Letting the Mechanic kill her would have been easier. By the time Serena trudged all the way back to campus, her feet aching with every step and sweat-sticky jeans chafing her thighs, it seemed even more foolish that she d turned down a free soda and a chair. If the Mechanic was the shy but decent human being she suspected he was, he might have driven her to the bus stop before she missed the 4 PM bus. If he turned out to be a murderous vampire sex fiend after all and she ended up served with Chianti, then she wouldn t have to face the anxiety of returning to the garage later that night. The end of semester exams wouldn't even need to be a distant dread on her academic horizon if she was buried in the woods.

The brick bulk of the auditorium, which an art student told her incorporated an appalling juxtaposition of architectural styles ranging from Early Georgian to Drunken Blunder, was closer than her dorm. The promise of brisk air conditioning and a place to sit down was worth more than it s aesthetic appeal - or lack thereof. The bell tower on the other side of the Commons chimed out the hour and Serena checked her watch in horror. It had taken so long to walk back that she had less than two hours before the next bus left campus to take her right back to where she d started.

A crowd amiably jostling each other to get inside for some sort of event. Serena didn t care who or what it was for until she saw a banner bearing the monochrome logo she was growing to hate. It could be seen everywhere in town, from the big signs thanking the corporation for it s financial support of various charitable funds to the tiny decals she d noticed on store windows. Passing through the columned entrance, she hugged the walls until the human currant swept her forward. There was an empty section in the very back of the tiered auditorium and she broke away, wading through deafening chatter and moving bodies to safety.

Shadows hid her comfortably while she crawled into a folding seat, glancing once at the brilliantly lit stage before pulling out her cell. Serena was hardly interested in listening to some wealthy corporate wolf explain, with eloquent hypocrisy, the value of a close-knit community. Google offered up a wealth of information on the legal nuances of unlawful entry. Breaking and entering without intent to steal would likely end with involuntary community service for a first time offender. She d avoid a prison sentence but her parents would place her under house-arrest for the rest of her natural existence. What a relief.

SteelMoon s CEO was at the podium and when he rapped on it for attention the room became respectfully silent. Serena had briefly seen him at the commencement ceremony. He d seemed like a nice enough old guy then, tall and athletic looking despite the amount of silver in his black hair. With the way he had been welcoming the newest members of the student body, as warmly and proprietarily as if he owned the college, she d mistaken him for the dean. Her first humiliation of the school year was mentioning it to a classmate and being laughed at for not knowing who Maverick Morgan was.

Even now, knowing he was the proverbial King Midas on his golden throne, she found herself drawn to the words that rang out like a challenge. Their community was truly unique - full of diversity and the potential for a future created by themselves and for themselves. What if each person knew they had a place where their individual talents were valued and put to a meaningful use? What if a person knew they would never be abandoned by their neighbors to deprivation and destruction? Change began with taking personal responsibility for the wellbeing of your community and working together to ensure no one was left behind.

And if SteelMoon kept up it s practices, there would truly be nothing left behind - that they hadn t bought, that is.

Beside the CEO, wearing a pearl grey suit and a set of high heels that were totally unnecessary for an Amazonian queen, towered a young woman who would one day graduate summa cum laude. Luna Argenti had it all, from top honors to the admiration of her teachers and peers to a smile that normally only existed in posters made for dental offices. She had a family that was proud of her. She was loved. Serena envied her from the top of her platinum blonde hair to the tips of those stupid heels that she could never have hoped to walk in without kissing the ground.

Not that Luna, the few times they had met in passing, had been mean-spirited. There was just something aloof about her that made crowds part like the red sea and she had a habit of staring in a way that made you feel studied. Serena had also fallen at the tall young woman s feet one day thanks to a convenient push from someone who d been late for class and felt she was in the way. She knew it was petty and ridiculous, but having Luna pick her up and corner the offending student until he apologized just made her feel even more humiliated. Headline: Local cult goddess saves the ugly duckling from being stepped on. How we all adore her!

Maybe what really bothered her about Luna was that Serena never felt certain if that act of kindness had been sincere or part of being a public face for SteelMoon. A company pretending it cared as it bought out an entire town through charity and subsidizing, lead by a wealthy man who made a big pretense of valuing his community and fronted by a young woman who turned a sweetly concerned mask to the world, repulsed Serena to the depths of her soul. She didn t need or want anyone to pretend she mattered. Her equally rich and superficial parents had that quota filled.

Serena had come here to escape that and create something real. She was going to work hard and keep her head down by burying it in books. The strategy had worked all her life and she saw no reason to change her strategy now. Safe, reasonable plans to meet safe, reasonable goals.

Except, of course, there was a certain key that she kept rubbing between her fingers. She had no doubts now that the rumors were wrong, but curiosity now drove her to extremes that her need for recognition would have failed. Serena had read that looking at someone s home would tell you about them as a person. At her parent s house, most of the furniture was meant to be admired rather than used and objects were valued for their price tag. Ostentatious. An adjective meaning a vulgar display of wealth, intended to impress or attract notice. Her dorm room, shared with no one, was lacking in personality and almost vacant of possessions. Impersonal. An adjective meaning she didn t exist, even to herself.

