows, and a warm breeze wafted in to drift among the blue-and-black seats.

Mouthing the words to the current track, Tyrell bopped his head in time to the rhythm, his hands tapping out the complicated beat on the railing in front of him. The middle-aged woman sitting next to him gave him the side-eye, but since she looked away a second later after a single roll, he figured he must not be annoying her too much. A glint of murky greenish-blue caught his eye, and Tyrell leaned closer to the window to catch his first glimpse of the Chicago River since the previous June.

First day of school, junior year. Tyrell’s little brother, Kevin, had been more excited about that fact than he was. Kevin had hounded him all morning, bouncing around Tyrell’s bedroom like a pinball when he should have been getting ready for his own first day in the sixth grade.

“What’s it feel like to be an upperclassman? Are you finally gonna kick Dunce’s ass?”

Tyrell raised an eyebrow at his younger brother. “You’d better not let Mama hear you cussin’ or it’s your ass that’s gonna get kicked.” He ducked the fake punch Kevin threw at his shoulder. “And why would I fight with Dunce? We’re friends… sorta.”

“Dunce” was the well-deserved nickname of Thomas Allen, one of his crew, though merely by association. Thomas was seventeen years old and should have been a senior, but he’d been held back in the eighth grade and was now one of the oldest kids in their class. Dunce was big and not too bright, but he could sack a quarterback without breaking a sweat, so everybody at Winton Yowell High School loved him. Thanks to him, they’d nearly made it to the state finals the previous season.

Kevin glared up at Tyrell skeptically. “Friends? If you say so.”

Tyrell smacked him on the back of the head. “I say so. Now finish grabbing your stuff so I can walk you to school before I catch the bus.”

He watched Kevin dash down the hall to their shared room, feeling a bit nostalgic about when he’d been a grade-school student. Life had seemed so simple back then without the messy interplay of hormones and Lord of the Flies sociology that often defined high school. A few minutes later, Kevin reappeared, his backpack hanging from his right shoulder by a single strap. Tyrell suppressed a smile at the sight. Wearing your book bag over one shoulder was a sign of maturity, or so Kevin had informed him a few weeks ago when they’d been out back-to-school shopping.

“Duh, only babies wear both straps,” he’d explained.

Tyrell hadn’t said anything, remembering that he’d felt the same way when he was twelve. After taking a final look around himself, he mentally pronounced himself ready to face the day. Since he didn’t have any textbooks yet, his own backpack was light, filled only with pens, pencils, and a binder stuffed with half a package of notebook paper. They made it as far as the front door when their mother stopped them. She was standing in the doorway of their grandmother’s bedroom, apparently having just finished checking on her before completing her own morning ritual.

“Tyrell. Kevin. Did you boys grab your lunches?”

“Aww, Mama!” Kevin whined, undermining his attempt to look older. “Do we have to? I wanted to buy my lunch in the cafeteria this year.”

Tyrell winced and waited for the Jesus explosion.

Their mother didn’t disappoint. She stared thunderbolts at her youngest son, and put her hand on her hip as she raised her other to stab an index finger at Kevin. Tyrell beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen, but his mother’s voice carried clearly.

“Kevin James Hughes, I know you are not trying to back-talk this early in the morning. The good Lord has provided so you can eat a healthy lunch and you want to eat that garbage they serve at school? Jesus Lord, help me with this boy!”

Tyrell mouthed along with that last sentence, having heard it so many times. He’d once wondered whether his mother was capable of ending a speech any other way. He glanced at the microwave clock and pressed his lips together as he faced the very real possibility that he would be late on his first day.

Kevin went to Chaplain Elementary, the same grade school Tyrell had attended. Since Joanne worked as a legal secretary in one of the downtown law firms, she didn’t have time in the morning to get Kevin to school and make it to her job on time. She had made a deal with Tyrell the summer before he’d started at Winton Yowell: he would get a later curfew if he agreed to walk his little brother to school every morning. Kevin usually had early morning baseball practice, so he started school nearly an hour before Tyrell. Tyrell had considered it a fair deal, and since Chaplain was on his way to the bus stop, it usually wasn’t a problem. Only now Joanne was throwing a monkey wrench into his entire timetable.

“But, Mama,” Kevin tried again, obviously not knowing when to leave well enough alone.

“Don’t ‘but Mama’ me, boy. Do you think I go to the grocery store every week for my health? Do you know how much money I save having you and your brother take your lunch? Do you think money just grows on trees?” Another favorite idiom. “Jesus Lord, help me with this boy!”

