Due to the white blobs forcing them to take a late night drive they got off to a late start the following morning. In fact, it wasn’t even morning anymore when they left the motel. It was a quarter past noon.
They had a busy day ahead of them. They were going to visit Mt. Rushmore, which was now only a couple hours away, and then the Devil’s Tower. All of them eager to get there and excited to be seeing such iconic sights, they quickly divided up between the vehicles. That time Annelise would be driving the van, with Xander in the passenger’s seat, and Athena navigating. Percy would be controlling the car and, to his dismay, both Dianna and Tyler took the back. He was terrified to think of what they might get up to there, but didn’t express any of his concerns out loud.
Then, at last, they got going.
The drive started out quiet and peaceful. To Percy’s relief, at least for the moment, Dianna and Tyler were behaving wonderfully. Well, they were sitting far too close together, but given the alternatives, Percy would take that any day. The van, meanwhile, was just as quiet for a time, until Annelise asked Xander the question that had been bouncing around her mind since the night before.
“Why did you hang back with me last night, when I was taking those pictures?” She asked him.
“I didn’t want anything to happen to you,” Xander answered. “Standing around there was dangerous, and I just wanted to be there to help if you needed it.”
“Well thank you. It means a lot to me that you did that.”
“You’re very welcome. Would you mind if I asked you something now?”
“Of course not.”
“Why weren’t you scared last night?”
“I was. I was the first one to scream.”
“But you were also the last one to leave,” Xander retorted.
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. To be honest, once I was out of the sleeping bag I didn’t really feel like I needed to run away. I wasn’t in immediate danger anymore. I mean, those things were really slow. But they were also kind of cool. I’ve never seen anything like them before, and who knows if I will again, so I figured taking a few pictures of them was worth the risk of staying there for a few more minutes. Or I’m just crazy. It could be that too.”
“Well I don’t think that’s crazy. In fact, I’d say that’s kind of cool.”
“So there’s a good chance you’re crazy too,” Annelise joked.
“Oh, I definitely am,” Xander replied with a chuckle.
To that, Annelise chuckled too.
Athena, meanwhile, heard everything they said and saw how they were acting together. And no matter what Annelise said about them being just friends, she could tell that Annelise’s feelings for Xander were different than just friendship. And she could also tell that Xander felt the same way about Annelise. But instead of smiling to herself amusedly, or even making a mental note to tell Dianna about it later, she merely looked down at the map with a twinge of regret in her heart.
The drive to Mt. Rushmore passed quickly. After spending days traveling, a two hour drive in the light of day didn’t seem like much of a task to any of them. So, before they knew it, they caught their first glimpse of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington, and Jefferson.
“Wow,” Athena said, looking out of the windshield with Annelise and Xander.
“Yeah, really,” Xander agreed.
“Let’s get a closer look then,” Annelise said, pulling into one of the park’s parking lots.
The parking lot was only about a third full. With travel much less common in the post-Atlata world, and the world population being only 1/10 of what it was before the virus, it meant that the number of visitors at even well known tourist attractions like Mt. Rushmore was but a tiny fraction of what it was before.
They all got out of the vehicles to the fresh summer wind kissing their cheeks, and the sound of birds chirping all around them. It was an absolutely perfect day for sightseeing.
“Wait a minute, guys,” Athena said, opening the back of the van and pulling out a bag full of the lunch they were going to eat in the shadow of those giant faces.
“Here, let me take that,” Xander said, taking it from her.
Annelise, who had witnessed the small exchange, suddenly found herself unable to suppress a small smile.
With that, they started off towards the monument.
“So who are those guys, and why are their faces carved into the mountains?” Dianna asked.
“Seriously? Didn’t you pay any attention in history?” Athena replied.
“For your information, I got an A in history,” Dianna shot back.
“Only because Ms. Calendari was in love with you!” Annelise pointed out as she snapped a picture of the mountain.
