“Hey, Uncle Wood!”
He turns and smiles at me, eyes still bleary. “You never call me that. What do you want now?”
I nod subtly at Rock and go over to stand behind the couch. Wood's eyes follow me and Rock quickly dashes for the door, Tanya hidden under his shirt. I hold back a sigh of relief and look back to my uncle. “Well...uh...I was just wondering...I mean, you're gone all the time and...could we go out to a movie later or something? If you're not too tired.” I add hurriedly, realizing how stupidly the question had come out, despite how I had planned it in my head.
Wood's smile grows larger. “I'd love that!”
I let out another minuscule sigh and grin back. “Great! Rock and I have to um...do some research for a project, but we'll be back soon.”
“Okay, I'll see what movies are playing!” He gets up and dumps his dishes in the sink. “Have fun.”
“Thanks!” I sprint out the door, barely using any steps on the way down and meet Rock out front.
He grimaces when I arrive, shifting Tanya under his jacket. “She really doesn't like to be handled, does she? And why is she so hot?”
“Oh...” I shrug, not quite able to give an explanation. “I don't know, she's some sort of fire creature. Still, it's not that bad when it's this cold outside, at least she keeps you warm.”
“Hard to look on the bright side when half the skin on my chest is gone.” He winces. “Let's hurry up and go.”
I follow him down the street, in the opposite direction of the library, where we're supposedly going to do research. The snow has melted overnight into a watery slush that soaks our pants cuffs and little bits of brown grass poke up from the few remaining snowdrifts – which, in my opinion, is the most depressing sight on earth.
“So how did you find out about this park?” I ask, trying to distract myself from how hungry I am. I should have made another egg after Tanya ate mine.
“An online map,” Rock suddenly looks uncomfortable. “I was...looking for my friend's address, not far from here, and I saw it. I researched it a little...it's been closed to the public for about ten years.”
“Oh. Okay.” He's obviously hiding something, but for now, I let him have his privacy.
Finally, we reach a little wooded area with a chain strung across the narrow path. We easily duck under it and jog a little ways, in case someone saw us.
“I think we're okay.” He pants, nodding to a beer bottle in the grass. “Stupid kids probably come here all the time.”
I nod and he unzips his jacket. I peel Tanya off his chest and hold her tightly. “Stop squirming and listen to me for thirty seconds.”
She stops, though she sends me a dirty look.
“I'm going to let you run freely, but DON'T run off. If anyone sees you, they will kill you. Okay? Just stay where you can see me.”
She nods and I lower her to the ground. She stands, makes a big show of licking down her mussed fur, and then trots over to sniff at the beer bottle.
I glance at Rock. “What is?”
His face is pointed to the sky. “Well...the trees are all dead, see?” He points. “But the grass is still green...”
He's right. The grass is that lush green you only get in like late spring. It's long too, almost past my knees.
We sit down and watch Tanya chasing her tails.
“So what are you going to do with her?”
I sigh. “I don't know...I just...She was dying when I found her...I couldn't just leave her there...She seems to be okay with how I'm taking care of her, and now that I know about this park...”
There's a short silence.
“But you could get arrested.”
My heart sinks. “Yeah, I know. It's not like it'll be that different in juvie, though. I mean, you and Melissa are my only friends and goodness knows Wood doesn't need the extra mouth to feed...I'm just worried about what they'd do to Tanya.”
He laughs as the animal catches one of her tails in her mouth and yelps “They're not...they're not as dangerous as everyone makes them seem.”
“Well, this one isn't. Some of them can be pretty scary.”
Another short silence.
“Do you think you should tell Wood?”
I shake my head quickly. “No way.”
“But he might understand, with your parents and everything – ”
I shake my head again. “Ever since they died, he's been overprotective. If anything, he'd be more afraid of Tanya than of me getting in a knife fight.” I twist my fingers together. “I wish they were still alive...”
We don't talk again until Tanya pads over to me and cocks her head.
She takes a couple of steps away, then looks back at me.
“Come on...” I stand up. “She wants to see what's over there.”
“I bet it's no more exciting than over here...” He wades through the long grass behind me. It's weird...usually long grass itches and tickles...But this grass just kind of...slides away so we can walk through.
Up ahead of me, Tanya growls and I hurry to catch up with her.
“So why do you think this place was closed?” Rock asks as he bumps into me.
“Uh. That.” I point.
Right in front of Tanya is a small, kind of angry-looking bird. It's a couple of different shades of brown with ruffled feathers and it's hopping agitatedly from side to side. Tanya's hackles are raised and she's still growling quietly.
“Holy shit,” Rock whispers. “That's another one of them, isn't it?”
Tanya turns and rolls her eyes, then looks at me quizzically. Obviously, moron. Can I get it?
I shrug. “Uh...sure…spit fire on him. I don't know, whatever you did to my curtains.”
She just stares at me. The bird, who I assumed would have run away or attacked her by now, just keeps hopping back and forth, squawking quietly.
Rock leans over my shoulder. “Maybe she needs a command word...what did you say to her last time she spit fire?”
“Uh...” I rack my brains. It was a couple of days ago...Oh yeah, I was trying to name her...let's see...I said Monster or something and she didn't like that...or Four, because of her tails...then I said something that I had read in that book in the library... “Um...Ember?”
Immediately, flames shoot out of her mouth and hit the little bird. It stumbles back, but then shakes itself and hops forward again to peck Tanya on the forehead. She blinks, rubs her head with her paw and looks at me again.
Flames hit the bird again, but this time, it falls on its side and twitches.
“Oh geez, you killed it...” I kneel down and start to pick up the animal, but Rock shakes his head at me.
“It only fainted. See, it's still breathing. Better leave it where it is,” He leans down next to me. “That's weird...look, none of its feathers burned.”
“Mm. Hey, do you think she'll be okay?” I examine the bump the bird left on the top of Tanya's head. It's starting to bleed a little bit.
“Yeah, I'll bring over a bandage later,” He straightens up. “Dude, we should get back, it's already been about an hour...and this time, you're carrying her and I'll distract Wood.”
“Okay.” I pick a piece of grass off Tanya's ear. “Hey, we're gonna go home now. We'll come back here soon, I promise, but for now, I gotta carry you back, okay?”
She sighs, actually sighs, but lets me pick her up and put her under my jacket. She doesn't squirm, like the first night I found her, but curls up in my arms, radiating a gentle heat.
We start back towards the entrance. “But come on, dude, did you see that? Don't you think that's weird, the fact that these things are dying out and yet they're right here?”
I shake my head. Rock hasn't been to any fights. “They're not dying out. Trust me. They just close up places like this and try to keep them enclosed. I know they're supposed to not even exist, but they do...especially in this part of town.”
We're silent for most of the walk back.
“But what about that bird? Why wasn't it burned or anything?”
“And why didn't it die or just fly away? Why did it pass out like that?”
I shrug again and make a mental note to look at that book in the library later. “I'll find out some more and tell you.”
We're quiet the rest of the way back, trying not to draw attention. It's starting to rain a little, making the already gloomy day even more depressing. Occasionally, Tanya squirms under my shirt, but for the most part, she's still and I have a brief hope that I've tamed her.Then she scratches my side and the hope is gone.