“Joanne, honey, it’s too early in the morning for all that noise.”

Saved by the Southern Belle. Tyrell sighed with relief as his grandmother’s dulcet Mississippi drawl, unaffected by over forty-five years of living in Chicago, provided a welcome interruption. He grabbed the paper bags holding his and Kevin’s lunches and retraced his steps to the living room. Instead of rejoining his mother and brother, however, he veered toward his grandmother’s bedroom. It was barely seven o’clock in the morning, and he was surprised she was awake so early. He paused in the doorway, peering into the darkness of her room.

“Tyrell, baby? Why you hoverin’ in the doorway?”

Tyrell smiled. He had a feeling that if she lived to see him turn fifty, she’d still be calling him “baby.” He stepped into the room and moved cautiously over to her bed, trying to avoid any of the misplaced shoes or books that usually littered the floor. It didn’t take long for his sight to adjust to the dimness, and when he arrived at her bedside without incident, he saw she was sitting up with her back propped against her pillow.

“I wasn’t sure if you were awake, Big Momma,” he said, leaning down to kiss her on the cheek. Her skin was like gently creased satin beneath his lips.

“Now how could I be talkin’ to you if I was asleep?”

Tyrell’s grin broadened at the feisty retort. “Touché.” The fact that she’d picked up on the incongruity of his statement was a good sign. Ever since she’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years before, Tyrell had stopped taking her lucidity for granted. But apparently this was going to be a good day, or so he hoped. “Watch your eyes,” he cautioned before turning the knob on the lamp sitting on the nightstand.

At sixty-eight, Lucille Wallis was still a beautiful woman. Her dark skin shone like mahogany beneath the muted light from the lamp, and her sweet smile erased even more years from her face. Her gray hair was done up in pink foam rollers, a wispy net holding the arrangement firmly in place. Lucille always insisted her hair be properly styled, since one never knew when company might be coming. Unfortunately, those occasions had become fairly rare. Aside from the other members of the Baptist church she attended with her daughter, Lucille didn’t get much company these days.

“You looking forward to school, baby?” Lucille asked. “It’s the first day today, isn’t it?”

Tyrell nodded quickly to dispel the uncertainty in her expression. “Yeah, Big Momma. I’m a junior this year.”

She pressed a hand to her face. “Blessed be!” she said on a gasp. “You are growing up so fast. Before I know it, you’ll be getting married and giving me a great-grandbaby.” She chuckled, and Tyrell could feel his face growing hot. He wondered if his blush was visible through his dark complexion.

“Come on, Big Momma. How about I graduate from high school first?”

“Tyrell!” Joanne called from the living room. “You and Kevin need to leave now so you’re not late.”

Tyrell groaned, though he was relieved the confrontation between Joanne and Kevin had apparently ended in less than five minutes. They were both so stubborn. Sometimes the standoffs between them could go on for days at a time. “Like it’s not her fault we haven’t left already,” he grumbled.

Lucille tsked. “Don’t roll your eyes at your mama. Even if she deserves it,” she finished on a grin.

Tyrell laughed. It was music to his ears to hear his grandmother talking like her old self. Though the good days outnumbered the bad, on occasion she couldn’t quite remember his and Kevin’s names. Fortunately, Joanne had remained a strong presence in her mind, at least for now. “Okay, Big Momma. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

“Don’t hurry home on my account,” she said with a smile. “I’m sure you’ll want to spend time with your school friends.”

Not likely, Tyrell thought. He wasn’t much of a joiner, so his main interaction with his classmates took place during the school day. He didn’t belong to any clubs, and he didn’t play on any of the many sports teams Winton Yowell boasted. There was no reason for him not to come straight home after the Opening Day assembly.

“All right,” he said instead, not wanting to get into yet another conversation with his grandmother about his lack of a social life. Her frequent lamentations that her sixteen-year-old grandson had never had a girlfriend—as far as she knew—were mortifying enough. He kissed her again and reached for the lamp’s knob.

Lucille shook her head. “No, leave it on. I’m awake now. And tell your mama to stop fussing at Kevin.”

Tyrell smiled wryly. “Yeah, I’m sure that’ll work.”

The sound of her chuckle followed him as he turned and left her room. When he reached the living room, Kevin was waiting by the door with a sour expression on his face. Tyrell smirked at him and handed his little brother his lunch.

