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Something About Us

Chapter Text

On the day the sky split open, everything, everywhere, came to a grinding halt. And when the world finally moved again, it wasn't in a universe you recognized.

Time flows differently during a crisis. You remember that some minutes seemed to stretch on for hours, but at other times, days bled into each other and a week would vanish in the blink of an eye. You remember the feeling of running through the streets, past burning buildings and crowds of screaming, terrified people. You remember what it was like once you found shelter, the raw fear you felt as you huddled in the darkness of the storage rooms deep inside a grocery store with dozens of other strangers.

You remember taking shifts to keep watch on what was going on outside. You remember the first time you looked up into a blood-red sky and saw planets and stars that weren't supposed to be there.

You remember Molly, a scared little girl one of the others had found wandering outside. She got separated from her parents right after the hole in the sky appeared. You, and everyone else in that building, did everything you could to protect her during all the madness. You made sure she got enough to eat, you helped keep an eye out for her parents, and when everyone else was asleep, you stayed up with her, telling her stories about mermaids and jackalopes until she finally drifted off.

You distinctly remember lying awake in the darkness and wondering if she'd live long enough to see her parents again.

You remember wondering if any of you were going to make it out alive.

And then, one day, things took a turn.

The great, gaping nothingness in the sky grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It spit out purple lightning like an angry god, and filled the air with a power so raw and eldritch, it made your hair stand on end. Suddenly there were flashing lights, and terrible, otherworldly sounds. Everything and everyone around you began to shift and change, flickering in and out of strange, alien shapes like some horrible glitch in the universe.

You cannot forget - you will NEVER forget - the moment you looked down at your hands and realized that you couldn't recognize them.

And then, out of nowhere, there was a rush, and a feeling that the chaos in the universe was righting itself again.

And the hole in the sky was gone.

And the world began to pick up where it had left off.

The next few days were a blur. Someone managed to get the radio stations working, and you listened to a soldier give everyone the "all clear." You found Molly's Mom and Dad wandering downtown together. They had never stopped looking for her, and as her father swept her up in his arms, her mother nearly crushed your bones into dust as she threw herself at you and thanked you, in a broken voice, for taking care of her little girl. You stumbled past looted stores and wrecked cars back to your apartment complex.

That moment was so small, but it's burned into your memory. You had unlocked the door, and looked around at your humble little home. And by some miracle, nothing, absolutely nothing, from the dishes left in the sink to the mail left on the counter, had changed. At all. It was comforting. And also...so very painful.

You had just barely finished closing the door behind you before you fell to your knees and let yourself cry for the first time since the Florpus had appeared.

You cried like you never had before. You cried for a long time, the longest time in your entire life. But when you finished, you felt better. And little by little, day by day, everything and everyone around you seemed to feel better as well. Construction crews got to work repairing the damage to the city, and politicians sat down together and actually got things done (for once). All of your neighbors, so indifferent and even cold before, were a lot nicer to you and to each other. Molly's mom sometimes comes over every now and then to check up on you.

She always brings a casserole. It's always delicious.

The world seems determined to make the most out of the second chance it got, and honestly, so are you. Being confronted with the threat of death and cosmic doom has given you a lot to think about. You're just your everyday, average loser, living paycheck to paycheck and just barely scraping by. But you plan to clean up your life and make something of yourself. Someday, you will be in a better place.

Someday....you're going to get over everything, and everyone, you've lost.

Right now, though, you're still living alone in your crummy apartment, juggling bills and working your dead-end job at Bloaty's Pizza Hog.

And when you're not doing that, you're dealing with hard, heavy memories that keep you up at night.

"Hey! Are you even listening to me?!"

"O-oh!" You return to reality, all the sound in the world rushing back as you look your boss in the eye. "I...uh...I'm sorry, Sir, what were we talking about again?"

Your boss looks you up and down, but chooses not to comment on the dazed look in your eyes or the telltale rigidness in your body language. "I was SAYING that your break's over. We got a huge batch of pizzas to deliver, and you're gonna be the one to do it."

"Uh..." You look down at the stack of pizzas he's already shoving into your arms, shifting them around uncomfortably. "B-But I thought Liam was doing delivery tonight. Didn't you want me helping out here on Saturdays?"

"Yeahhhh, no," says your boss, glancing over your shoulder. You follow his gaze, and wince with pity. Liam is screaming at the top of his lungs as dozens of kids swarm him like hungry ants overtaking a helpless grasshopper. Like quicksand, he's slowly disappearing from view as he sinks down to his demise. "He's fine where he is."

"A-are you sure?" you ask, as you watch the high schooler trying to claw desperately out of the pile for air.

"He's great, don't worry about it, he loves it."

"I hate this!" screams Liam. "Nothing about this is great! Someone - please!" You look back just in time to watch him sink back down under the pile of kindergartners. "No! HELP! Avenge meeeee!"

"Anyways, Kid - " Your boss shifts directly between you and Liam, blocking the poor boy from your sight as he crosses his arms. "I want you on delivery tonight. I know it ain't exactly rocket science, and I'll be honest - I could always use your help here. BUT - " He cuts you off as soon as you open your mouth. " - Maybe this ain't the best place for you right now."

You freeze. As your face heats up, you realize with a sinking feeling that your grouchy old boss is a lot more perceptive than you previously thought.

"Listen, Kid, I....I get it." He sighs and looks away. "And whatever excuse you got for me...I don't want to hear it. Get out of here. Take a drive. Go out there and - I don't know - " He gestures with his hands awkwardly until the words come to him. "Get some fresh airs or whatnots."

You want to say something, but the embarrassment you feel is making your throat tight. Exhaling through your nose, you close your eyes and nod.

"Good answer, Kid," he replies, steering your by the shoulders with one hand while balancing a huge stack of pizzas with the other. "Keys are by the door, gas card is in the glove compartment. Be fast, be polite, and NO REFUNDS." He helps you load up the car, and once you're in the driver's seat, he comes around and pats the roof. "See ya when you get back, okay Kid?"

"Yes sir," you murmur, gripping the steering wheel tightly.

Your boss clears his throat awkwardly. "Now, uh, get going."

Determined to break the tension, you smirk at him. "You getting soft on me, old man?"

He turns a brilliant shade of red and stomps his foot so hard, you can see cracks form in the concrete. "NOW, KID! Unless you wanna pull that cutesy act in the unemployment line tomorrow!"

Babbling out an apology, you start up the car and begin to make your deliveries.

The sun sinks lower and lower in the sky as you zoom across town and drop off order after order to various hungry customers all over the city. Some are cool. Some are not. Some make you wish you had never signed up for this job. You get that bread. You're never impolite or late.

The sunset starts to turn a deep blood-red.

You try not to look at it.

Finally, as the stars began to appear overhead, you're left with one last delivery to make. You drive up to the house, illegally park by a fire hydrant and make your way to the door with the last two pizzas of the night in your arms. As you adjust the Bloaty's baseball cap on your head, you can't help but feel that something about this house is very familiar. Like you've seen it somewhere before.....

Nah. Can't be.

....Okay, have you?

You're still trying to figure out the answer by the time you ring the doorbell. A voice mumbles inside, alert and cheerful, and as you hear someone shuffling into action, and footsteps approach from the other side of the door, you take a deep breath and summon your best customer service smile.

It evaporates when the door slams open and you're knocked off your feet by the huge, hulking figure that rushes at you.

"HOWAAAAAY! The pizzas hewe!"

Stunned by the sheer force that hit you like a hurricane, you peel yourself up off the ground, wincing as you realize you're covered in slices of what used to be a pizza. As olives and pineapple drip off of your clothes and hair, your gaze moves upward and your jaw drops. Standing in front of you is the strangest person you have ever seen in your life. One of his arms is far, far bigger than the other, and his face reminds you of the pet goldfish you had in 4th grade. He's so bulbous and lopsided and WRONG that you can't even feel any anger about the tomato sauce and cheese splattered all over your uniform. All you can do is stare in bewilderment as the strange, clearly inhuman man lumbers up to you, smiling at you the entire time. "Boye!" he screeches, reaching over and plucking you up by your collar like a kitten. "Wooks wike someone had a wittle accident! Whoopsie-daisy!" He giggles, his voice easily surpassing his appearance in terms of bizarreness. "It's okay! Pwofessor Cwembwane has just the thing to make you feew aww bettew!"

