Home > Hellion (Relentless #7)

Hellion (Relentless #7)
Author: Karen Lynch

Prologue

11 years ago, San Francisco, CA

I lifted the bottom corner of the plywood that covered the window and slipped through the opening. Inside the building, it was dark, and I took a minute for my eyes to adjust before I moved away from the window.

A shiver went through me. I didn’t mind the dark, but it was chilly in here and my coat was thin. I was going to have to find something warmer to wear before the weather turned cold.

My stomach rumbled painfully, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Spurred by hunger, I made my way down a hallway to what had once been the lobby of a small hotel. Here, the sun shone through a higher window that hadn’t been boarded up, providing enough light to see my surroundings.

I headed for a large square patch of sunlight in a corner, grateful for any warmth I could find. Sitting cross-legged on the dirty floor, I listened to make sure I was alone. The other kids I shared this building with rarely came back until dark, but I’d learned to be careful.

I had been living on the street since I ran from my foster home three weeks ago, and it hadn’t taken long to learn to trust no one. Out here, everyone was trying to survive from one day to the next, even if that meant stealing from the new girl.

Hearing nothing, I opened my small backpack and pulled out the turkey and cheese sandwich I’d lifted from a deli an hour ago. My mouth watered at the smell of bread and mayo, and I could barely wait to get the plastic off before I took a huge bite. I had to force myself to chew slowly despite the gurgling sounds coming from my stomach. If I ate too quickly when I was really hungry, I’d end up throwing it up and I would be back to where I’d started.

“Whatcha got there, J?”

My heart leaped into my throat, and I nearly choked on the food in my mouth as a red-haired boy entered the room. Shane. I cringed inwardly because he was the last person I wanted to see. I made a point of avoiding him as much as I could.

At fourteen, Shane had four years on me, and he was at least a foot taller. He was scrawny like most of the kids I’d met out here but tough from years on the street. And he was a bully.

I flicked a nervous glance behind him. He also didn’t go anywhere without his little group of friends. The four of them said they owned this building, and they bossed everyone around. If I could find another safe place to sleep, I wouldn’t stick around here.

“Just a sandwich.” I wrapped it in the plastic again. No sense lying because he’d already seen it.

“You gonna share?” he asked, his eyes never leaving my hands.

I tucked the sandwich inside my backpack. “No.”

Shane scowled and lifted his gaze to mine. He wasn’t hungry. I’d seen him and his buddies eating hot dogs two hours ago. He just didn’t like someone telling him no. Well, too bad. I worked hard to get this sandwich, and I was so hungry I could cry. Not that I’d ever cry in front of him.

He took a menacing step toward me. “You know this is my place. You want to squat here, you got to pay. That’s the rule.”

I was on my feet before he could get any closer. Dropping my backpack behind me, I clenched my fists as fury erupted in me and a familiar growl filled my head. The voice was angry. It didn’t like most people, but it hated anyone who tried to hurt me.

Shane snickered as I tensed for his attack. “You going to fight me, J?”

“If you don’t back off, I will.”

“Just give me half the sandwich, and I’ll consider it fair payment.”

“No,” I shot back, almost shouting this time. “It’s all I have to eat. Get your own food.”

He drew himself up to his full height, towering over me. But as big as he was, he didn’t scare me. He’d get in a few punches, but I’d taken my fair share of hits over the years. I had learned from an early age to either suck it up or fight back. I fought back. I’d beaten up the son of my last foster mom for trying to touch me, and he was a year older than Shane.

“Just for that, I’m taking the whole thing,” Shane snarled before he lunged at me.

I was ready for him, and as soon as he was within reach, my foot landed between his legs. The breath left him on a high-pitched squeak, and he doubled over, cupping himself in his hands.

More, growled the voice that was still seething with anger.

As if someone else was moving it, my arm drew back and my fist plowed into Shane’s eye. The blow hurt my hand, but it made the voice crow with glee. It liked to fight. Sometimes, I could stop it, but mostly it was too strong. It didn’t care that it got me kicked out of every home I’d lived in. I should hate it, but having it inside me made me feel like I was never really alone.

Shane fell to his knees, wheezing with hatred blazing in his eyes. He was in no shape to hurt me now, but once he was better, he and his friends would gang up on me. I could take on one of them but not four. I needed to disappear before the rest of them came back.

Snatching up my backpack, I ran back the way I’d come. Voices up ahead brought me up short, and I swallowed hard when I recognized Shane’s friend Lana. She might be a girl, but she was almost as mean as Shane. And she had a crush on him, which meant she would be mad when she found out what I’d done.

I ducked into the first doorway I found and hid in the dark room as quiet as a mouse. I held my breath as Lana and the others walked past my hiding place, talking and laughing. As soon as they reached the end of the hall, I slipped out of the room and raced silently toward the way out.

