“Let’s not go to the next off road attraction we see,” Athena said.
“Are you kidding me? That was great!” Annelise chuckled.
“Seriously?” Athena asked.
“Well the CD sucked. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun,” Annelise clarified.
“And we wouldn’t have met that nice man if we hadn’t stopped either,” Dianna added sarcastically.
To that, all three of them couldn’t help but laugh.
“I’m just glad he didn’t try to skin us and make suits out of it or something,” Annelise said.
To that, Athena and Dianna just looked at her with shocked expressions on their faces.
“What?” Annelise asked, noticing the looks they were giving her.
“That’s really dark Annie,” Dianna said.
“And horrifying,” Athena added.
“I saw it in a movie. Come on, you have to have seen that one!” Annelise said to Dianna.
“Yeah, I did,” Dianna acknowledged with a nod. “It was good. And scary. Especially when Hannibal cut that cop’s face off so he could-”
“Shut up, right now!” Athena ordered. “Why did you guys actually watch that?”
“The library had it and I thought it was a butterfly on the cover,” Annelise answered. “But it wasn’t a butterfly. It really wasn’t a butterfly,” she added, shuddering at the thought.
“And I watched it because it was Halloween,” Dianna said simply.
“Whatever, I don’t want to think about that anymore,” Athena said, shaking her head. “Anyway, if you guys want to go to more of those things then I guess I’m fine with it. Does the map show any more of them around here?” She asked Dianna.
“The map?” Dianna asked, having been too busy thinking about lambs, and Hannibal Lector to hear much more than that.
“Yeah. Does it have any more tourist traps on it?” Athena asked again.
“I don’t think so,” Dianna answered uneasily. “I mean, I didn’t notice any more on it before.”
“Well can you check to be sure?”
“There’s no need. I practically know the whole thing by heart by now,” Dianna lied.
“What’s going on? Did you lose it again?” Athena asked.
“No, I didn’t lose it!” Dianna answered truthfully.
Athena was about to keep pressing, when Annelise interrupted them.
“What’s that?” She asked, noticing something just off the road up ahead.
What it was was a broken down car. Smoke was pouring out of the hood which, mysteriously, was still down. Inside, meanwhile, they could make out the silhouettes of three people.
“It’s a car,” Dianna stated the obvious.
“No, it’s their car,” Athena moaned.
“Our friends the trolls introduced us too,” Annelise answered.
“Oh. Are we going to stop?”
“They do look like they need help,” Annelise said, turning to Athena. “We should help if we can.”
“We’re going to regret this, but fine. Let’s see if we can help,” Athena said, pulling over behind the car.
“Maybe Tyler has been working on it. He could be greasy. And sweaty. And in one of those white tank tops that show off a guy’s muscles,” Dianna said dreamily.
“You’re staying in the van,” Athena told her.
“Yeah. You drooling all over him isn’t going to help,” Annelise agreed.
“Screw that,” Dianna dissented, throwing the back door open and leaping out.
“Let’s go save the damsels again, then,” Athena said as she and Annelise climbed out of the van as well.
Tyler, Percy, and Xander, meanwhile, having noticed the van and then Dianna, got out of their car as well. To Dianna’s disappointment, Tyler had a clean, long sleeved shirt on.
“Fancy meeting you guys again,” Xander greeted the girls lightly.
“Yeah. For a bunch of guys you sure need saving a lot,” Athena replied.
“Who says we need saving?” Tyler shot back.
“We can just go then, if you don’t,” Athena said, turning to go back to the van.
“No, please don’t go!” Percy implored.
“I beg you, please don’t,” Xander added. “Tyler is just an idiot.”
“Way to have my back, guys. Or are you just interested in stabbing it?” Tyler asked his friends.
“You can’t even get the hood open!” Percy shot back.
“Neither can either of you!”
“It’s your car!” Percy shouted in frustration.
“Would you ladies please shut up!” Athena yelled.
“Yeah! Never have we met people who bicker so much!” Dianna added.
“That’s not the pot calling the kettle black at all,” Annelise muttered under her breath.