"I -" You begin, but before you can say anything else, you feel something being shoved into your mouth against your will. It's cold. It's slimy. It....tastes vaguely of chocolate. I mean, if chocolate was made out of sawdust from the 1920's, and the broken dreams of theater majors everywhere.

Whatever it is, it is absolutely horrid, and there's no way you can keep it down. You spit it back up, feeling the strange gooey muck dribble out of your mouth and onto your shirt. You're so caught up in avoiding another spoonful of the stuff that you don't even notice the two small figures rushing out of the front door.

"Clembrane! Stop!"

"Put them down, now!"

"Bad Clembrane! Bad!"

You look down to see that a little boy with black hair, glasses and a truly impressive cowlick is now standing between you and the strange fish-faced man. "Clembrane, NO!" he says, stomping his foot and pointing at the ground. "Put them down right now! You're scaring them!"

"What?" The bulbous orange man tilts his head down at the little boy, confused and slightly hurt. "Son, why would you saye dat? I'm just tryin to welcome ouwe guest into ouwe home!"

"Hardly!" scoffs another voice. A small girl with short purple hair calmly makes her way around the strange giant and droops with disappointment at the splattered pizza mess on the front lawn. "Look at this! Now what are we gonna have for dinner?" She turns around and waggles her finger sternly up at the monster, exuding waves of authority. "Clembrane, this is a no-no. You have to be gentle with strangers. They're not as strong as you and...uh..." She looks the man up and down. "T...th-they might be really surprised when they see the world's greatest scientist for the first time."

"....Ohhhh," says the giant, nodding sagely in understanding. "Othewe people might not be used to my handsome face."

"....Ssssssure?"

"I'm really sorry about this," the boy apologizes as the giant sets you down. "Clembrane's not a bad guy. He wasn't trying to hurt you, we swear, he's just....he's still not used to new people." He twiddles with his thumbs, sinking into the collar of his trenchcoat in embarrassment. "He gets a little too excited with strangers."

You nod wordlessly, feeling even more confused than before. As the giant orange fish man shakes your hand and apologizes, and droops like a hurt puppy when he gets scolded by the little girl, you stare at the children in front of you and come to the realization that you know exactly who they are.

Dib and Gaz Membrane. The son and daughter of one of the most well-known men on the face of the planet.

Then...does that mean...?

"Dib, Gaz, is everything all right out h-? Oh. Oh, dear."

And suddenly, there he is.

World famous scientist, Professor Membrane.

Aaaand there YOU are. On his front lawn, in your tacky Bloaty's uniform, covered in pizza toppings and brown muck, catching flies with your open mouth.

Time does its thing again as it freezes completely, with the two of you just staring at each other in utter shock.

"U-uh!" you stammer, mortified. You turn a vivid shade of red and inwardly beg for some merciful god to put you out of your misery right then and there.

"Are you-?" Professor Membrane begins, taking a step forward and reaching for you, but the painful, awkward stretch of AWKWARD is finally, blessedly broken by Gaz. "Dad!" she calls to him. "Clembrane did it again!"

"I didn't mean to! Honest! I sweawe, I was ownwy twying to hewp," blubbers Clembrane as he buries his face in his hands.

"...Yes, I can see that," sighs Professor Membrane. He surveys the scene, and in your humiliation, you pull the brim of your baseball cap over your eyes. You hug yourself tightly and brace yourself as he walks over to you. "Are you alright?" he asks.

You nod, far too embarrassed to speak - but you force yourself to anyways. "Yeah, I'm good!" you squeak out.

"He just tackled them as soon as he opened the door," explains Dib as he walks over to you.

"Hmm. Is that so?"

Out of nowhere, someone tilts your chin up, and you turn an even brighter shade of red as he shines a light in your eyes. "I'm terribly sorry about this," he murmurs as he moves a finger back and forth in front of you, watching you intently as you follow it. "My...roommate...is a VERY excitable person."

Behind him, his roommate(???) whimpers and looks down at his feet. "I'm so sowwy," he whimpers, and despite everything, it's enough to tug at your heart strings.

"It's okay," you say gently. "N-no big deal."

"W...weally?" he asks as he looks back up at you.

"Yeah," you say, summoning up every ounce of confidence you have to reassure him. "Accidents happen, y'know? It's all good."

Clembrane wipes away a tear and smiles gratefully at you. Despite everything, you smile back.

"So what do we do now?" asks Gaz, poking at a slice of pizza on the ground with a stick. "I'm starving, Dad."

"We'll get that sorted out in a minute, honey," says Professor Membrane, and to your immense surprise, you find yourself being led gently into the house. "Right now, we need to take care of our guest."

"I....uh...o-okay?" you reply gracelessly, and with that, you follow him through the front door.

Time does the thing it always does when you're in a state of shock. Dib turns on a strange invention that illuminates your body with light that cleans every last bit of dirt and grime off of your clothes and body. You're left smelling like lavender and spring rain instead of pizza grease, and as you inspect yourself in the reflection of the smooth metal fridge, the Professor explains how the invention works. Gaz and Clembrane make small talk, and it helps ground you back to reality. You call your boss and tell him what happened, and after chewing you out a little bit, he gets started on a replacement order right away, on the house.

You make a trip back to Bloaty's, get chewed out a second time, and make your way back to the Membrane household with a fresh batch of pizzas. They're waiting for you on the front lawn and you're barely out of the car before Gaz is at your feet, pouncing on the pizza in that terrifying, feral way only small little girls can pull off. She and her brother sit out on the front lawn on a blanket and eat out of the box, devouring the cheesy, greasy goodness together. Clembrane sits down to join them, taking a bite of pizza and watching the cheese stretch out as far as it can, and being just as adorable as Dib and Gaz. Professor Membrane stands next to you and laughs at the sight.

You are trying very, very hard to ignore the way his laughter makes something flutter in your chest. He says something to his family, some joke or generic Dad saying, but you can't really make out what the words actually are. To your immense embarrassment, you're too busy eyeing him out of the corner of your eye. He's wearing goggles, and his collar obscures most of his face, and everything from his height to his class to his general place in the world is just...so beyond your reach.

And yet, you honestly can't take your eyes off of him.

"All right, I believe this should just about cover it," he says as he turns to you.

You look down at the money that's suddenly in your hands. You are just about to remind him that it's on the house, when you realize that this is actually your tip. And he's tipped you quite generously. You stammer something out, you can't remember what, but he laughs gently (STOP IT YOU'RE KILLING ME) and instead thanks you and apologizes again for the craziness from before. He says something to you, and you should be paying attention, but the sound of his voice, and the way it's making you feel -

It is VERY distracting.

"I...thank you, Professor," you say, stepping back and tipping the brim of your hat. "It was very nice to meet you. I should go. Y'all have yourselves a good night."

"You do the same," he says warmly, and for a split second, it feels like he actually means it.

But then you realize, it's just the man being polite.

Taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, you make your way to the car, twirling the keys around your finger as you try to calm the butterflies in your stomach. Behind you, on the other side of the Membrane's lawn, a squirrel skitters past the fence and knocks over a small potted plant. You do not see it fall, but you hear the crash of the pottery breaking apart on the concrete.

And suddenly everything comes rushing back.

Out of nowhere, you instinctively drop the keys and fall to your knees, curling up into a little ball. With your hands over your head, you shake and brace yourself for a second explosion, your breath becoming shallow as the heat from the burning buildings washes over you and the concrete beneath you begins to fracture apart. The air is thick with smoke, and it burns your throat as your ears ring with the sounds of sirens and planets in the sky being sucked into an endless hungry mouth and it feels like the entire world is screaming for help-

"Dad?! Dad, why did you do that?!"

And just like that, you're back.

Slowly, you shakily bring yourself up to your feet. The neighborhood is in one piece, and the wind smells like summer again, and the constellations above your head are where they should be.

But there IS smoke. And it wasn't there before. You turn around to see where it's coming from, and you freeze.

Dib and Gaz, and Clembrane too, are huddled together on the blanket, staring fearfully at a large, smoldering hole in their fence, small bits of flame still licking at the singed corners of the splintered wood. In front of it, with his arm shining silver under the street lamps, is Professor Membrane.

