Hey friends and fictional folk! Yikes! Almost didn’t get this one out in time. No big speech before hand this time. Hope you enjoy!
“Stupid logic,” Natalie grumbled, clambering into the back of Mr. Ross’s car.
Daniel was up front with their teacher. She had called shotgun, but then Mr. Ross had to go and point out that she was still considered a Missing Person. They didn’t want anyone phoning the police and the back seat was harder to glance into, so it gave them a degree of stealth.
The plan, as they had explained to her through the bathroom door while she was getting changed into a t-shirt and pair of jeans, was originally to try and stuff her snake form into the back seat anyway and then drive to the Native American burial mounds where Daniel had found the ark shard orb. There they would all try and find any signs of where Ahuizotl’s strange tongs had come from and if there were any other artifacts like it or the ark shards.
“How do we know that’s where Ahuizotl got the tongs?” she had asked. God, it felt good not to have her snake form’s lisp anymore. “Couldn’t she have gone to some other Indian burial ground or holy site and dug them up there?”
“There aren’t any other burial mounds in the state of Kansas,” Mr. Ross had explained. “That’s what made these so fascinating to archeologists in the first place. Didn’t you listen to the lecture I gave about them on the field trip?”
“No. Or if I did, I forgot about it?”
She had felt his disappointed scowl through the door. “That was going to be on the final. I told everyone that it was going to be on the final.”
“In my defense. A lot has happened since that field trip. So you can’t really blame me for not remembering a specific lecture.”
He had huffed before adopting his lecturing voice. “The only known mound building cultures in North America were located east of Texas, mostly along the Mississippi River. Kansas, being in the Great Plains region, would not have had any tribes or societies in the region to build these mounds near Central City. They are an archeological mystery. Even Omphalos has sent teams to investigate them. I was on three of those.”
“And you never found the ark shard?” Daniel had asked.
“We never found anything. No pottery, no bones, no tools. We couldn’t even pick up anything on ground penetrating radar. But with Daniel’s discovery of the ark shard orb and Ahuizotl’s proclamation that she found the tongs ‘back where it all began’ it is clear that we missed something very important. We need to find out what that something is.”
And so, here they all were, driving out of town in Mr. Ross’s car on the last day of the school year. Natalie felt a strange anxiety in her stomach. It seemed wrong to leave the city unprotected, and even worse to be moving about so openly during the day. What if someone saw her? What if another hybrid attacked while she was gone?
Only a couple of weeks and her snake-person habits had already deeply ingrained themselves. Was this what her mom felt like as a cop?
She needed a distraction.
“Hey, Danny,” she said. He was very distracting. “Won’t your foster parents be worried if you get home late?”
“I let them know that I’d be with Mr. Ross,” he said, turning around to face her. “They know him and when we said that it was part of a scholarship program, they were all for it. Of course, they insisted I call them every hour to check in, but that’s just so they know how late to leave the door unlocked.”
“Wow. They seem to care about you a lot.”
He smiled shyly. “Yeah, they’re a little weird, but they care in their own way. A lot more than some of the homes I’ve been in.”
Natalie paused. Daniel had been in multiple foster homes? She’d thought he was an orphan picked up by Child Protective Services and put into his current home where he had spent all his life. What he said made her realize that, for as close as she felt to him, she didn’t really know him all that well. Sure, she knew who he was now, but she had almost no idea who he had been before high school.
But was it ok to ask him such personal question? After all, he clearly had some bad experiences with previous foster homes. Plus, last night must have been more than emotionally taxing for him. Should she risk opening old wounds? Was it her place to pry?
She set her jaw and thought carefully about her next words. Daniel was her friend. One of the closest friends she’d had in a long time. It wasn’t just for curiosity that she wanted to know about his past. He was important to her, and that made who he was, past and present, important to her as well. But she wasn’t going to be blunt about it, she needed to get the wording right. That phrase about asking for forgiveness rather than permission had always sounded stupid to her.
“Is it ok if I ask why your current foster home is better than your previous ones?” she asked. Her phrasing probably hadn’t sounded natural at all, but she preferred sounding like a robot to sounding like a jerk.
There was a long pause.
