It was so fucking hot outside.
Like, it wasn't even normal summer heat. I'd been there long enough to tell that. It was the kind of heat that wasn't just hot, it was sticky. It clung to your clothes and made you feel heavy and miserable, even though the sky was a brilliant blue. If I were superstitious, I would have taken it as a sign, but right about then my brain was boiling too much for me to think about it.
Of course, it would have helped if I'd just taken off my damn sweater, but that was entirely out of the question. I was a scrawny seventeen year old; there was no way I was chancing a dance with social anxiety just to be temporarily cooler. My friend Susie? She had no such qualms, and had shown up without her regular baggy jacket for the past week or so, opting instead to let the scales on her forearms shine in the sun streaming through the classroom windows.
So I was sitting there, zoning out, when I got a rough poke in the back. “Kris!”
I jumped. “What?”
Said friend Susie gave me an annoyed look. “I've been trying to get your attention for two minutes now, ya spaz. Class is over! Let's get ice cream or something!”
The spot on my back was a little too sore for just the one jab. “It is sweltering. Leave me alone.”
“Take your damn sweater off.”
“It's like you want to die.”
“And when do I ever not want to die?”
This was our banter. We were friends, I swear.
In any case, we did agree to get ice cream, and after each of us shot a text to our mothers, we were on our way. Outside, the sun absolutely fried my nose, sending sweat pouring down my face and back. I didn't say anything about it, obviously, but Susie was far more perceptive than she cared to let on. “Quit squirming. You look like Rouxls dropped worms in your pants.”
“That's an image I didn't need. Thanks.”
“No problem.” She tossed aside a drenched lock of my hair. “Seriously, take off the sweater. You're gonna pass out.”
I blinked the sweat out of my eyes. “Never. You'll never get me to.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“It's a promise.”
“What if you were in a pool? Would you take it off then?”
“No. I'd sit and let it soak in all that glorious chlorine.”
She thought about that. “Well, that's a shame.”
I didn't want to ask why. I didn't. I wasn't going to fall for it. “Why?”
“Nothing.” She shifted her bag on her shoulder. “It's just that I was planning on skipping school on Thursday to go to the pool in the city, when no one else will be there, like I do every year. You were gonna be invited, too, but since you won't take off the sweater, they wouldn't let you come in the water, so there would be no point.”
Hmmm, my interest was piqued. “Why Thursday?”
“Are you kidding? Friday would be way too busy, being the last day of school and all. That pool may be big, but it's not big enough for both me and the rest of the world. Plus, the adults piss me off.”
An enticing opportunity, to be sure. But, like I did with a lot of unimportant things, I weighed all my options. One one hand, I'd be breaking my promise that I'd never take off my sweater in public. On the other hand...well, there were quite a few things on that other hand, a few of which weren't exactly the cleanest. “You make...a tempting offer.”
“Oh, was it an offer? Sorry, the space is closed.”
“Wait, but I wanna go!”
“Nope! Dorks who show skin only!”
Ah. So that was how it was. I remember the day my dignity died...
“So? What'll it be?”
“...I'll leave the sweater at home.”
“Sweetass. Meet me behind the main school building Thursday morning, and bring bus fare.”
“You got it.” This was going to be fine.
It may have been technically fine, but it sure didn't feel that way.
Sure, I'd packed my swim gear instead of my books in my bag, double-checking before going to bed that night. Sure, we weren't actually doing anything in class that day since exams were long gone and Ms. Alphys seemed to just have run out of fuel. But skipping school on purpose felt oddly wrong, and to go to the city of all places. On my own. With a friend. To a place I'd actually never been before.
We sure were kicking off the summer with a bang, weren't we?
Walking up to the building, I pulled away from Mom with one last hug before she headed inside, while I milled around in the crowd of my peers before making my way around the back. Sure enough, Susie was waiting for me. Winking, she led me back around to the front, pretending to wander into the school, before breaking away and leading the way up to Main street. The old rusty bus stop, still usable, hung forlorn on the lightpost, as if it were waiting to finally be noticed.
Mood, bus stop.