Xander, who was standing nearest to her, heard and couldn’t help but smile.
“Percy and Tyler have been going at it like that all day,” he whispered to her.
“You have my sympathy,” she replied.
Meanwhile, back with the bickerers.
“We didn’t ask you to stop, you know!” Tyler said.
“You’re lucky we even did, after you left without even saying goodbye to me!” Dianna shot back.
“Seriously, you’re bringing that up?”
So the dialogue devolved into Athena and Dianna yelling at Tyler, and Percy yelling at Tyler too, trying to make him return to his senses and accept help.
“Sorry about not telling you guys bye,” Xander apologized to Annelise.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not like it ruined my life or anything,” Annelise responded as she and Xander stood there watching their friends argue.
“Should we intervene?” Xander asked.
“Probably. It usually takes Athena and Dianna a couple hours to burn themselves out.”
“Tyler and Percy only last a half hour before it gets too violent and I have to break them up.”
“We should break it up before it goes much further, then.”
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
“Everyone shut up!” Annelise roared at the top of her lungs.
“Seriously!” Xander added.
Percy, Tyler, Athena, and Dianna did indeed shut up. They were still fuming, though.
“We’re going to help!” Annelise told her friends.
“And we’re going to let them!” Xander told his.
“I’ve been saying that the entire time,” Percy grumbled.
“Because you’re a traitor!” Tyler snapped at him.
“Shut up!” Xander ordered. “Now apologize so we can move on!”
Grudgingly, Tyler and Percy apologized to each other, before doing the same with the girls.
“I forgive you,” Athena said.
“I’ll need more convincing,” Dianna said.
“Dianna!” Annelise scolded.
“Fine. I forgive you too.”
“Good. Now let’s do this,” Xander said.
With peace successfully negotiated, they all moved up to the front of the car to see what the problem was. It didn’t require much of an investigation. For coming from the engine compartment were the clear sounds of clinking, breaking parts, and growling.
“The engine is smoking, and making a weird noise,” Tyler said, even though they could all see and hear that.
“That’s because there’s something in there,” Athena replied.
“Awesome,” Annelise said quietly, excited to see what it was.
“Have you tried raising the hood?” Athena asked the boys.
“I tried, but it’s jammed and we don’t have anything to pry it open with,” Xander answered.
“You don’t even have a tire iron?”
“Nope. I checked,” Xander said.
“Okay,” Athena said, unable to believe they’d risk going any substantial distance without a tire iron. “I have one in the back of the van that we can use.”
“I’ll get it,” Annelise volunteered, running back to the van before anyone could else could say anything.
Before getting the tire iron, though, she stopped at her seat and grabbed her camera. She didn’t know what was under their hood, but she wanted a picture of it.
Then she retrieved the tool and returned to the others.
As soon as she got back, Xander took the tire iron from her and jammed it under the hood where the release was.
“Everybody ready?” He asked.
In response, everyone other than Annelise took a few steps back. Annelise, meanwhile, raised her camera.
“That’s encouraging,” Xander remarked.
“On three then?” Athena proposed.
“Screw that,” Xander said, pushing the tire iron down with his full strength, thus releasing the hood.
Before anyone even had the chance to think about what came next, Xander fearlessly stepped forward and raised the hood.
They all tensed up, expecting whatever was in there to jump out at them. But rather than the mystery, insatiable creature, all they saw was a jumble of metal, and rubber, and wire. Annelise was far from a mechanic, but even she could tell that the engine was completely ruined.
They maintained a safe distance from the car for nearly a minute. When nothing continued to happen, they started to relax.
“Great, that thing is wrecked,” Xander said, voicing what everyone was thinking.
“There has to be something-” Tyler began.
In the middle of Tyler’s sentence, the engine wrecker finally emerged.
From the heap of broken parts leapt up a two foot tall monster. It was screeching homicidally, baring sharp, needlelike teeth. It had green, bumpy skin, red eyes, long, pointed ears, and a white stripe of fur running from its head to the beginning of its back.
“Aaaahhhh!” Everyone screamed, leaping back in terror.
