“You told him it was Bigfoot?” James asked as they climbed back inside the car. “Why?”
“It’s easier that way, trust me,” Finch replied. “No way was I going to convince him he was hallucinating. Easier to just tell him something no-one will believe. You let a guy go around with a story about how he found a monster in the lake, and people pay attention. Not much, but some. But if you let him go around saying his boat got spooked by Bigfoot? No-one cares. Everyone’s seen Bigfoot.”
“Makes sense, I guess.”
His phone pinged from his pocket. He glanced down at it.
‘You have a friend request from: Cody Turner.’
He snickered. The other boy’s crush had been fairly obvious. It felt better than he’d thought it would. Cody’s friend request had come before they’d even left the parking lot.
You’re supposed to wait a while, dude. Make ‘em think you’re not too keen.
He flicked the screen.
‘Congratulations! You are now friends with Cody Turner.’
He put the phone back down, and tried to turn his mind back to the conversation at hand. It didn’t work. There was a buzzing in his brain. He found he couldn’t focus for more than a word or two at once.
“Can you let me out here?” he asked, cutting off his companion mid-word. “I gotta go clear my head.”
To his credit, Finch didn’t waste time informing him that it was late, or that he couldn’t go out alone in the rain.
“You know where the motel is?” he asked.
“Yeah,” James lied. It couldn’t be too hard to find.
Finch nodded, then pulled the car over, and let James out into the rain.
For a couple minutes, he just stood there and let himself be drenched. It wasn’t like the cold bothered him at all. Then, he stepped off the street, and began walking the few hundred yards toward the Rockford treeline.
He felt weird; really weird, and the why was hard to get a handle on.
This was it, wasn’t it? His first mission. Helping people for real, just like his grandparents did.
And Cody was cute. He wasn’t super lean and muscly, like Caleb was, nor did he put butterflies in James’ stomach the way that Charlie had-
James put that thought on hold, and made himself step back. No thinking about that right now.
Cody was cute, in a goofball sort of way. There had been a warmth to hanging out with him. So why did the aftermath feel so melancholy?
He sloshed through the last deep puddle to the tree-line, and allowed himself to drift upwards a few inches off the ground. He should be able to fly fully once he was out of town.
He floated down into the depths, then up into the sky.
There was something unique about flying through clouds, especially in the rain. Like swimming through thick mist, or maybe showering in fog. He closed his eyes.
He could see Charlie’s face against his eyelids. He didn’t allow himself to look away.
“Hey, man,” he murmured. “Been a while.”
It had been, too. The memories had been coming less and less of late, a bit less painful every time.
“I met a boy today. He’s pretty cute. Bet you’d be jealous,” he snickered at himself. “Who am I kidding? You’d have probably found a girl by now. Maybe Nailah? Nah. She’s too cool for you.”
He smiled at that, unsure whether he was forcing it or not. He opened his eyes, then floated up above the storm clouds. Charlie’s image stayed with him, even after he let the rest of the world return.
“I got my first big mission,” he said. “Whole town’s been getting rained on for weeks. Plus, there’s a monster in the lake.”
He raised his arm, a few loose tendrils of his power stretching out to sweep a momentary hole through the cloudbank, carving a line through which to see.
Rockford looked so small from here. He wondered if he could be bigger than it was if he transformed. He remembered Charlie teasing him.
“I wanna believe you’re doing okay out there,” he said. “I wanna believe you’re still alive.”
He could have sworn the image shrugged at that.
James gazed down at the town for what felt like hours. When he touched the ground again, he felt empty.
He tracked down his room in Rockford’s sole motel, and sat on a corner of the bed, uncomfortably alone.
Cody Turner, 5:58 A.M:
Cody tapped the off button on his alarm clock two minutes before it was set to go off. He was already dressed and ready. The cutie had said he was coming to the diner again today. Therefore, to Cody’s masterful reasoning, he had to get the rest of his day out the way as early as possible to free himself up for Pretty Boy. Or James. Nah. Pretty Boy felt better in his head.
He picked the wire-box off his desk, and pried it open. Cool. Everything still looked fine. He slipped the box into a pocket of his swim-trunks. He glanced back at the alarm clock. 6:02. He really should get moving if he wanted to be back before the breakfast rush. He grabbed his rain jacket -he didn’t bother to check if it was still raining outside, of course it would be- off the hook on his door, and set off.
Honestly, Cody found he didn’t didn’t mind the morning rain. It brought a kind of clarity to the early morning; all fresh earth smells and bracing early winter chills, just refreshing enough to stop a workout from becoming draining. It was just a shame the water made it so hard to bring a sketchbook out here. He’d have loved the chance to draw some of the scenery when it was waterlo-
His train of thought was interrupted at one of the town’s two intersections when a passing truck gave him a facefull of the nearest puddle.
There were drawbacks.
… Nope. He wasn’t gonna let it dampen his spirits. Today would be awesome, and there would be no caveats. He wondered if Pretty Boy liked the rain? Cody was pretty sure it made for better snuggling…
He shook the distraction from his mind. Whether Pretty Boy was an active snuggler was neither here nor there. For now. He resumed his path toward the lake, a few dozen yards of sodden grass and a thinning line of trees between him and his destination.
When he’d passed the tree-line, he pulled the wire-box back out of his pocket, checking stupidly around him for observers as he did so. There was no-one around. Not that it would have mattered if there was. Nothing wrong with a local kid going swimming in the lake, even if he was carrying a weird box made of munted wire and plastic.
He was actually pretty proud of that. The wire strips had been his sister Lisa’s idea. Back when she’d first started helping him learn his magic. Small, cheap, easily disposable objects, perfect for an amateur enchanter. It made for better practice material than the random crap around his house. At least, it did after he ran out of pencils to render perma-sharp.
