Stepping back into the real world, a world where the crowd of people (Well, if you counted a family of three and a couple teenagers skateboarding as a crowd. It was still Wyoming) who bustled around me were all completely normal human beings had been an odd sensation. Even after such a short time away, the world away from Crossroads already felt less familiar. Even the cracked pavement beneath my feet seemed awkward and different to walk on. The smells especially, god, the smells. Everywhere I turned, new smells that I had never noticed before being away from any city for over a month stood out. The garbage lying next to the can, the rotting sandwich abandoned near the drainage ditch, everything stood out more than it had before. I noticed so much more that had previously been lost in the background. All of it crowded my brain for attention, almost overwhelming me at first.
That and the temperature. I noticed the cold a lot more than I had before. After spending a couple months on the island where it was either the perfect temperature under the shield or very warm outside of it, stepping into Wyoming weather in late October was a real wake-up call.
Thanks to the portal created by Professor Dare, I had emerged from the restroom of the bus station about forty miles away from my hometown. All I had to do was take the ticket that the professor had given me, step up onto the bus that had been steadily making its way cross-country along with the rest of the sleepy passengers while showing my ticket, and take an empty seat. If anyone noticed that I hadn’t been on the bus before this leg, they didn’t say anything, and if my father looked at my ticket, it would look as though I had just traveled over a thousand miles on this bus. As far as he would know, I had been traveling all night long. More lies. The necessity of it wasn’t lost on me, but it still hurt.
“Flick!” Forty miles later, the voice of my father called over the sound of the bus’s loud engine settling as we pulled up to the stop nearest my house. Turning my head, I saw the man himself standing outside of the bus, clearly too impatient to wait for me to get off before getting my attention. He waved, and I couldn’t help the laugh that came as I waved back. God, he was so… enthusiastic. His boundless energy and optimism in spite of everything that had happened, everything he had seen, was infectious. My father was a big bear of a man with a thick somewhat graying beard and hair that was almost as long as mine. He looked like a mountain man, yet his face was kind, his eyes intelligent and bright with obvious curiosity and love of life.
He was my dad, and it took until I was seeing him in person again to realize how much I missed him.
After gathering my bag and making my way to the front of the bus, I waited my turn before stepping down to the pavement. That, apparently, was as far as my father’s patience extended, because I barely had time to start to lift a hand in greeting before he was right there reaching for me, intent on snatching my body up into a tight hug that would crush me against his chest.
Without conscious thought, I sidestepped the rising arms, turned to catch one wrist in my hand, and applied pressure while twisting it. Simultaneously, my other hand moved to grab the false cell phone case at my belt that held my staff. My fingers got as far as unsnapping it before my brain caught up.
“Oh!” Quickly, my eyes wide, I released my father’s wrist and took a quick step back. My face burned as I pushed the snap of the case back down. “Crap, Dad! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, are you okay?”
Grimacing, my father rubbed his wrist, eyeing me ruefully. “Jeeze, kid,” he teased. “If I’d known you were gonna learn Kung Fu, I would’ve tried harder to get you the birthday presents you wanted.”
Relieved that he didn’t seem hurt, though still feeling horrified about what had just happened, I stepped in to hug him tightly. Only once we had embraced did I retort, “Lucky I didn’t take up archery then.”
I felt more than heard his light chuckle through the hug that he refused to let go of. “You didn’t mention you were taking any self-defense courses, kid. Not that I’m complaining, but what brought that on?”
The question made me flinch a little. And so the lying to my father’s face began. At least I could tell as much of the truth as possible. “It’s mandatory at the school. Everyone learns self-defense.” There, that was absolutely true. No lie in the statement at all. Now all I had to do was hope that Dad didn’t ask–
“Huh, that sounds different. Why would they make that a requirement?” His tone was gently curious, without any hint of disbelief or accusation. Even then, however, I couldn’t help the slight flinch that came. Damn the infamous Lincoln Chambers curiosity. Not that I had much room to talk, considering I’d inherited all of it.
“You know, the Headmistress is just really into health, exercise, and being able to take care of ourselves,” I tried to answer a little evasively. “She wants us to be safe.” Yeah, as safe as possible while hunting down the evil monsters that secretly preyed on humanity itself. Simple, Dad.
“Well, good,” he announced before finally releasing me from his embrace. His hand came up to rub through my hair. “Sounds like they’ve got the right idea. I should’ve had you start taking courses a long time ago. Your mother wanted you to, you know.” There was a slight hint of pain in his voice in spite of his effort to hide it, and I noticed the way that he subconsciously rubbed the finger where he still wore his wedding ring. The ring he steadfastly refused to take off even now, a decade after his wife had left.