In the middle of her scream, however, Annelise raised her camera and snapped a picture of it.
The flash, which was still on, caused the creature agony. It lurched back, disoriented, and fell out of the hood onto the ground. When it regained its composure it was no longer screeching. It was growling, its chest heaving as it took deep, furious breaths. Then it made a move towards them.
“Do it again! Do it again!” Dianna screamed.
Annelise took another picture, driving the monster back further. When it recovered again, Annelise brandished her camera at it like a weapon.
“Go on! Get out of here!” She ordered, jerking her camera at it.
It growled one last time, until Annelise took another picture. Then, knowing it was beaten, it turned around and hurried back into the forest.
“What was that?” Tyler asked.
“That was a gremlin,” Athena answered.
“They don’t like bright lights. That’s why it reacted that way to the flash,” Annelise explained.
“And it pretty much killed the car, didn’t it?” Tyler asked Xander.
“Yeah. The engine is toast,” Xander answered.
“What the hell are we going to do?” Tyler yelled, throwing his hands up in frustration.
“There are a few smaller settlements not too far from here,” Percy said.
“But we’d still have to get there,” Xander pointed out.
With that, silence fell. And with everyone very conscious of what was going on in everyone else’s minds, Athena, Annelise, and Dianna exchanged looks.
Annelise raised her eyebrows, as if telling Athena, ‘you know what we have to do’.
Athena glared at her friends and shook her head, as if asking, ‘seriously?’
And Dianna glanced over at Tyler, before looking back to her friends with wide, doe eyes, as if asking, ‘please can I keep him?’
All of that happened in an instant, and at the end of that instant they all knew what they had to do.
“We’ll give you a ride, and tow your car,” Athena said through gritted teeth.
“Oh my gosh, thank you,” Percy said.
“Seriously, that really is great of you,” Xander agreed.
“Yeah, thanks,” Tyler added.
“How are we going to tow them?” Annelise asked.
“There’s a tow rope in the van, right next to the first aid kit and duct tape,” Athena answered.
“Your dad’s doing?”
“He worries too much.”
“Tell me about it.”
Getting down to business, Annelise pulled the van up in front of the car. Then, directed by Xander, who seemed to know what he was doing, and under the watchful eye of Athena, the guys fastened the tow rope to the front of the car. With that done, they secured the other end to the back of the van.
When everything was ready, they all got back into their respective vehicles.
“Alright Dianna, you’re going to have to direct us to the nearest town,” Athena told her.
“Right,” Dianna replied, trying to remain calm even as she racked her brain to think of some way, any way to get out of telling her friends about the newest mishap to befall the map.
“What is it?” Athena asked, able to sense that something wasn’t right.
“Well I was hoping for a better time to do this,” Dianna began, resorting to honesty only because she couldn’t think of a way out of her predicament, “but the map is kind of ruined,” she finished, preemptively wincing for the scolding she was about to get.
“You said it was fine before,” Athena said.
“No, you asked if I’d lost it. And I told the truth; I didn’t lose it.”
“Give it to me.”
“Just give it to me,” Athena ordered.
Dianna peeled the two halves of the map, which had become stuck to the carpet, off of the floor, and handed them to Athena.
“The prognosis from over here is not good,” Annelise commented when she saw it.
“Yeah, it’s ruined,” Athena said. “Why didn’t you tell us about this before?” She demanded from Dianna.
“I hoped to be able to get another before I had to tell. But the stupid CD guy didn’t have any. And I didn’t want you to freak out over it.”
“Freak out? The map is important!”
“It’s just a piece of paper! Or a couple pieces now, I guess. But it’s not like anyone died!”
“But we need that piece of paper whole and legible to keep from dying! Unless you want to drive up to another troll den!”
So, again began the bickering.
Annelise sat there for a minute listening to her friends argue, though she was getting very sick of it. Yes, Dianna should have been more careful with the map, but her mistake wasn’t fatal. In fact, if Dianna and Athena would have stopped yelling at each other for a second, they would have been able to realize, like Annelise did, that there was a very simple solution to their problem.
