Chapter 6: Zoey (Draft)

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The story so far:

The town feels different these days.  Strange things are happening.  Riley just wants to get through her degree so she can be a doctor and start helping people.

After that wild ride of a dream I didn’t want to go back to sleep for some reason.  I studied until my brain was thoroughly mush, hoping it would be too tired to make stuff up in its off hours.  When I heard the window screech in the morning, I didn’t have enough in me to even act offended.

“Wake up,” Zoey moaned in a sing-song voice.  

My hand closed around my trackball and tossed it at where I thought her voice was coming from.  I had the funny feeling that, though I threw a home run in my head, it probably didn’t clear more than a few inches.

“Wake up,” she repeated insistently.  

I sat back, massaging my cheek, and swiveled my chair to face the light of the window.  I opened my eyes …

A man was climbing inside.  The man from the statue.  The yellow duck shone out through his shirt like a beacon.  My eyes shot open and I scrambled in a panic, flipped backward in my chair, and bashed my head against the trim of my wall.  He landed on my floor and I screamed.  My legs thrust out toward my chair and it went skidding across the floor.

“Shit, Riley.  Calm down!”

I blinked, twice, and realized I was attacking Zoey – not the man from the statue.  I drew my knees up to my chin and hugged them, rocking until the urge to scream again had passed.  When I finally looked up, my neighbor was perched on my bed like a frog, ready to jump to safety if needed.

“You good now?”

I sniffed, and rubbed at my eyes.  “Yeah.  Nightmare.”

She grinned down at me warily.  “Do you think?”

“Did I get you?”

“No,” she answered, suddenly serious.  “But you got you.  Can I check it out?”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling guilty again.  

She pounced to my side, and I felt her fingers run through my hair.  “I thought it was going to be bad,” Zoey muttered as she searched.  “Head wounds bleed like crazy, but I don’t even feel a bump.”  She leaned back and nodded like she knew what she was talking about.  “I pronounce you well enough to accompany me.”

I rubbed my head, double-checking.  It sure hurt for nothing to be there.  “Don’t you have school today?”

She snickered at that.  “I had school.  It’s Senior Skip Day.”

I paused, casting a doubtful glance her way.  “That’s not a thing.”

Her hands went to her heart, and she gasped melodramatically.  “That hurts.  Why would I lie to you?”

“To have company while you ditch classes,” I said without hesitation.  “I have finals on Monday, Zoey.  I can’t just … not study.”

She shook her head and raised an authoritative finger.  “It’s completely possible.  I do it all the time.”

I sighed, feeling exhausted already.  Or still.  I wasn’t completely sure.  “Where?” I asked at last, knowing that I was saving time by just giving in now.

“I can’t tell you.  Just follow me.”  She headed back toward the window and beckoned me to follow.

“So, not using the door today at all?”

Zoey rolled her eyes at me.  “It’s Skip Day.  I can’t broadcast to my mom that I’m skipping, now can I?”  She cast a darker look at my door.  “And why didn’t they come running when you screamed?”

“Grandpa’s at the doctor today.  So we can take the door.”

“Whatever.  Way to buzzkill us at step one.”

I pressed my eyes closed and sighed again.  “Fine.  Window.  I don’t care.”

She slid out first, then helped me down.  “You’re grumpy today.  And kind of murdery.  What’s going on?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.  I just feel … very, very off today.”

She grinned.  “Sounds like the perfect day for a quest, then.”

“Lead on,” I beckoned, knowing I would regret it.

Between our houses there was a thick line of trees.  Zoey thought it was a hedgerow that had gotten overgrown, but I didn’t know what that was.  To me, it was a forest between farms.  It wasn’t very wide – only a minute or two across by foot – but it was dense and full of tiny monsters that buzzed and bit.  I slapped at my legs as I followed the “trail” she said she saw.

Zoey sang nonsense to brighten their voyage like an old-time bard.  “Morning on the farm / I’ll be your alarm, You sleep like the dead / Bonked you on your head.”

“Hey,” I warned her.  “How much further?”

She shrugged, indifferent.  “Not far.  Here live all the bugs / Give you bitey hugs.  Going to the cave / Pretty, pretty wolf.”

I stopped suddenly.  “Tell me there’s not really a wolf.”

She nodded.  “That’s why I’m singing.  If it knows we’re here, it’ll give us plenty of room.  Unless it’s sick.  Or starving…”

“Great.  This quest is the best, Zoey.”

She grinned back at me.  “You smell bad and taste worse.  You’ll be fine.”

I scouted the woods for the wolf, and when I looked back at her she was gone.  “Right.  That’s the kind of day this is going to be.”  Then I heard her whistle, and looked down.  It was a steep decline, but she was beaming back at me from inside a cave.

“The whole state is littered with ‘em,” she said as I made my way down more carefully.  “They used to be used for all sorts of things.  Bandits, civil war munitions.  Cheese.”

I ran my fingers along the wall.  Breaks of light lit our way so that it was dim, but not pitch dark.  I felt something with an edge under my fingertips, and pulled out my phone.  Someone had carved a heart around two pairs of initials.  “Nookie,” I added as I beckoned her over.

She smiled broadly, proud of herself.  “Yep.  That’s actually why I wanted you to come with me.  Check this out,” she said, picking her way to the opposite wall.  “Here.”

I turned my phone’s light on it and saw the initials OP + HM.  Surprised, I snapped my head back to Zoey.  “Mom and Dad,” I breathed.  “She was here?”

Carefree, Zoey danced further into the tunnel.  “Doing the nookie.  Probably.”  Her silhouette paused and turned back toward me.  “You see?  I’m practically an archaeologist.  I don’t even need this last week of school.”

