“Dude, did you have to bring your sisters along?” Eleven-year-old Toby Duke glanced over his shoulder at the two younger girls trailing behind. He’d been looking forward to spending the first warm, sunny Saturday of April with his best friend. Not his best friend and two Barbie-toting girls.
Sebastian Ashwood shrugged his shoulders. He tossed his baseball in the air, squinted as he tilted his head back and easily caught it. He often watched his sisters while her parents did grown up, Network things. They weren’t so bad. Olivia had fun playing by herself and Viola followed Sebastian around like a puppy. She could be annoying, but it was also kinda cool having someone who looked up to you.
“You want me to send them back to the house?” Sebastian asked. They’d taken off for the wooded area behind Toby’s house, but Sebastian could still see the roof of the back porch. He hadn’t thought anything of letting his sisters tag along, but if it bothered his friend, Sebastian would send them back.
“Nah.” Toby ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair. His dad had promised to take him to get it cut three weeks ago, but was too busy whenever Toby brought it up. Ever since his mom left, his dad seemed to always be busy.
Paul Duke and Sebastian’s parents were in the small shed next to the house doing Network stuff. Toby knew that if they sent the girls running back, his dad would just tell him to keep them out of the way. At least this way, it didn’t feel like a chore.
The wind kicked up suddenly. The few dried leaves on the ground swirled around Toby’s ankles. Several yards away, a twig snapped. Toby jerked to attention. Sharp eyes, eyes that didn’t belong on an eleven-year-old’s face, scanned the familiar woods. He sniffed the air tentatively.
It smelled like rotten eggs. Toby tightened his grip on his Louisville Slugger. The muscles in his legs tensed. He could run as fast as possible to get help. If he started shouting before he hit the old pine tree he’d climbed earlier that morning, his father would be able to hear him from inside the shed.
“Peee-eeww! That you, Bas? It's stinky!” Six-year-old Viola Ashwood pinched her nose, stuck out her tongue theatrically. She giggled at Toby’s eye roll and stuck her tongue out even further. Toby was funny when he was mad.
Okay, so he couldn’t run for help. Though the older of the two boys, Sebastian didn’t have the training, such as it was, that Toby’d had. Sebastian still froze in place at the first sign of a demon. Toby couldn’t leave behind his wimpy best friend and two scaredy-cat girls.
Sebastian dropped his baseball glove to the ground. He grabbed Olivia by the shoulders and spun the oblivious girl around. “Livy, run to the house. Get Mom, Dad, and Mr. Duke. Tell them it’s…” Sebastian glanced nervously at an avidly listening Viola. “Tell them it’s a d-e-m-o-n.”
Viola whacked her brother in the knee with her Skipper doll. She scowled crossly. “Spellin’s not nice. ‘Sides, I know what it means.”
“No you don’t,” was the automatic retort. Sebastian winced when Skipper’s head and torso hit his knee again. He gave Olivia a small shove towards the house. “Go get the grown-ups, Livy.”
Olivia raced back to the house. Her shiny white tennis shoes were a blur on the dark soil. Her blonde hair trailed behind her like a flag. Her lungs burned, but she didn’t stop running. She hated demons. They gave her the willies.
“Can I help with th’ demon, Bas?” Viola tugged on her brother’s t-shirt. Her daddy had been teaching her how to tell which demons were good and which ones were bad. She liked to look through the colorful picture books even if she couldn’t remember, or pronounce, many of the names.
“No!” Toby glowered at the little girl. The last thing he needed was to get in trouble because Viola got hurt. If anything happened to her, his dad would ground him for a year. The stench of rotten eggs was growing stronger. He could hear something moving not too far away. “You should have gone back with your sister. You’re just in the way.”
Fat tears welled up in Viola’s eyes. She sniffled noisily. Stupid meanie-head Toby. “’S that true, Bas?”
Sebastian wrinkled his nose. It was true, but he couldn’t tell Viola that. He hated hurting his sister’s feelings. “Nope, squirt. In fact, I've got an important job for you. Go sit by that tree over there and be lookout, okay? Keep your back against the tree and don’t move.”
Viola wrapped her arms around her brother’s side for a quick hug before happily skipping off to the tree Sebastian pointed at. She stopped abruptly when something pierced the leather of her pink My Little Pony sneakers and imbedded itself in the tender skin of her big toe. She collapsed to the ground, Skipper doll forgotten as she kicked her throbbing foot wildly.