With her friends still going at it, Annelise wordlessly got out of the van, and walked back to the car.
“What’s going on?” Xander asked her. “Not another gremlin, right?”
“No. We just no longer have a usable map, again. Can we borrow yours?”
“Yeah, it’s the least we can do,” Xander said, taking it from Percy and handing it to Annelise.
“What happened to yours?” Percy asked.
“Some stuff got spilled on it,” Annelise answered.
“Dianna?” Percy inquired.
“Yeah,” Annelise nodded.
“It’s a good thing she’s hot, huh?” Tyler piped in.
Unsure how to respond to such an idiotic comment, Annelise just ignored it.
“Thanks guys. And don’t worry, I won’t let Dianna touch it,” she said before returning to the van.
When she sat back down in her seat, Athena and Dianna were both silent, though from the looks on their faces it was clear that their conflict was far from resolved.
“I got their map, so we can use it until we get to town,” she informed her friends.
“Good,” Athena said simply.
Dianna, meanwhile, just nodded.
“Okay, both of you look at me,” Annelise ordered, sick of the arguments and tension.
Both Athena and Dianna obeyed.
“Get over it!” Annelise yelled. “Dianna, you ruined the map! And Athena, you overreacted about it! That’s done! But I am not going to sit here for the next week and let you two be pissed at each other all the time! Whatever you just said to each other, you’ve said worse in the past. Now seriously, get over it!”
Silence fell for a minute. Annelise wasn’t sure if her speech had worked, or if she had merely united her friends against her and was about to get yelled at by both of them at once. When Dianna spoke, she had her answer.
“I’m sorry I ruined the map. And I’m sorry I called you an uptight, soul sucking hag,” Dianna apologized to Athena.
“Soul sucking is actually more a succubae/incubi thing, but that’s not important,” Athena said. “I forgive you. And I’m sorry that I overreacted and called you a reckless, irresponsible she-hex.”
“I forgive you,” Dianna said.
“Wow, you guys have really gotten good at insults,” Annelise stated.
“We’ve had a lot of practice,” Athena said. “Now should we go?”
“Yes, please,” Annelise said.
With that, finally, Athena started the van, and they got moving again.
With Annelise navigating, they were able to come up with a route to the nearest town, a small settlement called Dawndale. With all the stops they’d taken that day, though, they were quickly running out of daylight.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it there tonight,” Athena said after a long yawn, weary from all the arguing she and Dianna had done.
“That’s fine. You should pull over. We can pick it up in the morning,” Annelise said excitedly, thinking of the sprites she’d be able to see if they stopped.
“Yeah, I’m going to,” Athena said through another yawn.
As soon as they came to a spot with enough room between the road and forest for the vehicles, Athena did indeed pull over.
“So what do we have to worry about finding us, killing us, and or eating us tonight?” Dianna asked.
“Well there aren’t any red circles on the map around here,” Annelise said. “So probably just that gremlin we pissed off earlier.”
“You’re the one that pissed it off,” Athena said.
“Yeah. So if it comes after us we’ll just cut our losses and give you to it,” Dianna jested.
“Thanks for having my back,” Annelise remarked, shaking her head.
“No problem,” Dianna said, before climbing in the back and lying down.
“I’m going to bed too,” Athena said, moving onto the back seat.
“You’re going to miss the sprites,” Annelise warned.
“I’m too tired to care.”
“Sprites aren’t going to try to eat us, are they?” Dianna asked.
“No. They drink nectar, and eat honey,” Annelise answered.
Neither of her friends heard her answer, though. For they had both fallen asleep.
Disappointed that neither of her friends cared to see the sprites with her, Annelise glanced into the rearview mirror, to see the guys setting up a tent next to their car. Not sure if they knew, or would even care about the sprites, she got out of the van, and walked over to them.
“Getting ready for bed?” She asked.
“Yeah. It’s been a long day,” Xander answered.
