Chapter 156

Nick slammed down the hatch on his car and looked up into the bright sky. It figured: the first time all year he genuinely needed sunglasses and they were lying in a broken heap at the bottom of the trash can. He’d have to pick up a pair of cheapos at the first gas station he passed. The drive from Lander to Vegas wasn’t a particularly long one, but it was sunny as a son-of-a-bitch.

Alice was nearly done loading her own car as well, Mary’s bags packed alongside hers as they struggled to fit Alice’s ever-expanding wardrobe into the limited space a trunk had to offer. Mary was thankful she’d managed to talk Alice out of bringing everything home. They were coming back in a few months, after all. Mary took a step back and popped her back after the labor of packing the bags down. A part of her was sad that she wouldn’t be going home for the summer, back to the peace and quiet of her woods. She was a pragmatic girl, though; she understood what her friends had risked by coming after her. To not take her safety seriously after such a gesture would be an insult to all of them, even if they didn’t take it that way.

Hershel was tossing his final parcel into the car while his mother spoke in hushed tones with Dean Blaine.

“Again, I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out to pick up Hershel,” Dean Blaine apologized. “We’re just short-staffed of teleporters at the moment.”

“It’s fine,” Mrs. Daniels assured him. “What about their caretakers? After what you’ve told me I’d like to have a little discussion with both of them, especially Mr. Transport.”

“I’m not clear on much about them at the moment,” Dean Blaine replied. “They’re currently being debriefed by the company they work for. I haven’t received any definitive word on if they’ll be replaced next year or not.”

“Please keep me in the loop,” Mrs. Daniels said as Hershel walked up to the two.

“All done,” Hershel said, patting the station wagon proudly.

“Such a strong young man,” Mrs. Daniels said. “Why don’t you go say goodbye to your girlfriend? We’ll be leaving as soon as I take care of something.”

Hershel took the hint and set off to give Mary an emphatic but publicly-appropriate farewell.

“Was there something else?” Dean Blaine asked uncertainly.

“Yes, but not from you,” Mrs. Daniels replied. “You’ve been wonderfully helpful. Thank you for coming out explain things in person.”

“Ma’am, it is quite literally the very least I can do,” Dean Blaine said.

Mrs. Daniels walked across the parking lot, eventually stepping off the concrete and onto the grassy area that surrounded it. Sitting beneath a tree making some adjustments to the straps on his backpack was a silver-haired boy, thoroughly absorbed in the task at hand.

“You’re Vince, if I remember correctly.”

Vince looked up and gave his friend’s mother a polite smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you going after my son. All three of you. It must have been terrifying, and I’m so very amazed you all had the courage to do something like that.”

“It’s not a big deal. Hershel would have the same for any one of us. We’re friends.”

“You’re good friends to have. Still, handling someone as strong as George, you must be one amazing Super.”

“Only eighth in my class,” Vince told her.

“I’m sure that will change soon,” she assured him. “I have a question for you, though. As strong as you are, do you think you could beat me in a fight?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m asking you if you think you have it you to physically render me unconscious, should we engage in an altercation.”

Vince squirmed slightly, searching her face for a snicker or smile to show that she was joking. He found nothing.

“I suppose I probably could,” Vince answered at last. “But I’d really much rather never find out.”

“That is a shame, because the only way I’m letting the young man who helped save my son wander off on his own with no food or shelter is when I have been knocked stone cold out,” Mrs. Daniels informed him.

“I’m a little confused, ma’am.”

“You will be coming home with Hershel and me, where you will be subjected to proper meals and a roof over your head all summer long,” Mrs. Daniels explained. “Along with adequate safety should anyone else make an attempt on one of you.”

“Thank you very much, but I couldn’t impose,” Vince said.

“I feel I was quite clear about this already, young man. Either go put your bag in the car or put up your fists, because there are only two possible endings to this discussion.”

“I... yes, ma’am,” Vince said, looking deep into her eyes and realizing this woman was one hundred percent not fucking around. He headed over to the station wagon where Hershel was already waiting.

“She strong-armed you into coming home with us, didn’t she?”

“How’d you know?”

“I know my mom,” Hershel replied with a shrug. “If it makes you feel better, you never stood a chance.”

“Not particularly,” Vince said. “But I suppose there are worse things than spending a summer with a friend.”

“It’s not excitement, but I’ll take it,” Hershel said. He slapped Vince heartily on the back. “Try and enjoy yourself, man. Next year is going to be one hell of an uphill battle. Speaking of, there’s this group I hang out with back in Chicago, sort of a simulated attack strategy group. I think you’ll fit in really well with them.”

“Is this that LARPing thing you told me about?”

“Exactly. Now, let me ask, what mythical creature do you see yourself as? Because while your hair and cheekbones lend themselves to elf, I personally think you’ve got the fighting spirit of an orc.”

Vince tossed his bag in the bag of the car and then buckled himself in. It seemed that summer would, at the very least, not be boring.