When Zoey came to, she felt a cold cloth being applied to her face and neck, and the chattering of Melanie right beside her. She realized she was sprawled out on the couch, and confusion made what had just happened seem like a dream, if only for a moment. She bolted up, and the dizziness hit her again like a hammer, causing her to sink back down.
“Ugh… I need… an explanation.” She whispered, trying not to pass out again.
“And you definitely deserve and will get one, just don’t sit up like that again or you could puke.” Melanie replied, bubbly and calm.
Zoey had to agree with the last part, the room was threatening to spin despite the fact that she remained laying down on the couch. “Talk, please. If I remain laying down I will require words to be happening otherwise I WILL puke on this couch out of sheer spite.” Zoey threatened. She thought she heard Ferris snicker at that but it was shushed very quickly by Doug, who from the sound of it stood beside him. Propping herself up slightly, she looked right at Atlas. “You were so full of words earlier, care to share any now?” She realized what she was saying was a little bold considering she just saw him get into a dragon-y fight with Ferris but considering she could barely hold her head up she thought she could get away without looking too daring.
“Alright then, well as you saw, some of us can turn into dragons.” Atlas began and Blythe rolled her eyes at him.
“Doug, please explain more than that,” she asked, still shaking her head.
Doug stepped forward looking extremely sorry, but also very serious at the same time. “First of all, I want to assure you, Zoey, that one, this wasn’t planned, and you are not in any danger… from us. I will try to be brief. When we were assigned to be partners in the Oceans project earlier today, I thought it would be fine and that we would work on it, and be done. However, some of us here have powers that came from being test subjects for a very cruel and powerful organization, against our will. There are many people like us, called Artificial Dragons. I won’t go into too much detail for now, but you get the idea, as you did just see Atlas lose his temper and change.”
“A while ago, this organization had all its patients break out from various research labs, ours being one of them, and they have been troubling us since for years… Sometimes with vague threats, like we received today. Someone from the organization was spying on our group today, and Ferris saw them. Apparently, they saw you slip today, when we were working in the computer lab. They interpreted this to mean that you and I are uh… dating, and made sure to pass on to Ferris that you would be a target for them, especially since you’re new and may be more willing to help them, if you felt threatened. I want to assure you, that we will do our best to protect you, as we really did not mean to get you wrapped up in this mess. I really am so sorry, and you can be as angry as you want but please let us help you. This organisation is very dangerous, and until we figure out how to stop them, they are a part of our life, and it is a life we would like to keep secret, if you can.” Doug reached his hand out to her, and she sat up with his help.
“What…?” Was all she could manage to say, voice weak, trying to mull all of that over. She could tell from his face that he was telling the truth, he was giving her a look like he was nervous about her. She had to admit she did hold a lot of power in this scenario, but also didn’t. It sounded like this ‘organization’ held the majority of the power here. She couldn’t imagine any group performing tests on humans, but if they were willing to start threatening her right off the bat she knew they didn’t sound like the friendliest characters.
Wrapping her head around the whole changing into a mythical creature part was going to have to come with time. Swallowing once, she breathed in heavily, but with a lot more clarity in her head.
“Well, I don’t have much choice, but I am glad you aren’t leaving me to the wolves so to speak… I do need some time to process this all… and I will probably have more questions… but your secret is safe with me. Can I go home for a little while? I will work on the project some more tomorrow but, this is pretty overwhelming right now.” She spoke, trying not to sound as terrified as she was.
Doug’s shoulders seemed to relax. “Of course, I can drive you, or anyone else can too if you prefer,” he offered. He was looking at her as if she might bolt, hands even shaking a little bit at his sides.
Ferris was eyeing him warily as well, seeming relatively calm about the whole situation. He must have decided that Doug was alright though, as he stalked away to the kitchen after a moment, and returned with a cookie in the most nonchalant manner Zoey could imagine.
Doug gave him a bewildered look but said nothing.
Zoey realized just how many friends he had over at this time, and wondered secretly which ones were able to change and which ones were not. They all went to her school, and were seniors with her, except Lynda who was a grade below theirs. She guessed she would have lots of time to get to know them if they were going to be spending some time together. She realized he was waiting for an answer and that she had sort of drifted off into her own thoughts. She shook her head, “you can drive me, that’s fine. I just think I need to lay down at home and mull this whole thing over.” She stood shakily, and nearly fell over.
Blythe grabbed Zoey and propped her up, letting her lean on her as she walked her to Doug’s truck. “Doug, grab her things. By the way, I’m completely human if that makes you feel better, so let me walk you to the truck, okay? You’re a little unsteady.” Her voice was that of someone with a lot of younger siblings or a lot of experience babysitting and Zoey relaxed into her.
“It would be okay even if you were part dragon, I appreciate the help,” Zoey replied offhandedly, thinking about what a strange sentence it was to say, and wondering how she actually felt about these dragons in her life.
