The next morning, when they were getting ready to leave, the time for the guys to pull their own weight came.
“I’ve driven the last two days. Someone else can take over for today,” Athena said.
“I can drive, as long as you don’t mind,” Xander offered.
“Go ahead,” Athena accepted, passing him the keys.
“And I think I’ll go in the car today, if that’s okay with you,” Dianna said to Tyler.
“That’s absolutely okay,” Tyler responded brightly.
Athena would have rather stayed in the van, but she didn’t trust Dianna and Tyler alone together. Especially considering how excited they were at the thought.
“I’ll go in the car too, then,” Athena said, determined to look out for her friend.
“Then I’ll go in the van,” Percy said.
With the ride and friend mix up complete, they all got into their chosen vehicles and set off.
In the van, Xander was driving, while Annelise took the front seat, and Percy stayed in the back to navigate.
“This feels so different than the car,” Xander said as he changed gear. “It’s so much higher. I like it.”
“Yeah, this baby’s a good vehicle,” Annelise said, affectionately patting her armrest.
“These engines are made in Sunnyville, right?”
“Yep. They’re the best engines in the country,” Annelise pronounced proudly.
“I believe it. It runs so much smoother than the car’s engine. And it’s more reliable, obviously.”
“Is this the 300 or 500 horse power engine? I can’t quite tell from the sound.”
“To be completely honest, my knowledge of engines doesn’t go much past ‘they make them where I live’,” Annelise confessed.
“That’s fine,” Xander chuckled. “I can be pretty annoying about mechanical stuff sometimes. It’s what I’m going to go into one day, so I’m more interested in that kind of thing than most people are.”
“So you’re going to be a mechanic or something?” Annelise asked.
“Not exactly. I’m studying mechanical engineering, but I don’t really know what vocation I want to go into just yet. About all I know is that I want to make stuff. Stuff that’s never been seen before. Stuff that people want, without ever knowing they want until they see it. Like other people did with personal computers and iPods in the pre-Atlata days.”
“So do you have anything in mind for your grand invention?” Annelise asked with a smile, relishing the passion in Xander’s voice.
“Maybe a flying car. Or a perpetual motion machine. Or maybe the next must have Christmas toy. Or clocks. I really love clockwork. It’s so delicate, and intricate, and precise. I’d love to do something with that. So to answer your question, I guess I don’t have anything particular in mind just yet. But I’ll figure it out eventually. And when I do, the world better look out.”
“He says that kind of thing all the time,” Percy told Annelise, shaking his head.
“That’s okay,” she replied with a shrug. “You’re just a dreamer who hasn’t found your dream yet. I can relate. I’ve always felt like something big was waiting for me outside of Sunnyville. The only problem is that I haven’t been able to figure out what that is yet. I haven’t even applied to college, because none of the majors sound quite right to me.”
“Well there’s a lot more outside of Sunnyville than you’ve seen so far. Who knows? You might even figure it out before the end of your trip,” Xander said.
“That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping that I’ll have an epiphany when we see the Seelie Lights. A lot of people say that seeing them is life changing, and that it helps people realize who they are and what they’re meant to do. So I’m hoping that seeing them will do that for me too.”
“I hope so too,” Xander said.
Meanwhile, in the car, Athena wanted to cut her ears off.
“You cannot bench 250 pounds!” Dianna said to Tyler.
“I so can,” he contended.
“That’s, like, lifting both me and Athena at once.”
“I can do that! And if you don’t believe me, then I will lift both of you at once when we stop,” Tyler said.
“Nope, that’s not going to happen,” Athena interjected.
“We’ll see what Annie says when we stop, then,” Dianna said.
Silence fell for a minute, and Athena prayed that it would hold. She had no idea that Dianna had stopped talking only so she could stare at Tyler’s arms without distraction.
“So, how much can you curl?” She asked, checking out his biceps.
Hearing that, Athena let out a quiet moan, before pounding her head against her seat.
“So where do you guys go to school?” Annelise asked back in the van.
“Cosmo Topper University,” Percy answered.
“I know that school,” Annelise said. “It’s just an hour away from Sunnyville. Athena is actually going there in the fall, and we all visited it together earlier this year.”
“That’s cool. What’s Athena planning on studying?” Xander asked.
“Structural engineering,” Annelise answered.
“That’s actually what I’m majoring in,” Percy said. “She’s smart to go into that field. It offers a lot of good jobs, with excellent pay and benefits.”
“That’s what her dad said to convince her that that’s what she should major in,” Annelise said.
“It’s not much in terms of interesting, though,” Xander remarked.
“It’s just not pie-in-the-sky enough for you,” Percy retorted. “It’s practical and reasonable. It’s about viewing the world exactly how it is, without emotion or sentiment, and going from there.”
“More like viewing the world how you think it should be,” Xander shot back. “Simple and logical. Devoid of the spectacular and unexplainable despite the fact that there are fairies flying around everywhere.”
“Nothing is unexplainable,” Percy maintained. “Trust me, one day even fairy ‘magic’ will be explained.”
“It already has been. It’s magic,” Annelise said with a shrug.
“Straight up,” Xander said, holding his hand out to her for a high five.
“You know it,” Annelise said, smacking it.
Percy rolled his eyes.