“For all of us, I guess. Anyway, I don’t know if you guys know, or care, but we’re in sprite country right now. So about midnight they’re going to come out of their homes in the forest and fly around. It’s supposed to be really beautiful, and I’m going to check it out. I just figured I’d let you know, in case any of you are interested.”
“I’m out,” Tyler said straight away.
“Thanks, but I’m too tired,” Percy said.
“I’ll check it out if I’m up for it. Thanks for letting us know,” Xander said.
“You’re welcome,” Annelise replied, taking Xander’s answer for a ‘no’ too. “Good night,” she said, turning to go back to the van.
“Night,” Xander called after her.
With a sigh, Annelise plopped back down on her seat, glancing at her watch. From the glow in the dark hands in the shape of shooting stars she could tell that it was twenty to ten. She had quite a while yet until midnight, but she was determined to stay up, even if it meant resorting to desperate measures, like going for a jog.
Even though she already knew what time it was, Annelise looked back down at her watch. The blue face was dotted with small stars that glowed in the dark to simulate the night sky, yet were invisible when it was light out. At the top left side of the face, where the 10 and 11 should have been, there was moon with two eyes, and a wide smile. In the day, due to the workings of the internal clockwork, the moon was replaced with a sunglass wearing sun. She’d had that watch for going on ten years, and even though she knew that her watch seemed childish to some, she still wore it every day. She just loved it, not only because it was the coolest watch she’d ever seen, but also because it had been a gift from her late grandfather, Grandpa Giles.
Grandpa Giles was the reason she loved looking at the stars so much, and was able to pick out so many constellations. When she was just a little girl, he would take her outside sometimes to gaze at the night sky. Grandpa Giles, at least from her young perspective, seemed to not only know the name of every star in the sky, but also why they were named that. He taught her when, and where to find every constellation, and the myths behind them. And when he ran out of stories about the stars, he told her tales from his own life. Her favorite story of all was how he and Grandma Emily met.
It was a couple years after the Atlata virus was cured, and the fae revealed themselves. In those days, the surviving humans were clustered together in pockets across the country, working to rebuild society and regain the kind of normalcy their lives once had. One such pocket of humanity was Sunnyville.
In those days, everyone had a job to do to contribute to the community as a whole. Buildings were repaired, torn down, or adapted for life in the new world. Land was cleared for crops and livestock, textile factories were started to make new clothes, and water purification systems were put into place. Everything that could be done to make Sunnyville self sufficient was done. Grandpa Giles was on one of the construction crews, while Grandma Emily worked in a textile factory.
One day, as they were both walking to work, going in opposite directions, Giles caught sight of Emily and was literally stunned by her beauty. Every intelligent thought left his mind at the sight of her, so much so that he stopped dead in his tracks. Emily, meanwhile, was busy looking for something in her purse. Then the hand of fate reached out, and pushed Emily right into Giles.
The contents of Emily’s purse spilled onto the sidewalk. Giles apologized profusely, Emily told him that it was fine, and then they stooped down to pick everything up.
Emily, who was in a rush, snatched her stuff up and out of Giles’ hands and hurriedly shoved it all back into her purse. When she thought she had it all, Emily rushed off to get to work. The only problem was that she didn’t have everything. She’d missed a silver pen.
Upon picking it up, Giles saw that there was a name engraved on it: Margaret.
He turned to find Emily, who he called ‘Margaret’ in his head, only to find that she was gone. He, like Emily, was running late for work, but he couldn’t just walk away like that. Engraved silver pens aren’t bought by the dozen, or thrown away flippantly. They’re tokens people give each other on very special occasions. And for her to have saved it through the hell that was the Atlata virus meant that it must have been especially important to her. No, he couldn’t just walk away without even trying to return it. And so, even though he was running very late now, he walked off in the direction Emily had been going to look for her.
From the way she had been walking, rushed and distracted, he thought it a safe bet that she had been running late for work too. And from the way she was dressed, he could tell that she most likely worked in the textile factory.
He walked to the nearest factory as fast as he could. Hundreds of people worked there, and he had no idea how exactly he was going to find her in such a large crowd, but he continued forward anyway, undeterred.
