CHAPTER TWO: FIREBIRDS AND GASOLINE
He has lived as long as there has been light. He spread his wings when the first light burst forth, and though his flames burn, flicker, and die, they always bloom again, reborn from the ashes of a dying world.
I discovered quickly that one of the best ways to get to know people is to be crammed in a car with them for an entire day. Stephanie and Blake were full of non-stop puns, jokes, and movie references. Uncle Timothy – who looked just like Blake, but older – kept changing the radio to a classic rock station, and each time he dozed off Aunt Marlene (also known as Stephanie with gray hair strands and smile lines) put in one of her Maroon 5 CDs. My cousins kept talking to Aunt Marlene about other new music, promising to make her new CDs, teach her to play music from her phone, and keep introducing her to new movies and music. Timothy and Marlene asked me about school, about my college plans, about whether I was looking forward to senior year, how much easier it would be to go to a new school since I would know Stephanie and Blake already.
The best part of it was that no one was talking about monsters. No one was stressing about having to go and hunt a man-eating beast. They were just there for the ride. They were enjoying each other’s company, taking naps, listening to music. We smiled and laughed. None of it felt like the start of a hyper-intense monster-hunting boot camp. It just felt like family.
I fell asleep somewhere along the way, and when I woke up, we’d arrived at the house in Missouri. Even though the house was right in the middle of town, there were trees and grass all around, and it was across the street from a decent-sized park. As I went inside, I silently promised a swing-set that I would come back for it another time.
“Your room’s upstairs,” said Stephanie as she and Blake helped carry in my bags. I heard Uncle Timothy move to a room in the back of the house and start talking on the phone.
“Who’s he talking with?” I asked.
“Local hunters,” said Blake, casting a look over to his father. “We’ve been gone a few weeks, so he’s probably getting a status update.”
“I think I heard him say earlier that he’ll be going out with them tonight,” said Stephanie as they walked into what was about to become my bedroom. “Checking up on a few of the locals, seeing if he can dig up any information.”
“So do you guys keep tabs on all the supernaturals in town?” I said, putting my suitcase on top of my new bed.
“Yep,” said Blake.
“Pays to have good sources on the other side,” Stephanie added. “Was that all?”
I glanced around. We’d successfully moved all of my possessions in one trip. “Yeah, that’s all of it. What are we going to do tonight while he’s gone?”
“Well, we are here to be trained,” Blake noted with a slight grin, “He usually takes us with him. Even if we have to stay in the car. Need to watch and learn, y’know?”
As it turned out, Uncle Timothy did take us with him. We spent the majority of the day unpacking, tidying up the house, and talking to people at the high school so that I could transfer in for the school year. I noticed Stephanie sending rapid-fire texts a few times throughout the day, and made a joke about her having a boyfriend. Instead of punching me in the shoulder, like she normally would have, she just exchanged a glance with Blake and quickly changed the subject.
When night fell, Uncle Timothy explained to us that we would be visiting a local member of the supernatural crowd and pumping him for information. We waited for Timothy’s phone to light up to signal a text message, and then jumped in the car. I saw Stephanie and Blake both slip guns into holsters under their jackets, and Stephanie said that I’d get one after they were sure I knew how to use it.
None of us spoke on the way to wherever we were going. I’m not sure I would have been able to hear them, anyway, over the sound of my own heart pounding in my chest despite the huge grin on my face. I’d waited my whole life to learn how to be a hunter. This was it.
We pulled into a gas station, almost empty except for a large van of people Blake said were hunters on the other side of the pumps. Between our two vehicles was a car that looked like it had been made in the sixties or seventies. I didn’t recognize the make or model, but it had sharper edges and lines, and the bumpers were apparently made of actual metal, unlike newer cars. Despite its age, it was well-maintained, painted a bright cherry red, and every bit of it shined.
Uncle Timothy told us to stay in the car, me in the backseat with Stephanie, and Blake sitting in the passenger seat. Aunt Marlene had said that it really wasn’t necessary for her to come this time.
All three of us watched intently as my uncle walked out to talk to the teenager who was pumping gas into the car. I frowned. The guy couldn’t have been any older than me. He was skinny, and about the same height as Timothy, with red hair, freckles, and blue eyes. His eyes narrowed as my uncle approached.