“The grade still counts,” Dianna remarked with a shrug.
“So did anything happen between you two?” Tyler asked.
“No, you perv,” Dianna answered teasingly.
To that, Tyler laughed.
“To answer your question, they were presidents, well before the Atlata virus,” Athena explained. “They’re Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Washington.”
“And they decided to have their faces carved into a mountain? That’s really humble,” Dianna commented.
“It happened after they were all out of power, and after most of them had been dead for a very long time.”
“They did start to add another face in 2016,” Percy chimed in. “The president at the time, who was anything but humble, did approve it himself. They finished one of his ears, but then the virus hit, and they stopped sculpting.”
“So where’s the ear?” Dianna asked, scanning the mountains for it.
“They blew it up when it was discovered that he personally approved the creation of the Atlata virus,” Percy answered.
“Boy, he sucked,” Dianna stated.
“That’s an understatement,” Athena said.
Before long they passed through Borglum Court and the Avenue of Flags. When they made it to the amphitheater they stopped and gazed up at the giant faces towering over them, which looked back down at them with dignified, proud expressions.
Staring up at those amazing sculptures, humanity’s ability to create staggered Annelise. Here were four faces before them, carved out of a mountain. The sheer effort to accomplish that and the time, manpower, and skill it must have required was absolutely amazing to her. It was humanity at its best, defying the odds, pursuing a dream for no other reason than to create something wonderful, and beautiful.
Then again, there was another side of that human innovation and never-say-die attitude. And that other side was the Atlata virus. Someone, a lot of someones, had once labored over it the way others had labored over Mt. Rushmore. They’d created something amazing, something innovative. They created something the world had never seen before. They were brilliant like Borglum, the creator of the monument in front of them. The only difference was that instead of dazzling the masses with its awe inspiring wonder, the Atlata virus was created to kill them. By that measure, the Atlata virus’ creators had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
And with all that in mind, she couldn’t help but think that the fae had been amazingly good to help humanity out at all.
They continued walking and gaping at the monument, reading all of the displays and markers explaining how it was made and why, and others commemorating Borglum, until their stomachs growled and they decided that it was time for lunch.
They stopped at a shelter with some picnic tables next to some bathrooms, and a drinking fountain. Then they pulled out their food, and ate.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this place or not, but it’s actually pretty cool,” Dianna said to her friends.
“See? Stick with me, and I won’t steer you wrong,” Athena responded.
“How long are we going to stick around here?” Percy asked.
“We have already been here for a couple hours,” Xander said.
“We haven’t seen the house up there, though,” Dianna stated, pointing up at the faces.
“What house?” Annelise asked.
“Come on! I can’t be the only one who’s seen that movie!” Dianna said.
From the looks on everyone’s faces, though, it would seem that she was.
“Someone has to have seen it! There’s that guy who’s mistaken for a spy and then he goes to the house to save the woman he loves and the bad guys chase him across the faces.”
They all either shook their head or shrugged their shoulders muttering that they didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Apparently I’m the only one here who’s cultured,” Dianna remarked.
“Sorry,” Annelise apologized weakly.
“If you want to go up there to see the house we can, but it’s probably going to be a long hike,” Athena said.
“Good point. Let’s just skip it,” Dianna said, a long hike not really sounding too fun to her.
“Well, we’ve seen everything, then. If you guys want to move on when we’re done eating, then that’s fine with me,” Athena said.
Everyone was indeed fine with moving on after their lunch. And with that decided, they broke up into the same groups they had at dinner the night before. Tyler and Dianna flirted amongst themselves, Xander and Annelise chatted together contentedly, and Athena and Percy sat there in silence.
In that moment, more than ever before, Athena regretted letting the guys come with them.
A little while later, when they were done eating, they started heading back to the vehicles.
When they came to the last stretch before the parking lot, Annelise turned and snapped one last picture of Mt. Rushmore. She’d taken probably a dozen pictures since they got there, from different distances and angles, but that picture felt different to her because it was the last. She didn’t know if she’d ever stand there again, or see those faces in person again. But she hoped she would.
After taking a few seconds to gaze at the monument one final time, she turned and caught up to the others.
“So how long is the drive to the Devil’s Tower?” Annelise asked when they were all back in the vehicles, and she started the van.
“At least a couple hours, maybe three at the most,” Athena answered, consulting the map. “We have to leave South Dakota, and head into Wyoming.”
“Cool. Let’s do it, then,” Annelise said as she drove out of the parking lot and back to the highway.
Like the drive to Mt. Rushmore, the second leg of their journey started out quiet and peaceful as well. Annelise dutifully followed Athena’s directions, while Xander just stared out of the window.
Being surrounded by a vast sea of green plains was a completely new experience to Annelise and Athena. Sure, they’d seen pictures of the area before, but those really didn’t do it justice. Now that they were there in person, the sheer vastness of the plains was staggering to them. They could literally see for miles in every direction, not that there was much to see other than more beautiful plains and gently rolling hills.
There wasn’t much more to see, that is, until they made a turn around a small hill a few minutes later.
They were at the top of a small incline, looking down at more plains below. Only instead of just a vast blanket of green, these fields were covered with something else. Bison. Everywhere in sight, to the very horizon, were thousands of grazing bison.
“You should slow down just to be safe,” Athena advised Annelise as she stared at the massive creatures.
“Yeah, I have it covered,” Annelise responded, braking until they were going an exceedingly safe speed. Then she grabbed her camera. “Steer for me,” she told Xander.
“Okay,” Xander said hesitatingly, though he obeyed nonetheless.
“Anne, what are you doing? Just drive the car!” Athena said.
“Xander has it covered,” Annelise responded simply, trusting that he wouldn’t crash them into one of the creatures as she rolled down her window.
“You’re going to get us killed!”
“If we die at this point, I’ll bear plenty of responsibility for it too,” Xander stated, now firmly in control of the steering wheel from the passenger’s seat.
“You’re crazy. You’re all crazy,” Athena said, throwing her hands up.
Annelise, however, was too busy hanging halfway out of the window with her camera to her eye to respond to her worried friend. When she had the focus and shutter speed just right, she started snapping pictures, paying absolutely no attention to the road, or their speed, which she was still controlling.
“We’re going, like, ten now,” Athena informed Annelise.
“We won’t be for long,” Annelise assured her.
“This is awesome,” Xander said, looking out of his window. “This is like what the cowboys must have seen when they came out here.”
“Until they killed all of the bison,” Athena said.
“Yeah, until that. Oohh, look at that one! It’s huge!” He said, pointing his free hand out of his window at a six foot tall, twelve foot long bison on right the side of the road.
“Not to be a spoilsport, but is anyone other than me paying attention to where we’re going?” Athena asked.
To that, Annelise and Xander glanced over at each other, just realizing that neither of them had been.
“I have enough pictures. I’ll take over again,” Annelise said, climbing back inside, putting her camera down, and grabbing the wheel.
Rolling her eyes, Athena glanced out of the back windows to see what the other three in the car were doing.
“It’s like something out of a western,” Dianna said.
“Other than the cars,” Percy said.
“Well yeah. We’d be on horses if it was really a western.”
“I don’t like horses. There’s something about their eyes that makes me not trust them,” Tyler remarked.
“Horses are awesome. The only thing better is unicorns, which hopefully we’ll also see sometime,” Dianna replied.
Percy thought about breaking the bad news to her that unicorns, even in a post-Atlata world, didn’t exist, but thought better of it. The last thing he wanted was to get caught in a conversation with Dianna about unicorns.
It took them a full half hour to finally get out of the herd of buffalo. They were all reluctant to leave the amazing, majestic animals behind, but they were also eager to get back to a reasonable speed again.
With the return of the spotless green plains, so came the quiet once again. Athena was extremely grateful for that. For while listening to Annelise and Xander wasn’t nearly as bad as listening to Dianna and Tyler, she still preferred silence to it.
About three hours after they left Mt. Rushmore, the Devil’s Tower came within sight.
The grey stone plateau, full of ridges and fissures, rose over 1,200 feet into the air. They’d seen man’s version of a monument earlier in the day. Now, they were looking at God’s version.
“It’s like the Lonely Mountain,” Annelise commented, staring at it in amazement.
“Nice The Hobbit reference. That’s a great book,” Xander said, also gazing up at the tower.
“Yeah it is,” Annelise agreed.
“It’s absolutely mind blowing,” Athena stated.
Unlike at Mt. Rushmore, no one was around. Absolutely no one. So, after pulling into a nearby parking lot and stepping outside, they were struck by the silence and stillness of the area. Not a bird was chirping as they walked through the trees surrounding the tower, nor were there any squirrels chomping through the rough shells of nuts. Even the breeze was gone.
“That thing is amazing,” Dianna said. “Who carved it?”
“God,” Annelise answered.
And as they drew nearer to the tower, every one of them was struck by such a sense of wonder that they all believed it.
Whereas Mt. Rushmore was a beautiful feat of human genius, The Devil’s Tower was simply awe-inspiring. It was beautiful, yes, but also imposing. In its shadow they felt small, insignificant, the same way they would have if they had been facing God himself. No human could ever carve something so massive, so staggering, so intimidating.
At the same time, there was something about it that seemed otherworldly. It not only looked out of place in the land around it, but it also seemed out of place for it to be on Earth at all. It looked like something one would find on some alien world with giant, man eating bats, and purple foxes the size of houses with two heads and twenty seven tails. It looked like something that belonged somewhere where the Great Old Ones ruled a civilization of fear, and blood, and madness. Yes, they all knew that it was natural formation, but that didn’t make it any less dread to them.
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far,” Percy quoted to no one in particular.
“What?” Dianna asked.
“It’s H.P. Lovecraft,” Athena said. “He was a writer in the early 1900’s. And it means that no matter how big humanity thinks its getting, it is, and always will be, tiny.”
Dianna wasn’t really sure that she got it, but didn’t feel like asking about it again.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Tyler said, the immensity and majesty of the tower not even lost on him.
“I don’t think there is anything else like it,” Xander replied.
“Wait a minute, didn’t a bunch of aliens land on this?” Dianna asked.
“I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen,” Athena replied.
“I don’t mean in real life. It was in a movie.”
“Is there a movie you haven’t seen?” Tyler asked her.
“Yeah, there are a couple,” Dianna answered.
Slowly, they made their way around a trail at the base of the tower. When they made it back to where they’d started, they decided it was time for a much needed break.
“It would be cool to hollow it out and make a house out of it,” Tyler remarked.
“Yeah, because destroying one of a kind natural wonders is really fun,” Percy retorted sarcastically.
“It definitely wouldn’t be cool,” Dianna said. “I can be pretty dumb sometimes, but even I would never do something like that. No one should ever screw with this thing.”
“Unless you’re of the house of Thrain,” Annelise joked.
“And then you’d have to fight a dragon for it,” Xander added.
“What are you two talking about?” Dianna asked.
“The Hobbit. It’s a book,” Annelise told her.
“Oh, they made movies of it too,” Dianna remarked. “Those are some of the few I haven’t seen.”
With that, a lull fell upon the group. Tyler was lounging on the ground, with Dianna resting her head on his legs, and Annelise and Xander were sitting next to each as Annelise showed him all the pictures she’d taken thus far, which left Athena and Percy, again, sitting silently a few feet away from each other.
For a few minutes Athena racked her brain trying to think of something to say to him. They seemed to be the odd ones out, after all, so it made sense for them to at least be friendly with each other. They’d spent very little time together since the two groups joined forces, though, so she had no idea where to start. It certainly didn’t help matters that she wasn’t exactly a social butterfly like her friends. She did fine when they were all together, and she didn’t have to carry the weight of the conversation on her own, but she wasn’t nearly as good at talking as they were when left to her own devices. She didn’t struggle at much in her life, but that was one of the few things that she did struggle with.
Then, suddenly, she remembered what Percy said as they walked up to the tower. He’d quoted Lovecraft. And while Athena was by no means a rabid fangirl of the long dead writer, she’d read enough of his work to be reasonably knowledgeable about it.
“So you like Lovecraft?” She asked Percy.
“Yeah. I mean, his stuff is pretty intriguing,” he answered. “All I’ve really read of his is At The Mountains Of Madness and The Call Of Cthulu. But they’re very unique.”
“Yeah, those are the two he’s best known for. I’ve read those, and also the Dreamworld Mythos, mainly because Annelise forced me to. I don’t normally go for horror, but like you said, he’s very interesting and unique.”
“Yep,” Percy agreed with a nod.
With that, once again, silence fell. And with the Lovecraft conversation basically dead in the water, she couldn’t think of much else to say. After five more minutes of silence, she got thoroughly tired of sitting there doing nothing and decided that it was finally time to say something to Annelise and Dianna about their relationships with Tyler and Xander. Their road trip was supposed to be about them, after all, not boys. And over the last couple days, that was what it seemed to have become about to them, at least in her mind. And she was tired of it.
“I’m going to walk around the tower again. Annelise, Dianna, do you want to come with me?” She asked, though it was more an order than a question.
“Uh, sure, I guess,” Annelise said, standing up.
“I don’t really feel like it right now,” Dianna said, closing her eyes contentedly.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Annelise kicked her as covertly as she could.
“What did you do that for?” Dianna asked irritably.
“She wants us to go with her,” Annelise whispered so the boys couldn’t hear.
“She could have just said that,” Dianna said under her breath as she got up. “Fine. I’m coming.”
The three girls walked away in silence, until they were out of earshot of the boys.
“So what’s going on?” Annelise asked Athena.
“It’s just…” Athena said, struggling to figure out how to say what she wanted to say. She reached up and started fiddling with her necklace.
“Just what?” Dianna asked.
“It’s just that these last couple days you guys have been hanging off of your boy toys non-stop,” Athena said, the words spilling out of her mouth faster than she could think. “And I’ve been left all alone, with no one to talk to, and I’m just frustrated. This trip is supposed to be about us, the three of us, and now these boys are here and it’s like that got thrown out the window. It’s like you guys care about being with them more than you care about us being together. And I didn’t even want them to come, but I gave in and now…and now I wish that they’d just go away so we could get back to the way things were before,” she finished.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you were feeling forgotten,” Annelise apologized.
“Yeah. I’m sorry too,” Dianna echoed.
“It’s alright guys,” Athena said, starting to feel embarrassed for having such an outburst. “I’m sorry for piling my frustrations on you guys like that. I’m not good at talking about stuff like this. I was just really frustrated back there, and I felt like you guys abandoned me and left me all on my own, and I really didn’t like it.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” Annelise assured her. “I should have been more mindful about spending all that time with Xander. I’ll do better from here on out.”
“I will too. I mean, I may have gone a little overboard with Tyler,” Dianna admitted.
“A little?” Athena replied.
To that, Dianna couldn’t help but smile.
“Okay, a lot,” Dianna admitted. “He’s just really hot, and nice, and I just…you know…I like him. I didn’t mean to abandon you.”
“It’s fine Dianna. If you want my opinion, though, I think you can do a lot better than him,” Athena said.
“Have you seen his arms?” Dianna asked, as if that was the only argument needed.
“You know he isn’t rich, or in poor health, right?” Annelise joked.
“He is going to be rich, though. He’s going to be a celebrity trainer.”
“Sure,” Annelise said skeptically.
“Here you guys go again, making everything all about your boy toys,” Athena remarked lightly, shaking her head.
“Oh my gosh, you’re right. I’m so sorry,” Dianna apologized again.
“It’s fine! I’m just kidding around this time,” Athena clarified. “I already feel better than I did a little bit ago.”
“Well then I’d like to go on record and say that I really don’t like you guys calling Xander my boy toy,” Annelise said.
“So you don’t like him?” Athena asked.
“I’ve already told you guys we’re just friends. I just like being around him and talking to him.”
“Because you like him?” Dianna asked.
“It’s not even been a week since we met,” Annelise said.
“That wasn’t the question,” Athena pressed.
“What do you want me to say?”
“How about the truth,” Dianna suggested. “We’re asking if you like him. Not if you want to marry him tomorrow.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Yes it is. You just complicate it,” Dianna retorted.
“You really do,” Athena agreed.
“Fine. You want to know? Then yeah, I guess, maybe I do like him,” Annelise said. “I think he’s better looking than Tyler-”
“Crazy,” Dianna interjected.
“-And I like talking to him, and the way he makes me feel when we do talk. I can be myself with him, and he seems to like me for who I am too. So yeah, I guess you could probably say that I do like him.”
Hearing that, Athena and Dianna exchanged a serious look.
“Wow,” Dianna said simply.
“You’ve never talked like that about anyone before,” Athena stated.
“Well there wasn’t anyone worth talking like that about in Sunnyville,” Annelise pointed out.
To that, Athena and Dianna merely nodded their agreement.
“So what’s the deal with you and Percy?” Annelise joked to Athena after a few moments of silence, eager to move on from her admission.
“Yeah. We really didn’t leave you alone, you know. We left you with him,” Dianna added.
“Percy and I don’t have anything to talk about. I tried back there, and it went nowhere,” Athena said. “I’m just not as good at talking to people as you guys are.”
“It’s not hard talking to people Athy,” Dianna said.
“Yeah. You just try to figure out a little bit about them. Like where they’re from, or what they like, and then you just kind of go with the flow,” Annelise said with a shrug.
“I already tried that. I tried to talk to him about Lovecraft and it failed miserably,” Athena said.
“Imagine that. Talking about some old, dead guy wasn’t interesting,” Dianna commented sarcastically.
“Shut up, you,” Athena ordered, though with a smile.
“You know, there is something he said to me,” Annelise began, just remembering it. “He’s studying structural engineering. And they all go to Cosmo Topper University.”
“You’re right, that is something,” Athena said thoughtfully. “It might be interesting to get his take on it.”
“See? You’ll have loads of fun talking about all that boring crap with him,” Dianna said.
“It’s a necessary, vital occupation in today’s world.”
“So like I said,” Dianna said with a shrug.
“You’re ridiculous,” Athena said with a shake of her head.
The guys, meanwhile, were sitting there, or sleeping there in the case of Tyler, silently. They were, that is, until Percy broke it.
“So, what’s going on with you and Annelise?” Percy asked Xander.
“I already told you that nothing is happening. We’re just friends,” Xander answered with a shrug, not really sure why Percy was bringing it up again.
“Are you sure? Because from where I was sitting watching you two, it seems like more is going on than ‘just friends’.” Percy retorted. “Like I said before, I just don’t want you to do anything that will get you in trouble once we get back home.”
“I know. And I don’t want to either,” Xander said. “To be honest, though, I don’t know what I want to happen once I get back. I don’t think it’s a good idea to let things continue the way they have been.”
“Well, that’s up to you, either way. But if you want my opinion, I think you should figure it out before you get any closer with Annelise. Because at the very least, I’m pretty sure that she likes you.”
“You really think so?”
“I definitely do.”
“I don’t want to break anyone’s heart, Percy,” he said truthfully.
“I know. But at this point, that might not be possible. That’s why you need to figure out what you want. Because if you let things go on the way they are right now, it’s going to be a lot worse for one of them in the end.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Xander said with another sigh. “And thanks for having my back, man. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. It’s not like Tyler’s going to do it, after all,” Percy said, sending a glare Tyler’s way.
With that, silence fell once again. For Xander, though, it wasn’t a peaceful silence. For Percy’s words were still ringing in his ears.
What was he going to do? And what did he want to do? He still wasn’t sure. The heart of the issue, though, he realized, lay in how he felt about Annelise. Did he like her, or not? He just wasn’t sure. Yes, he’d come to care about her in the short time they’d known each other. And yes, he enjoyed talking to her and being around her. That was why they were friends. Was that all they were, though? Was she just a friend to him and nothing else? How could they be anything else? They’d known each other for less than a week! Of course there couldn’t be anything deeper between them. Of course there couldn’t be. Right?
He wasn’t so sure. As he’d said to Percy, he didn’t want to break anyone’s heart. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he especially didn’t want to break Annelise’s. He absolutely couldn’t stand that thought. For she did mean something to him. Something special.
Then again, even if he did like her, which he still wasn’t sure about, what would happen once they got to New San Francisco? He’d go home, and the girls would go wherever they planned on going. What were the chances that once they inevitably went their separate ways they’d see each other again? It didn’t seem likely to him.
Then again, if they really did care about each other they wouldn’t let that happen.
But how could they really care about each other? They’d known each other for less than a week!
So, again, Xander just didn’t know. He had no idea what he wanted to do. But, thanks to Percy, he knew what he should do, at least for the moment. And that was to not get any closer to Annelise until he could figure it out. He hated that thought. As he said, he enjoyed being around Annelise and talking to her. But he also, especially, didn’t want to break her heart.
And so, with that, he resolved that he had to do it. He had to keep Annelise at an arms length until he could figure it out. It would be hard, probably harder than he could imagine, but he had to do it. For his sake, and hers, he had to do it.
By the time the girls made it back to the guys the sun was beginning to set. They didn’t really want to press forward with it getting so late, so they decided to spend the night right there, at the foot of The Devil’s Tower.
“I’m not sleeping outside again,” Tyler said, having woken up from his nap. “I don’t want to get eaten by any more of those white globs of Jello.”
“I’m actually with you for once,” Percy agreed.
“Oh come on,” Dianna said to them. “There aren’t any more of those things out here. Right?” She asked, turning to Annelise and Athena.
“I’m not 100 percent sure,” Athena answered. “I mean, there isn’t a red circle around here on the map, but there wasn’t one where we stopped last night either.”
“But what are the chances that would happen again?” Annelise asked rhetorically. “I’m sleeping outside.”
“Me too,” Athena said. “I don’t feel like sleeping in the van.”
So the lines were drawn. Annelise, Athena, and Dianna, who agreed with her friends more out of a sense of duty than anything else, all expressed their desire to sleep outside, while Percy and Tyler were adamant about sleeping in the vehicles, which left only Xander undecided.
He wanted to sleep outside. He really, really did. But remembering the resolution he’d made earlier, he reluctantly came to the conclusion that it would be best if he didn’t.
“I’ll sleep in the van too,” he said.
With that decided the girls grabbed the three remaining sleeping bags, while Xander and Percy got situated in the van and Tyler in the car.
“For some reason this reminds me of when we were five and would sleep over at each others houses,” Annelise reminisced when they were snuggled up in their sleeping bags next to each other at the base of the tower.
“Only then there wasn’t this rock stabbing me in the butt,” Dianna said, squirming uncomfortably.
“I told you guys things are better without the boys,” Athena said through a yawn.
Still, Annelise, couldn’t help but wonder how Xander was doing in the van. Yes, she knew that he was fine, but the expression on his face when he said he wanted to sleep there just didn’t seem right to her. It was like he was doing it grudgingly, like he was forcing himself to do it. Come to think of it, he’d had that weird look on his face ever since they got back from their walk. Still, she was sure it was nothing, and that he’d be back to his normal self in the morning. At least she hoped he would.
Annelise laid there staring up at the clear night sky and the millions of stars overhead, listening to her friends’ snores and breathing for what felt like a long time. But she couldn’t be sure. For all she knew, it could have been just ten minutes. She didn’t care either way, though. She was just enjoying her stargazing.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, she saw something else. Clear from the horizon came a large, flying fireball. Well, she wasn’t sure that it was a fireball, but that was what it looked like. It came to an abrupt stop directly above the girls, having covered many miles in the blink of an eye.
The sphere seemed to be generating its own yellow light, and was at least ten times bigger in the sky than the stars surrounding it, though she couldn’t tell how far away it actually was.
“Guys,” Annelise said to her slumbering friends in a tone somewhere between fear, excitement, and disbelief.
Her friends, however, just kept slumbering.
The orb, meanwhile, seemed to grow bigger, as if it was lowering itself towards them.
“Guys!” She yelled, half shaking, half smacking Dianna, who was to her left, and Athena, who was to her right.
“What?” Dianna moaned, turning to her.
“Seriously?” Athena added.
“Look up,” she told them as she reached for her camera.
Before they could, though, the orb darted back towards the horizon as quickly as it came, and disappeared.
“What?” Dianna asked again. “Why’d you wake us up?”
“I just saw a U.F.O.,” Annelise told them, still barely able to believe it.
“What?” Dianna asked incredulously, suddenly wide awake. “Seriously? You’re not just screwing with us?”
“No. I definitely saw something.”
“What did it look like?” Dianna demanded.
Slowly, deliberately, omitting nothing, Annelise told her friends what she saw. When she was done, Dianna was even more disappointed that she hadn’t seen it than before.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” She asked.
To that, Annelise and Athena merely glared at her.
“Right, dumb question,” she realized.
“It was probably something natural you misidentified,” Athena said. “It could have been, well, I don’t know, swamp gas. Or a weather balloon. Or an experimental military plane, or something.”
“Trust me, this wasn’t a plane. And it wasn’t swamp gas either, whatever the hell swamp gas is,” Annelise said.
“And we’re not even near a swamp,” Dianna pointed out.
“It could have been some kind of fairy, then,” Athena said.
“It wasn’t any fairy I’ve ever heard of before,” Annelise countered. “It was too fast and too big.”
“Why won’t you just believe?” Dianna asked Athena. “Who hurt you so you can’t even believe now?” She continued with mock emotion.
“Knock it off, Freud,” Athena ordered.
“What?” Dianna asked, confused.
“Never mind,” Athena said. “I’m just not ready to believe that it was a U.F.O.. Aliens just seem a bit far fetched to me. There has to be a more reasonable explanation.”
“Fifty years ago people would have said the same thing about fairy sightings,” Annelise retorted.
“Annie for the win,” Dianna said.
“Whatever. I’m going back to sleep,” Athena declared, lying back down and rolling over so she was facing away from her friends.
A little over a minute later, she was asleep again.
“Hey, Annie?” Dianna asked.
“What?” Annelise replied.
“Do you think they’ll come back?”
“I don’t know. They might.”
“Awesome. I think I’m going to stay up for a little while in case they do.”
‘A while’ only turned out to be five minutes. Once again listening to her friends’ snores and breathing, and again the only one awake, Annelise wasn’t sure if she wanted the U.F.O. to come back or not. Sure, she wanted to see it again, and take a picture of it to show Athena. But without knowing what it wanted, the thought of it returning also made her nervous. She really didn’t want to be probed, and she was very ill equipped to repel an invading alien horde.
It didn’t really matter, though. For a few minutes later, Annelise joined her friends in sleep.
And the object didn’t return, so they didn’t miss anything.