I grinned, remembering my own impatience to graduate so that I could leave home.  I was going to miss her, though.  She brought a bit more life to everything she touched.

“One more thing,” she called from around the next bend.  When I reached her, my breath caught in my throat.  There was no roof here – the cave ceiling had fallen years ago – probably decades –  and now a little pool of water perched under a wide circle of sunlight.  

“Around noon, this is really something.  The whole room is lit up ‘cause the light bounces off the pond from directly overhead.”

“It’s beautiful,” I breathed, awestruck.  “Maybe you’ve got a future in spelunking.”

“That sounds like a disease.  I’ll pass.”

She planted herself on a few of the fallen rocks near the middle of the pond, and lay down.  I lay nearby, making sure my face was shaded but my body was in the sun.  It felt oddly soothing to have the cool rocks below me and the warm air above.  

Save her.

I sat up abruptly, and Zoey jumped beside me.  “You’re not about to go crazy again, are you?”  

My ears strained to hear it again, but all they found was the steady dripping of water that echoed through the tunnels. I pressed my hand to my forehead.   “I think I might really be going crazy, Zoey.”

She collapsed back onto the rocks and shot me a thumbs-up.  “Been there.  Good times.”

Feeling blown off, I gaped at her.  “I’m serious.”

She cracked one eye and rolled it my way.  “Yeah.  Me too.”  She groaned, and sat up.  “I don’t know how you missed it, Riles, but life is kind of neurotic.  If you take it too seriously you’ll go crazy, too.”  I shook my head, and fell backward in defeat.  “Okay, then think of it like this,” she reasoned, trying again to reach me.  “This world isn’t real.  Nothing in it.  Not you, not me, not anyone.  So, have fun with it, because nothing matters.”

I snickered at that. “That’s too deep for me.”

Zoey nodded.  “Yeah, because you still care.  About what people think, and how they see you, and if you’re winning at being a good people.”  She prodded my arm with her finger.  “Knock it off.  You’ll feel much better.”

“That’s going to make it really hard to be a doctor.”

Zoey went hmmm.  “Then don’t do that.”

I laughed, and it sounded more angry than I’d meant it to.  “It’s kind of my dream.  I can’t just give it up.”

She smiled down at me, calm as a wise old lady.  Not Tillie, maybe, but another one.  “Sure you can.  Because it’s not your dream.”

My eyebrows shot up.  “Have we met?  Do you have amnesia or something?”

Zoey shrugged.  “I’ve been meaning to say something for a while, but figured you’d take it the wrong way.”  She rolled onto her side to stare at me.  “You hate college.  You don’t people well.  All of this was your mom’s story.  I have a feeling yours is different… and much, much bigger.”

I scowled at her for a moment, then turned that darkness toward the sky.  She was wrong. I wasn’t trying to become my mom – I was trying to follow in her footsteps.   Clouds passed overhead, casting shadows into our secret pond.  

“Ethan thinks so, too.”  I froze in place, waiting for her to say more.  “He talked about you all night.”

I felt my face grow hot. I didn’t want to talk about him – not until I’d had a chance to talk to him.  

She giggled beside me.  “I knew it.”

“Knew what?” I asked too quickly.  

“Mm-hmm.  It doesn’t matter.  Remember, it’s not real, either.”

I rolled my head back and forth on the rocks, too tired to try to outmaneuver her.  “Why are we friends again?  Or is that not real, too?”

Zoey pondered that for a moment.  “Because you’re the only person here who tries to see me for what I am.  I’m not an abandoned little girl anymore.”  She whistled to herself, her fingers playing an imaginary piano.  “Neither are you.”

“But I am real.  And so are you.”  I pulled my hair out from behind my neck to make a better pillow.  “I mean, we can’t just stop. We’d starve, for one.”

“Hmm,” Zoey admitted without agreeing to anything.

“Then it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.  We have to act like it is if we want to survive.”

“Too deep for me,” she quoted, and stretched where she lay.  “You spend a lot of time trying to convince yourself of stuff.  For a day, just go with it.  See what happens.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her cast an ornery grin my way.  “And go talk to Ethan.”

In my pocket, my phone started to sing.  “That’s Rose,” I warned her, but she just shrugged.  I took the call.

“Hey, are you busy?”

I hesitated.  “Not really.  What’s going on?”

“A package just showed up for Connor at the General.  Can you grab it for me?  We got home, and Connor’s in a bad way.  I don’t want to leave him right now.”

I sat up abruptly.  “How bad?”

She sighed.  “Not that bad, but I don’t want him travelling either.  Can you grab it for us?”

I nodded, realized she couldn’t see me, and said out loud, “No problem.  I’m on foot.”

“That’s fine.  Hurry, but don’t hurt yourself.  Thanks.”

Zoey sat up stretching again.  “Well, that was fun,” she declared, and bounded to her feet.  “I got a whole couple of hours with my best friend before duty called.  I feel blessed.”

I frowned, torn between her and what I knew I had to do.  Then I took a page from Zoey’s handbook, and pushed her off her rock.  She slipped easily, yipping like a puppy as she disappeared from view.  I heard the splash, and laughed.  A real, honest laugh.

“Unfair,” she shouted at me.  “It’s cold, Riles!”

I crawled over the rock to wave down at her, taking extra care not to slip.  “Only real people feel cold.  You’ll be fine.”

Her hands darted out to pull me off my perch.  I felt like a bar of soap sliding over its cradle.  I couldn’t stop it, so I did my best to land without hurting myself.  She was right – the water was freezing cold.

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