Finally, the bus pulled up, its sign flashing its destination of CITYSCAPE. Trying to cover up my remaining nerves with chivalry, I gestured for Susie to board first.
“Nah, scaredy, you're goin' first.”
God. Damn it.
And so we boarded.
The bus ride was...longer than I felt it had any right to be. There were what felt like miles of farmland stretching on either side of the highway in between the Exiting Hometown sign and the Welcome to Cityscape one. It struck me in that moment just how far removed my hometown was from the rest of the world. Maybe I should have noticed earlier, but I guess I just didn't appreciate the ride before.
Susie didn't care. She spent the entire ride on her phone playing with something that she refused to show me. Ah, well.
Eventually, our ride pulled up to a place Susie said was our stop, so we got up, thanked the driver, and unloaded our noodley legs. I stomped feeling back into my toes while Susie looked up and down the street. “Huh. That pancake shop wasn't there before. Anyway, the pool's down this way.”
It took another ten minutes or so of walking before we reached the pool, and by then we were more than ready to swim. Man, the amount of trees in Hometown had seriously pampered us for shade, because somehow the heat was even more relentless here. Stepping inside the changing rooms was a relief. I didn't want to leave.
No, seriously, I really didn't want to step back out. I had promised I'd leave the sweater at home, and guess whose scrawny pale ass was now on full display? Well, okay, it's not like anyone else was at the pool, other than the lifeguard, who appeared to be asleep.
Fuck it. It was 10am on a Thursday. I had come this far, and dammit, I was gonna swim.
Of course, I didn't take as long to change as my companion, so I ended up sitting on the steps to the shallow end, waiting for her to emerge. The water stung my skin with cold at first, but eventually it felt totally fine. Susie was right, wearing that sweater all the time was going to kill me. This felt great.
And speaking of—
There was water in my nose. And my hair. And my eyes.
I pulled myself back to the surface. “This is the shallow end!!” I cried out. “What are you doing?!!”
She just gave me an unapologetic grin. “Diving.”
“Why are you like this?!!”
No answer. Of course. We pulled ourselves back to the stairs, completely soaked now, and sat back down.
Susie gave me a once-over look. “Damn, you're pale as hell.”
“Okay. Not necessary to point that out, but thanks.”
“No wonder you're weak, dude; you don't have any of that good vitamin D.”
I reeled myself back from making an easy joke. “Wouldn't look much better with a tan, either.”
“Whatever, man. I think you should be glad you can even get a tan, but eh.”
“Normally, nope. Scales.”
“What would purple skin with a tan even look like? Darker purple?”
“I guess we'll find out today!” She stuck her leg out in my direction. “Feel it; I just shed last night.”
I looked. It was hard to tell under the water, but there didn't seem to be any scales. On her leg. Her bare leg. It was at that moment that I finally noticed her bathing suit. “Uh...”
“Kris, it's just a leg. Chill.”
“That's not—uh.” She was really wearing a tankini, huh?
She realized what I meant. “Dude, it's not worth mentioning. I don't even have anything to make the view worth it.” She gestured to her totally flat chest. “Lizard's gonna lizard.”
“Wh...” A lot of things I probably should have realized earlier started to click. “Ohh, wait...so were you, like, born from an egg or something?”
The look on her face was, although confusing, kind of priceless. “What? No!”
“We're born like everyone else! You weirdo!”
“Dammit.” She rubbed her temple. “Look, it's kind of stupid. I'm just weird, I guess, and ended up like this. Like how humans end up looking the way they do.”
“My parents look super cool. They have nice figures, tails, wings, the whole thing. Me, I stick out like a lump next to them.” She kicked at the water. “But it's fine. I've made up for my lack of awesome with the sheer inability to care about it. I wear what I want and do what I want.”
You didn't even answer my question. “No limits.”
“No. Limits. Actually, we've been just sitting here and limiting our pool time; might as well get to it!”
The next hour and a half were...pretty fucking awesome, I'm not gonna lie. We didn't have any of the floaty stuff, but we made up for it with plenty of pranks and races. It felt damn good to finally get a good winding down after the school year, letting go of all that stress and forgetting for a little bit about the remorse of not getting to see our friends from the Darkworld in months. It just...it was truly nice.