"Dad?" Dib calls out. "Are...you okay?"

You watch the scene unfold, your eyes widening as a hand flies up to your mouth in surprise when his arm begins to move, and even from this distance, you can see the slightly unnatural movements and hear the cybernetics moving around. The fingertips are glowing blue, but they flicker out as Professor Membrane steadies his breathing and looks up again. For a moment, it seems as if he doesn't know where he is.

For a moment....this all seems very familiar.

"Hey, Dad?"

Gaz is suddenly at her father's side, tugging at his sleeve. She's such a force of nature, you can tell, but there's uncertainty as she looks up at her father. "You wanna eat inside?"

The Professor looks down at her for only a split second before sweeping her off her feet and lifting her up on his shoulder like a parrot. "Why Gazlene, that is a fantastic idea!" Like the sun streaming out from behind a storm cloud, his exuberance and showmanship comes rushing back as if nothing had ever happened. He struts over to the picnic blanket and scoops up the pizza in his other arm before making his way back to the house. "Come on, son! We better eat this pizza before it gets cold!"

"Y-yeah, okay!" calls Dib, and he hops off of the blanket, watching his dad head inside.

As Professor Membrane kicks open the front door casually and enters his home, Clembrane gathers and folds the blanket in his hands before dutifully walking over to the fence. He throws some handfuls of dirt on the last remaining fires and jogs over through the front door. Dib slowly makes his way to his house, hunched over as if there's an invisible weight on his shoulders. Just before he grabs the doorknob, he turns around, out of instinct, and the two of you make eye contact.

There is a long, airless pause, like the silence before a funeral. Like the calm before a storm. And neither he nor you knows exactly what to do next.

But you're the adult. You won't - you can't - leave it up to a poor little kid like him. So you grab the brim of your hat and tip it, just a little. Just enough to let him know that whatever this is, whatever this was, is over, and you are neither judging him for it or are planning to tell anyone about it.

He sees. And he nods back in understanding. There might be a small, shaky smile at the corners of his lips but honestly, you're too far away to tell.

And then he walks inside, and you're alone.

Chapter Text

You don’t get a lot of sleep nowadays.

Huffing out a breath of frustration, you grab your phone off of the nightstand and look at the screen.

2:45 AM.

You groan into your pillow, every part of your body aching with exhaustion. You're waiting for it, PRAYING for it, but you know that sleep won’t come to you that night. Sleep itself has become this fleeting, fickle concept. Sometimes it stays with you for a few dreamless hours, then later evaporates in the middle of the night. Sometimes you swing back and forth in and out of consciousness, like a pendulum, and reality sort of bleeds together in one long restless sequence. More often than not, it edges away from you, just beyond your grasp....and by the time you finally feel it at your fingertips, it’s five in the morning, and you have to get ready for work.

You haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months. Ironically, it’s made your life a nightmare.

The world around you moves at the exact same speed as before, but your insomnia has made keeping up with it absolute agony. You struggle to follow along with conversations and always need to have things repeated to you, you constantly lose focus doing even the simplest of tasks, and you forget absolutely everything now. It started with leaving your keys on the kitchen counter and locking yourself out of your apartment once, then twice, then a few times a week. You missed a few bills because you thought you already paid them and got some not-so-nice calls from your obligations because of it. You don't have much of an appetite these days - sometimes you just forget to eat. And just yesterday at work, you started a small fire because you left something lying where it shouldn't have been. It was a careless, amateur move that no one your age would ever in their right mind pull, and you got dragged into your boss's office and yelled at for half an hour because of it.

It’s a miracle you weren't fired on the spot.

Your boss sent you home for the day, four and a half hours early on a Saturday night. It's easily the busiest night of the week, and everyone at Bloaty's has to pull together to get through it, especially now that Liam's in the hospital again after a run-in with the animatronics. The customers at Bloaty's suck, but your co-workers are pretty awesome. They needed you. You could have helped, if you weren't such a mess. If you weren't such a loser.

You feel like a failure.

Your boss seemed to sense that something was off. "Go home and get some rest," he said gently, before waving you away from his office. "Take it easy, get some sleep, and I'll see you Monday."

His pity just made you feel worse. As you drove yourself home, you felt guilt pool at the bottom of your stomach when you thought about his parting words. There's a part of you that just doesn't ever want to rest. Because on those rare occasions when you do, in those small moments when you actually manage to sink down into deep, genuine sleep, the nightmares come.

Always. Without fail.

They're always there, come to think about it. Even if you're awake, you're always remembering things from your dreams. Flames. Distant screams. Tremors in the earth. A strange smiling symbol in the sky. You'll be walking around town, just trying to live your life, but you'll smell something burning, or hear a loud noise, and the memories take over and you just break. You scream. You snap at people. You make a complete fool of yourself in public, and your anxiety is spiraling out of control. You find yourself less like a person and more like a rubber band stretched way too thin, always on edge, always wanting to run from something you can't even name. You don't like what your life is turning into. You hate what you've become.

Your world is rapidly deteriorating all around you and all because you just. Can't. Sleep.

Rubbing your sore, tired eyes, you check your phone again. 2:47 AM.

You've had enough.

Throwing the sheets off of your bed, you get up, go to the kitchen and put the kettle on. As you wait for the water to boil and choose a tea to drink, you look up your doctor's phone number and leave a long, detailed message for the nurse to hear in the morning. You're sick of the paranoia, of the meltdowns, of all the stares and social embarrassment and lying awake at night in fear. Whatever this is, it's gone too far, and it's time to get a medical professional involved.

You need answers. And you need them now.

The kettle starts whistling, and you turn off the stove, double check to make sure it's completely off, and fix your tea. You make your way to your apartment balcony and drink in the soothing blend of lavender and chamomile, leaning on the railing and gazing down at the world below.

You're not living in a palace, but the view from your balcony is something you'll never get tired of. No matter how bad you feel, it always calms you down.

There's a strange rustling sound, and something by the dumpsters catches your eye. A small animal rustles around the garbage, sniffing for food under the inconsistent lighting of the street lamps. After a moment or two, it crawls out of the trash, chewing hungrily on something as it skitters away into the shadows of the night.

Was that a dog?

And was it....green?

You stare after it for a long time, before you shake your head and take a long drink from your mug.

You really do need some sleep.

----------------

By noon, you got a call back from the nurse. You set up an appointment. The time spent in the waiting room was long, and made even longer by the sense of dread that grew in your gut. But through the hurricane of anxiety that swirled around your head, one thought rang clear. You need answers, and you need them now.

And once the doctor looked you over, you got them.

Only, they weren't the ones you expected. At all.

“Alright, everyone! Settle down!”

You look up from your phone, broken out of your thoughts. It's Thursday afternoon, and your shift ended an hour ago. You're sitting in a meeting room on the second floor of the city library. It's a large, windowless room, but with so many other people here, there really isn’t a lot of space in the end. You've chosen a seat in the back, a nice little spot where you're not only half hidden by the low lighting, but conveniently right next to an exit in case...

In case you were right and this was all a big mistake.

The murmuring in the room dies down as a cheerful woman with sunny blonde hair taps her coffee mug with a spoon like she’s about to give a freaking wedding speech. “Good afternoon! Welcome back to Apocalypse Survivors Support! It’s so good to see you all again." She beams, and her teeth are so perfect and white you wince from the light that seems to come off of them. "How was everyone's weekend?"

Some of the others in the room call out various answers for a minute or two. Some of them are funny, you guess? You don't know for sure. People are laughing but you're not really paying attention. As time ticks on, you only grow more and more uncomfortable. You want to run. Every instinct in your body is telling you to run. Screw your doctor. Screw his diagnosis. Screw your new prescription and that little black card he gave you. Screw everything. This was a stupid idea.

There's no one else sitting with you in the back row. Everyone's caught up in some soccer mom's story about her girl's night out this past Saturday. Now's your chance. Taking a quick glance around the room to make sure no one's watching, you get up and sneak over to the door as quietly as you can, nearly slipping on a piece of paper in the process. Slinging your bag over your shoulder, you push it open -

And an alarm starts blaring out overhead.

