“DID a Male do that?”
The question made Adam look up from the dirt track he was carving under the old tree stump for his collection of Hot Wheels. He blinked, not quite believing what he was looking at. Perched on the end of the fallen log with his head cocked to the side, the strange boy looked like some sort of wild animal. He stared at Adam with fierce hazel eyes from under a mass of unruly sun-streaked bangs. And he was stripped bare, except for a bracelet on his left ankle and bits of copper on the ends of the braids in his hair.
The boy pointed. “Your scars. Did a Male do that?” Adam shook his head as he put a hand on his stomach above the hem of his shorts. The puckered, angry flesh of his scars was still tender enough that it bothered him to wear a shirt.
Curious, Adam asked the obvious. “Why don’t you have on any clothes?”
The boy shot him an indignant look and pounded a fist against his boney chest. “Because clothes are for Humans, and I’m Kin.”
Impressed, Adam grinned and stuck out his hand. “My name’s Adam Schroder. What’s yours?” The sandy-haired boy took his offering, flipped it over, and stroked his tongue across Adam’s palm.
“Ean… my name is Ean.”
FROM the confines of the cab, Adam stared at the little shotgun house shaded by the immense oak trees crowding the yard. The house was a lot smaller than he remembered, a lot more beaten down. Thanks to the leaf cover, there wasn’t much grass, but there was more than enough moss to make up the difference. And it grew on everything, from around gnarled roots jutting up from the ground to the spaces between the stone walkway. It even covered the roof on the house, like a well-worn winter coat.
Sitting there, Adam realized coming home was going to be a lot harder than he’d thought. But Adam knew he belonged here at the little house on the hill. The place where every happy memory he had was born. It just didn’t seem fair that one tragedy had been powerful enough to rip it all away.
In the front seat, the cabby cleared his throat. Adam caught his tired gaze in the rearview mirror and dug out a twenty. It was more than enough to cover the three-mile trip from the MARTA station to the Gray Zone. The man took it without a word, and Adam popped the door, grabbed his duffle bag from the seat beside him, and climbed out.
Behind him, the tires did some pop and grind when they rolled over the busted-up street as the cab pulled away. No mailbox sat at the corner of the driveway; no numbers marked the side of the house. But that was normal. Most people who came to the Zone didn’t want to be found. It was why Adam’s mother brought him here all those years ago from Houston, Texas, when his father tried to erase him like a mistake. For almost ten years, she’d managed to keep him hidden.
Without really thinking about it, Adam ran a hand over his stomach. He couldn’t feel the lines and ridges under his shirt. Time had smoothed out the worst of his scars, but what was left still looked like something caused by a wild animal and not a man with a box cutter.
If nothing else, the scars were a constant reminder, not only of the reasons his mother had brought him here as a boy, but of why he was here again as a man.
Here in the Zone, in this no-man’s-land between the city of Atlanta and the surrounding territory of the Queen dragon—the Dens—he was reasonably safe. Mixed-bred offspring of dragons and Humans—Lesser-Breds—weren’t desirable, but they had value in the eyes of Kin because they could be used as food.
That is, if he could survive long enough.
Adam wasn’t Lesser-Bred yet, but he was close. The food cravings, the insatiable hunger, the almost constant hand-jobs—they were all warning signs of the biological changes happening inside him and that, at any time, he could become dangerous. Adam had known for a long time what he was going to become. At least he knew; at least he had the chance to put himself somewhere where he couldn’t hurt anyone and where there would be Males to feed him and keep him warm.
Adam walked across the yard and up the cobblestone footpath. The first step up to the porch squeaked, and the second one sagged, but like always, the old boards held. Smaller wooden moans followed Adam as he walked across the wide porch and stopped at the door.
Tatters of plastic streamers still clung to the doorjamb. The words had long ago faded away, but there was still enough yellow in spots to make it impossible for Adam to pretend it had been anything else but police tape. He used his thumb to pick off a piece at eye level.
Stalling. He was stalling. Three days ago when his father had been sentenced, Adam had been impatient to get here. The Center for Folk and Kin Relations had wanted to keep him in protective custody, but after years of hiding, Adam just wanted to go home. His boogeyman was finally going to be locked up in a closet he couldn’t buy or threaten his way out of.