And then, in the middle of a reprieve:
“Jesse! I told you someone else would have the same idea!”
Susie and I stopped dead and looked over. A group of six strangers, about the same age as us, had just come poolside and were now watching us. Two human males, two monster males, one human female, one monster female. A pretty even group. And they were just staring. Not uncomfortably, just enough to be noticeable.
“What?” Susie finally called out.
The group glanced among each other. Then, without any word to her friends, the monster girl (an owl? Eagle? I couldn't tell, she was white and brown) called back, “You wanna join us?”
My friend and I looked at each other and shrugged. Why not?
Over the course of the next hour, we learned everyone's names.
The bird girl, Amara, said it was funny someone else had the same idea they did, although in retrospect she figured she should have expected it. The black bear, Darren, told her not to feel bad; he seemed pretty chill overall. The mountain lion, Spence, was afraid to get in the water because he didn't want to shed all over everyone else. Jesse, the blonde guy, laughed and called him a scaredy-cat, before being promptly destroyed by Leshaun, who pointed out that Jesse put on a swim cap before getting in. Riley, the curly-haired girl, just rolled her eyes and dove into the deep end.
They were all students from the local high school, which was far larger than our little school in Hometown. They were surprised to hear where we were from, and wanted to hear everything about our elusive little town. Susie didn't have a whole lot to say, but I tried to fill in with some of the things to do and people we'd met, not going into anything personal.
Already, I felt out of it. I wasn't used to being in a group so large that was genuinely interested in me, and judging by the look on her face, neither was Susie. We both just kind of awkwardly sat to the side at first, unsure of what to say. Amara (who must be some sort of witch, I swear) was the first to break the ice, and within a couple hours we were all moderately comfortable and playing a game of Marco Pelo.
Then Riley, who was one of the first tagged out of the current round, climbed out and checked her phone. “Guys, it's getting close to 2pm,” she called. “We better get a move on if we wanna be out before anyone else shows up.”
We all gave a collective grumble and headed for the changing rooms.
This time, instead of being afraid to go out, I was more afraid of being in there. The other guys were cool, I could tell, but I'd never changed around other people in my life. Even when my brother was still living with us, I always took my business to the bathroom. I couldn't stand people seeing me vulnerable, and I didn't know if I ever would. So, I changed in a corner and joined them when my clothes were firmly on.
Jesse, now in his bomber jacket and carefully combing his hair, stopped suddenly and turned to look at me. “You showered, right?”
“...No? Was I supposed to?”
He looked about ready to have a coronary. “You have to shower! Dude, no wonder your hair looks like hell! All that chlorine murdered it!”
“I don't have to do anything.”
Jesse gave a strangled squawk, grabbed a spare towel from the little rack, and practically shoved me at a stall with a bottle of shampoo. I got the hint.
The shampoo was a little weird and the directions were annoying, but eventually I got my hair...I guess cleaned to standards. Honestly, I couldn't have cared less, but Jesse looked like a ton of stress had lifted off his shoulders. “Okay, good. Now for step 2.”
Leshaun snickered. “Are you deadass about to do his hair fo' him?”
“MAYBE I AM,” Jesse yelled back, situating me in front of him and pulling some bottles out of his bag.
Darren stepped out of his shower carefully, his entire body wrapped to keep from dripping too much from his fur. “Sorry about this, Kris,” he said gently, “but we've all been through it. Jesse's a bit of a hair care fanatic, so it's nothing personal. Don't worry, it won't get too bad.”
“Oh, no, is Jesse in the Zone again?” Spence looked over from the next locker row. “I thought we agreed that you wouldn't do this anymore!”
“I CAN'T HELP IT!”
“Please stop shouting; I'm sitting right in front of you,” I begged, ears ringing.
“Oh, sorry.” He didn't sound sorry.
In any case, he sprayed a couple of different liquids in my hair and pulled out a comb, carefully working through the knots, of which there were many. He tried not to hurt me, but the occasional frustrated yank made my scalp sing in pain. During the process, the others asked me some more questions while trying not to laugh.