The world tilts sharply to the side and you nearly lose your balance and fall. Red lights starts flashing over your head as the sound, loud and terrible, goes on, so loud it rattles your bones. It's enough to bring some very unpleasant memories back to the surface. As you press yourself up against the wall, heart pounding, your eyes look over to see that everyone else in the room is now staring at you. You're frozen in place, all too aware of the fact that they probably know exactly what you were trying to do. There is a long stretch of nothing where all you do is stand like a deer in headlights, too mortified by the sound and the lights and the embarrassment to move, but then someone gets up. You watch as they calmly walk past you and close the door, and once they do, the lights go back to normal and the alarm stops. Almost as if it's second nature, they pick up the piece of paper you stepped on earlier and pin it back into place on the wall beside the door. Drawn on the paper is one big arrow and handwritten letters that say "FIRE EXIT: Do not open, alarm will sound."

Well then.

Someone asks you a question. You look up. "Huh?"

It's the blonde lady from before. She walked up to you without you even noticing, and while her teeth still shine bright in her mouth, her megawatt smile is gone. "Are you okay?" she repeats softly, genuine concern in her eyes.

You look down at yourself, and for the first time, you notice that your hands are shaking. You hastily shove them in your pockets and avoid her eyes. "Uh," you begin, but like the poet you are, you can't figure out how to go from there.

Luckily, you don't have to, because someone else interrupts. "Don't worry, Tiff. I got this."

A hand claps down on your shoulder and you turn to face the person who closed the door. It's someone around your age, a tall, thin man with multiple ear piercings and a bright green mullet that flows down his back. He grins at you like you're old friends and gives you a knowing wink. "Come on," he says in a heavy Southern drawl, ushering you out of the room. "You hungry? I'll buy you a snack."

"Um...." You'd be lying if you said that you were completely okay with this, and there's a refreshments table literally RIGHT in the front of the room, but you give him a hasty nod anyways. "S-sure," you reply nervously. Anything to get out of here.

"Cool." He walks you out of the room, and once the door closes, he lets you go and takes the lead. You obey, too bewildered not to, and find yourself walking through the bookshelves together in comfortable silence. The vending machines are on the first floor, and it looks like he's taking the long way to get there. You don't mind though. Your heart rate is slowly going back to normal, and the feeling of absolute panic and fear is fading away as you walk through the peaceful library. Your head is completely clear by the time the two of you get to the vending machines, and your hands aren't shaking anymore. Mullet Guy starts fishing around his pockets for some change and looks over to you with a smile. "So! What're you hungry for?"

"Oh!" Your eyes flick around nervously - you didn't realize his offer before was genuine. "Y-you don't-"

"Dealer's choice, got it." He presses a few buttons in the machine, and before you know it, you're seated across from him at a nearby table with some Cheeznos and a can of Diet Poop in your hand. He's wolfing his own food down like a starving coyote, and in stark contrast, you take a few calm sips of your soda. At some point, Mullet Guy looks up at you, orange Cheezno dust staining his fingers. "Feelin' better?" he asks through a mouth of food. "Did the walk do you good?"

"...Yeah," you answer. "How did you know?"

"They're a great way to help you out of an episode."

You nearly choke on your Diet Poop, but whether he noticed or not, he continues on, stretching his arms over his head and leaning back casually in his seat. "Yep. It's easier to break out of a PTSD attack if you're with other people since, y'know, they can help ground you. But if you're alone, you gotta figure out a solid strategy to ground yourself. Deep breathin's the easiest technique to do. You can also practice mindfulness and talk yourself down, tell yourself it's not real, list things you can see around you, that sort of thing? But for me, takin' a walk works the best." He stops to take a swig of soda, and wipes his mouth on his sleeve before continuing. "It interrupts the stress response and sends endorphins to your brain at the same time." He grins at you again. "'S pretty neat, huh?"

You don't smile back. "I don't have PTSD," you lie.

"Yeah," he laughs, "That's when I said when I got sent here. 'Nothin's wrong with me, the Doc made a mistake, I shouldn't even be here, I'm fine.'" He shook his head. "But I wasn't. I tried to leave through the back, same as you. I didn't see the sign, same as you. And...." He shrugs. "The alarm triggered me and I had a breakdown. Right then and there."

"W-what happened?" you ask before you can stop yourself.

He shrugs. "Eh. I broke a few chairs and punched a hole through the wall. Not, uh." He coughs and scratches the back of his head self-consciously. "Not my best moment."

"The walls....are...made of...brick...in that room," you say slowly.

"Yeah," he nods, looking away in embarrassment. "Adrenaline's one heckuva drug!" He laughs nervously. "It's a good thing it didn't go any further than that. I could have really hurt somebody." He pauses to take one last sip of his soda before crushing the can against his forehead and chucking it into the nearby trash can. "It was a real wake-up call. And I thank my lucky stars that there were other folks there that knew how to help calm me down." He shakes his head and laughs again, but there's an edge of real, raw emotion underneath it. "It was one of the lowest points of my life. The lowest since-" He gestures with his hands. "Y-you know. That. That thing that happened."

Understanding dawns on your face bit by bit. "You mean the Flor-?"

"Don't say it!" he shouts suddenly, pounding the table hard enough for the surface to crack.

You sit back in alarm, taken off-guard by the sudden mix of terror and anger in his eyes, but his ferocity melts away quickly into an expression of regret as he coughs into his hand. "S-sorry, I....! ....I'm sorry. I guess....I still got some things to work out," he confesses, flushing red. "I-it ain't your fault, you were just asking a question, but...some things are still a little hard for me to get off my chest."

You absorb his words for a moment, then nod. "It's okay," you tell him. "I..." You let out a long, deep breath before being honest with yourself for the first time since the Florpus Incident. "I...haven't really...been the same since last year, either."

"Mmm." He unwraps a snack cake and takes a big bite. "What's your name?"

You give it to him. "What's yours?"

"Folks call me Mars," he replies. He reaches his clean hand out to you. "Nice to meet ya."

Despite everything, you smile and shake it. "Same."

"So." Mars stands up and dusts crumbs off of his battle jacket. "I'm heading back to Support Group. You comin'?"

You chuckle nervously, but none of that can hide the humiliation in your eyes. "Thanks, but...I don't think I'm welcome there right now."

"What? You kiddin'?!" He walks around the table and punches you playfully in the shoulder. "They love fresh meat! Besides, it ain't like they're in any position to judge ya. Everyone goes there because they've got problems. Everyone in that room is there because they need someone to talk to. Someone to help them work out whatever it is they need to work on. Including me."

You bite your lip in apprehension, and he senses your hesitation. Mars gently places a hand on your shoulder and you look back up at him. The kindness on his face is genuine. "No one's gonna ask you for anything. No one expects you to get up in front of everyone and unload on the first day if you're not ready. We won't push you on anything if you're not 100% up for it. Healing takes time, and healing takes work." He jerks his head towards the second floor and holds his hand out to you. "Come on, soldier. We've got sixty more minutes left. Finish what you started, and then you can go from there."

You smile and take his hand, and he pulls you up. "All right," you say as the two of you head upstairs. "But only because I owe you, and I don't have any cash to pay you back for the food."

"Eh," he shrugs. "Bring me a Brain Freezie to our next session, and we'll call it even."

"Are you trapping me into coming back next week?" you laugh.

"Heh!" He snorts, smirking and winking at you. "I like you! You catch on real quick!"

--------------------

The two of you soon return to the study room. A few people watch you walk in for a moment, but politely look away so you and Mars can rejoin the group in peace. The rest of the hour, to your great relief, goes by smoothly. You were expecting scrutiny and judgement, and probing, painful questions. But that's not what you see. The chairs in the room are all in a circle now and one by one, members of Apocalypse Survivor Support talk about....stuff. Their problems. Their progress.