“She did?” I asked, looking up at the man while trying to sound more surprised than I was. If Mom really had been part of the Heretics, then maybe it was instinct that she would want her daughter to know how to fight. Or maybe it was just the sheriff in her.
Dad nodded easily, his eyes lost in the past for a moment. “Joselyn wanted you to enroll in all these courses. She had flyers and…” He shook his head then, a long sigh escaping him. “I dropped the ball there. Sorry, kid. Your mom, she’d be… pretty pissed off that I never got you into any of that.”
Anything I might have said stuck in my throat. My opinion of my mother was so messed up at the moment that I couldn’t find the right words. There was obviously something heretic involved with why she disappeared to begin with. Not knowing exactly what happened was messing with my emotions. I wanted to continue hating her as much as I had for the past ten years, but the uncertainty made that hard. Was it her fault? Had something happened to force her away? Did she leave out of some attempt to protect us? Did a Stranger recognize her and do something awful? I didn’t know, and not knowing was horrible, because it meant that I had no closure. Every time I got mad about her leaving, I imagined her being attacked and hurt by monsters that she couldn’t protect herself from and the guilt that rose up completely overwhelmed the anger. There was just too much that I didn’t know. I felt lost.
Dad was frowning as he touched my chin, clearly noticing my hesitation. “You okay there, Flickster?”
Forcing a smile, I nodded. “Sure, I’m fine. It was just a long trip, you know.” Shrugging, I added, “And don’t worry about the self-defense thing, Dad. I’m learning plenty right now.”
“You sure are!” He announced with a loud belly laugh that attracted the attention of the few people who were passing by. “You’re pretty damn quick for someone that just started taking lessons this year.”
“I’ve got good teachers,” I murmured quietly before prodding him. “Come on, can we go? I sort of didn’t bother to pick up anything for breakfast.” On the heels of that confession, my stomach growled.
“Why does that not surprise me?” Shaking his head in obvious exasperation, Dad nodded while waving his hand toward the waiting car. “Come on, let’s get you fed. While we’re at it, you can tell me all about this bad ass teacher that’s showing my little girl how to be a real life Ninja Turtle.”
“Uhh, wouldn’t that require being an actual turtle too?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.
“Hey, you’ve been gone for two months!” He retorted. “I dunno what they’re doing with you out there.”
We stopped by the pizza place on the way home and picked up a couple large pies. Dad kept asking if I’d gotten enough sleep on the bus, mentioning that I could take a nap if I needed to. Telling him I’d slept plenty was another reminder that I would have to figure out what to do to make him think I was actually sleeping through the night for the next couple of days. The last thing I wanted him to do was worry that my not sleeping meant something was wrong. And I couldn’t exactly tell him the real reason.
At least my appetite hadn’t been reduced. It was all I could do not to open the boxes up and start eating in the car on the way to the house. The smell was just so good. It was that familiar scent that made me fully realize that, for the next couple days at least, I was home. I was really home. Things were normal.
Once Dad got the car parked, I stepped out of the car, holding both of the boxes high above my head while striding to the familiar front door. “I got my lunch, what’re you planning to eat?”
“Oh, that’s your lunch, huh?” Dad chuckled, crossing around the back of the car while hitting the button to lock it. “Ammon might have something to say about that.”
Blinking over my shoulder at him while crossing the grass, I echoed, “Ammon? Who—oh the kid.” Remembering what he’d said about the new neighbor, I shrugged. “You got him mowing the lawn yet?”
“Ammon doesn’t mow the lawn,” Dad replied, sounding a little odd. “He’s special.”
“Special?” I stopped by the door while looking back at him again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Before he could answer, the door behind me opened with a creak, and an unfamiliar voice spoke, “Hi!”
Startled, I turned that way so quickly I almost dropped the pizzas. I hadn’t been expecting anyone to be inside our house. “What–” I started before my eyes caught sight of the kid standing in the doorway.
He looked weird. Okay, well no, not exactly weird. At first glance, there was absolutely nothing strange about the kid. He had a wild nest of blonde hair not all that different from my own, he was thin and maybe a little dirty. But nothing too unusual for a young boy that looked like he was about nine or ten. His clothes were perfectly ordinary, and his eyes seemed earnest with a hint of mischievousness.
And yet, even as my eyes cataloged everything that was normal about the kid, my brain refused to completely believe it. I couldn’t explain it aside from comparing the situation to looking at one of those magic eye pictures, where you don’t quite see whatever the special image is, but you can tell it’s there.
Before I could figure out what was wrong, or if I was just being paranoid after spending so much time at Crossroads, the boy piped up, “You must be Flick!” The grin on his face was infectious. The kid was like one of those adorable little child actors from the movies. He radiated so much innocence and charisma it was almost unnatural. “My name is Ammon! You should come inside with me.”
