“Did you do your homework?”
I wave a hand. “I have like another week, Wood, I'll be fine!”
He sighs. “You're never going to get into Harvard with that attitude.”
I roll my eyes, struggling into my vest. “I'd never get into Harvard anyway. Not with my grades.”
“Not with your face either.” His grin fades. “Hey, I remember that vest. It was your dad's, right?”
I nod, feeling anxious. Tanya's already warm in the backpack and if Wood comes any closer, I'm afraid she might pop out.
Shit. He does come closer and touches the collar of the vest. “This is what Sam would wear every time we went biking. He was younger than you when he wore it...I guess he was built bigger.” He grips my shoulders and holds me at arm's length. “You look good in it though.”
“Okay, okay,” I tug away, adjusting the brim of my hat in embarrassment. “No hugs, okay? I gotta go, Rock's waiting.”
I feel a little bad as I jog down the stairs, but my heart is beating too fast for me to worry about it too much. If he had hugged me and felt Tanya...I shake my head. I've got to be more careful. I've had too many close calls already.
Rock's waiting for me near the street. “Hey, you made it on time!”
I didn't, but he's trying to be nice. I smile. “Hi.”
“What route are we going to run?”
I laugh. “We. You're funny. I run, you yell.”
He makes a face. “Anyway. Where are you running?”
“Um...well, I'm not. Not exactly. What time is it?”
“About quarter to eleven. Why?”
I start walking. Slowly. “Just wondering. We're not actually training today. Tanya's in my backpack and I don't want to jerk her around.”
“Ah. So...the park?”
We walk in comfortable silence for a little bit. It's just warm enough to feel comfortable in a light jacket and the snow is starting to melt...that's the most depressing part about the days after Christmas.
I shrug. “It's okay.”
“It's not though and...” He sighs, hand darting to his collar. “I'm sorry...”
This is getting awkward.
“Think fast!” I scoop up a handful of slush and wing it at him, hitting his leg.
He laughs and gets me back and we throw snowballs at each other all the rest of the way to the park, soaking and out of breath when we get there, but closer. Stupidity tends to do that.
I duck under the barrier and let Tanya out of the bag, hoping she didn't get too wet. She glares at me, and trots away.
Rock's grin fades. “Dash...?”
“Oh, don't be so surprised,” Melissa rubs Tanya's head, making her purr. “Dash can be clever when he wants to.”
Rock looks confused. “I'm just...I haven't...and I didn't...”
Melissa rolls her eyes and I punch him gently on the shoulder. “Don't worry about it.”
He looks down. “I'm sorry.”
Melissa and I exchange glances, then both punch him on the shoulder. “Don't worry about it!”
He gives us a small smile. “Kay.”
Tanya wraps herself around my legs and looks meaningfully towards the long grass. I lace my fingers with Melissa's and follow the animal, Rock trailing behind us.
“You think he's okay?” I whisper.
“He will be.” Melissa whispers back. “It’s not like he didn’t know this might happen.”
Rock catches up to us. “I...uh...didn't know...”
He's gotten too close, though and before he can finish his sentence, Tanya growls at him, the hair on her back standing up. He backs up and hangs his head again. Tanya forgets about him and sniffs at the long grass.
“I didn't know you guys were together.” He says quietly.
I feel a little pang of guilt, but none of us can think of anything to say, so there's an uncomfortable silence for a few moments.
“Now I know how you felt, Dash...” He takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I'm sorry.”
Tanya yaps and we all turn to see her facing another brownish bird, this one quite a bit bigger than the one she's found before – bigger than her. It lets out a high pitched screech and I let go of Melissa's hand to twist the brim of my hat around. “What was in the book besides Ember?”
“Um...oh! Tail whip.”
“I'd be careful, though...” Rock comes up to stand on my other side. “You don't know what it could do.”
I shrug. “Tail whip.”
Tanya turns her back and fans all four of her tails at the bird. Besides a very small breeze that ruffles the bird's feathers, it doesn't seem to do anything.
The bird takes a few rapid steps forward and hits Tanya with both of its wings. Tanya winces and sways a little, but stays on her feet.
“I don't get it...” Melissa murmurs. “Why don't they defend themselves? It's like they're...”
“...taking turns,” Rock finishes her sentence and she glares at him. “Sorry.”
“I don't know.” I look from Tanya to the bird, racking my brain for the words from the book. “But they were bred for battling, right? So maybe their instinct is to take turns.”