Uncle Timothy kept his hand resting on the gun at his hip while he started talking. Two hunters stood behind the teenager, also with their hands on their gun. And I’m not sure what it was, but something about the way the redheaded guy kept his hand on the gas nozzle made me think he could use that as a weapon every bit as good as my uncle’s handgun. I scanned the scene and noticed another teenager sitting in the red car’s passenger seat. This one looked shorter and broader than his friend, with kind of floppy brown hair. His eyes were cracked open just enough to survey the scene in front of him.
“Either of you recognize this guy?” I said, pulling my jacket tighter around me against the cool air that had seeped into the car.
Stephanie nodded. “His name’s Finn Williams. He’s a senior this year, same as us. He’s a good guy. Bit of a hot temper, though.”
Blake snickered, and I raised an eyebrow at him. He grinned wolfishly back and said, “That’s not all that Stephanie thinks is hot about him.”
Stephanie blushed and hit Blake hard enough that he smacked his head on the window solidly. I grimaced. “Shut up,” said Stephanie irritably. “Of course he’s hot, he’s literally a phoenix.”
I blinked. My eyes were drawn to Finn’s hand on the gas hose.
“How, exactly,” I said, very slowly, “is it practical to try intimidating a phoenix at a gas station?”
Stephanie’s mouth dropped open even as Blake frowned and said, “What do you mean?”
“Fire, idiot,” said Stephanie, her wide eyes snapping back to the exchange outside. “A firebird in a place full of gasoline fumes – the part of gasoline that’s actually flammable.”
Blake stared at the two men next to the gas pumps and swore.
“Can either of you tell what’s going on?” I asked.
Stephanie shot me a wicked grin. “Don’t need to,” she said, “Check this out.” My cousin pulled out her cell phone and opened an app. Immediately, Uncle Timothy’s voice emanated from Stephanie’s phone.
“You bugged your dad?” I said.
Stephanie just scoffed.
I sighed. “Of course you did.”
“ – might not be able to take you out,” said Timothy, “But there are a lot of people you care about.” I looked up and saw Finn as he turned towards the brunet guy in the car.
“He’s threatening a teenager,” I hissed at my cousins.
Stephanie glanced at me, but said nothing. Her brow was creased, apparently in concern.
Blake rolled his eyes. “Dad’s doing what he has to. That kid could kill us all.”
I stared at him for a moment before repeating, “Could.”
“He could kill us all,” I said, my voice coming out as a low rumble. “Not has. Not will. Not intends to. Could. Is that all it takes?”
I saw Blake’s jaw clench. “Yeah,” he said darkly, “It is.”
“Seriously?” Finn was saying, his voice deeper than I had expected. “Cal is literally the only person in this town more dangerous than me.”
The kid in the car – Cal – cracked a grin at my uncle. The guy’s skin rippled, shifting momentarily into something that looked like scales, then changing back.
“Besides you couldn’t get through me to fight him,” said Finn, his voice suddenly unamused. “Not here.”
“Is that a threat?” rumbled Uncle Timothy.
“A fact,” snarled Finn, baring his teeth. I must have blinked and missed the motion, but one second Finn was standing at the gas pump, putting the nozzle back into its holder, and the next he had his fist wrapped in the front of my uncle’s jacket. Not only that, but his eyes weren’t blue anymore. His irises looked like some kind of miniature screen, showing the image of a flame and emitting crimson light.
“I am sick of this,” the phoenix hissed, “I can walk right up and touch you, Ross, and your men stand there doing nothing. They’re scared, and they should be. You’d be an idiot to pretend you’re not afraid of me, you insolent child.”
I gaped. Holy crap. I’d seen werewolves and gorgons and stuff growing up, but…this might be a bit outside of my weight class.
“If I wanted you dead, you would be,” Finn said quietly. “You wouldn’t even slow me down. Now get out of my sight.”
I noticed that the hunters who’d stood behind Finn had their guns drawn and trained on the teen. Finn didn’t seem to care as he closed up his car’s gas tank, got in, and drove away. Cal gave my uncle a huge grin…and made some rather impolite hand gestures at him.
I leaned over to Stephanie and said, “Bit of a temper, huh?”
Stephanie stared after Cal, her eyebrows raised. “Yep. Both of them, apparently.”