I stared uncomprehending at the boy in front of me. Sam's face was drawn, but his eyes were kind. With gentleness, he slipped the leaf and acorn into my hand. My palm itched from the desire to throw them back into his face.
"What… what are you doing?" The muscle in my jaw was tense, and I had to force the words out through clenched teeth. "Why would you give me this?"
"Helena." He paused a moment, phrasing his words carefully. "Helena, you know what these are. Stop thinking so hard and you'll see that everything I'm saying is very real."
Sam cradled my hand in his big calloused palms so that we both were cupping the little acorn and the dried leaf. I swallowed with difficulty around my tongue which suddenly felt as dry as a Sunday sermon. Looking at our clasped hands, I was struck by the difference between us. The calluses on his blunt fingers felt oh so good against the tender skin webbed between my thumb and forefinger. At that particular moment, the fear caused by his words was running as a meta-thought relegated to the back of my brain. My limbic system had taken over and was chanting, 'He's holding your hand. He's holding your hand.'
I pulled my hand away and stared out the windshield of the truck. Ashley had long since left for work and the two of us were totally alone on the dusty, unpaved road.
"Can we go to school now?" My voice was cool.
"No, Sam. I need to just be quiet and think for a bit. Take me to school."
"Are you still mad at me?" I could hear the trepidation in his voice.
"No. Now I'm just trying to decide if you're an escaped mental patient or not." The joke was weak, and it fell ugly and unappetizing between us like a jell-o mold at a wedding feast.
I turned away from him and listened to him start his decrepit truck. As we pulled away from the side of the road, I rolled down my window and stuck my head outside, feeling the wind tug my long brown hair. The whoosh of the wind drowned out my circling thoughts, and I was content for a while.
Everything in me wanted to believe Sam. When I was a little girl, Ash and I used to lie outside in the abandoned fields surrounding our house and gaze up at the stars. With our hands tucked beneath our heads, our hair would touch – her bright platinum strands mingling with my muddy locks like the sun shining on earth. Ash would cup her mouth with a cagey hand and whisper stories to me about Greek gods and sleeping princesses and the Fairy Queen.
You know, there under the stars I believed her. It was easy. The nighttime sky painted every word with a quicksilver truth that made it feel natural to accept that such things could co-exist with our mundane lives. But with every year that passed, my soul faded further into sickly pastels and I realized one day that no prince was coming for me. I was chained to my prosaic life by my mother and sister. No other shackle could have been so constricting and yet be loved more dearly.
But I missed believing. I missed the hope I used to have. Sam was bright and shiny and I was attracted to what he had to offer me. There would be no harm in listening to him. He could weave whatever tapestry of words he wanted, but I still got to decide whether or not I liked the pattern when he was done.
We pulled into the crowded school parking lot and sat in silence for a few moments watching the other students drag their still half sleeping bodies into the building. I looked at Sam.
"Why did you have such a late night yesterday?" I threw the words carelessly at him, as if I didn't care to hear the answer.
"You already know the answer to that, Helena." Sam's smile was fierce. "I fell for a thousand years while holding your hand."
My breath escaped me with a broken sound and I leaned as far away from him as I could. Shaking, I picked up the dead leaf Sam had given me earlier, and examined its fine textures. The crackling surface and delicate veined network reminded me of dead skin, and I remembered peeling it off of him last night in my dreams. I ran my thumb over its ridges. His grey eyes followed my movements hungrily.
With trembling hands, I held up the leaf so that it nearly hovered in the air between us, partially obscuring my sight of him. I closed my black eye slowly, and brought the leaf flush to my face. As I stared at Sam with my blue eye, he began to shimmer slightly. He looked up in alarm and I saw that his face was far more angular than it had been, and he looked feral. I cried out when his mouth opened in shock, showing me sharp canines three quarters of an inch long. Not human, my brain supplied just before Sam slammed my hand away from my face.
"Not a good idea," he grated and buried his face in his palms. When he turned to look at me again, his glamour was back in place showing me a frightened eighteen year old boy. "Helena, wait!" he cried, but I ignored him.
I was out of the car and halfway up the path to school before I realized that the leaf I clutched in my hand was green and vibrant, and my fingers were sticky with sap.
Sam lurked like a dust mote at the edge of my vision all day. I felt his eyes on me in English class and he sat at a lunch table where I'd be directly in his line of sight. He trailed me to classes, even ones we did not share, and was waiting for me when they were over.
I couldn't figure out why. Was he worried that I would tell someone? He had to have seen by now that I didn't have any friends. Could he be trying to intimidate me? For what purpose? Was he still trying to be friends with me? I didn't think I wanted that anymore. Seeing that flash of feral face was enough to make my heart thunk into my feet. He had done nothing to threaten me, but I was terrified of him nonetheless. His grey eyes had been slitted like a cat's, and the sense of otherness screamed at me to run from him and not look back.
At the end of the day, I raced to gather my books so that I would be able to catch the bus home. I didn't want to be dependent on Sam and his ancient pickup truck. After I'd gone out of my way to ignore him all day, it would surely send the wrong message if I asked him for a ride.