You soon learn that you’re not alone in your suffering. There’s a large man covered with tattoos and scars who admits that while he doesn't need a nightlight anymore, despite his best efforts, he still can’t sleep by himself. After being trapped under a fallen building alone for a few days, he goes into a panic when he's forced to be by himself at night. You listen to an affluent soccer mom with perfect hair and expensive nails discuss how she’s thinking about pulling her kids out of school and homeschooling them. She confesses that it’s very selfish of her, but in a cracking voice, she talks about her paranoia that if her kids walk out the door one day, they may never come back. There’s a young couple, both on the pudgy side, who hold hands as they admit that they’re thinking of joining a gym and getting in shape to prepare themselves in case….in case something like last year ever happens again. One by one, the members all share their stories, their fears, their frustrations. They talk about how their faith has been tested, how their philosophies and priorities have changed, and all that they’ve learned about themselves after the awfulness that happened a year ago.

They all listen to each other. The people of Apocalypse Survivor Support talk and discuss and communicate some really tough topics, and none of it is awkward at all. The perky blonde woman who's leading the group - Tiff - helps direct the conversations into something constructive, and occasionally steps in by giving each person advice on how to handle their situation. She also helps them choose a reasonable goal to shoot for during the week, to help them in their progress. She's still a little much to take in, but there's no fake-ness to her at all as she praises each person in the room for how far they've each come. You wouldn't call yourself an expert on people, but even you can tell that she genuinely wants the people under her wing to get better. You can't help but feel a fondness for her as you listen to her speak.

There's a brief pause as she takes a drink of coffee, then looks around the room. "Would anyone else like to share something this week?" she asks.

Beside you, Mars raises a hand. "I got somethin'."

"Ah! Mars!" Tiff wiggles in her seat to face him properly. "We haven't heard from you in a while. Let's hear it!"

You watch as Mars takes a deep breath before slouching forward in his seat. "I, uh, had another dream last night. It's.....one I've been having for a while now." He closes his eyes as he reminisces. "I'm running through a hallway where I used to work. There are stars in the sky, and a bunch of weird things floating outside the window. Some things I recognize, others I don't. Anyways, the hallway is full of doors. I hear people I know shouting behind each one, screaming for help, and I'm trying to open the doors to let them out, but as soon as I do, the doors just sort of...bleed into the wall."

Your eyebrows fly up in surprise. Mars's smile is gone. He pauses and lets out a shaky sigh. Running a hand through his hair, his yellow eyes grow distant as he continues. "As soon as a door vanishes, the voice behind the wall stops screaming. I keep trying though. In the dream, I know it's pointless, but how...how am I supposed to walk away? I keep running around, trying and trying to save someone - anyone - and the doors keep disappearing as soon as I touch them. But then, I finally manage to get one of my oldest friends from military training free. I don't know how I do it, and in the dream, I don't care, because she's SAFE. Then the main door at the end of the hallway opens, and a white light shines through. We're running towards it, but it's like the room stretches on forever. We keep running and running but no matter how far we run, we never get any closer to leaving."

"Behind us, the lights in the hallway start to turn off. I know, somehow, that if we get caught up in the dark, we're goners. So I grab her hand and pull her after me and I start running faster. It feels like my insides are on fire. I was in the military for...a long, LONG time...and I've been through a lot on the battlefield, but I don't ever remember feeling so helpless in my entire life. Then, the lights behind us start to flicker, and the door begins to close. I.... I let go of her hand and make a jump for it, and I don't know how, but I manage to catch it just before it closes. I turn around to reach out for my friend, and I call her name....but there's no one there anymore. She's just..." Mars swallows, looking very lost. "She's gone."

You sit there next to him, stunned. Never in your life would you have expected such a shameless and laidback guy to have something that heavy on his mind. There's a brief moment of silence where the group sits back and absorbs his words. Finally, Tiff speaks up. "That must have been very frightening for you, Mars," she says gently. "I know you suffer from night terrors, but I don't think I remember you mentioning this particular dream before."

"Yeah, well...that's cuz I haven't, really?" Mars rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. "It's been popping up for almost a month now. T'be honest, I was hoping it would go away on its own. I..." He sighs and holds his head in his hands. "Just thinking about it again makes me want to vomit."

"You can't hold this stuff in, Mars," says a middle-aged Asian man with glasses. "It's not healthy."

"He's right," says the goth woman beside him. "If you want to get past your survivor's guilt, you need to share this with us. You have to talk about it."

"I get that, but...It feels like I'm whinin' about the same things, over and over," Mars confesses, sitting back up. "It doesn't feel fair. I'm sitting here, crying like a baby, and she's-"

"Mars." Tiff cuts him off, gently but firmly. "You're allowed to feel what you feel. Your emotions are valid. If you want to get better, you need to accept your feelings. They matter, and you matter too. You deserve to be upset, after all that's happened."

"Yeah." Mars nods and laughs, but there's no humor in it. "Yeah..."

"Mars, I'm going to give you a goal for next week," says Tiff as she digs around in her bag. She pulls out a small notebook and passes it to him through the others. "I want you to start writing down your feelings. If you have another dream, or if you're just feeling low, write out what you feel and why you feel it. I think it'll do you a lot of good if you get those emotions out on a page. It'll make it easier for you to talk about them."

"Uh, okay, sure." Mars takes the notebook from the person next to him and looks down at it. "I'll give it a go."

"Well, that's all the time we have for today." Tiff gets up, and there's a loud shuffling as everyone stands and starts to put their chairs back into place. "Thank you all for being here tonight! See you all next week! If you need to talk to me before then, remember - my line is always open!"

"Huh. It's 6:00 already? Weird." Mars stands up and stretches, yawning loudly, and just like that, it's like the conversation about his dream never even happened. "So, what'd you think, Fresh Meat?" he asks you. "Ain't so bad now that you've actually gone through it, right?"

"Y-yeah," you reply, standing up and putting your chair back into place. "It was really cool."

He grins. "Told ya."

The two of you grab your stuff and go, waving to Tiff one last time before you leave. She smiles at you and you nearly go blind, but it doesn't matter. She's great. She's nice and open and didn't even force you to introduce yourself after you got back.

You already know you'll be seeing her again next week.

"So, what're you up to now?" asks Mars as the two of you head out of the room. "I kinda wanna eat out tonight. Wanna come grab a slice at Bloaty's with me?"

You snicker. "Nooo, thank you! I spend way too much of my life there as it is."

"You work there?" he asks, stopping in his tracks.

"Yep," you reply. "You couldn't tell? Seriously?! I reek of pizza! I always do nowadays." You grimace. "Jeez, I wasn't even in the kitchen today and I can still feel the pepperoni grease on my hands. That stuff never goes away."

His eyes begin to sparkle and he howls and pumps a fist in the air. "You make pizza! That's awesome!" he shouts, grabbing you by the shoulders and getting a few stares from other patrons. "You got an employee discount, right? C'monnnnn, come to Bloaty's and treat your old pal Mars!"

"I met you an hour ago," you laugh, squirming out of his grasp. "And I'm already bringing you a Brain Freezie next week."

He pauses. "So...you're coming back?"

You roll your eyes. "What flavor do you want?"

A slow smile spreads across his face and he lets out another whoop of laughter before lifting you up and whirling you around once. A librarian shushes him vehemently, scowling at him with pure hatred. He puts you down and shoots her two finger guns and a flirtacious wink before turning back to you, using a normal speaking voice again. "You know what? I'm gonna head out before I get myself banned. You want to grab dinner next week though?"

"Sure." You wave as he walks away. "See you, Mars!"

"Later!"

You watch him run down the stairs and out of the main doors, shaking your head as you do. He's so weird, but so easy to like at the same time. Slinging your bag over your shoulder, you walk into the maze of bookshelves. It's been a long time since you've actually visited the library, but now that you're here, you're kind of curious to see what they have in the paranormal fiction section. After a few minutes of walking you find it, and as you're looking through the titles, you fail to notice the small figure carrying a large stack of books heading your way.

That is, until you turn around and crash into them.

"OOF!"

The tower of books topples over and falls to pieces on the ground, and your bag falls out of your arms. Papers are flying everywhere once the binder inside your bag breaks and spills onto the floor. As you step back in surprise, you see a small figure with a very familiar cowlick sitting in the center of all the mess. Dib Membrane picks himself up off the ground, rubbing a sore spot on his head. "S-s-sorry!" he babbles. “I-I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, I swear - !”

But then he looks up, and freezes when he makes eye contact with you.