The Mechanic existed. Unknown. Adjective. All the potential in the world for good or bad was hidden in the unknown, waiting for someone to find the truth. The local cryptid known as The Mechanic could be redefined by whatever she discovered and exonerated in the public eye.

Serena reminded herself of that hopeful mission when, hours later, she stood outside the side entrance to the garage. A single light was installed above it, waiting to spotlight anyone standing on the concrete doorstep. Her fingers smelled and tasted like pennies after handling the key so long, but the disgusting metallic aftertaste didn t stop her from chewing on her thumbnail. Once she d bitten that one off, the rest had to go for the sake of symmetry and then she had nothing left to stall with. She could stand there all night, in the dark, waiting to get mugged or eaten by whatever might come slining out of the forest, or she could go in. Going home didn t cross her mind.

Trying to act like she belonged there, Serena marched up to the door with her head up and the key in hand. She dropped it once or twice trying to fit it into the lock, but anyone could do that when entering a building that they had every right to be in. It totally didn t mean she was there to break in or anything else criminal. Nope. The key stuck and for a moment she was sure it was the wrong one. A sort of relief, tinged with disappointment, flooded her and she sagged against the door. Just to be able to say she d tried, she jiggled the key one more time. The tumblers clicked and the door pushed open under her weight.

When the sound of her body hitting the floor didn t bring anyone running downstairs, Serena decided it might be okay to breathe again. She closed the door behind her, cutting off what little light had been shining inside, and hid herself in the gloom until her body stopped vibrating with her heartbeat. Irrationally, she almost decided to sit for a while in the office. The tiny motorcycle track looked like fun but if the Mechanic did turn out to be a serial killer after all, it wasn t smart to box herself in. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see the vague outline of her bike propped in the corner near the covered motorcycle. Patting it and feeling how the scrapes had already been carefully smoothed out gave her the tiny push of courage it took to creep up the stairs.

The door at the top opened easily and soundlessly, the lock opening on the first try and the hinges failing to protest her crime. Carpet muffled her footsteps as she closed the door and stepped out into the room. Unlike the darker garage, the full moon was peeking through a large uncovered window that overlooked the forest. Soft, silvery light flooded into the room from this benign source, washing away the colors but clearly revealing the details of a life normally hidden from view.

No one was in the bed. The loft was deserted. Unable to believe the evidence of her own eyes, Serena tiptoed over to the bed and smoothed her hands over the cotton quilt covering it, staring at the jumble of flowers and little birds as though an answer could be found among them. It was soft in the way that only something worn in by years of washing could be and she breathed in the clean scent of laundry soap. It had matching pillow shams and from here she could see the curtains gathered around the kitchen window were ruffled. Maybe it was narrow-minded of her, but it didn't fit her mental image for the home of a motorcycle obsessed grease-monkey. There was even a quilted case between the bed and nightstand that looked like a sewing or craft box.

Fear began to retreat and curiosity sprang forward to fill the vacancy. The small kitchen was at the back, illuminated by the picture window over the sink. She thought it must be peaceful to wash dishes with that view in front of you and a smile tugged at her lips as she noticed a cookie jar in the shape of a large, pudgy bird nestled between a spice rack and a tea kettle. On the other end of the room was a sitting area, partially sectioned off by a sofa and low bookshelves positioned around a coffee table. The dark square of a decent sized TV sat on one of the shelves along with some potted plants.

Not a single jar of organs or a skull candle-holder to be found. No dirty pictures framed on the walls or equipment for sexual gymnastics either. Serena thought, with a sudden twinge of conscience, that she wished she had been invited in instead of breaking in. The Mechanic had practically offered it the day before. The reminder of the absent homeowner had her heart lurch and she stumbled to her feet, wondering at what point she had sat down on the bed. She looked around, but still no one came out of the shadows to confront her. She felt watched, but it was by her own guilt.

The sofa was a little lumpy and it groaned when she sat down. The young woman broke into hysterical giggles, clamping her hands over her mouth to smother the noise and bending forward until her forehead touched her knees. This wasn t the story of Bluebeard. She was Goldilocks in the bears house and mustn t break anything or eat all the porridge. Self-control was as reluctant to return as she was to leave her cozy spot on the couch, but eventually she was calm enough to go through the book shelves. Travel guides and magazines made up most of the population, along with folded maps and stories about famous explorers. She was moving aside a book about the history of automotive travel when a folder that had been crammed behind it fell out.

Now here was a mystery! A hidden thing that the mechanic didn t want to look at or be found. She flopped back on the couch, enjoying how the old thing almost embraced her as she sank down into it. There was no hard plastic covering to protect the fabric and no one here who would stare until she recognized it s monetary value exceeded her own. When she had her own home, everything in it would be this comfortable. She turned towards the moonlight and, holding her breath, Serena opened the dusty folder.