I shrug. “Um...Ember.” Go with what works...
The stream of flame shoots out at the bird, but it stays on its feet, still hopping back and forth.
It's bigger...maybe it's stronger.
It hops forward and pecks Tanya on top of the head, like the one before. This seems to hurt her a lot more and she whimpers as she rubs the top of her head with her paw.
“Dash, maybe you shouldn't – ”
“She can do it,” It's suddenly a matter of pride. “Ember again.”
Her fire is a little less bright this time, though it does send the bird back a couple of steps, squawking agitatedly. It turns back and flaps its wings, creating a gust of wind that hits us at full force, almost knocking my hat off.
Tanya is stunned for a minute, then she wobbles and falls on her side. The bird cheeps happily and hops back into the long grass.
Rock shakes his head. “You shouldn't have pushed her that hard...”
Melissa nudges him with her elbow. “Shut up. Dash, are you okay?”
I shake my head. I feel dizzy all of a sudden and as I take a step forward to regain my balance, I almost fall flat on my face.
I don't know whose voice it is and it seems far away. As the world grows increasingly fuzzy around the edges, I see a blur of tan in the trees.
Then I white out.
“...he'll be all right?”
I hear the low murmur of voices and feel the soft grass under my cheek. I'm still dizzy and don't try to stand up, but I crack my eyes open and see Tanya lying on the ground next to me. She looks okay, and she even wags her tails a tiny bit to let me know she's all right. I give her a small smile and focus on the voices again.
“If you stay here, I'll go for help.” That's Rock.
“Don't be stupid, you can't bring anyone here, we'll all be arrested.” Melissa.
“Right.” He sighs. “I'm sorry.”
“Let's just wait a little bit, they might wake up.”
There's a pause.
“You know what? I really don't like that name.” She sounds annoyed, but the words don't come out mean.
“I'm...sorry. I really am. I know it doesn't mean much, but...” He sighs again. “I don't know what else to do...I just...I love you...”
“No.” She says it forcefully. “Rock, Dash loves me. He's been showing that by hiding it for the last four years.” Pause. “If that makes sense.”
“I loved you too, you know that. And I'm sorry that you – ” She takes a deep breath. “That things didn't work out. I'm willing to still be friends, but only if you stop feeling sorry for yourself and start smiling.”
The dizziness is starting to go away and I lift my head a bit to see Rock give her a tiny, sad smile.
He holds out his hand. “Friends?”
She bats away his hand and hugs him. “Friends.”
I smile and try to work my way to sitting up. They notice and let go of each other to kneel next to me.
“Are you okay?”
I nod, blinking a couple of times to clear my vision. “Yeah. I just got...really dizzy. Don't know why.”
“Can you stand up?” Rock offers his hand.
“I think so.” I take it and pull myself to my feet. I dust my pants off and look down at Tanya. She's sitting up too, shaking her head and sneezing. “What happened?”
He shrugs. “Well, the bird made Tanya pass out and then you did too.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, I got that part.”
“We carried you over here, away from the long grass and we were gonna go for help but...”
“But that would have been stupid.” Melissa finishes and then kisses me on the cheek. “We're just glad you're both okay.”
I smile and look around. They moved me far away from the long grass...in the little wooded area that surrounds the park. We're farther away from the entrance too – and in front of a dilapidated little building. Its roof (which at some point was probably red) is caved in and its paint is peeling. On the front, next to where the doors should be are four letters, but they don't seem to make any word I know.
“It probably has something to do with the animals,” Melissa steps up and traces the letters. “See? It's the same four letters that are the beginning of that word we saw in the book!”
I try to remember. “Oh yeah. So what do you think it means?”
I chuckle and give her a little one-armed hug. “Thanks a lot.”
Rock drums his fingers on his collarbone. “Maybe that's the name for these things. I mean, Nonextants literally means “nonexistent”, right? They wouldn't name them that, not if they existed to name. And it was on the book and this building so...”
Melissa and I exchange glances.
“Or maybe the book was just Japanese.”
“And maybe this building was just a place where everyone poked each other!” She reaches out and pokes him in the side.
I poke her.
He pokes me.
Pretty soon, we're all laughing and Tanya's spinning in circles, barking.
Finally, we just flop back on the grass and stare up at the leafless trees.
“This is great.”
“Can we do this every day?”
“Fine by me.”
“I’d love to get away from Erik.”
“Wood doesn't care.”Tanya starts to purr.