Your eyebrows fly up in surprise and you flush a little at the intensity of his gaze. You wonder if he remembers you from your last encounter, and there's an awkwardness in the air as you think back to that night. It felt like you were intruding on something private then, and even here, in a public freaking library, you feel like you're intruding on something private now. "I...I'm sorry," you apologize, getting down on your knees and collecting his books. "I wasn't paying attention. I should have been more careful."

“N-no, that’s okay,” he blurts back, scooping up your papers as fast as he can. "It was my fault. Uh...Um..Here, let me help-"

There's some silence as the two of you scramble around to get each other's belongings, bumping into each other and blurting out apologies every so often, but soon the two of you are swapping what you have. As you slowly put your binder back in order at a nearby table, you glance over at the books Dib is organizing into another stack. A familiar title catches your eye. "Huh," you say. "'X Marks the Spot'."

He looks up at you, surprised, and you laugh nervously. "Sorry, I just...I haven't seen that one in a while. I used to read it a lot when I was a kid, though."

"Y-yeah." Dib shifts around self-consciously, almost as if he's embarrassed. Like, he's waiting for you to make fun of him. "I'm a...big fan of the X-Files books," he murmurs, looking away.

"Yeah?" You tilt your head and smile. "Me too."

He looks back at you. "R-really?"

"Yeah. I love the books and I love the show. I've been a fan for years. Mulder was always my favorite."

"H-he's mine too!" chirps Dib, his mood brightening. "He's the whole reason I became a paranormal investigator!"

"Same," you say offhandedly as you close your binder and put it back in your bag.

It takes you a minute to notice, but you find yourself turning back to Dib and blinking in surprise at the starry-eyed expression he's giving you. "You're a paranormal investigator too?" he asks, stepping closer to you with a huge smile on his face. "Like, a REAL one?!"

"I mean," you laugh, rubbing the back of your neck awkwardly, "I don't have a license or anything like that, but I've always liked researching the paranormal, and I have gone hunting for stuff before."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Oh, you know. Unexplained phenomena, unsolved mysteries, cryptids, ghosts, ali-"

You halt in mid-word, and he catches it. "What was that?" he asks, stepping a little closer.

"N-nothing," you lie, shaking your head. "But, yeah, I've tried to track down some stuff before. I still do, sometimes." You lean on the nearby bookshelf and cross you arms. "I'm pretty sure there's a demonic entity in the basement of my apartment complex." You pause. "Besides my landlord, I mean."

"A demon, huh?" Dib pulls out a chair at the table and sits down, never taking his eyes off of you. "Tell me about it."

"Well," you begin, as you sit down next to him, "For one thing, the temperature is always at least ten degrees colder in the basement level, and there's this aura of dread that never seems to go away. As far as I can tell, none of it is because of the architecture or a gas leak, or the pipes or whatever. Things will move around constantly, I've heard whispering that doesn't seem to come from a living person, and then there's the weird scratches that some of my neighbors have gotten whenever they go down there to do laundry. I've gotten some myself, on my arms and my legs." You hold up your forearm. "See?"

"Whoa..." Dib leans forward and looks at the long thin lines on your skin. "So, have you ever directly contacted the entity itself?"

"Oh, yeah," you laugh. "I got stories."

For a while, the two of you sit there, and you tell him about the seances you've held while waiting for the washing machines to open up, how your ouija board snapped in half and threatening words appeared on the walls, and how you now have to leave offerings of jelly-filled donuts for the restless spirits of the basement if you don't want your clothes to suddenly "vanish." All of it is true, and Dib hangs onto your every word, occasionally stopping you to ask questions or give you advice on how to handle your supernatural situation. He's enjoying your company, and you're enjoying his. Time passes without the two of you noticing, and neither of you even look up when a small, violet-haired figure makes its way over to your table as the two of you chat on.

"-and he was using the belt sander!"

"The belt sander?" You tilt your head. "Wait, what would Bigfoot want with a belt sander?"

"That's what I was wondering," says Dib excitedly. "So the next night I do a stake-out, and - OW!"

You jump back in surprise as Gaz Membrane makes her presence known by slapping her older brother on the side of his head. "Hey, Dib. It's almost 7:00. Curfew's at 7:15. Did you forget or something?"

"I...no?" Dib rubs the spot on his head where she slapped him, looking up at a nearby clock. "Is it that late already?"

"I guess it is," you say, as you stand up. "I'm sorry, I guess I talked your ear off more than I should have. I should probably get going too. My bedtime's at 8."

"You have a bedtime?" asks Dib as he gathers his books. "Aren't you...you know...an adult?"

"Yeah, well." You shrug. "Doctor's orders." You shake your head. "A-and besides, I open tomorrow, so the more sleep I get, the better. Anyways, I had a lot of fun talking to you." You tip the brim of your baseball cap at him and his sister. "You kids have a good night. Get home safe."

And with that, you turn and leave.

"Who was that?" asks Gaz as she watches you go.

"Oh, that was - " Dib's happy expression falls as the realization hits him. "Dang it!" He pounds the table in frustration. "I didn't get their name! I never even asked for it!"

"Good job," says Gaz. "So why were they talking to you?"

"We sort of got around to discussing the paranormal," admits Dib. "After I bumped into them, I mean." He looks down, and sees a couple of things peeking out from under a nearby shelf. "Shoot, I think they left something behind."

“Geez, Dib,” says Gaz as she bends down to snatch one of the items off of the ground. “You wouldn’t be such a spaz if you just paid attention to where you were go-“

She pauses, and her eyes open wide at what she’s holding in her hands. It’s an illustration you made on a night you couldn’t sleep, and it's of an image you still can’t get out of your mind’s eye. The vivid colors and frenzied lines paint the picture of a sky full of planets and floating buildings and cars, and in the midst of it all, an alien fleet with bright pink ships dwarfs the helpless, ruined cityscape below. At the forefront of the fleet, on the surface of the biggest ship of them all, is a bright neon insignia -

A single, grinning, insect-like face.

“Whoa," murmurs Dib as he looks at the picture over her shoulder. "Is that....the Massive?"

Gaz doesn't answer, but looks over and catches sight of a small item in his hand, the other one you left behind. She snatches it away from him, ignoring her brother's protests as she looks down at the little black card and reads the words out loud:

"'Apocalypse Survivors Support.'"

The two of them stare down at the little card, then look up in the direction you had left.

But you're already long gone.

Chapter Text

"And that's all the time we have for today!"

You start at the sound of the voice, snapping your head up and looking around in confusion. "Whah? Huh?" you mumble stupidly, blinking your vision into focus.

It takes you a moment to realize where you are, but you find yourself sitting in a circle, surrounded by all of the other members of Apocalypse Survivors Support. It's Thursday again, and according to the clock on the far wall, you've officially made it through the second group session of therapy. In the middle of the room, Tiff claps her hands together and surveys you all with her trademark neon smile. "Thank you so much for coming tonight! I'll see you all back here next week!"

As everyone else around you shuffles up to their feet, you sit up and shake your head to try to rid yourself of the fog in your head. There's a strange sensation at the corner of your mouth, and when you reach up to touch it, your ears go red when you realize you were drooling in your sleep. You cringe in disgust and wipe your mouth with your sleeve. The new medication you're on is helping you fall asleep more easily than before, but you've been experiencing daytime drowsiness as your body tries to adjust to your prescription. Lately when you're still for too long, you fall right asleep. It hasn't been a danger, but it is annoying, and you don't like the idea of falling asleep while someone else is talking out their problems.

You turn to your left and your eyes widen when you realize someone has been staring at you this entire time.

Beside you, Mars gives you a wolfish grin. "Mornin', Sleeping Beauty."

You flush a brilliant red and give him a nervous smile in return. "O-oh. H-hey, Mars." You cough awkwardly. "So...um...did...did you...?"

"Notice that you fell asleep? Uh, yeah." He leans back in his chair casually, running a hand through his mullet and bringing the long scar over his right eye into full view. "Kind of hard not to catch on, what with y'all snorin' on my chest like that."

"Oh. Oh shoot." Your face is practically glowing at the thought, and you inwardly scream when you realize you probably drooled all over his battle jacket too. "I-I am so, SO sorry, I didn't mean - !"