“I don’t know why you bother,” he snarked. “You can’t argue with Jesus.”

“This is Madison and Halsted. This stop is Madison and Halsted.”

Tyrell sat up in his seat as the bus slowed to a halt in front of the bus shelter sitting on the corner. Though they’d had to hustle, he’d managed to get Kevin to school and still catch his bus on time. He had to transfer downtown to the #20 Madison, and he enjoyed watching the bustling crowds, imagining what it would be like when he someday joined the ranks of the gainfully employed. He still needed to finish high school and get through college, but he greatly looked forward to the day when he was no longer living under his mother’s roof. Jesus could be a really tedious housemate.

Under his breath, he hummed the melodic line underpinning 2 Chainz dope lyrics as the rapper waxed poetic about girls with big booties, which immediately brought to mind one big-bootied girl in particular.

Shaunteé Dubois. Tyrell’s father had been a dedicated fan of Motown oldies before he passed away, and Tyrell had gotten a decent grounding in those classics from the ’60s and ’70s. He was absolutely certain The Commodores had somehow met Shaunteé when they’d come up with that song “Brick House.” He’d first seen her, or at least had first really noticed her, the previous year during Homecoming when she’d performed on the dance squad. And as it had every moment since, the mere thought of her was enough to make his shorts feel tighter.

The woman in the seat next to him got up, and Tyrell breathed a sigh of relief, only to groan in dismay a second later when a much larger woman took her place. Tyrell grimaced as he was crushed between the woman and the side of the bus. Luckily, he was only four blocks from his stop. Maybe he’d just stand the rest of the way. It would be a lot more comfortable than dying of suffocation. He was contemplating the least offensive way to ask the woman to let him by so he could stand in the aisle when he heard a light male voice shouting from outside his window. He looked out but saw only a streak as the caller ran toward the closing doors.

“Wait!” the voice repeated from the sidewalk near the front of the bus.

Through the rearview mirror, Tyrell saw the bus driver roll his eyes upward. For half a second, the bastard clearly contemplated ignoring the request before he finally pressed the button to reopen the doors. “Thanks,” the voice said, breathy with exertion and relief.

The bus driver shook his head as he glanced at the newcomer. “Son, it’s dangerous to run for the bus. Best to just wait for the next one. They run pretty frequently on this route this time of day.”

“Yes, sir,” the voice said, the words growing more distinct as the speaker mounted the steps toward the driver and the fare box.

When Tyrell saw the kid who’d barely missed becoming the latest victim of the driver’s passive aggressiveness, he had two simultaneous thoughts. The first was what a fag. The second was so pretty. Both thoughts made him extremely uncomfortable, though he was hard-pressed to say which one disturbed him more.

Tyrell guessed the kid was around his age going by his general height and build. That lanky, scrawny look was common among teenage guys and could be hiding either extreme weakness or an incongruous whippy strength. Any similarities between them ended there, though. Tyrell, like many of his friends, did everything he could to be as individualistic as possible while taking great pains to look like everyone else. This guy on the other hand apparently didn’t give a shit what other people thought of him.

The kid was wearing battered jeans and a T-shirt that boasted a picture of some guy in a wig with frilly clothes, which was half-hidden behind the gaudy pendant hanging from his neck. Below the face, the words “If It Ain’t Baroque” appeared in a barely readable font. His skin was fair and showed signs of a mild acne breakout that was mostly healed. Tyrell caught a flash of brilliant green eyes as the kid searched around idly for a seat, but his hair was the feature that had prompted Tyrell’s knee-jerk assessment of his orientation. He was blond, which wasn’t unusual, but the way he wore it….

How fair art thou, my bonnie lass.

“What the hell?” Tyrell mumbled. He’d never had reason to regret his infatuation with English poets until that very moment.

The kid’s hair fell in an elaborate series of spiral ringlets that reached past his shoulders. They bounced and shimmied every time he moved his head and whenever the bus hit a patch of rough pavement. Tyrell had never seen anything like it, and he couldn’t look away, fascinated by the unusual coiffure. Of all the times for his mother’s insistence that he start studying for the PSATs over the summer to come in handy. Of course it was right when Tyrell was staring that the strange kid chose to look in his direction. Or maybe the guy had felt him staring. Either way, Tyrell found himself caught like a deer in headlights when the kid’s verdant gaze met his stare head-on. Damn PSATs.

