I rush home from school that day, mostly to get out of the cold and the snow. I didn't bring a jacket or anything and my thin sweatshirt is getting soaked.
When I finally make it inside, I dump my wet shirt and my backpack somewhere near the radiator and call to Tanya. My bedroom door is open a crack and she soon trots out, wagging her tails.
“Hiya,” I rub the top of her head and she purrs. Amazing how far we've come. “You wanna go to the park with Melissa?”
She barks happily and spins in a circle, radiating heat in her happiness.
I laugh and give her a bowl of kibble while I get ready to go. I still don't feel comfortable having Melissa over here, so I'm going to go pick her up – but like I said, it's freezing outside and my sweatshirt isn't going to cut it.
I grab a jean vest out of my closet (it used to be my dad’s and it's actually really warm), a pair of gloves from the floor and the first hat I find, which is my red and white baseball cap.
Oh well. I look at myself in the mirror. This'll have to do.
Tanya finishes her meal and I coax her into my backpack, making sure she's okay before setting off.
The cold air hits me like a wave as soon as I step out the door, despite Tanya's heat on my back. The snow has mostly stopped now, but few stray flakes still swirl around. I shiver and put on the gloves, groaning inwardly as I realize they're fingerless.
I run almost all the way to Melissa's house, keeping one hand on the backpack to keep it steady and I'm breathing hard by the time I ring her doorbell. Maybe I should start training in the winter.
Her little brother, Erik, answers the door. “Whaddya want?”
I'm about to flip him off, but Melissa pushes him out of the way before I can. “Hi Dash. Sorry about the pest. We're looking into exterminators.”
I chuckle and start to walk with her. Tanya's scratching angrily at my back, but she's warmer too and the cold seems less intense for now.
“So...what are you guys doing for Christmas?” Melissa fiddles with the zipper of her jacket, trying to get a grip with her thick gloves.
I reach over and zip it up for her, hands tingling at being so close to her chest. “I don't know. Probably nothing big. That's assuming Wood doesn't have to work.”
“He works on Christmas?!” She exclaims. “What does he even do?”
I shrug. I guess I've never talked to Melissa about this. “He works at a lab... Self or Silf something, I can never remember the name. He's a trained scientist and stuff, with all kinds of degrees, but they have so many there and it's one of the only places that hires scientists so they pay shit. That's why...” I trail off.
She nods. “Do you know what he...does there?”
“Besides flirt with Amelia?” I shrug again. “Not really.”
“It's not too bad!” I add hurriedly, not wanting to seem like the poor kid who has a miserable holiday. “We get each other presents and have fun and stuff!”
She smiles. “I know. And you always manage to get us presents too...” She stares off into the distance and her face darkens a little.
“Nothing it's just...” She suddenly bends down, scoops up a handful of snow from one of the few remaining snowdrifts and hurls it furiously at a telephone pole where it hits with a piff. “I already got him his Christmas present and I'm going to give it to him anyway – ” Piff. “– even though he lied to me –” Piff. “– because I’m a better person…” The next snowball doesn't even hit the pole.
She looks like she's about to cry and we don't talk again until we get to the entrance to the park.
“Whoa...” She ducks under the barrier. “This is weird...”
I nod, following her. “Yeah.”
“It's all...warm and...” She shrugs off her jacket and gloves. “And the grass is so long and...there's no snow...”
“Yeah.” I bend down and let Tanya out of the backpack. She gives me a vicious glare and trots over to Melissa, rubbing her head against her leg.
Melissa giggles and scratches behind her ears. “Is she like this to everyone?”
I sit back against a tree, rolling up my sweatshirt sleeves in the pleasant warmth. “No, just you.” I bite back the flirtatious remark on my lips before I remember I can actually say it now.
“Yay! Someone loves me! I feel special.”
Okay, now I really want to say it.
But before I can, Tanya starts towards the long grass and, wondering if the little bird will come back, I get to my feet and follow her, with Melissa trailing behind me.
Nothing really happens for a little while. Tanya sniffs around and I try to brush against Melissa as many times I can without making it obvious.
Then, the grass in front of us rustles and a small, purple mouse with sharp-looking teeth scurries out.
Why do these things always look so mad? I twist my hat around, so I can see without the rim blocking my view.
Behind me, Melissa gasps. “What is that thing?!”
“It's another Nonextant,” Tanya's getting into a fighting stance and the mouse is chittering agitatedly. “A different one jumped out at her when me and Rock first came here. I think I know what to do.” I clear my throat. “Ember.”