I was impatient and hasty in opening my locker and the door flew open, jumping out of my hand as if it was a bird struggling for escape. It hit the person next to me with a resounding crash, and I heard a muffled curse.
"I'm so sor-" I stopped speaking when I saw Sam's puckish face. He was rubbing his shoulder briskly, but there was a small smile playing around his mouth. "Oh, it's you." It was abominably rude, but I wasn't up to talking to him.
"Ouch, Helena! That stings – the words just as much as the assault. I'm not sure if I'll ever recover." The small smile stretched into a playful grin.
"Sam, I've got to go. I'm trying to catch the bus."
"I'll drive you home."
I looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "What on earth makes you think I'd let you do that? Can't you tell that I'm mad at you?" I felt a great deal of anxiety and was forced to clench my chattering teeth together for fear they would shatter like clay pots.
Sam's face grew solemn and he cocked his head. He leaned forward and inhaled deeply, the nostrils on his aquiline nose flaring. "No, you're not."
"Yes, I am! And don't you dare tell me how I feel." Every word dripped from my mouth with a poisonous contempt. I heard them fall hissing and spitting into the silence between us.
"Okay, now you are. But before you weren't. You were afraid." His voice deepened slightly. "You don't have to be, Helena. I'd never hurt you. I couldn't really. It's against my nature."
I stared at him.
"Please, Helena. Let me give you a ride home." He leaned forward and whispered in my ear. "I made peanut butter cookies in home economics today." I shivered as his hot breath washed down my neck.
"Are you trying to bribe me?"
Sam looked offended. "Never! It's not a bribe, it's incentive." He tilted his head and grew silent, as if he was listening. "Besides, the buses just pulled away. It's either ride home with me or walk."
I sighed. He was good. "Don't think I don't know you did that on purpose, Sam." I still felt trepidation when I thought about the glimpse of his face I'd caught through my blue eye, but he'd managed to reassure me to a great degree. I wouldn't go so far as to say that he was acting like a normal eighteen year old boy – since he hadn't mentioned sports, booze, or boobs even once - but he was definitely acting like a friend. It was also true that I kind of wanted a peanut butter cookie. I leaned against the cool metal of the lockers and raised my right hand to chew on my fingernails while I thought.
"Taste good?" he teased.
"Of course," I murmured. "But not as good as a cookie would."
Sam grabbed my hand and put it on the curve of his bicep. "Right this way, my lady."
We were flat on our backs in an open field, surrounded by our school books and cookie crumbs. Sam had driven me back to the bus stop by my house before parking his car and walking with me into one of the nearby pastures.
"Oh man, I don't think I'm going to eat peanut butter again for a year," I grouched lazily, wiping my hands on the scrubby grass.
"Yes, you will. You love peanut butter. You want to marry peanut butter and have little peanut buttery babies." Sam's voice was sleepy.
"Do you listen to yourself? What does that even mean?"
"I shouldn't have to explain myself to you, mortal." He rolled onto his side so he was facing me, and gave me a very naughty grin. I sat up quickly, remembering myself.
"You make it so easy to forget," I said, suddenly uncomfortable.
"That we're different, you and I."
Sam sat up and stretched, arching his back in such a way that he reminded me of a cosseted dog. "Yes, it's so nice to finally have found someone that's like me. Since we moved here, I've felt pretty lonesome. I'm glad we've become friends." He looked at me sharply, and for an instant I saw how brittle his eyes appeared. "We are friends, right? No more running away from me?"
"You'd probably just follow me anyway, wouldn't you?"
"Probably." He smiled, showing me his white teeth and I suddenly felt like Little Red Riding Hood admiring the Big Bad Wolf's canines.
"Then yes, we're friends." I hesitated a moment. "But that's not really what I meant. I meant you and I are different from each other. I saw you, you know. Just for an instant. Your eyes are… and the angles of your face… They're not human, are they?" It seemed more polite to him to ask him if his eyes were inhuman than to ask Sam if he was inhuman. The thin veneer of manners helped to anchor me in the here and now.
He slid forward and crossed his legs so that his knees were touching mine and we were facing each other. My question hovered in the air between us, and I could see him searching for an answer that was both honest and reassuring. In the end, his response was rough and unvarnished.
"No." Sam ran a big palm over his face and the skin beneath it began to smudge. Some of the color bled from his features leaving skin as pale and silvered as moonlight and as soft-looking as silk. His pupils elongated into cat's eyes, and his nose (which was already aquiline and a bit beaky) thinned and lengthened. The tips of his ears poked out from his curly black hair.
I was strangely disappointed. Although his face was still wild-looking with soft charcoal gray markings along his hairline by his ears, I'd somehow expected it to be beautiful as well. This creature in front of me made me experience the gush of red heat a predator must taste as it takes down its prey. It made me think of crouching in dark caves and stalking deer on silent feet. But Sam was anything but beautiful.
I found I could not be afraid of him. He was looking at me with such a puppyish hopefulness that the fear drained from me, and I was able to see the boy beneath the creature. I smiled slowly, and Sam's expression warmed until I wondered why the gray glaciers of his eyes weren't cracking and melting.