Once she was seated in Doug’s truck, she held her book bag on her lap like a reassuring pillow and dug the note out of her pocket from Zabrina earlier with the tea sachet. Doug was driving silently, and she figured he had expected for the day to go in a completely different direction. Well, so had she. Reading it over, she wondered if her friends’ words were ever going to be true. Now that her life was feeling threatened, she was less concerned about the ink stain on her pants.
Reaching her house, she made to get out of the truck, but turned back to Doug who had remained silent the entire trip back. “Can I have your phone number, just in case I am in trouble?” she asked, holding out her phone.
“Of course, of course,” he replied softly, taking her phone. “Feel free to call me or text at any time, even if you’re not sure if you’re in trouble or not. Better to be safe than sorry.”
She noticed afterwards that he had programmed all of their numbers in, which made her feel that the situation was a little more grave than she had imagined. She went inside, and realising her parents still weren’t home from work, she raced up to her bedroom with a large knife, placing it beside her bed and curling up in a ball on her bed. Swiftly, she fell asleep, exhausted from what had just happened and the plummeting levels of adrenaline in her body. She knew as soon as she woke up that she would have to tell her parents she had watched a scary movie and spooked herself into wanting the knife in her room, but at the time she just felt better with it near.
When Zoey woke up the next morning, she realized she had a ton of missed text messages from Zabrina. She tried to play it off and explain that she still had to work on the project with Doug but that they were working well together and they might be hanging out sometimes. She also told her friend to not get carried away with this information, hoping she sounded convincing enough via text to keep her friend from asking questions. Technically none of that was a lie, she told herself. She sent similar text messages to her other close friends, Aisha and Brie, also secretly hoping that Brie didn’t run with that information all over school as she tended to have loose lips. She then considered not going to school, but remembering the fact that she was trying to act like everything was normal, she didn’t want to set everything off by pretending to be sick. Plus, she thought, with much dread, I’d be a sitting duck if that organization realised I was always home. That thought was enough to send her out of bed quite quickly.
She was ready right on time for Zabrina to come pick her up for classes as it was still raining a bit, and she allowed her friend to talk about her trip to the dentist, and then explained the project they had been assigned in Ocean’s.
“I have no idea what animal you were assigned to work on, because that was on each of the individual papers, but Doug and I got molluscs and Ben and Melanie got the sea anemone so that can give you an idea of the scale we are looking at,” she informed Zabrina, having read off the hand out what was expected of them. Zabrina nodded enthusiastically, curls bouncing, keeping her eyes on the road. She seemed extra chipper this morning, and Zoey worried a little bit that her friend could sense how nervous she was. They had been best friends since their teacher in third grade sat them next to each other.
“I’m certain I will figure it out. It doesn’t sound like that difficult of a task, just well, it sucks that we aren’t able to work together,” her friend sighed.
Zoey thought about how different her day would be if she had just been able to work with her friend like she usually did. However, she brushed off this fact rather quickly, as she knew it wouldn’t help her now.
Arriving at school as they always did, Zoey and Zabrina stopped by their home room for the morning announcements over the PA system, before heading off to English class. Zabrina quickly pulled her aside before she headed in the door, voice hushed.
“Are you going to be okay going to English? I know things didn’t go well when you asked Tim to the dance yesterday,” she asked, clearly concerned. Yesterday seemed like a thousand years away, but Zoey couldn’t just say that without bringing up further questions.
“Of course it didn’t,” chimed in their friend Brie, who also had this class. “He’s completely interested in someone else. I think one of the Jessica’s in his Spanish class.” She headed into the classroom without another word.
Zoey had to admit that the comment stung, even if she had completely written off Tim for how he had reacted to her asking. “I’m going to be fine. I mean, honestly I had forgotten about it until now, it feels like it happened so long ago,” Zoey replied honestly, but toning it down to what she felt she could say sincerely. She was surprised at herself, even though she knew that that problem now seemed miles away from the one she was currently having.
Zabrina gave her a very bright smile. “That is the most level headed thing I have ever heard you say, I’m proud of you for seeing the big picture and not letting that bother you!” she cheered, heading inside the class room.
“If that impressed her she should have seen how you were talking yesterday after you fainted!” exclaimed Atlas behind her. Zoey jumped, spun around, and saw him standing next to Blythe, and Oscar, another one of their friends. “Did you forget that we shared this class with you?” he asked. He seemed to be in a good mood, and she didn’t think what he said was supposed to be threatening.