A stream of flame shoots out of Tanya's mouth and hits the mouse, who remains standing for a minute, then sways and falls. Tanya sits up, looking very pleased with herself. It could be my imagination, but she also looks the tiniest bit bigger too.
Melissa gasps again, peeking over my shoulder. “Holy crap, did she kill it?!”
I fix my hat. “Nah, it only fainted. That's what happened last time too.”
She knelt down next to Tanya, petting her, but still staring at the mouse. “How...how did you know what to say? I mean...was that a command or something?”
I shrugged. “I guess so. I read it in a book, but most of the writing was scribbled or torn out.”
“Weird...” She blinks and stands up again, tearing her eyes away from the mouse. “Hey, can I read the book? I might be able to figure some other words out.”
I start to walk back towards the entrance. “I doubt it, but we could try.”
“Hey,” She jogs so that she's walking next to me. “I live with Erik, remember? I have years of practice reading things that he's scribbled on.”
I laugh. “Okay, good point.”
We reach the tree where we left our things and as she bundles herself up again and I try to coax Tanya back into the backpack, I notice Melissa looking at me with a little half-smile.
“What?” I stand up and carefully put the backpack straps over my shoulders.
“You look good in that outfit.”
I glance down at myself, as if I'll see whatever appeals to her. “I do?”
“Yeah. You...you look like you.” She punches me on the shoulder gently and starts towards the entrance.
I follow her with a grin and decide to never change again.
“...okay, now you gotta be quiet for a little while. There are other people in there and they're not nice like us.”
Melissa's whispering this to my backpack, since Tanya will probably listen to her better than she listens to me. Then again, she barely listens to me at all anyway.
We push open the doors of the library and, after waving to the librarian, I lead Melissa to the bookshelf where I had found the book.
“Is this it?” She pulls it off the shelf, barely even looking.
“Yeah. How'd you know?”
She shrugs and opens it. “It's the least handled.”
We sit down and I move closer to her, partly to read over her shoulder and partly to brush my leg against hers. “They've got pictures for each one. Hers is a little less than halfway through.”
Melissa flips through, passing pages with pictures of the purple mouse and the angry bird until she reaches Tanya's picture, page 37. “Ah, here we go.” She leans closer. “Okay, so I see “ember” and “tail whip”...and above that, it says “techniques”, so maybe it's kind of a trick...”
“Or an attack.” I can't help but remember the fights.
“...I can't read anything else over there except the evolution thing. Oh wait...” She leans even closer and squints. “It says it's a fire...thing...and that it's really rare.”
“Well, that was kind of obvious.” I touch a hand to my warm backpack. “We already knew she was a fire thing.”
“Maybe if I read the rest of the book, it'll make sense...” She starts to turn the page, but footsteps make us scramble to our feet and shove the book back onto the shelf.
“I hope I'm not interrupting anything...” The librarian smiles knowingly, as if she's sure we were making out. “But I thought you might find this interesting, Dan.” She hands me a new book by one of my favorite authors.
I take it and try to slow my heartbeat. “Thanks. Can I check it out now, or do I need my card?”
She winks. “I think I can trust you.”
I thank her and we leave, trying not to call attention to ourselves at any cost. I think at one point, I forget to breathe.
“That's scary,” Melissa lets out a sigh. “If Tanya had made any noise...”
I don't even want to think about it. “I know.”
She suddenly turns to me and hugs me hard. “Dash, you're so good...rescuing her and being such a good friend to me and just being a...such a good kid...”
I'm going to kiss her. Come on, turn your head just a little bit...
“You are just the nicest guy ever...thank you so much.”
I'm leaning closer, my body actually obeying my brain for once. Yessss, I'm gonna do it!
She pulls away. “I'll see you later, okay? Bye!”
I watch her go.
“I hate myself.”
Tanya shifts inside the backpack, as if agreeing with me.
I jog home slowly and manage to get Tanya into my bedroom five minutes before Wood slams the front door noisily.
“Honey, I'm hooome!”
I carefully close my own door behind me. “You're happy. That's weird.”
He shrugs and throws his coat at me. “I got to leave work early. I actually get to sleep at night for once! I'm excited!”
I throw his coat back at him and walk to the kitchen, opening the fridge to see if I can find anything remotely edible. “Sounds suspicious. Are you sure you're not fired?”
“Oh, ha, ha. Don't joke about that.”
“Sorry,” I find a can of soup and close the door, catching sight of my vague reflection in the stainless steel door of the fridge. “Hey, Wood, how do you think I look in this outfit?”
He barely looks at me. “What? You look like you.”I smile. “Good.”