The box had been his idea, though. And it was a good one. As it turned out, enchanting, or, at least, his particular kind of enchanting, made it stupidly hard to put different spells together in a single object. You either had to be ridiculously good at it, or magically jacked up enough that you could put in all the enchantments at once.
Cody had solved this issue.
With a glue gun.
He flipped open the plastic casing for what had to be the third time, and once again individually checked that each and every one of the thirty six strips of enchanted copper wire was properly adhered to the sides of the container. If one of them broke off while he was under water… well, so far, it hadn’t done worse than scald his tongue, but still.
He pulled his shirt off over his head, and wrapped it up inside his jacket, before quickly checking his phone to see the time. Nearly six twenty-
A message pinged up on the screen.
‘Hey. It’s James, from last night. You around? I thought I’d come by for breakfast if you’re free. I could sorta use the company.’
Cody grinned, a surge of yesterday’s unusual warmth tingling down his spine once more.
‘Sure thing!’ he texted back. ‘I’m at the lake right now, but I’ll be back in twenty minutes, max. Try the pancakes.’
It took more effort than he was proud of not to add a smiley face.
He stowed his phone in the folds of his jacket, grasped the wire-box tightly in his hand, and charged face first into the lake.
The water was cold. Freezing, really; full of the early morning chill from the spill of rain. It was murky, too, loose soil and grit, algae and who knew what else stirred up by the constant downpour. Cody shuddered as it hit him, almost but not quite enough to dispel the warmth of his looming not-quite-date with the potentially heterosexual Mr. Pretty Boy.
Right, time to test out those enchantments. He exhaled what breath he had in a calm and unhurried manner, then, only a little bit praying that it would work this time, sucked in a teaspoonful of water.
A momentary rush of heat in his mouth, then a chill, then the taste of stale oxygen on his tongue.
Right. Awesome. He tried again, a bigger drag this time. The same process, a warmth, a chill, a rush of faintly musty air. Enough of it this time that some had to be expelled, pushing harmlessly out between his lips like he’d been trying for.
Cody hardly dared to believe it. He’d done it. It had worked.
I, Cody Turner, by the power of human genius and the might of crazy glue, have learned to breathe in lakes!
He pumped his fist in a furious but silent subaquatic celebration.
This was just the start. Sure. The start was basically just Aquaman, but from there, the sky was the fucken’ limit.
Plus, Aquaman’s hot now!
It would do. He was content.
It was maybe Cody’s fault what happened in the next few minutes. In his jubilation, he managed to momentarily forget the date with Pretty Boy, lost in the thrill of swimming without having to come up for air. Even the weird taste of it wasn’t so bad after a while. He wound up trying to swim a lap of the thing, pushing through the water with all the energy he could spend. He felt like he had tons of it to spare.
He made it all the way out to the middle before the danger became apparent. More specifically, before he realized he wasn’t alone.
He was down in the depths, a solid forty or so feet below the water’s surface, sifting through lake rocks and more than a few discarded beer cans for something that’d make a good memento. Then he saw it; a shape in the water to the side, half-visible in the murk, distinguished from the rest only by a momentary movement. He jerked his head towards it, and it vanished, but not quite fast enough to stop him catching a glimpse.
It looked human. It looked webbed.
To his extraordinary Darwinian credit, Cody Turner did not wait to see what the thing had been before he fled.
Fitness was a survival trait in Rockford. Not because it was a cruel or unreasonable place to live. Simply because it was small. There was no local game shop. There were no drama clubs. There were only eleven other kids. To survive in Rockford, you had to either learn to be lonely, or get used to having fun outside.
Cody was fit. He was healthy. He exercised a lot. He was also a really solid swimmer.
The creature reached him before he made it halfway back to shore. Holy hell, the thing could swim. In Cody’s few, panic stricken glances behind himself so as to keep his heading pointed away from it, he got a better view, rubbery grey skin, dozens of fish-like fins sprouting from every inch of its form. Bloated, leering.
He knew he wouldn’t make it. He just wasn’t fast enough. He heard a crash behind him, let out a bubbled scream as the water bowled him over, then realized he was still alive.
He turned around, his breathing heavy, his heart churning madly in his chest.
The thing was gone.
Well, no. Not quite gone. It was still there. Just sorta… trapped. In a bubble, clawing madly at the walls as it tried to climb back into the lake around it. That wasn’t the surprising thing, though.
No, the surprise was floating in the water some four feet off to the side of it.
It was Pretty Boy; submerged in the middle of the lake, just as Cody was, dark hair flaring dramatically about him in the water as though he were about to call tsunamis from his palms.
Pretty Boy waved, gestured over at him, and began to speak.
Several bubbles escaped his lips, along with some unintelligible sound.
Pretty Boy let out his best aquatic approximation of a groan, put a hand to his forehead, then raised a finger to the surface of the water. As Cody watched, the surface -still almost forty feet above them- began to dip.
It was like a fingertip. Like if God himself had waited for Pretty Boy to give the order, and was personally poking some oxygen down towards them. The dip deepened, stretched down further, further, and finally broke, the surface slapping firmly back into place above them and leaving a fifteen foot bubble of air behind. At Pretty Boy’s gestured command, the bubble drifted the final stretch, and slapped itself down around them.
Cody found himself sitting, wet, perplexed, and terrified, at the bottom of a lake, with a probable water demon and a cute boy who could apparently bend the fucking sky.
“So…” Pretty Boy said awkwardly, “You, uh. You’re magic too, hu-”
Cody cut him off.
“W-what the fuck is that thing!?” he asked, gesturing madly at the water monster.
Pretty Boy winced.
“Well… I mean… Would you believe me if I said it was Bigfoot?”