Hello friends and fictional folk! This one is going to be a little smaller than other updates, but sometimes in books you get shorter chapters. This is for emotional impact and this chapter I feel is going to have big impact. Will it be for good or ill? You’ll just have to read and see…
Daniel felt a chill at how casually Thomas called him “Danny.” Almost no one called him that. Mr. Ross was too formal for nicknames, his foster parents too stiff, and everyone else didn’t care enough. So far, only Natalie and a few acquaintances from Geek Club called him that. Even then it had taken a while for them to reach that level of comfort with him. Thomas, someone he had never talked to in his whole high school life, just out and saying it was enough to set him even further on edge than he already was.
“H-hey, Thomas,” he stammered. “I was…well you see, I got lost and—”
“And you just happened to unlock the door and stumble in here?” Thomas asked, eyebrow raised and clearly not buying it. He stepped forward.
Daniel tried to back away but bumped into the computer desk. The piles of newspapers all around seemed ready to swallow him up.
“No,” Thomas said. “I think the real question is: why do you, of all people, want to mess with my newspaper?
“I, uh…well there was a—”
“Do you know what my dream job is, Danny?”
Daniel blinked. That was an odd change of subject. It had brought his brain to a screeching halt. Thomas’s dream job? He shook his head.
“I always wanted to be an investigative journalist,” Thomas said, resting his arm on one of the shorter piles of paper and getting a far away look in his eye. “I know. Sounds crazy, right? Big, dumb jock wants to write news articles for a living? No way. But it’s true. Ever since I was little, I thought it was so cool how some people risked life and limb to uncover the truth.” He turned his gaze back to Daniel. “I hate being lied to. And when I find out there’s a secret, I just have to uncover it. Haven’t you ever felt that way, Danny? Like there was something you had to know and that you had to share it otherwise you felt like you would burst.”
Daniel broke eye contact, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He did know that feeling. He knew it all too well. There was so much about the universe and people he didn’t understand. It bugged him every day. So many questions and only the occasional answer to sate his curiosity.
“Yeah,” he answered. His voice tight in his throat. Daniel understood what he was saying too well.
Thomas nodded. “What’s your dream job, Danny?”
Daniel ducked his head a bit more.
“Software engineer,” he muttered, shrugging to fight off embarrassment, “or something that has to do with programming. I’m good with code. Always thought it’d be fun to make a video game.”
“That’d be super cool! And I bet you’re really good at finding secrets.”
Daniel shrugged again.
“I bet you’re also really good at hiding them,” Thomas said, stepping forward again.
Blood pounded in Daniel’s ears. Where was this conversation going? How was Thomas both making sense and not? Was he referring to Natalie or Daniel’s own secret with that comment?
“What is your connection to this Naga?” Thomas asked. He was too close. Only a foot away. The hair on Daniel’s arms rose like he was charged with static electricity.
“N-nothing,” Daniel blurted out. “Who’s N-Naga?”
“Oh, I think you know that better than I do.”
Thomas stepped closer. Daniel’s gut twisted into a pretzel. He could smell the quarterback’s body spray. The sharp scent did not help his concentration. A cold bead of sweat rolled down his back.
“This could be the story of the century,” Thomas said. “I know what I saw, and whatever is going on, I’m going to uncover it. This is my chance to really make something out of my dream. I can’t let you get in the way.”
Daniel’s heart was thudding so hard in his chest he thought it might burst out at any moment. It was getting hard for him to breathe.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Thomas laughed as if he were sharing a joke with a friend. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Daniel didn’t believe him.
“I just need you to let me tell people the truth. They’re going to find out anyway. Might as well let it be me who tells them. Just sit back and do nothing. It’s easy.”
“I-I can’t let you do that,” Daniel stammered out. He flinched as his voice cracked an octave higher. “P-people will panic if they find out about this. They’ll get hurt.”
“But they will know the truth.”
“They won’t understand the whole situation though! They won’t trust Na-Naga to help them. No one will trust a snake-person. They’ll hunt her down. They’ll hunt them all down.”
Thomas paused. “You know. I do actually hold Carson and Paul back.”
Daniel’s pounding heart skipped a beat and he briefly feared he’d suffer a heart attack.
“It’s true,” Thomas continued. “I can’t stop them completely since I’d lose face as leader of the team, but I do keep them from going too far. If they found out that you’d been messing with me, I don’t think I could hold back their anger, their drive for…justice.”
They were holding back!? A shiver ran through Daniel’s whole body. If the locker treatment was Carson and Paul restraining themselves…he didn’t want to imagine what they would do if they were let loose.
And if Thomas was the one holding them back, that meant that he…
“Oh yes, Danny,” Thomas said, as if he could read his thoughts. He shoved a finger into Daniel’s chest. “I know your secret. Your lie. Like I said, I don’t like lies and I love uncovering secrets. Now, your lie is understandable. I have no problem with what you are, and I know why you feel you have to lie. But…I still don’t like lies.”
Daniel’s breathing stopped. Thomas’s finger was pressed right into the spot where the thing beneath his shirt was hidden and skin began. The spot felt like it was on fire beneath the quarterback’s touch. Daniel’s whole body felt like it was rejecting him, trying to vomit him out of his own skin. His mind was a mess, a car driving at high speed through dense fog.
I want to go home! His mind screamed.
He was aware of tears rolling down his cheeks, but only vaguely. Daniel was an outsider to his own body.
“Hey, come on,” Thomas said, almost comforting. He wrapped an arm around Daniel’s shoulders and squeezed. “Real men don’t cry. Just erase whatever you were doing and go home. Your lie will be safe with me. I promise.”
Dully, almost robotically, Daniel nodded and Thomas let him go.
Daniel closed down the code screen and shut off the computer. He walked out of the room and then building.
He somehow felt filled to bursting with a wasp nest of emotions and thought, but also numb and empty.
Natalie. What would she think? She had trusted him, and he had failed her.
She would hate him.
He couldn’t tell her. Not about Thomas, not about the newspaper, not about his secret, not about anything.
Tears began falling again and Daniel furiously rubbed at his eyes. Beneath the bleachers, he had felt so confident. He thought he could actually help her.
Daniel wanted to be a hero. But deep down he could only find a coward.