Tyrell wanted to look away. He shouldn’t be staring. There was absolutely no reason for him to be staring. Except he had never seen such amazing eyes in his life. They were the color of trees right at the end of spring when their leaves were lush and green, unscorched by the onrush of summer’s intense heat. Something about that gaze reached deep into Tyrell and refused to let go. And then he heard music, soft and ethereal like nothing he’d ever listened to but so profound he felt his chest tighten with emotion.

Disturbed by his peculiar reaction, Tyrell shut his eyes briefly and shook his head, attempting to clear it of wayward thoughts. When he looked up again, the kid was still looking at him, albeit curiously, as though Tyrell was the one who’d done something odd. The music had vanished, and the kid once again seemed to be nothing more complex than an utter weirdo.

Fag. Pretty.

The adjectives vied in Tyrell’s brain for prominence, and he’d just about made up his mind that the former was the better response. He didn’t necessarily care that some guys found other guys attractive. He just wasn’t particularly interested in being one of them. Shaunteé Dubois was pretty. This kid was just… bizarre.

Feeling confident in his decision, Tyrell hurriedly fixed his face, adjusting his expression from slightly nervous awe to a cool glare into which he injected just the right hint of nastiness. The kid blinked, apparently caught off guard by Tyrell’s show of hostility, but in the next instant, he’d clearly moved on, sliding his gaze away as he continued his hunt for an empty seat.

Tyrell didn’t know if the kid was successful in his search. He stared determinedly out the window, refusing to look at the weirdo any longer. It wasn’t his concern whether some fag had to stand for the rest of his ride. Tyrell moved his shoulders in an uneasy shrug, that word sitting less easily in his thoughts than it had a second ago. Whatever, he grumbled silently. It wasn’t like he’d ever have to see the kid again to be concerned about his conflicting reactions. Keeping his gaze firmly glued to the passing scenery, Tyrell prepared himself to maneuver past the large woman next to him so he’d be ready when it was his turn to get off the bus.

“Next stop, Madison and Aberdeen.”

“Excuse me, ma’am.” Tyrell thought his grandmother would be proud of him, even though politeness was the last sentiment he was feeling toward the lady who’d tried to turn him into a pancake in his seat.

The woman shot him an annoyed glance, but she apparently couldn’t find a legitimate reason to object. She maneuvered her bulk so he could slide past her. He’d been sitting toward the front and made his way to the door, two years of practice helping him keep perfect balance as the bus hit a pothole with bone-jarring force. Movement near the rear door caught his eye, and he glanced over to see the strange kid standing there. Was he about to get off too? Shit, Tyrell thought. He sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t much at the next intersection except….

“This is Madison and Racine. This is the stop for Winton Yowell High School.”

Tyrell knew the bus driver had shared that information only to accommodate any new students who might be getting off there for the first time. As soon as the doors opened, he pounded down the steps and alighted on the concrete sidewalk, which was baked from the brutal summer that was finally coming to an end. The bus stop was on the northeast corner of the intersection, and the school was situated on a large patch of land immediately to the southwest. Tyrell was walking toward the corner so he could cross the first of the two streets he needed to navigate when something in the periphery of his gaze distracted him.

“Shit,” Tyrell repeated, this time aloud.

The weirdo had indeed gotten off at the same stop, which meant he was most likely a new student at Winton Yowell. Tyrell couldn’t claim he knew everyone in the nonfreshman classes, but he sure as heck had never seen this kid before. He definitely looked too old to have just graduated from grammar school, unless he was like Dunce and had been held back. Tyrell doubted that was the case. No one who’d had to repeat a grade wore T-shirts with frilly old dudes on them, which meant he was most likely a transfer student.

The kid was looking around, clearly trying to orient himself to his new surroundings. He spied the school sitting kitty-corner across the street and turned to head to the curb where Tyrell waited for the light to change.

For some reason he couldn’t name, Tyrell decided it was best to avoid the new student. He quickly checked both ways for traffic and, seeing the coast was relatively clear, indulged in that favorite Chicago pastime: jaywalking. Bolting diagonally across the street to save time—straight lines and all he remembered from last year’s geometry class—Tyrell sighed as his feet landed on the safe territory of the grass surrounding the school. “Our very own urban oasis,” the principal liked to call it. Tyrell was just glad to be back on familiar territory. It had been a long summer. He headed for the main entrance, never looking back to see whether he was being followed by bouncing blond ringlets.