Blythe smiled at her beside him, and Zoey had already decided she liked her, so she allowed herself to feel a little more at ease. Still, Zoey wasn’t quite sure what to say, but the bell rang, saving her from having to reply as they ducked into the classroom. She was a little embarrassed that they had overheard her small time struggles when she knew what they were dealing with now, but then she convinced herself that a problem doesn’t have to be justified by its size; it was still an issue, even if it wasn’t what was bothering her now. It did grab her attention though, when she caught people snickering about her when she walked into the room. They’re still laughing about that? She wondered, thinking maybe it was a bigger issue to them than it had been to her, even though yesterday it had seemed like a huge issue.
She found her face feeling warm as she went to sit next to Zabrina, who shot her a sympathetic look. Blythe and Atlas went to sit down in the seats where they normally did, and although Zoey couldn’t really remember fully where Oscar sat previously, she thought he had placed himself closer to where she and her friends were sitting. She wondered for a moment if they were nervous about her telling their secret, but one glance back at him showed he wasn’t nervous in the slightest. He was paying attention to what the teacher was saying, and when he noticed her look back at him, he gave a quick smile before returning to work. Turning herself back around, Zoey had the thought that maybe he was there to make her feel safer, or at least to show her support. Most people probably did not realise that he had even changed his seat, because he wasn’t acting like anything was out of sorts.
She tried to pay attention to what the teacher was saying, instead of what the people in the class were saying. If she didn’t get her mind off of her issues she was going to end up feeling worse and worse about them and her grades would probably slip. If her grades slipped, people would wonder why, and nobody would believe anything that had to do with dragons or magic or anything.
She was surprised when Tim was called on to give his interpretation on the passage they were reading, not because of the reading but because when he picked up his book it appeared to give him a shock from static electricity. She guessed it wasn’t the strangest thing to witness, as he dropped the book in surprise, but the fact that Atlas snickered about it was. She glanced back at them, and then at Oscar, who gave her another little smile before turning back to his book.
The rest of English class seemed to go off without so much as a wrinkle of a problem, as did the next few classes. She did notice that if she happened to have class with one of Doug’s friends, they managed to sit near her and by lunch she felt exhausted. It wasn’t because of them or their babysitting though, but more so because she was so anxious the entire day. She was starting to relax as nothing dangerous seemed to be happening to her, or possibly because she was running out of energy to be distressed.
Lunch proved to be a bit more distracting, as her friends convened and began to relay how their day had been going, and although a bit early, how they expected the dance to be going in a few weeks. They had all bought their tickets early, and began to plan their outfits, even though they would probably all be changing their minds at the last moment because someone would bring up a valid point about the gym being too warm for that dress or a bra showing through under black lights. Nobody wanted to be sent home early for breaking any of the school’s dress code.
Zoey wanted to remain cool headed about the whole thing, but she found the issue of the dance to be grating on her. Aisha would of course be going to the dance with her girlfriend, Stacy. Stacy went to another school so half the reason why they bought their tickets in advance was to order a special ticket for her. They always did it this way, as it was expected she would come unless there happened to be a poorly scheduled test or essay due around that time at Stacy’s school. This time, however, Brie had also asked a guy in her Physics class, named Chad to go to the dance, and Zoey knew Zabrina was interested in asking someone, but was probably worried about leaving Zoey the only one dateless. Brie was the one to break the ice on that conversation, as tactfully as she probably could.
“Are you going to try asking someone else, Zo? I mean, obviously not everyone knows about the whole Tim FIASCO if you know what I mean, you can wait for that to die down, but if you don’t want to be the only wallflower in the group, I would suggest finding someone else to ask,” she blurted, digging out her lunch from her book bag. Zabrina shot her a look of daggers but Zoey was determined to not let the comment get to her, and instead to reply in a cool and collected way, as that seemed to be her goal of the week for all these things being thrown at her.
“I guess I will see if I can ask someone else, but maybe just as a friend. I don’t really need a date, but more people going would be fun. I will have to think about who I want to ask, but I’m in no real rush, I mean the dance is two weeks away,” she replied, internally screaming in both cheer for herself, but also thinking, Oh no, the dance is already two weeks away and I don’t have the slightest idea of who to ask, I don’t talk to guys, I talk to like, these three people and Stacy when she visits us, why did I say I was going to ask someone? I should just say I’m busy and I can’t go to the dance, but since we always plan ahead for these things that excuse wouldn’t fly.
Zoey paid little attention to the conversation after this, realising that her strong reply was going to be drowned by her sullen mood if it caused Brie to realise that she had, in fact, gotten under her skin. Yet another problem to brush aside until she was forced to face it. She decided to send Doug a quick text, to ask if he wanted to work on the project some more after school. She almost didn’t want to after the events of yesterday, but then again, she did have more questions she could only have answered by him. Plus, she did need to pass the Ocean’s course too, but she felt more like a heroine in a book for claiming it to be the first answer.
Doug returned her text quickly, certainly, I can drive you again too.