“So what’s Tyler majoring in?” Annelise asked after a short pause, genuinely curious as to what someone like him would study.
“Health and fitness,” Percy said. “He decided on it because he thought he’d just get to work out all day. He didn’t realize there would actually be classes, or studying, or assignments.”
“And he’s not doing great with those parts of it, either,” Xander added.
“What’s he want to do once he graduates?” Annelise asked.
“He wants to be a celebrity trainer,” Percy answered.
“More likely, though, he’s going to become that gym teacher with the big belly hanging over shorts that are way too short, and flirts inappropriately with the female students,” Xander said.
“Wow, you didn’t sugar coat that one,” Annelise remarked.
“He can be really annoying,” Percy stated simply.
“It’s true,” Xander agreed.
And at that moment, Athena was finding out how true that was.
“Seriously? You squat 300 pounds?” Dianna asked in disbelief.
“Oh yeah,” Tyler confirmed. “You should hear me when I work out. When you’re lifting that much weight, it’s hard not to make some noise.”
“What kind of noise?” Dianna asked.
“It’s like a grunting noise or something.”
“Or just grunting,” Athena said under her breath.
“Do it! You should do it now!” Dianna said.
“Please don’t,” Athena begged.
Neither Dianna nor Tyler heard her, though.
“Okay. Promise you won’t laugh, and I will,” Tyler said.
“I promise!” Dianna said eagerly.
“Please don’t let that happen, please don’t let that happen, please don’t let that happen,” Athena prayed.
Unfortunately, though, she didn’t get the answer to her prayer that she wanted.
“Ungh! Ughh! Unnn!” Tyler grunted gutturally, sounding more like a horse with laryngitis than a reasonable, intelligent, or even sentient human.
Athena, cursing her decision to go in the car for the thousandth time that day, clapped her hands over her ears, trying to block out the torturous noise.
Dianna, meanwhile, burst out laughing.
“You promised!” Tyler said with a chuckle himself.
“I’m sorry,” Dianna apologized. “It just sounded ridiculous. I couldn’t help it.”
“Well I guess I forgive you, then.”
“So, how many push-ups can you do?”
“I’m going to go insane. I’m seriously going to lose my mind,” Athena remarked.
As they continued driving, the forest gradually retreated further and further away from the road, and became less and less dense. By the time they stopped that night, it was far behind them. They had finally emerged from the trees, and found themselves in the Great Plains.
As the sun began to set, weary from a long day of driving, they pulled off of the road and into the flat land beside it, where they decided to camp for the night.
As they climbed out of the vehicles, stretching and loosening their limbs from the hours of sitting they’d endured, the two trios merged.
“So how was it with those two?” Annelise asked Athena, pointing over at Dianna and Tyler, who were still laughing and flirting with each other.
“Never again. Never again,” Athena answered, shaking her head. “I think my I.Q. dropped thirty points today from listening to them.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad,” Annelise said.
“Hey Annie, come here! We need you for something,” Dianna called over to her.
“You’re about to find out how bad it really was,” Athena said.
Sure that her friend was exaggerating, Annelise walked over to Dianna and Tyler. Athena watched as Dianna and Tyler talked to Annelise, waiting for what she knew was coming.
“You want me to do what?” Annelise asked in shock, loud enough for Athena to hear.
Athena, feeling vindicated and still not quite able to believe the ridiculous day she’d had, couldn’t help but burst into laughter.
“No!” Annelise said strongly a second later, before marching back to Athena. “You weren’t exaggerating,” she said.
“I told you.”
“How didn’t you go insane dealing with that crap all day?”
“Who’s to say I didn’t?” Athena responded, before laughing a hearty, maniacal cackle.
Annelise and, to be honest, Athena, had no idea where that was coming from. It certainly wasn’t like Athena’s normal self. So, uneasily, with a forced smile, Annelise nodded.
“I’m going to go over there now,” she said to Athena, pointing to where Percy and Xander were trying to start a fire.
“I think your friend is driving my friends insane,” she said to Xander, looking at Dianna, who was still flirting with Tyler, and Athena, who still hadn’t stopped laughing.
“Sorry about Athena,” he said, noticing her odd behavior. “That’s too bad. I don’t really think Tyler can be entirely blamed for Dianna, though.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Annelise gave in with a chuckle.
At that moment a shower of sparks exploded from their fire starter, lighting the dried wood and brush they’d gathered ablaze.
Whooping in joy, Annelise and Xander high fived celebratorily.
“I guess you’re good luck,” he said with a chuckle.
Percy, meanwhile, seeing how Annelise and Xander were together, merely shook his head.
As night fell they ate dinner around the fire. There wasn’t much conversation, though. For Tyler and Dianna were still flirting, and Annelise and Xander were quietly joking and making quips about it together, causing each other to laugh every few seconds. Athena and Percy, meanwhile, sat in silence. Neither of them was in much of a mood to talk.
As they finished their meal a layer of thin, white clouds blew in, hiding the moon and stars, making the fire their only source of light.
With Tyler and Dianna lying much too close together in their sleeping bags, and still whispering and giggling together, Xander and Percy about five feet away around the fire, and Annelise and Athena the same distance away on the other side, Annelise closed her eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep.