“I still remember when I graduated from high school, almost sixty years ago,” Annelise’s grandmother, Emily, said the following Sunday, just about an hour before the graduation ceremony was to take place.
“Graduation was probably a lot different when you were younger, wasn’t it?” Annelise asked, willing to bet everything she owned that Grandma Emily would say that it was based on everything else her grandmother said was better in the pre-Atlata days.
“Actually…no, it wasn’t that much different,” Grandma Emily answered. “They were boring back then, and they’re still boring now. The rest of the world, though, now that’s gone down hill since I was young.”
Annelise groaned internally, wishing she could go back in time and punch her past self in the face for giving her grandmother the perfect opportunity to start opining on the state of the modern world. Then again, it seemed like everything led back to that for Grandma Emily.
“I tell you, honey, things were so much better back then,” Grandma Emily said. “There were people everywhere, and big cities, and you could go wherever you wanted without having to worry about some creature trying to snatch you away. You could fly in planes, and even go to Africa or Asia if you wanted to. Now there are barely any planes left, and it practically costs an arm and leg to fly in one. And the cell phones, oh you wouldn’t believe the kind of things they could do. You could go online and shop on them, or order food right to your door. And not a day goes by that I don’t miss texting. You could talk to all of your friends without ever actually calling them or visiting. It was amazing. And the internet! Oh boy, do I miss the internet. If you had a question you just google it, and have an answer like that!” She said, snapping her fingers. “You didn’t have to bother with books, or libraries like you do now.”
“I thought people only used the internet for porn,” Annelise remarked.
“No they didn’t!” Grandma Emily contended. “There was a lot of important business that was done on the internet! And cat videos! Those were fantastic.”
On that point, Annelise had to agree. Her pre-Atlata history teacher had shown them a few recovered cat videos in class. And as Grandma Emily said, they were quite fantastic.
“Then the Atlata virus hit,” Grandma Emily continued, shaking her head. “Those were the worst days in the history of the world. There were so many bodies. The government didn’t even know what to do with them all. And then things got even worse, and they just stopped trying. I lost everyone but my father to that damn virus,” Grandma Emily said, tears filling her eyes.
Annelise had heard all of that from her grandmother many other times over the years, but she still listened with rapt attention. From everything she’d learned about the virus, she had to agree with Grandma Emily that those days were the worst in the history of the world.
Her heart going out to her grandmother for everything she’d been forced to see and endure, Annelise reached her hand out and took Grandma Emily’s.
“Then those fae folk revealed themselves and said they could help,” Grandma Emily continued when she could, her voice now thick with rage and hatred. “And yeah, they cured the virus, but it always seemed fishy to me. They waited an awful long time before helping. And I’ve always thought that they had something to do with making it in the first place.”
“No, they didn’t,” Annelise said, unable to let such a dangerous misconception pass unchallenged. “The U.S. government made a bio-weapon they couldn’t control and failed to contain it properly.”
“Maybe that’s what they taught you in school, but I was there. The fae wanted control of the earth! They wanted our society to be wiped out so they could replace our cities and houses with their forests! And it worked! What’s left of humanity? Localized settlements here and there and a whole giant forest in between!”
Annelise was going to ask why the fae cured the Atlata virus at all if they wanted humanity to be wiped out, but bit her tongue. She’d had that argument with her grandmother many times before, to no avail. She wasn’t in the mood to have it again right before graduating from high school.
“If it had been me in charge I would have made sure that they were held responsible for every human life that was lost to the virus. But I wasn’t in charge, so the Reykjavik Treaty was made. It’s only a matter of time until they break it, though. They’ll decide they want the rest of the world, and then there will be a brand new virus. I hope I’m wrong, I really do. But I don’t trust those fae one bit,” Grandma Emily concluded.
“Yeah, I know,” Annelise said simply, glancing over at the stairs, wondering what was taking her parents so long.
As if on cue, they finally came down, ready to go. So without any further ado, they got into the car and headed over to the school.
The soon to be former students all had assigned seats, which meant they had to process in in a certain order. Unfortunately, that meant that Annelise wasn’t by either Athena or Dianna. Instead, she was stuck between two girls who seemed to be best friends. Or from the way they were carrying on, soon to be former best friends.
“I can’t believe you kissed him!” The girl on Annelise’s left said to the girl on her right.
“You’ve been broken up for two years!” Righty retorted.
“That still doesn’t make it okay!” Lefty maintained.