“Ow! Owie! Owie! Owwwww!”
Both boys spun around at the high-pitched squeal. Before either could take a step towards Viola, a tall, thin lizard-like demon emerged from behind a fat tree. The demon cautiously approached a still-screaming Viola. Filmy black eyes were glued to the crying girl. The demon crouched on the ground beside Viola. Pointed yellow teeth flashed when the demon spoke to her in a language none of them understood.
Seeing the demon extend a clawed hand towards Viola spurred Toby into action. His vision narrowed until all he could see was the nasty demon trying to hurt his friend’s stupid sister. No one got to mess with his friend’s stupid sister but him. And sometimes his friend.
With a snarl of rage, Toby charged the demon. He swung the baseball bat, made contact with the back of the demon’s shoulder. The demon pitched forward. Toby swung again, this time hitting the demon on the side of the head.
“Get away from her!” Toby slid in between the demon and Viola. Chest heaving, he hefted the bat over his shoulder and glared at the demon with wild eyes.
The demon’s gaze slipped past Toby to land on Viola. It slowly rose to its feet, said something to the hiccupping girl, and sped out of sight. Toby let out a small sigh of relief but didn’t loosen his grip on his bat. His heart was pounding so hard he was afraid it would bruise his chest.
Sebastian, finally over his shock, pried the bat from Toby’s hands. He should have been the one defending his sister. It was embarrassing to know that he’d frozen when the demon had appeared yet Toby had raced in to save a girl he couldn’t stand half the time. Some Tracker Sebastian was going to be. His father was going to be so disappointed in him.
Toby dropped to his knees next to Viola’s feet. He could see a long, thin black spike sticking out from her shoe. A small stream of red blood stained the pink shoe near where the spike entered. “It’s just a Lefla spike, Vi.”
“C-can you g-g-get it out?” Viola scrubbed at wet cheeks with her dirty hands. She wiped her runny nose on the sleeve of her bright pink shirt. She didn’t like crying, hated doing anything that made people think she was a baby, but it hurt so much.
Toby grinned reassuringly at the girl. He reached forward and brushed a sweaty strand of dark hair off her red, puffy cheek. “No problem, kiddo. It might hurt a bit.”
Viola nodded bravely. She didn’t bother to tell him that it already hurt. She met and held Duke’s eyes while he grasped the spike firmly and quickly yanked it out of her foot. A sharp cry of pain passed through her lips before she could stop it. She was such a baby!
Toby handed the spike up to a nauseous-looking Sebastian. He held open his arms, mildly surprised when Viola flew into them. Her faith in him was humbling. He treated her like an annoying, buzzing mosquito most of the time, but she still trusted him enough to take care of her foot.
He had to admit that she’d been pretty brave, too. Most girls, heck, most people he knew, would have been screaming if they were that close to a demon. Viola had been crying, sure, but he figured that was mostly due to the Lefla spike. He'd had one in his thumb once and it had hurt for days after his dad pulled it out. Maybe Sebastian’s stupid baby sister wasn’t so bad after all. For a girl.
“You did good, Via-mia.”
Viola beamed at both the praise and the new nickname. Thin pale arms wound their way around Toby’s neck. She snuggled into his chest and closed her achy eyes. It felt almost as good as being hugged by her daddy.
The sound of heavy, hurried footsteps had Toby turning his head. He tensed, ready to shove Viola off his lap if the demon was back for more. He could still feel adrenaline pumping through his veins. His hands ached from the vibrations of the bat, but he would ignore the pain if it meant protecting his friends.
Paul Duke, closely followed by an anxious Gerard Ashwood and panting Alicia Ashwood, skittered to a stop in front of the two boys. His eyebrows hit his hairline at the sight of his son holding on to Viola. He knew full well that his son didn’t have much patience for either of the Ashwood girls.
“What’s going on?” Gerard clamped a hand onto Sebastian's shoulders. All a frantic Olivia had managed to stammer out was the word “demon.” Hearing the echo of Viola’s scream only made them fear the worst.
Viola’s eyes popped open at her father’s voice. She smiled at him brightly, arms tightening around Toby. “Daddy, Toby’s the bestest boy in the whole world! He saved me from the bogeyman and he fixed my toe!”