Daniel seemed to be staring out the front windshield as if he hadn’t heard what she’d said, though she knew he had. Mr. Ross, she could feel, was remaining resolutely neutral. And as for herself, Natalie felt like her stomach was ready to tie itself into a dozen knot.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean to upset you, I just–”
“No, no!” Daniel said, cutting her off in a rush. He turned around in his seat to face her. “I’m not upset! Sorry, I was just trying to figure out how to respond. I…uh…” He broke eye contact with her, glancing around the car everywhere except her. “Let’s just say that not everyone is as…accepting as others.”
“Oh,” she said. Then her brain put together what he was implying. “Oh! I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“It’s ok. I just…I do want to tell you about it. But maybe not right now. Later, I promise.”
They settled back into semi-comfortable silence as Mr. Ross drove on. They were well outside of the city and its suburbs now. Nothing but miles of flat, open plains stretching to the horizon in every direction. Occasionally a patch of trees or the odd farmhouse would break the monotony, but for the most part there was nothing to see except grass, corn, and telephone lines.
The endless sea of nothing set her mind drifting. With the talk of Daniel’s foster parents, she couldn’t help but wonder what her own parents were doing right now. Her mother, she knew, was throwing herself twice as hard into her work as a police officer. She’d be searching high and low for any sign of her only daughter so she could throw her back in her room for her own safety, never to set foot outdoors until she was thirty and covered in plate armor. Natalie felt bad thinking about her mom that way, especially considering all the life-threatening danger she had been in over the last couple of weeks. Her mom had every right to be scared witless right now.
But whenever she thought about going back home, all she could feel was the dread of being stuck in her room. Of being pushed into an easy, boring life as a housewife for someone more important. As much as she was a prisoner in the sewer lair, it was her lair, and she felt her heart ache for the freedom and excitement of pushing her body to the limit against other hybrids. No one there telling her to restrain herself or let someone else handle it.
As for her dad, she was less certain about what he was doing. She wasn’t sure on the details, but she knew he held an important position in his company and often wasn’t home until well after dinner. Natalie liked to think she knew him pretty well, or at least got along better with him than mom. But as she thought back to all their times together, they seemed so fleeting and momentary.
He drove her to school sometimes and they’d listen to his old country music favorites. It was fun to watch him try to sing along, even if she couldn’t stand country herself. But how long did those car rides last? Ten minutes? Twenty with heavy traffic?
Oh! There were those business trips his company would send him on! The ones where he took them all to the beach or a big city like New York or Los Angeles. She didn’t actually remember going to the Big Apple, she was only three years old at the time, but her mom had taken lots of pictures. And she loved going to the beach and swimming in the surf while her mom…took a nap and her dad…was away working.
Those had been business trips after all. He was still expected to attend meetings and seminars, sign papers, and do all that stuff people in suits did to make more money for their rich bosses in hopes that some that money would trickle down to them.
Even when he did get to spend time with them, Natalie remembered long dinners sitting in overly fancy restaurants, embarrassed at her sunburn while her dad talked to himself or a business buddy about how successful the trip had been for the company. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind she could feel a vague memory of building sandcastles on the beach with both of her parents. But it was so fuzzy that she wasn’t sure if it was real or just something she wished was real.
Natalie knew she was very fortunate to have two parents with well-paying jobs. Maybe she was wrong for feeling self-pity. Her life—prior to the ark shards—had been a good one, compared to many. Still, when most of her happy family memories centered around her grandmother, she realized it had been a very lonely life.
Of course, with her powers now letting her shift back to her normal self, it raised many questions. Should she go back home? Should she reveal her secret to her parents now that she didn’t look like a monstrous snake creature her mom would shoot on sight? Or was it better to lay low in her lair with Daniel? It was probably a good idea to let them know how she was doing. “Safe” would be a bit of a stretch. “Alive” was accurate enough.
She did not look forward to that discussion with her mom. Maybe it was best to stay in her lair and keep fighting hybrids until someone else figured out what to do.
The car lurched lightly as it pulled to a stop, shaking Natalie from her thoughts.
Glancing out the front windshield, she saw a familiar sight. Grassy hills, completely out of place in the flatness of central Kansas, rose from the plains. At first glance, they looked like any other hills, but their shape and their placement in the landscape left a lingering sense that something wasn’t quite natural about them.
A shiver ran up her spine as she stared out at the burial mounds. When she had first been here, on that field trip that felt like years ago, they had meant nothing to her. Just another field trip her history teacher was forcing her to write a paper on. Now though, she knew that somehow, someway she was connected to these strange formations. These hills had changed her life. And now, they might provide her with answers.
“Welcome back,” Mr. Ross said, “to where it all began.”