“So, you said there was a diner in Hometown?” Darren asked.
“Y-yeah,” I said, my neck jerking slightly. “It's got some great stuff, my brother and I would get their hot chocolate all the time--” Shit.
“You got a brother?” Leshaun came over with a pick in his hair, suddenly interested.
Fuck. Shit. I told myself I wouldn't say anything. “Yeah.” Why am I still talking???
“Older. He's pretty cool.” Shut up! Shut up!
“Seems pretty cool, if you talkin' about him like that. You guys look alike?”
I almost burst out laughing. “Not exactly.”
Jesse yanked at another knot. “What, does he look more like your mom or something?”
I was shaking with silent laughter. “Yeah, something like that.”
Leshaun squinted. “Is he a stepbrother? I got a couple stepbrothers, and we don't look nothin' alike.”
At that point, I lost it. Jesse took the comb out of my hair and impatiently crossed his arms as he waited for me to calm down. “I g—I guess you could say tha—” My words came out in pieces with my breaths.
Leshaun laughed too. Darren looked almost worried. “Are you alright?” the big bear asked.
Taking a big gulp of air (and immediately hiccuping), I choked out, “He's a goat!”
“My brother's a goat! And so is my mom! And my dad!”
“Hol' up.” Leshaun's eyes had widened in understanding. “So you sayin' you're adopted?”
I nodded, the laughter subsiding.
“Damn.” He blinked. “No wonder you didn't wanna talk about 'em before.”
Darren fidgeted, silent. Jesse didn't say anything, either, and there was no noise from Spence.
Nice. My talent for killing moods had kicked in yet again. I was beginning to worry that it had abandoned me.
Jesse went back to my hair. “Well, your family sounds nice,” he said with resolution. “My little sister is a pain.”
“She spilled your argan oil one time!” Spence yelled.
“That stuff is expensive! I had to save up again for another bottle! Not to mention the time I caught her breaking the tines of my good fine-tooth!”
The others joined in on the ribbing, and talking about their own families as well. Darren mentioned how weird it was whenever his father hibernated during the winter and he wasn't able to because of school, so he always had to stay with a friend for those months. Leshaun laughed when recounting all his stories from his siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles...I felt a little better, knowing I wasn't the only one with a strange family. The combing, as much as I verbally complained, helped soothe some of my anxiety as well.
Finally, Jesse finished and stepped back. “Well, I wish I could do something about your split ends,” he stated, “but holy crap, your hair is longer than it looks! Guys, look at this!”
I reached up and felt it. Before, it had only come down to right at the start of my neck, but when it was properly combed (and much softer!), it fell in waves to just below my shoulder line. “Oh, wow, you're right,” I said, then immediately spat hair out of my mouth. “Pthah!”
“Yeah, dude, I don't know how you see with all that.” Jesse reached into his bag and pulled out a hairtie, pulling my hair back into a low tail. “Don't worry about returning this; I never use the things anyway. And I'm not gonna poke you in the eyes! Open them!”
“Are you just gonna keep them shut and walk around like that?”
“Yep. I'll learn to get around with sound, like a bat.”
Leshaun and Spence busted up.
“You think I'm kidding?” I stood up carefully, eyes still squeezed shut. “Watch this.” I took three steps, confident, then slipped and almost brained myself on the floor had it not been for Jesse catching me.
“Kris.” I could hear the amusement in his voice. “Look where you're going.”
“Okay, Mom.” Dramatically, I opened my eyes, looking into Jesse's green ones, which widened in surprise. “What?”
“Holy sh—is that natural?”
“Is what natural?”
“You have red eyes, dude!”
“Oh. Yeah, they're natural. Is that weird?”
“Human eyes literally can't come in scarlet, dude!”
“What??” I turned to Leshaun, who stumbled back when he saw my face. “Is that true?”
“Bruh, how do you not know that?!!”
Spence and Darren both came around to get a good look, too. “Those are beautiful,” Spence marveled. “How long have they been like that?”
