“Did you hear, Priscilla?”
“They’re recruiting people to settle the new territory. It’s pretty far away.”
“Wow, that’s scary to think about! I would never do that!”
“I hear they pay pretty well.”
“Even so… you can’t spend money if you’re dead!”
You tried your best to politely get around the chatty ladies and reach the message board in the middle of the town square. The new notice was by far the largest.
“The Capitol Needs You… to Help Expand the Kingdom!” You scanned past the ostentatious headline and quickly took in the basic facts. The government had recently acquired a large section of wooded land on the south border of the continent, and for now, they wanted young, able-bodied couples to develop the land. The reward for volunteering was a piece of that land, as well as housing materials and a living stipend for the first ten years.
It was an interesting prospect, to be sure, but the risks almost outweighed the rewards in your mind. You didn’t have a family to leave behind, having lost your parents to the outbreak of scarlet fever six years ago, but that didn’t mean that you were going to willingly feed yourself to whatever wild animals inhabited the territory of Gongaga. Adventure, exploration, and excitement- these things were all well and good, but they did not exactly drown out the possibilities of sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks.
Of course, in the end, it didn’t matter what your thoughts on the matter were, because you knew exactly what a certain someone would think, and you knew exactly what you were about to get dragged into.
“Hey, _____, did you hear? Did you?” You sighed good-naturedly as the man behind you, who you knew was bouncing in place, parroted the words of the town gossips. As grating as his energy could sometimes be, and as put-upon as you generally acted, a person couldn’t meet Zack Fair’s enthusiasm with anything less than a smile.
“Yes, Zack; I’ve just read the notice, see?” You could have sworn that his hair deflated a little at your calm tone. Again you wondered why you tried to curb that energy, even as you asked yourself why he could never manage to wear other clothing besides one of his many pairs of cargo shorts. If the weather was warm, Zack was shirtless. The sun rose, the sun set, and Zackary Fair would not wear a shirt.
“And? Isn’t it awesome?! A whole new territory! Nothing but trees and rivers and animals, completely untouched by people. How amazing would it be to be the first humans to live there?” Whatever height the spikes had lost was quickly gained back as he extolled the virtues of pioneering. You listened absently, nodding along when he reached a pause, and waited for him to run out of breath.
“Zack, don’t you think it’s a bit dangerous?”
“Well, of course I do, but do you really think there’s anything out there that can defeat THIS?!” He immediately dropped to the ground and began doing push-ups, then moved on to squats while he said, “You know… that I… can take care… of myself.”
Another sigh escaped your lips, even as you admired Zack’s muscles, which were beginning to glisten with sweat. You and he had been friends since you were children and your parents introduced you, but even after seeing it almost daily, you weren’t immune to that body. Zack had gotten ridiculously muscular over the years, and seemed completely oblivious to the stares he got from every female in town… hence why he constantly forewent wearing a shirt.
At this point you realized that Zack was still talking, and had stopped showing off to waving a hand in front of your face. “Earth to _____? Are you still with me here?”
You shook off the stupor and tried your best to look at his face. “I heard you. You’re the strongest, blah blah blah.” Your smile betrayed that you were joking, though, and Zack knew better than to take that seriously.
“Hey, I didn’t say it, you did!” A silly grin made its way to his face as he placed his hands on his hips and thrust out his chest. You secretly called this his “hero pose.”
“I think that you’re missing one very important point, though.”
“What’s that?” He cocked his head to the side inquisitively.
“Well, they only want couples to go to the new territory right now. The Capitol seems pretty concerned with population stability before anything else…” You let the sentence trail off, sure that he would understand what you were implying. “Not to mention that you’re the Mayor’s son, and I’m almost positive that he won’t want the future leader of the town to go off to Gongaga and get eaten by something.”
A look of contemplation crossed Zack’s handsome face, and for a second you thought you might have dissuaded him. “Those are both excellent points, and I will respond to them by doing this!”
“Oh, no you will nAAAH!” You had tried your best to escape but you were quickly caught and swung up over Zack’s shoulder. “Eww, you’re all sweaty.” In reality, you didn’t mind that much, being used to it after almost a lifetime of friendship with him.
“That’s what you get for doubting me!” And with that, he began to walk away from the square, taking the path toward the river. You squawked and struggled for a while, mostly to make him laugh, but settled down after a few minutes of that.
You knew that Zack really was interested in going to the new territory and having a real adventure. You also knew that there were a couple of significant roadblocks between him and this goal. Finally, you were completely aware that his abrupt descent into silly games was his way of ignoring those roadblocks until he thought of a solution. Playing along and waiting for him to bring it up was the best course of action for now.
This time of year, the river was lukewarm and the currents were gentle. Fish occasionally darted through the water and tickled your toes as you sat on the grassy bank, but mostly they lazily allowed themselves to be carried along. Your part of the continent was warm almost all year, with high humidity and frequent rainstorms in summer. You wondered if the new territory had similar weather. It wasn’t too far away, but climate could vary greatly from place to place.
“Look, I got one!”
You brushed off distraction for the second time that day when water droplets were flicked onto your legs by a thrashing fish. Zack held it up proudly at the end of his hand line. “Wow, that’s a big one, but aren’t you going to let him go? It’s too nice of a day to be gutting fish.”
“Ha, I guess you’re right. Okay, fish, you live to swim another day!” The fish splashed back into the water as soon as the hook was out of its mouth, swimming much faster than it had been before.
“Do you think Gongaga has a river like this one?” There it was, the reintroduction of the awkward topic. It had taken a few hours of fishing and small talk, but you were sure that it would be coming.
“I’m sure it does, Zack; maybe it’s the same river. I mean, this one does flow east, so there has to be something like it out that way.”
“Oh… We’ve never really been far from home, have we? I mean, I thought that the next town over was far, but it’s actually only a few miles. I’ve never seen much of anything.” Real contemplation was a rare thing for Zack, who tended to think as he went and somehow manage to wiggle out of the inevitable trouble that strategy brought. You noted that he wasn’t looking at you, but instead at the grass beside himself.
“The world is a really big place. We’re still pretty young… I’ll be twenty in April and you’re only a couple years older. Of course we haven’t been anywhere yet.”
“Yeah, but no one from our town has ever been anywhere. The ones that leave don’t come back. It seems like there has to be something great out there.” A bit of a sparkle returned to Zack’s blue eyes as he perked up a little. “Mom and Dad can’t make me stay and be mayor, especially if I don’t want to. I wouldn’t be good at it, anyway. You know me — never thinking before I act.”
Although the last part was said with self-deprecating humor, you knew that he really was struggling with self-doubt. “I think…”
“I think you’ll be good at whatever you decide to do. Be the mayor, or be something else. You try hard, and you have a good heart. That’s what’s important.”
“You really think so?”
“Yeah, Zack, I really do. You’ll be fine… oh?” You turned your face upward and realized that it had just gotten much darker. Clouds had rolled in, and the thing that had hit you was a fat raindrop. “Oh, no… it wasn’t supposed to rain today!”
Zack was obviously out of thinking mode and had slid smoothly right back into being a man of action. “Only one thing to do!”
“Uh, what’s that?”
“RUN!” He took off down the wooded trail toward home, and you scrambled to follow.
Unfortunately, the rain was incredibly heavy and lightning began to strike a bit too close for comfort. You and Zack were forced to take shelter under a large stone that jutted out of the earth, leaving just enough room for two people to fit below …if they acted like sardines. Worse things existed than being pressed up against your attractive friend until the rain passed, even if he did still smell like fish.
“Don’t worry about it.”