Adam blamed his sudden hesitation on the same weakness that made him tremble in the dark and scarred him with nightmares smelling like blood and tasting like dirt.
The key was still on the edge of the jamb after all these years, but Adam expected nothing less. After all, this was the Zone, and while most of society’s laws were ignored, there was one that was strictly followed.
Do not touch what isn’t yours.
He wound up not needing it since the door wasn’t locked. Adam shouldered it twice before the swollen wood popped free.
For a moment, Adam expected to see his mother walk out of the kitchen, tell him lunch was ready, remind him to wash his hands, and then ask if he wasn’t cold running around in ragged blue jeans and nothing else. He could almost smell meatloaf, or maybe pork chops, and hear the sounds of the radio playing her favorite oldies station.
And Adam waited. But only the vast emptiness across the small room was there to greet him. The porch eased out a sigh as he stepped over the threshold.
The inside looked exactly like he remembered it. Only now, dust covered everything—the bookshelf, the old sofa, the old chair in the corner. Lost years of his life marked in particles of dirt left in layers.
Adam dropped his duffle bag by the front door, and his gaze went to the doorway of the kitchen. His feet moved, and the carcasses of dead insects crunched with every step.
The off-square space, with its sixties-style fridge and deep porcelain sinks, was the biggest room in the house. That was probably why his mother and he had spent so much time here. That is, when Adam was at home and not running the streets with Ean.
It was going to take a lot to get the place cleaned up—a little money, more elbow grease, and lots of time. But it would give him something to do while he waited for his Humanness to disappear. Adam had to admit, seeing the place neglected like this made him sad. While the house wasn’t much, his mother had worked hard to make it theirs, and she would have wanted him to keep the place up.
Adam gave the rest of the kitchen a once-over. There was a pot on the stove, dishes in the sink, dishes on the table. It was as if all the inanimate objects had been used as some sort of place marker in the pages of his life. A book he’d put down and forgotten to pick back up.
If only he could forget.
Looking around, Adam couldn’t shake the feeling that the little house had been waiting for him to come back.
To come home.
Adam walked around the small beat-up kitchen table to the back door. The strawberry print curtains covering the window were the same ones which had been there before his world had ended, only now they were yellow with age and covered with cobwebs. Adam pushed one of the panels aside and looked out the glass. The yard was pretty much the same as he remembered, except for the kudzu that had taken over the hill and most of the back wall. Once upon a time there had been only a footpath leading down to the park, the basketball court, and then the streets and alleys leading to the old burned-out apartment building where Ean had lived.
Thinking about Ean still made Adam smile. Which wasn’t a surprise. Not really. Did he belong to Batu now? The Males who Ean lived with had always kept him safe, and the big Dominant had always said he would one day make Ean his Link, because Kin kept what they valued and owned Humans they found worthy.
In spite of his once-best friend’s claims of being Kin, it didn’t take Adam long to figure out he wasn’t. After all, dragons were never children. They were simply made. Metaphysical beings created by their Queen. Impossibly perfect, impossibly inhuman.
Adam could only hope that Ean would still visit. That, just like when they were kids, he’d know when Adam was around. And if he didn’t show up, Adam decided he’d convince himself it was because Ean belonged to the Male who had kept him safe as a boy. His heart would break all over again if he thought of the alternative, but then the Zone was a dangerous place even on the best of days.
It was tempting to head out into the streets and look for him, but as close as Adam was to his change, he was nothing but prey. Staying here and waiting to see if Ean would find him was the smart thing to do; that still didn’t change the fact that it made him feel like a coward.
Adam thought about that and decided he was a coward. The fear of losing who he was, becoming inhuman, terrified him. As a boy, the genetic changes that he was destined to undergo hadn’t frightened him nearly as much. But that was years ago, when a hazel-eyed boy had held Adam’s hand and led him through the feral-infested alleyways, showed him the best places to fish in the creek below the green space, and told him the secrets he’d learned when climbing through the air ducts to watch the Males.