She felt good having a plan, even though she couldn’t say it was something to really look forward to. Or maybe it would be. Maybe she had to have a happier outlook on life. Maybe things would magically turn around. It wouldn’t be the first magical thing to happen this week. Maybe she was getting giddy from nerves. She bit into an apple ponderously, and managed to hold a conversation with her friends for the rest of the lunch period. Most of her classes for that day were on the second floor, so she let herself relax and didn’t check for shapes moving outside. She did notice that it was beginning to clear up, which she took to be a good sign.
After school, since it was clear outside, Zoey headed out to look for Doug’s truck in the parking lot after the all buses had cleared out and most of the students had left. It would be just her luck to be hit by a bus, so she wasn’t taking any chances. She took a little moment to breathe in all the lovely smells that are present after it rains, while admiring the trampled down, yet somehow nice schoolyard they had. She thought she saw Doug’s truck, but didn’t see him anywhere near it yet, so she figured he had been held up by something and would just wait nearby.
She heard someone approach behind her, and turned around quickly enough to see a hand coming heavily towards her, and she shrunk back, nearly throwing herself onto the ground. Stumbling, she put her hands out, noticing the hand, and the person attached to it get yanked backwards. The person who had tried to sneak up on her was an adult, one she hadn’t seen before. Before he could grab her, Doug pulled her out of his reach. The unknown assailant sneered and pulled out a gun, aiming it at Zoey. Before she could even flinch, Ferris dove at her, knocking her down, and shielding them both with a wall of rocks that had not been there a second ago. Staring blankly, she felt him pull her roughly back to her feet, shoving her in front of himself and forward, towards Doug’s truck. Doug followed quickly after, saying that the man was now “tied up” and Zoey was too shocked to ask what that meant. They started down the road, Doug trying desperately not to speed but also checking behind them every few seconds. When he had decided it was safe, he spoke.
“That was far too close,” he said wearily. He sent an apologetic glance to Zoey and then to Ferris.
“It was weird to send just one guy with a gun, he seemed a bit unprepared.” Ferris remarked, looking at Zoey pointedly. He didn’t seem all that surprised or worried about the attack.
It occurred to her that she should thank them and she stammered out, “O-Oh, Th-thank you by the way,” her voice broke a little as she tried to clear it. Doug shook his head slightly, but she didn’t think it was to make her feel embarrassed for being frightened.
“Should we go to my place or one of the other’s places?” he asked Ferris.
“Your place is fine. He was unprepared. It could have been bad, but it wasn’t. Bad for her, maybe. There’s going to be both of us there, maybe more. It would be strange for them to attack now. I think that was more of a scare tactic …and it worked,” Ferris deducted. He was looking at Zoey as he spoke, and she felt a little singled out.
Zoey felt as if she had to chin up at least long enough to say something. “Listen, I’m sure you’re all tough and have basically no emotions but sometimes people get scared and I don’t have to justify being sensible to you,” she declared. She didn’t make eye contact with Ferris, but he didn’t say anything more, so she figured she was safe from his wrath for a little while. They were almost at Doug’s place anyway, although she doubted she could work on the assignment right off the bat.
She hurried inside, not even worried about being in an acquaintance’s house, kicking off her shoes and heading upstairs immediately. She placed her book bag by the table, removing her cell phone and storing that in her hoodie just in case. Doug and Ferris were kind of looking at her like one might a wild animal.
“Zoey, are you alright?” asked Doug, tentatively, his hand moved slightly towards her but he seemed to think better of actually extending his entire arm.
She turned her head like a confused dog, but her eyes remained clear. “Probably not, why do you ask?” she asked, deadpan. “Well, people deal with emotions in different ways, and I’m kind of wondering how you are dealing with this, since you’re not really revealing anything…” he tried to explain, “do you have questions? You can get angry, if that’s what you need?”
She considered this silently, letting her shoulders sag. She breathed in, deeply, and held the breath. They still regarded her warily, and nearly doubled over backwards when she let out a huge, blood curdling scream. She held the scream for a few moments, letting the sound pierce every corner of the house, clenching her fists and closing her eyes. Then, suddenly, she stopped. All was silent for a moment, except the sound of running feet from somewhere downstairs to upstairs. She realized that Oscar had been watching a movie downstairs and had barrelled upstairs, thinking she was being eviscerated by something.
“I’m okay Oscar, thank you for checking though,” she told him quietly, her voice rasping a little bit. She let out a contented little sigh, and then turned to Doug and Ferris, who had the widest eyes she had ever seen and were frozen in place. “I feel better now. Can I ask some questions?”
Doug straightened up, nodding, and walked to the kitchen. She watched him pour a glass of water, and return, offering it to her.
“Thank you” she replied quietly, downing the whole thing. She really did feel remarkably relaxed after that.
“Might I suggest downstairs, if you’re going to be screaming like that. Like, the basement?” Ferris remarked, finding his voice.
Zoey gave a slight nod, and followed them down.