I stumble to a stop, my momentum carrying me farther than I thought. “Time?” I gasp.
Rock glances at the stopwatch. “Two fifty four.”
I collapse against a tree and Tanya flops down next to me, panting. “Not…bad, huh?” I rub the top of her head, but I’m too hot to touch her fur for long.
“Not that bad, but you’ve done better.” Rock, the ever-critical coach, tosses me a water bottle.
“Oh, shush,” Melissa makes a face at him and sits down next to me, kissing my sweaty forehead. “I think you did great.”
“He’s…only hard on because…he loves me.” I smile and chug half the water bottle, pouring the other half over my head.
Melissa giggles and pulls back to avoid being splashed.
It’s hot for May, a little muggy too…kind of a prelude for the summer. I probably shouldn’t be running in this kind of heat, but Rock’s been pushing me pretty hard ever since I got out of juvie. Mostly, I run laps around the park with Tanya. She’s pretty fast too, but I almost always manage to keep an even pace with her.
I hear my ringtone and Melissa pulls my phone out of her purse (my shorts don’t have pockets) and hands it to me. It still seems weird to me that I have a phone, but when Wood got his raise at the lab, it was the first thing he bought.
I press talk and hold it up to my ear, trying not to get it too wet. “Hello?”
“Are you all there?” It’s Wood.
I roll my eyes and smile. “What do you think?” Tanya gets up and starts licking my hair. I laugh and push her away.
“Great. Well, all three of you, come over here.” He sounds excited.
“Why, what’s up?”
“Can’t tell you. You’ll see!” He hangs up.
I stand up, wiping my face with the bottom of my shirt. “Wood wants to see us.”
Rock hands me a towel. He’s always super prepared. “Why?”
I shrug. “He wouldn’t tell me. But it sounds like something good.”
We get our stuff together, say goodbye to Tanya and duck under the chain to the road. I’m still all hot and sweaty, but Melissa still holds my hand and Rock rests his elbow on my shoulder, talking about how I could reduce my time. Melissa and I exchange exasperated smiles.
There’s no sign of Owen and Cheryl when we get to my building. They haven’t been around much lately. Something happened last month that got his whole gang mad at him and now it’s just the two of them and that cat. I think they’re kind of at a loss now.
The apartment’s changed too. I’m not sure whether it was Wood’s raise or Amelia moving in, but it looks great now. Our kitchen is now perpetually clean, we have a television that was made in this decade and all our furniture is either new or in much better condition.
Wood is sitting on the couch and when we come in, he springs to his feet. He’s practically jumping up and down.
“What is it, unc?” I throw my towel over the back of the couch.
He’s trying hard to suppress a grin, but he can’t do it anymore. “Guess which law just got overturned today?”
For a minute, we just stare at him.
Then Rock starts laughing and Melissa hugs him and then Wood and then me. I’m grinning too, but also tearing up just a little bit. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s relief…or happiness that that month in juvie and all of Wood’s efforts have actually led to something.
“So does that mean we can bring Tanya here?” Melissa’s arms are still around my neck.
“Well…if the landlord’s okay with it,” Wood reaches down and picks up a bag. “But the reason I wanted you to come quickly was to give you all a present.” He clears his throat. “Now, you all know, I’m no good with speeches – ”
I cut him off. “Then why try?”
He gives me a wry smile. “Fine, smart ass. You’re a good kid and you two have been good friends to him and I want to give you all something.”
Rock bites his lip. “Hmm… I don’t know, Wood, that still seemed a little long.”
Wood chuckles. “Anyway, now that these Nonextants are legal – ”
I interrupt again. “They’re going to need a new name.”
He raises an eyebrow. “True. So now that...these animals are legal, you’ll be able to get them almost anywhere in the wild. But not all of them,” He dumps out the contents of his bag on the couch – three red and white spheres. “These three are unique.”
He picks up one and turns to Rock. “You may not be perfect, but you always try to help other people to be. You’re great with animals and the one teenage boy I know who didn’t let his parent’s plants die while they were on vacation. Therefore – ” He hands one of the spheres to Rock. “You get the first one, a combination of the two.”
Rock looks like he’s either about to cry or burst into song. “Th…Thank you.” He whispers.
Then Wood moves to Melissa. “I know all your good qualities. Dash has been telling me about them for years. You’ve always been the voice of reason for these two idiots and I doubt they’d stay sane without you. Plus, I know you like fish.” He gives her the second sphere. “So here’s a little addition to your aquarium.”
Melissa turns it over in her hands and murmurs her thanks in the same awestruck way.
Then, Wood smiles at me. “And what can I say about you? You’re a good kid, Dash. Everyone knows it. But you started this whole thing with a kind of rebellious spirit I’d never seen in you before. You turned the world upside down and never apologized for it.” He puts the last sphere in my hand, closing my fingers around it. “A fiery companion to match Tanya and your own spirit.”
I try to smile back at him, but I’m too choked up. Then the others both look at me excitedly and I can’t help but grin.Wood takes a step back and folds his arms. “Well, what are you waiting for? Your very own adventure is about to begin…”
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