What Serena found made tears of remorse spring to her eyes. She was a terrible person and deserved to be punished for prying into someone else s heart. Reverently, as though by handling the papers gently she could lessen her crime, Serena looked over pages of scribbled dreams that had never come true. A redesign for the sign outside and plans for remodeling the garage were crossed out with dark, wild marker streaks that suggested the mechanic had been trying to blot out the hopes he d had. The dates told her years had passed over the grave of this idea.

Folded trip itineraries were filled with little notes of Not that far. I could take my bike and go camping and Best to go by boat, then rent a truck? in the margins. Mixed in were diary-like pages talking about freedom and escape, about loneliness and longing and despair. A small card slipped out and onto the floor. The card s sides were ragged and creased with age and rough handling, but inside was a faded photo of a young woman and a pressed flower that had been lovingly preserved. Someone with neat, sharp handwriting had left a message on the back of the picture. I loved her too. You don t need to be alone. The ink was blotched with long dried tears.

She couldn t read any more. She shouldn t. Serena staggered up from the couch she had no right to be enjoying and fumbled everything back into the folder. Almost blind with tears, she tried to put the folder and books back exactly where they d been before, but it was too late. She was the psycho who broke into people s homes, not The apologizes fell from her lips in an agonized torrent. I m sorry! I m so, so sorry! I shouldn t have come here. I shouldn t have dug through your things. It was wrong and I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway! I ll leave I ll I ll leave and then I ll pay you for the bike and I ll never ever do this again. I promise. I ll I ll stop the rumors somehow and maybe

What? Maybe what? Maybe she could forgive herself? Maybe she could expiate her guilt with a good work? She hiccupped and sobbed, rubbing her eyes raw. Was she even sorry for what she d done or was her shame a sign of selfishness, dwelling on how she felt when her feelings didn t matter? She might have stayed there the rest of the night, berating herself and picking her motives to shreds, except that between one sob and the next she heard a sound. A board creaked in the kitchen and the tears froze on her cheeks. The deep shadows heaped around the kitchen table uncurled and, rising up on four legs, took on a distinctly canine form. The possibility of a guard dog had never occurred to the first time offender.

Pointed ears swivelled to focus on her and she could now see the eerie gleam of its eyes reflecting the moonlight. A low growl broke the stillness. It was big enough to kill her. Easily. She wasn't even sure it was a dog and not The Big Bad Wolf stepping into reality to eat up all naughty little girls who went places they shouldn't go. The bulk was just too big for a dog, the proportions somehow off. Unnatural.

It stood.

Time stopped. It could do that in fairytales and nightmares. Dead silence now closed in around her, suffocating and leaving a void that made her ears ring even more loudly than the thundering of her heart. The monster took a single, lumbering step in her direction. She d failed to find the secret, but it had found her. It s silhouette blocked out the light from the window behind it, cutting her off from her last comfort as it loomed over where she d fallen to the carpet. Closer and closer, soundless steps adding to the sense of unreality. She closed her eyes.

Nothingness. No sight. No sound. No life. She would be forgotten as though she'd never existed. Her parents would remember her only as a waste of time and resources. Her teachers might be annoyed at having to report a terminal no-show. The congealed tears in her eyelashes dripped down the sides of her face as she lay flat against the floor. Hot, humid breath puffed against her face. She tensed, waiting for the teeth to tear into her. For agony. For death.

An explosive sneeze from the monster and every particle in her body flew to pieces. She almost wet her pants. When Serena gathered her scattered self together, she became aware that it was snuffling at her face and hair. A cold, wet nose poked against her eyelid. Something that could only be the monster s tongue flicked against her cheek and she whimpered in terror. It was tasting her.

She had no hope of winning the fight. She didn t even have the breath to scream, but instinct still had her throw out a hand to ward the monster off. It yelped when she smacked its muzzle and, adrenaline surging, she lashed out harder and came away with a hand covered in loose fur from it s neck. The monster jerked back and crouched low to the ground, snarling softly before pinning its ears back and whining. It was whining, sharp and miserable and so much like crying that she found the strength to push herself up onto her knees. She wobbled and fell forward, her palms stinging as they raked against the carpet.

The monster turned tail and crawled under the kitchen table, knocking down three of the four chairs in the process. The lump of it s curled up body shivered with the mournful whimpering for several minutes until finally falling silent. Sick with dizziness and a wild sort of curiosity, Serena edged forward on hands and knees as far as the boundary between carpet and tile. It was watching her.

Never rising, she began to back towards the door instead. It seemed like an eternity before her shoes hit the frame, but she never dared to look away from the huddled body across the room. Serena pressed her back to the door for support as she regained her feet, feeling for the knob behind her and getting ready to dive out if the monster attacked again. It didn t. She was free to run away and that was exactly what she meant to do.

Except she found herself looking back over her shoulder. It had crawled out from under the table, but it was still pressed to the floor. The monster s tail thumbed, just once, and it s flattened ears came up. It was waiting. The ghost of a whimper rippled through the moonlight and the monster abruptly sagged, turning it s back on her and staring out the window. It lifted it s muzzle in a silent howl. Serena ran. The memory of its seeming despair chased her all the way to her dorm and forlorn howling echoed throughout her dreams.