But before you can finish, Mars starts to crack up and claps a hand on your shoulder. "Relax, soldier. No harm done! It's probably for the better, right?" He tilts his head. "I mean, with your insomnia and all, any sleep is good sleep."

You pause, and then nod. That's right. You were one of the first people to talk at the beginning of the meeting, and you had spoken about your insomnia and its impact on your life.

Reading your mind, Mars gives you an approving nod. "You did good, soldier. Thanks for sharing with us today." Yawning loudly, he stands up and holds out a hand to you. "So, how you feelin' about it? First cut's always the deepest."

You think for a moment before you stand up. "...Better," you finally reply. "I feel...I feel a LOT better then when I came in here." As he helps you up, you mull over your emotions, trying to figure out how to voice the realization that's dawning on you. "I mean, don't get me wrong. It was still a little hard for me to get the words out at first, but once I started actually talking, it was all so easy. Really, really easy, like the words have been -"

"Wanting to come out for a while," you finish together.

The two of you chuckle lightly and Mars nods and stretches in understanding. "Yyyep. It was the same for me when I first started talking about my issues. The first day I stood up and actually participated, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest. I swear I could even breathe better after telling the group about my episodes. It won't always be easy, though. Some days will be harder than others, and you don't get to pick which ones. But trust me, Speckles." He winks. "The more you open up, the easier it gets."

You pause and turn to him, raising your eyebrow slowly. "...Speckles?"

"Yeah. Speckles. 'Cuz you got speckles. You got a lot of them." Mars looks you up and down in amusement, snorting a little under his breath. "Sheesh, you got 'em everywhere."

You look down at the countless freckles that cover your forearms, fingers and the rest of your body. Ever since you were very small, you've been covered in the conspicuous spots from head to toe. Besides the eyes you keep hidden beneath your bangs, they're your most distinguishing feature. "I guess I do," you admit, laughing lightly. "You noticed, huh?"

"You kiddin'? They're pretty dang hard to miss." Mars rubs his chin thoughtfully. "I could probably pick you out of a line-up from thirty feet away."

"All right," you sigh, rolling your eyes. "That's enough."

"At night. During a new moon. With sunglasses on."

"OKAY," you groan. "You made your point! You can stop now!"

He ruffles your hair and grins playfully. "Aw, what's wrong, Speckles? Did I touch a nerve?"

You've only known Mars for a week, and you've mostly been speaking to him over text. But the moment you see the glint in his eye, you can already tell exactly where this conversation is going. You narrow your eyes. "Don't."

"Did - ?"

"DON'T."

"Did I - ?"

"Mars Thompson, I will literally kill you where you stand if you finish that sentence. This is your final warning."

There's a beat of silence as you stare each other down. There's a fierce scowl on your face and a shit-eating grin on his, and neither of you blink or break eye contact for a long, long time. You start to shake a little as Mars slowly bends down closer, closer, until his face is only a few inches away from yours. "...Did I hit a weak spot - "

"OKAY, THAT'S IT!"

You try to attack him head-on, but he just laughs and holds you back effortlessly with one hand. He's thin as a rail, but there's a surprising amount of strength in those lanky limbs of his, and try as you might, you can't get close. You struggle to land a blow on him, but in the end, he snorts and gently shoves you right back to where you where. This causes a chain reaction and soon, the two of you are shoving each other and laughing hard. You two are so caught up in this, neither one of you realize that someone else has been waiting to speak until she clears her throat.

Mars's eyebrows fly up as he takes notice. "Huh? Oh. Tiff!"

"Hello, my darlings!" she chirps, perky as ever. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and looks at the two of you, frozen in mid-argument. "I'm sorry to interrupt your...conversation, but I was wondering if I could speak to you for a minute before you head out the door."

"O-oh!" You're taken a little off guard when you realize it's you she's addressing. When she sees the alarm in your eyes, she holds up her hands in surrender. "You're not in trouble or anything," she reassures you gently. "I just thought it might be good to touch base with you after your first time talking out your problems with us."

"Oh. Uh, yeah," you nod. "That sounds good. W-we can do that, sure."

"Wonderful!" Tiff turns to your friend. "Mars - "

But he raises his hand with a smile. "Say no more. I know my cue." Reaching out to punch you lightly in the shoulder, Mars winks at Tiff and turns to walk towards the door. "Y'all have a good chat now. I'll be waiting by the front door, Speckles. Don't forget - we got a dinner date!"

"Okay!" you call out after him, sinking into a chair besides Tiff. "See you there!"

Everyone else has already left. When Mars leaves the room, it's just you and Tiff, and as you turn to your support group leader, you catch the playful expression in her eyes. "A dinner date, huh?" She giggles into her hand. "Wow! That boy sure works fast."

"What? N-no!" You turn red at the implication and shake your head a little too vehemently. "It's not like that, we're just - !"

But you're cut off when she bursts out laughing. There's no malice in her voice. "I'm kidding!" she explains. "It was just a joke, don't worry. It's nice that the two of you have hit it off so fast. Close relationships are always a wonderful thing to have, but especially when you're going through a hard time." Tiff sits back and taps her pen on her clipboard rhythmically, like the ticking of a clock. "When you're dealing with trauma, it can make you feel very isolated, and that isolation can feed into diminished feelings of self-worth. You then isolate yourself, and those thoughts have more time to ruminate in your head, and you feel even more isolated and negative. It's a vicious cycle. And it can be very hard to break out of."

"S-sounds like it," you answer as you eye her thoughtful expression.

"We haven't known each other long, so I know this might come off as a little disingenuous, but honestly? I truly am glad Mars was able to convince you to come back to the group last week," she confesses. The peppiness in her aura dims a little as she grows serious. "You know, there are so many individuals out there who need to talk about what they went through during the Florpus Incident, but they just don't get the help they deserve. I feel like there aren't enough doctors reaching out to the public, and because of that, not enough people know that there are resources available for them, let alone other survivors they can reach out to."

She frowns and looks away, and there's no mistaking the pain in her gaze. "I wish I could change that. I would like very much to do my part in fixing that however I can."

There's a beat of silence. When she turns back to you, her expression shifts as she catches the look on your face. "Oh! Is everything alright?"

"....Y-yeah," you nod slowly, slightly breathless as you realize what just happened. Did she just...? "But it's...you just said - you just SAID - !"

"The F Word?" Tiff catches on and nods, suddenly very embarrassed and apologetic. "Oh, I did! I did say that, didn't I? Hon, I am SO sorry, I shouldn't have done that. I don't like to use it in front of survivors because I know it can be very triggering. But sometimes my mind isn't where it should be, and...I slip up without thinking." She shakes her head and apologizes again. "I am so sorry, I swear, I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I won't use it again in front of - "

"Nonono, that's okay!" you interrupt, waving your hands. "You're fine! I don't mind that word, really! It's just..." You pause, and as you think in silence for a moment or two, your eyes widen as the realization hits you. "I think....you're the first person I've met....who's actually said the word 'Florpus' out loud. I've only ever seen it in news articles or on the Internet, and it's been....a LONG TIME since then. Now..." You look down, your voice hushed. "Now I don't see it ANYWHERE."

"Mmm." Tiff nods in understanding. "People really don't like to talk about what happened a year ago. At least, most people." Her leg starts to wiggle in agitation. "With the way society is now, it's almost like there's a stigma against the word itself, and sadly, against those of us who actually want to discuss the Incident, or who were severely, undeniably impacted by it in some way. I don't mean to be 'that person,' but some days it feels like our society is actively trying to censor everything that the entire planet went through last year, as much as it can, however it can."

To your surprise, you catch a glimmer of anger in her sugar-sweet eyes. "Personally, I think it's very unhealthy, and extremely detrimental to the most vulnerable people in society and...and us as a whole. It is SO frustrating as a mental health professional to see this happen. And to make matters worse, it seems like those in power are doing absolutely nothing to improve the situation. Without their support, this situation can only get worse. I...I can't even begin to tell you how hard that is to stomach."

The conversation is starting to truly affect her now, and Tiff pauses to clap her hands in front of her and let out a slow, controlled breath to calm herself down. "If we don't confront the Florpus Incident, then we can't start talking about it. And if we don't talk about it, we'll never be able to heal and move on."

There's a moment of silence as you sit there and stare at her in awe. There's more to her than you first thought.