I was almost at the window when I heard shouts and running feet. My heart thundered in my ears as I shoved my backpack through the opening and followed it. It would take a few minutes for them all to get through the window. If I could get far enough, I might make it out of this.

A pair of hands latched onto my ankle when I was halfway out, and I let out a small scream.

“I got her!” yelled Kevin.

I kicked out hard and felt my foot connect with soft flesh. Kevin let out a muffled oomph and released my leg, sending me crashing to the ground. My shoulder took the worst of the fall, and I knew I’d have a nasty bruise later. But I was free.

Scrambling to my feet, I grabbed my backpack and took off. I ran for at least an hour, up one street and down another, putting as much distance between me and Shane’s gang as I could.

I was panting when I finally stopped behind a small strip mall. There was a patch of grass at the back of the parking lot, and I sank down wearily, mostly obscured from view by a large dumpster. Feeling safe for the moment, I pulled out the bottle of water I kept in my bag and downed the contents. Then I unwrapped the squished sandwich with trembling hands and devoured my well-earned meal.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand when I finished. I didn’t feel full, but at least my stomach was no longer hurting. It would have to be enough until tomorrow.

I had a bigger problem than hunger. I couldn’t go back to the hotel, so I’d have to find a new place to sleep tonight. There was safety in numbers, which was why I’d stayed at the hotel. Now I was alone, and it was more than a little frightening.

There had to be other groups of kids like me. I just needed to find them before it got dark in a few hours. I couldn’t sleep outside. I’d seen some scary things my first few days on the street, like those two short guys with the cat eyes and horns I’d watched breaking into a butcher shop. I didn’t know what they were, but no way were they human.

A shudder went through me when I remembered the strange creatures emerging from the shop with a bucket of blood. I knew it was blood because I’d watched them drink the stuff. That was an image I wouldn’t soon forget.

The thought of spending the night out here alone drove me to my feet. I brushed off my jeans and put my water bottle into my pack as I walked across the parking lot toward the street. Someone had said a lot of kids liked to hang around the mall. I’d go there and try to make some new friends. It was the only thing I could think of right now.

I was walking past the dumpster when I discovered I wasn’t alone. Shane and Lana stepped out from where they’d been hiding on the other side of the dumpster, and their smiles told me I was in trouble. I didn’t see Kevin and Ash, but they were here somewhere. Shane knew I could take him alone, so he’d bring his whole gang. I was pleased to see his right eye was almost swollen shut.

“Well, hello, J. Fancy meeting you here,” Shane drawled in a smug voice.

I held my chin up, hiding my fear. “I don’t have any food left if that’s what you’re after.”

He sneered at me. “I don’t want your crappy sandwich. I’m here to teach you that you don’t mess with me and get away with it.”

“You messed with me first.”

“You were in my building,” he said as if that made it okay.

Lana huffed. “Can we just do this so we can go get a pizza?”

Shane turned his head to say something to her.

I ran.

I made it to the end of the strip mall before Ash leaped out in front of me, shoving me to the ground. He was twelve, overweight, and stronger than he looked. I’d wondered how he didn’t lose all that weight living on the street. We didn’t exactly get three square meals a day out here.

I rubbed the back of my head, which had hit the pavement. It hurt so much that tears pricked my eyes. I blinked them away, refusing to cry.

Footsteps approached. Shane and Lana loomed over me, grinning.

Shane kicked me in the thigh, and I couldn’t stop the small cry of pain that escaped me. His grin widened, and Lana laughed.

The voice in my head growled like an alligator I once saw on a nature show. It was madder than ever, but I didn’t think it could help me this time.

Lana bent down and snatched up my backpack, which had fallen off my shoulder. “Let’s see what you have in here.”

“Give that back,” I demanded. There was nothing of value in the bag, just a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and my water bottle, but it was all I owned in the world.

Ignoring me, she dumped the contents of my pack on the ground, making sure to step on my toothbrush and grind it with her foot.

“Junk,” she muttered. “Not even a few dollars.”

Shane crossed his arms, wearing a triumphant look. “Tell me you’re sorry, and beg me to let you go. I’ll go easy on you this time.”

“No,” I said defiantly.

“Suit yourself. But this is going to hurt.”

I glared at him, refusing to be cowed. “You’re nothing but a bunch of sissies who have to gang up on people. One of these days, I’ll be big enough to kick all your asses.”

The three of them laughed, and Shane kicked me in the leg again, harder this time. He stared at me expectantly, but I refused to cry out again.

“What’s going on over there?” called a woman’s voice.

Shane, Lana, and Ash turned toward the street. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but I heard them swear under their breaths, and Shane hissed, “Let’s get out of here.”

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