"Oh," I said. "Oh. There you are, Sam Hedgely." I reached forward and gently touched one of the gray swirls in front of his ear. I think I'd half expected it to rub off, and when it didn't I was surprised.
He laughed at my expression, and again I saw his sharp teeth.
"So, are you…" I hesitated.
"Am I?" he mocked.
"Are you an elf or something?"
"Sort of… more of a 'something' than an elf though, I'm afraid. I'm a phouka. Well, half phouka." At my blank look, he blushed and muttered, "It's a kind of shape shifter."
"No!" I gasped. "That's amazing! Can I see, Sam?"
"Turn away for a moment."
"Turn away, for chrissakes. I'll be naked for a second and I'm still enough of a teenager that public nudity ranks in my top five worst nightmares." He sounded irritated, and his cheeks were suffused with a blush that was emphasized by his pallor.
I obeyed, hiding my face in the crook of my elbow. I'll admit that I was tempted to peek. Very tempted.
When I turned back, Sam was gone, and in his place was an enormous dog. It appeared to be a solid black german shepherd with tall, upright ears and an extremely alert, intelligent look. Its paws were huge, but it still showed the slender, lanky build of an adolescent. He was not yet full-grown. My mind boggled when I pictured what this dog would look like as an adult.
"Can you speak in this form?" The dog, he, Sam shook his head slowly. Tentatively, my hand reached out and wrapped itself in the ruff at his neck. The fur was soft and warm from the heat of his body, and Sam's ears tipped back, and his tongue lolled out, panting in a friendly fashion. I smiled, and ran my hands over his face and ears. His tail began to wag slowly. Laughing, I rubbed his chest, and the tail wagged faster. Sam gave a little yip of happiness, and I gave him a strong pat on the shoulder. "Okay, I'll turn away now."
When I turned back, Sam's face was relaxed and friendly. He'd reapplied the glamour that made him appear human, and I have to admit that I was a bit relieved. "I love a good scratching. You can pet me anytime." Realizing he'd said something that could be misinterpreted, he flushed and stuttered. "I mean, in my dog form." He reached up and tugged on the back of his neck in embarrassment. "That's all I meant, Helena, honest." I smiled to myself.
"Sure, Sam. All you boys are the same – always after a good petting."
He laughed and took my hand.
"You were wrong, by the way," he murmured. "About you and I being so different from each other." Sam's face showed a terrible gentleness that caused my stomach to try and curl into a little ball, and I was curious as to what that meant.
I raised one eyebrow, waiting for him to explain.
"You have much more in common with me than you do with anyone at school. There's real magic seeping out of those pores, Helena, honest-to-god sympathetic magic like I've never experienced before."
"It doesn't seem like a very practical kind of magic." I grimaced and waggled my fingers in the air. "Whooo! You can tell that I am feeling emotionally needy and slightly constipated!"
Sam's laugh was a velvet baritone. "That's because you can't control it yet! With a talent like that, you could imprint your emotions on others. You're already nearly there with your ability to make people think you're unimportant." I felt a twinge in my chest at his words and cursed myself even though I knew what he meant. Seeing my expression (and maybe picking up on the emotions I was trying desperately not to broadcast), Sam hastened to add, "You know what I mean, Helena. I'm not saying anything bad. I think you are one of the most interesting girls I've ever met." He fluttered his lashes in shameless flirtation.
"Get on with you, dogbreath! Look at you trying to charm me. It wasn't necessary – I knew what you meant."
"Mmmhmm. Sure you did. You weren't offended at all, Hel. And you're right, I have dogbreath… especially if that dog has just eaten half a dozen peanut butter cookies. In fact, you must also have dogbreath if that is the definition we are going to use."
I punched him in the shoulder lightly. "It's time to go, Sam. The sky is darkening and the stars are starting to peak out. My mother and sis will be worried about me if I don't check in and start dinner."
Sam reached out and tugged a lock of my hair that hung around my face. "Sure thing. I'll pick you up tomorrow then?"
"Of course." The smile I flashed him had grown up in an instant, springing from my toes to my heart to my lips, and it tugged on Sam until he fell forward a step. He was standing close enough that I could feel the heat emanating from his body.
"Will you come to dinner at my house tomorrow? You can meet my gran. She's very interested in you." His voice was husky and soft and it brushed against me like a living thing, causing the hairs on the backs of my arms to stand on end.
"Uh huh," I said eloquently. I could feel his breath on my face and swayed towards him slightly. Not even an inch of our skin was touching, but every atom in my being was rioting, drawn by Sam.
His lips brushed across my eyebrow, so softly and swiftly that it could almost have been an accident if his mouth hadn't lingered at my temple, his nose buried in the soft hair there. Sam breathed in deeply as if he wanted to imprint on my smell, and it was a gesture that was terrible in its unfamiliarity. I loved it.
I walked back to my house too dazed to notice the large black dog that shadowed me until I reached the broken down steps of my porch. Once I reached safety, he turned and raced across the meadow, leaping into the air in joy.