When he made it to the factory he walked straight through the main entrance, looking this way and that for ‘Margaret’. But there were hundreds of workers around, and he couldn’t see her. He did, however, see another woman wearing a pant suit, walking like someone does when the moderate power garnered from a life in middle management goes to one’s head. Hoping that she could help, he made his way over to her.
“Excuse me,” he said to the woman.
“Yes?” She asked impatiently.
“I’m looking for someone who works here named Margaret,” Giles explained. “It’s important.”
“Not important enough to interrupt her work. Wait for her shift to end, and then talk to her,” the woman replied.
“It’s a family emergency,” Giles lied.
“Fine. Follow me,” the woman huffed, getting more irritated by the second.
She led Giles through the rows filled with workers and machines, until they came to the far wall, where there were people sitting at sewing tables working on new shirts, pants, and every other garment imaginable.
“Here she is. Now leave me alone,” the woman said, hurrying away before Giles could say anything else.
Margaret had her head down, inspecting her stitching, and had a bandana covering her hair, so Giles truly couldn’t tell if it was her or not.
“Excuse me,” he said to her, his heart thumping in his chest.
“Yeah?” Margaret asked, looking up at him for the first time.
Giles’ heart sunk when he saw that it wasn’t her.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m looking for another Margaret, I guess,” he said with a sigh.
“There aren’t any other Margaret’s that work here.”
“Alright. Thank you anyway,” he said turning to go, his head hanging low.
“Why do you want her?” Margaret asked.
Giles wasn’t really in the mood to talk, but then he had interrupted her work. It was only polite to indulge her curiosity.
“She dropped this pen, and I wanted to give it back to her,” he explained, holding it out so Margaret could see.
“That’s Emily’s,” Margaret said.
Giles perked up with newfound hope.
“Really?” He asked, nearly unable to believe his ears.
“Yeah. She uses it all the time. She’s at the far end of this line of machines.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much,” Giles said, hurrying in the direction Margaret had indicated.
He nearly ran to the end of the line. He just couldn’t get there fast enough. And when he did, there she was. There was Emily, sitting in front of a sewing machine, sucking her pointer finger, as she had just pricked it with a needle.
His heart felt like it was going to explode as he opened his mouth to speak.
“Excuse me,” Giles said to her.
“Yes?” Emily asked, looking up, her face scrunching in surprise when she saw the man she’d bumped into standing there in front of her.
“I’m the guy you bumped into before,” Giles sputtered nervously.
“Yeah, I remember,” Emily replied with a slight smile. “What are you doing here?”
“You forgot this, and it looked like something you definitely wouldn’t want to forget, so I came to return it to you,” he said, handing the pen to her.
As Emily took it, tears filled her eyes.
“This was my mom’s. She died in the virus, and I don’t really have anything else of hers anymore. Thank you. Really, this pen means the world to me.”
“It was nothing.”
“No, it was definitely something. There has to be some way I can repay you.”
“You don’t have to repay me.”
“But I want to. Please, there has to be something I can do for you.”
“Have dinner with me, then,” Giles said, before he even had a chance to think about what he was saying. “As long as you’d like to, that is,” he added, not wanting to be too pushy.
“I would love to have dinner with you. I get off at six, so as long as that works for you-”
“Six is perfect. I’ll meet you out front.”
“Great. See you then.”
“Yeah. See you.”
With that, Giles left the factory and went to work, feeling like the happiest man in the world. He was so overjoyed that even getting yelled at by his supervisor for being forty five minutes late didn’t dent his mood in the least.
As planned, that night at six Giles met Emily outside of the factory, and they went to dinner. Two years later, they were married.
Annelise knew that it wasn’t the most exciting story ever, or even the most romantic. It wasn’t the stuff that all the old romance movies Dianna loved were made of, but she still loved it. That story was a part of her. She existed, at least in part, because fifty years before she sat there in that van, a young man and a young woman who didn’t know each other bumped into one another on the street. And that thought, no matter how many times she had it, made her smile. And it was with that smile that Annelise, like her friends, drifted off to sleep.