“By that rule half the school is off limits!”
“How dare you?” Lefty asked, outraged.
Annelise was seriously considering finding the nearest sharp object to puncture both of her eardrums with, when to her relief the processional started, and the two girls fell silent. From the venomous glares that they shot at each other every once in a while, though, Annelise thought it a real possibility that either might leap over her and attack the other at any moment.
As soon as they made it to their seats, the arguing started anew.
Just when Annelise didn’t think she could take any more, the processional ended and the principal took the podium to speak. Annelise couldn’t have cared less about what the blowhard was saying, but she saw a perfect opportunity to shut up the annoying girls next to her.
“A little decorum, ladies, please,” she scolded them, figuring that it didn’t much matter if they liked her or not considering that she was probably never going to see them again. “The principal is speaking.”
Both Lefty and Righty glared at her with hatred, but they shut up nonetheless, leaving Annelise free to be bored out of her mind in peace.
And bored out of her mind she was. It didn’t make sense to her why, after enduring years of boring classes, the powers that be insisted on making them all sit through one last boring, class like event before being done with high school forever. She had half a mind to just bolt onto the stage, grab her diploma, and make a run for it. It was technically hers, after all. She’d earned it with thirteen years of hard labor. But she decided against trying it. Even though the diploma was hers by right, they’d probably try to stop her and she doubted that she was fast enough to make a clean escape. So she just sat there and waited, like everyone else.
Just as she was about to nod off the time came for the awarding of the diplomas. Her class was only a hundred strong, so thankfully she didn’t have to wait very long before getting hers. After a completely uneventful jaunt across the stage, shaking hands with school officials she didn’t know and couldn’t have cared less about, she had her certificate of emancipation from that institution of misery in hand.
After that, the rest of the ceremony passed in a blur for her. She barely remembered turning her tassel, much less throwing her cap in the air. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was that after thirteen years, she was finally free.
When the ceremony ended Annelise accepted the congratulations of her family, and was soon joined by Athena, Dianna, and their loved ones.
“Picture time!” Annelise said to her friends, taking her camera from her dad.
“Fine,” Athena moaned.
Annelise, Athena, and Dianna all got close together as Annelise held her camera, a top of the line Kodak XL45273GHK, which not only had 100 megapixles, a 50x zoom, and 1TB of memory, but could also print small copies of the pictures it took, out in front of her. Then, smiles on all of their faces, she took the picture and printed out a copy for each of them.
“I still think we should go to the party at Edgar Collins’ place tonight,” Dianna said. “Those things are legendary! And everyone is going to be there!”
“We’re leaving tomorrow morning. We don’t have time to party all night,” Athena reminded her.
“And everyone is going to be there. Including some of the teachers you flirted your way to passing grades with,” Annelise added.
“Yeah, maybe we should skip it then,” Dianna said, dreading the thought of seeing any of them again.
To that, Athena rolled her eyes.
A few minutes later, as planned, the three girls and their families left to go to dinner together.
The dinner and everything that came after, up until she retreated into her room later that night, passed much like the graduation ceremony had to Annelise: in a blur. There was a lot of stuff happening, and people talking, a lot of the time even to her, but nothing particularly memorable took place. Still, she didn’t have much of a chance to process everything that had just happened, and everything that was going to happen the next day, until she got home and went up to her room to finish her preparations for their departure the next morning.
Annelise was both excited, and nervous about what the trip might hold for her. She’d hidden it from her friends, but one of the biggest reasons she’d pushed for them to go to New San Francisco was that in her dreams she had gone west, and New San Francisco was about as far west as it was possible to go. She didn’t know if that would end up mattering or not but, like in her dream, going west just felt right to her.
At the same time, though, there were other factors that made New San Francisco the perfect destination. Dianna’s father, William, and her step-mom, Cassandra, lived there and were willing to let the girls stay with them for as long as they needed. And then there were the Seelie Lights. She’d wanted to see them ever since she first read about them when she was fifteen. When she told Athena and Dianna about them, they were filled with just as much of a desire to see them as she was. The only reason Dianna was having second thoughts now was that she was nervous to see her father, who she hadn’t seen since her parents divorced and he moved away going on eight years prior, and to meet her step-mom.
Beyond even the beauty of the lights, though, Annelise was excited about the effect they had on people. For many said that viewing the Seelie Lights was a life changing experience. She’d read many stories about people who discovered their calling in epiphanies directly linked to the lights, and she was hoping to be another. For, as she’d said before, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. And no matter what they said about being okay with that, she was starting to feel pressure to figure it out from her parents and Grandma Emily. In all honesty, she was putting plenty of pressure on herself to figure it out, too. For it was frustrating to not have even a clue as to what she wanted to do now that high school was over. Even Dianna knew what she wanted to do, even if it was ridiculous and terrible.
She finished preparing, and then double and triple checking her preparations, around midnight. It had been a draining day, and it was getting late, so she was more than ready for sleep when she finally changed into her pajamas and crawled into her bed for what would be the last time in weeks.
The next day, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Annelise, Athena, Dianna, and their families gathered at Athena’s house for their goodbyes. The three friends would be taking Athena’s old, purple, Volkswagen T1 van for the trip. It had been a classic even before the Atlata virus, but it was still in near perfect condition. That being said, it wasn’t in original condition. The seats had all been replaced with their modern, much more comfortable counterparts, while everything behind the first back seat had been stripped out to give them more room for bags and sleeping. The original engine had been replaced with a brand new one liter motor that produced 300 horsepower, and was capable of traveling up to 100 miles per gallon of fuel. Athena had tried to explain how that was possible to Annelise numerous times, but as she didn’t understand all the technical terms and engineering lingo, she preferred to just think that it was due to some kind of fae magic.
When all of Annelise and Athena’s bags, numbering four total, and Dianna’s bags, also numbering four total, had been loaded into the van, they said their goodbyes.
Annelise gave her parents and Grandma Emily big hugs, assuaging their worries with assurances that she would be back before they knew it. Athena gave her father a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which he reciprocated. Dianna, meanwhile, gave her mother a quick hug, before turning to her stepfather, Max.
“Bye,” she told him coldly, unable to muster even the tiniest bit of affection for him.
“Bye. Don’t get yourself killed, and don’t act like an idiot. I know that might be hard for you, but at least try, okay?” Max responded.
“Whatever,” Dianna said turning away from him, unable to understand why he couldn’t just be nice to her for once.
“I almost forgot,” Athena’s father said when he and Athena were finished saying goodbye. “Where’s your map?”
“Here,” Athena said, handing it to him.
He proceeded to unfold the map on the back seat of the van. Most of the eastern and southern United States, along with most of the land west of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountain ranges, was covered in green, symbolizing the forests that had reclaimed the land in the fifty years that had passed since the Atlata virus. Peppering the map were blue dots, which marked human settlements, and purple lines, which mapped out the highways. Most of the pre-Atlata road network was long since overgrown and impassable, but the highways those purple lines marked were still dutifully maintained. The only other symbols on the map were red circles with X’s through them. Those signs indicated danger zones, whether from highly unstable pre-Atlata infrastructure, or dangerous fae in the area.
“We just got word last night from Alexandria,” Athena’s father began. “They think there are a couple of trolls camped up here,” he said, circling the area and putting an X through it. “Make sure you avoid it. You know how dangerous trolls are.”
“Thanks dad. We will,” Athena told him.
With that taken care of, the three friends climbed into the van. Athena was driving, Dianna was riding shotgun, and Annelise was navigating from the back seat.
Their family members, other than Max, waved at them heartily as Athena started the engine and they set off.
After only a few minutes of driving it was like they entered another world. The grid of streets, carefully managed lawns and greenery, and buildings of Sunnyville were all replaced with tall trees covered with moss, mushrooms the size of small children, weeds, vines, bushes, and every other kind of plant and flower imaginable. The road they were on was clear and smooth, but just a few feet away on either side of it was the wild of the forest, full of unimaginable creatures and wonders.
“Do you guys realize what we’re doing?” Annelise asked her friends. “We’re finally doing it!”
“I know. We’ve been talking about this for so long that it feels kind of weird to actually be on our way,” Athena said. “Still, it feels good to finally be starting our…”
She fell silent, her and Annelise waiting expectantly for Dianna to scream ‘road trip’ as she’d done every time the words were alluded to for the last six months. Only that time, she didn’t. She just sat there, silently staring out of the window.
“Are you alright Dianna?” Annelise asked, growing concerned.
“Yeah. Max was just a dick to me, again, when I told him bye,” she answered.
“What did he say?” Athena asked.
“He told me not to get myself killed, and that I should try not to act like an idiot, even though that would be hard for me.”
“Wow. What an asshole,” Athena remarked.
“I second that,” Annelise said. “Don’t worry about him Dianna. We aren’t going to die, and we can act like idiots all we want now and our parents can’t do anything to stop us.”
“Yeah. We’re going to have more fun than any of us can even imagine,” Athena said. “And did you see his shirt? Purple and red stripes? It made him look like a color blind pedophile.”
“And his beard? It looked like he grabbed a handful of pubic hair and glued it to his face,” Annelise added.
To that, all three of them burst out laughing.
Annelise and Athena weren’t normally such mean girls, but then, as Athena had so aptly put it, Max was a dick. So in the four years he and Dianna’s mother had been married, they’d gotten good at making fun of him behind his back, especially when he was nasty to Dianna. That always seemed to cheer her up right away.
“Then there was that time he decided he wanted to start wearing earrings,” Dianna reminisced.
To that, once again, they burst out laughing.
“I like your new necklace by the way, Athy. It’s cool,” Dianna said when their cackles died down.
“Thanks,” Athena said, unconsciously moving her right hand up to her neck to fiddle with it.
Athena’s necklace was a simple gold disc about at inch in diameter, with a diamond set in the center.
“That is nice. Did your dad give it to you?” Annelise asked.
“Yeah, last night. It was my mom’s,” she said. “Her parents gave it to her when she graduated from high school. He said she always wanted to give to me when I graduated, but obviously she isn’t here to do that, so he did.”
“That’s really cool,” Annelise said.
“Yeah. It’s nice being able to wear something of hers so close to my heart,” Athena stated.
“I’m sure it is,” Dianna replied.
The rest of their drive that day passed quickly and pleasantly. Athena drove until it got dark, and then pulled off of the road so they could get some sleep. They’d given themselves more than enough time to get to New San Francisco before the Seelie Lights, so they weren’t in much of a rush. Instead, they were much more concerned with enjoying their trip. And as it’s much easier to enjoy anything when well rested as opposed to tired, they wasted no time before going to bed.
After double checking that the doors were locked and the windows shut, Athena stretched out on the back seat, while Dianna and Annelise slept on the floor in the back, with the bags and other supplies. They’d decided weeks before that whoever did the driving had dibs on the back seat, so there was no controversy over the sleeping arrangements.
“Hey guys?” Dianna asked after a few seconds of silence.
“What?” Annelise asked.
“What do you think the chances are that we’re going to all be decapitated in our sleep, and then have our hearts and brains eaten?” She asked.
“Zero!” Athena exclaimed.
“But doesn’t that one thing do that?”
“Four years of high school, and that’s the one thing you took away from it,” Annelise commented, shaking her head.
“I’m just asking. You wouldn’t believe how many horror movies begin with a bunch of girls going on a road trip. At least we’re not cheerleaders. Then we’d definitely be goners.”
“Can we please stop talking about dying and go to sleep?” Athena asked.
“If you answer one more question,” Dianna replied.
“What?” Athena sighed.
“Do those red circle things on the map show where the human murderers are too, or just the fae things?”
“That’s actually a good question,” Annelise remarked, not sure which possibility she wanted to be true.
“Guys, we’re going to be fine,” Athena told them. “We’re going to wake up, with all of our body parts still on our bodies. Okay?”
“If you say so,” Dianna said sleepily.
With that, the three girls fell silent. Before any more questions about ax murderers, or machine gun wielding centaurs could be voiced, all three of them drifted off to sleep.
Annelise found herself standing at the same crossroads she’d stopped at days before. On one hand was the left fork, and on the other was the right.
She glanced around to get her bearings and found that she was still in the middle of the desert. The sky overhead was still covered in dark, angry clouds, and lightning was being spit out of them and striking the ground at an alarming rate and proximity to her. It was almost as if Zeus himself was trying to smite the world for its wickedness. Like before, Annelise was on foot, alone, and knew that she needed to get somewhere safe before the lightning got her.
She looked down the left route, and this time got a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. If she went down that way she’d most certainly be speared by lightning, or happen across a farmhouse occupied by inbred, zombie, hillbilly occultists. Turning away from the left, she looked down the right. And this time, immediately, something about that way felt right, as if there was something somewhere down the road beckoning her towards a land of rainbows and Skittle trees. She was fairly certain that she wouldn’t come across a Skittle tree no matter which direction she took, but she could always hope.
So, her patience having paid off, she started down the right fork.