I proceeded into the house, still holding the pizzas. “You want a couple pieces of this, Ammon?” I asked while heading for the kitchen, where I set down the boxes before grabbing a few plates. When I turned back, only the kid was standing there in the doorway. “Oh, hey, where’d my Dad go?”
“He had to talk to my aunt,” the boy replied easily. “They’ll probably be busy for awhile.”
“Your aunt, huh?” I echoed while stepping back into the living room to put my bag on the nearby armchair. “That who you’re staying with?” I was curious about where his parents were, but I restrained myself from asking, considering my own parental history. Still, I couldn’t completely shake the strange feeling that looking at him gave me. It was a sort of tingle under the skin that wouldn’t go away.
When I looked back at him, the kid was just sort of standing there, staring at me. It made me feel even more creeped out. But he wasn’t technically doing anything wrong. Just… staring with this weird sort of smile, like he didn’t know that he was doing anything strange. When the boy finally did speak, his tone was dismissive. “Yes, I’m staying with my Aunt Rose. You should come into the kitchen with me.”
Turning on my heel, I walked back into the kitchen with the boy before moving to put pizza on the plates that I had taken down. “You like pizza, Ammon? Three-meat or Hawaiian? Just so you know, the second one’s mine so we’ll have to thumb wrestle for it if you take too much.”
“I’ll have whatever you have,” the boy replied simply, still not taking his eyes away from me. I wondered if he had blinked at all since I’d seen him. Trying to remember, I continued putting food on the plates. “Dad likes the meat one, so we’ll leave that for him. You think your aunt will want some?”
“Who cares?” As dismissive as the words were, his tone was clearly curious. It was like he honestly wanted to know who would care whether his aunt was hungry or not. But that was… no, that couldn’t be what he meant. My paranoia after everything I’d seen at Crossroads was clearly getting out of hand.
“I think your aunt might care,” I pointed out mildly. “We’ll save a little for her.”
“Maybe,” he replied doubtfully before gesturing to the seat next to him. “You should sit down with me.”
I did so, bringing both of our plates. “Do you know what my dad wanted to talk to your aunt about?” It was kind of weird that he hadn’t said a word to me before stepping over there, but maybe he wanted to give me a chance to talk to Ammon. He had said that the kid had been kind of obsessed with meeting me. Knowing my father, he might just want me to meet the boy so he could ask me if Ammon was really as creepy as he thought he was. That sounded like the sort of thing Dad would do. He liked to get my unspoiled opinion. Hell, this aura of creepiness and somewhat spoiled attitude might have been what he meant when he said the kid was ‘special.’
In response, the boy just shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But they’ll be awhile.”
Before I could ask how he knew that they were going to be busy if he didn’t know what they were talking about, the doorbell rang.
“Whoops, hold that thought,” I set my plate down and straightened up.
“You should ignore that,” the boy stated flatly.
I stopped, looking at him. “I should ignore that?”
He nodded. “You should sit back down and talk to me. They can wait.”
“They can wait,” I replied… before shaking my head. “Dude, that’s not how things work.”
Ammon blinked (so he did blink after all!), looking confused for the first time. “Uh, what?”
Shaking my head, I straightened from the table. “You can’t just leave people standing at the door ringing the bell. What’s your aunt been teaching you?”
“My name is Ammon.” He spoke the words sharply, like it was some kind of mantra. “You should sit down again.”
“Don’t worry, kid, I’ll be right back.” Giving his plate a nudge toward him, I added, “You should eat. Lemme just see who’s there.” Turning, I started for the front room.
“But my name is Ammon!” The boy’s voice was louder, his confusion more apparent. “You should stay!”
“Don’t yell in the house, Ammon,” I advised. “It’s bad manners. Now just eat your food, I’ll be back in a second, I promise.”
Leaving the strangely confused boy behind, I walked into the living room and opened the front door, blinking at the sight on the steps. “Uhh…”
“Flick?” The man standing there on the porch wore an emerald green suit over a black dress shirt. His sunglasses were so dark I wondered how he could see out of them. “The name’s Seller. I saw your pops go next door, so I thought I’d get that book off you while we had the chance. Should take me a couple hours to–” He stopped himself, frowning at me. “Are you all right?”
“Could you take off your glasses?” I asked quietly.
Raising an eyebrow, the man obliged, taking his shades off before looking back at me. “Is everything all right then? Han—Avalon said you were quirky, but she didn’t say anything about you having a thing against sunglasses.”
I was silent. My eyes wouldn’t leave his, even as I struggled in vain to speak, to find the right words. Nothing came. My brain had completely locked up.
The man on the porch was the man I had seen in my Heretical Edge vision, the man who had run away and abandoned the headmistress.
Seller… was my ancestor.