“My entire life.”
Darren gulped, seemingly unable to contribute.
I looked at all four of them in turn. “So, my eye color really is unnatural?”
“I don't...” Jesse glanced at Leshaun. “I don't know how you don't know that. Do all the humans in Hometown have red eyes or something?”
“Technically speaking, yes.” I shifted. “Since I'm the only one.”
Baffled, Spence brought his hands to his head. “Wait. You're the only human. In ALL of Hometown?”
Everyone backed away, completely lost.
“Well,” Darren finally said, “I can definitely say you're the strangest person I've ever met.”
“RIGHT???” Jesse ran his hands through his hair. “It's like, the more we learn about this guy, the crazier and more mysterious he becomes!”
“Guys, it's not that weird,” I tried to say. “Settlements of only humans or only monsters have existed forever.”
“But like--” Spence stuttered over his own words. “Ever since the segregation of humans and monsters was abolished at the end of the Civilian War, almost every city and town has migrated together to make sure that everyone could live with and learn from each other, equal under the law! To find such a town with practically all of either humans or monsters in this day and age is so exceedingly RARE that no one would even think it was still possible! How is it that we didn't know about this...?”
Darren put a large calming arm around his monster friend's shoulders. “Don't mind him,” he said to me. “Spence is kind of a history buff.”
I didn't...know how to feel about what Spence had just said. I had lived in and liked Hometown my entire life. I grew up thinking it was the norm. Knowing that the one thing I thought was normal about my life turned out to be incredibly abnormal...damn. It looked like I was always doomed to stick out like a sore thumb. “Thanks for doing my hair,” I mumbled, grabbing up my things.
The others packed up too, but right before we walked out, Leshaun grabbed my arm and stopped me. “Before we go,” he started, keeping his voice low, “can you see that?”
I looked to where he was pointing. In the corner of the room, almost hidden by a shower curtain, a glimmer of brightest silver poked out from a crack in the wall. I almost had a heart attack. “Yes,” I breathed.
“I knew it. Jesse can see it, too.”
“Yeah. Darren and Spence can't, but all my siblings can. We thinkin' it's either a human thing, or it's mass hysteria. Although why only us humans can see it is the one thing we can't figure out.”
“Monsters can use magic. Humans can, too. This is our magic. We can...whatever this is. You've done it, right?”
“Done what? It's just sparkles.”
“You just reach out, and...” I stretched out a hand, feeling the energy of whatever that silver light was connected to. Something in me shuddered, then bloomed, feeling replenished. “That.”
Leshaun looked thoughtful, then reached out a hand. “So I just...oh, whoa, what the hell? I'm feelin' somethin'!”
“Yeah. Just do the thing.”
He did. I could almost feel when he did, like something resonated. He opened his eyes, and the look in his eyes was like a mixture of amazement and fear. “That—I—”
“It's cool, right? I've never figured out what it really does, but it's like a power, like something that will always be there for me.”
He nodded. “I...I'm gonna keep my mouth shut about this for now. This is intense. A lot at once. And we still don't know what it does.”
“Understandable.” Then I realized we were alone. “We should probably go.”
“Yeah. Yeah, let's go.”
We walked out and joined the others. They were still waiting on the girls, and poked at us for a while on what we were doing. Then Darren's stomach rumbled. That made sense, considering it was about 3pm and none of us had eaten. We were debating what restaurant we'd go to for late lunch when the girls joined us.
I looked over. Amara wore loose jeans and a baggy brown shirt with an arrow design that accommodated her feathers well. Riley had a rose pattern crop top and athletic shorts, and was looking through her phone, bored. Susie...
Well, Susie had her usual tank top and jeans, but evidently one of the girls had taken it upon herself to give her the Jesse treatment, because instead of her dark purple locks making a fuzzy cloud around her head, they instead hung down in shiny wavy lines, blowing in the gentle breeze.
She caught me staring. “Don't ask, nerd,” she said. “It's Birdbrain's fault.”
Amara smiled. “You like it.”
Susie just grumbled, looking away. “Anyway, we gonna go somewhere to eat or what?”