Finally, she shifts in her seat and turns back to you. "Trauma is a very difficult thing to live with. And making any step towards acknowledging that, and finding it in yourself to search for new ways to cope with your issues and process your feelings is incredibly brave. I want you to understand that. And I need to tell you that coming here? And coming back, no less, especially after being triggered last week? That is strength. That is courage." She puts her hand on yours, and a flood of comfort washes over you. "You should be proud of yourself. The journey is always hard, but the first step is the hardest."

You can't even speak. Your throat is too tight and it feels like someone is squeezing your heart. In the year since the Florpus destroyed your life, you've never felt less alone than right now. All you can do is blink back the tears and nod.

She wordlessly hands you some napkins from her purse. They're soft and they smell nice, and for a moment, there's more quiet as you blow your nose and let out a few more tears. This feels good. You needed this cry.

But after a moment, she says your name and speaks again. "This...isn't the first time you've gone through a traumatic experience, is it?"

You snap your head up in surprise, and she clears her throat, choosing her words carefully. "Today, you talked to us about your insomnia and night terrors. You also mentioned that you're an artist? And that you cope with your trauma by drawing out your experiences during nights you can't get to sleep."

You nod. "Yeah. Art's been the only way I've been able to get any of this off my chest. I've tried to write it all out before, in my journal or as a short story, but...." You shake your head. "There's too much to say. And somehow, putting it down on paper in words makes it real in a way I can't...in a way I can't deal with right now. But art...art's been saving my life." Slowly, painfully, you meet her eyes. "I don't understand. How...how did you know?"

"When you were talking to us, you mentioned that you started taking up art just after you graduated high school," she answers gently. Her expression shifts ever so slightly. "You said it was 'the only thing that helped you get to sleep at night.'"

The implication hangs in the air like a spiderweb, nearly invisible, yet crystal clear to those who pay attention. Your blood runs cold when you realize that you did, in fact, say that in front of everyone. Damn it. You slipped up, after all this time, you slipped up. How many other people noticed? How many other people caught on? Your hand trembles, but only for a moment, as you try to gather yourself. "...Did I say that?" you ask awkwardly.

She nods sadly. "Yes, hon. You did."

There's another pause as you suck in a breath. The clock ticks on the wall behind you like a steady heartbeat. For a long time, it's the only sound in the room. Finally, somehow, you find it in yourself to speak again. "...Can you please keep this a secret?" you whisper in a tight voice. "What I'm about to say doesn't leave this room."

"Of course."

You're not going to go into specifics. You've already decided that now. Just the thought of it, of having to voice any of what you've kept buried makes your stomach churn and your forehead break out in a sweat. But after a moment or two, you open your mouth and speak. "There was...Something...happened...right after I graduated high school," you admit, swallowing thickly before continuing. "I didn't see it coming. No one did. It...It changed everythin'. And I ain't exaggeratin' when I say that. I ain't trying to be dramatic or nothin', it's the honest truth and I lost my whole world 'cuz of it. One minute, everythin' was fine, everythin' was...was NORMAL...and then I blinked and...it wasn't anymore."

The words should be harder to say, but it's like a dam has broken, because they flood out of your mouth like you've been waiting to say them for years - and maybe you have. You're too upset by voicing old wounds to even notice it, but without meaning to, you've slipped back into your old accent, the one you're always trying so hard to hide. Tiff raises her eyebrows as she catches you doing it, but decides not to comment on it as she listens to your feelings. You bring your legs up and wrap your arms around them, the way you always do when you're upset. "...I...I tried to fix it. I did whatever I could, Lord KNOWS I did every gotdang thing I could think of to try to set things right. I drove myself a little crazy, I crossed a few lines I shouldn't have, but back then I thought, 'It'll all be worth it! Everything I'm doing, everything I'm putting myself through, will all be worth it if I can just solve this one mystery.'"

Tiff's forehead wrinkles in confusion. You don't notice. Instead, you let out a long, deep sigh and shake your head slowly, caught up in memories. "...But it didn't happen. Nothing worked. No matter how hard I tried, or how badly I wanted it, life wasn't going to go back to what it was before. And...it still hurts. Every day, it still hurts. And I just can't forget. There's a part of me that wonders if maybe it'd be better to just leave it all behind me, to forget it ever happened and just let it go but..." You bite your lip and shake your head. "But I ain't sure if I really want that, yanno? I don't...I don't know what to think. So, I just - I-it's easier to -"

"It's easier if you just try not to think about it," she finishes, understanding.

You swallow. "...That's just about the long and short of it, yeah."

"Did you ever go to a therapist about what happened?" Tiff asks gently.

You shake your head again. "Couldn't afford it." you admit.

In those days, you couldn't afford food, clothes or gas, let alone expensive therapy. But you don't say that part out loud.

"Did you ever talk to a close friend about this?"

You laugh bitterly, but it comes out as more of a cough. "Honey, there weren't no one there to listen. At least...no one I trusted."

"Hmm." Tiff pauses for a moment, mulling over your words for a moment before she speaks again. "Would you be interested...in one-on-one counseling?"

You turn to her, surprised, and she explains. "It's a service I offer. I'm a licensed psychiatrist and my clinic is just down the street. The first three sessions are free, and my ongoing sessions have very flexible, reasonable payment plans." She smooths her skirt nervously. "You don't have to give an answer right now, but I figured it would be nice to put this on the table in case you were interested."

"Y'all really think I need that, though? I ain't - "

You pause when you finally realize that you're using your old accent. Flustered, you clear your throat and alter your voice back to something less conspicuous before continuing. "I-I'm not sure if.....Well, it's just, I thought coming here would be enough to get me the help I needed."

"Group therapy can be a very healing experience," Tiff admits, nodding. "And once again, I'm proud of you for coming here. But sometimes, some things are easier to talk about with a little more privacy. And my concern is that this more recent trauma you're trying to cope with will impact, or BE impacted, by trauma from your past that you may still need to process."

A shot of fear pierces your heart at what you think she's telling you. "Are you saying I won't get better?"

"No. You can always get better," she explains. "Healing isn't always linear, but it's always possible to take the steps towards improving your mental health. However, I'm concerned that you're trying to cope with too much baggage at once. The Florpus Incident, the event that took place after high school....I'm worried that all of the stress and pain you've been through will overwhelm you if you try to tackle it all at the same time." Tiff reaches out and places her hand on yours. "You're a strong person, but it might be easier if you had someone there to listen and to help you focus on processing your feelings and finding healthy ways to cope." She shrugs and smiles. "Everyone's recovery process is different. And sometimes, you need a little extra help."

She shifts around in her seat and pulls out a card for you. "Here. I'd like you to have my business information. I won't push you into something you're not comfortable with, but if you're ever interested, call this number and my receptionist will help you set up an appointment. I'm open every day from 9 to 4, except for Sundays."

You take the bubblegum-pink card and nod as you read the words to yourself. "...Thanks," you say quietly. "I...I'll think about it."

“That's all I ask," she says gently.

She stands and offers a hand to help you up. You take it, and once you're on your feet, she's all smiles and sunshine again. "Thank you so much for this talk. I hope I didn't take up too much of your time."

"No," you say. "T-thank YOU. I..." You look down at the card again, thinking about everything she's just told you. "I'm...glad you're looking out for me."

"Oh!" Suddenly, she's digging around her purse, and once she finds it, she offers it to you. "Here, before you head out the door - this is for you!”

It's a bright blue keychain. On it is the image of the Earth split in two pieces, and around it in a perfect circle are a chain of people holding hands. Bellow it are the words "Apocalypse Survivors Support." When you flip it over to look at the back, you catch sight of a cheerful slogan: "Finding new beginnings after the end."

“All members get one," Tiff explains as you look back up at her. "It’s got some of our numbers and emergency lines, which is super helpful. Do you like the logo? My wife designed it! She’s working on getting us some mugs to match. Maybe some T-shirts too, if enough people here would feel comfortable wearing them in public.”

“It’s very cute,” you say with a smile.

“Isn't it though? She's into art, just like you. And she's very talented. Heaven knows this is so better than our old design.”

You look up. “Old design?”

“Uh…w-well..." Tiff turns pink and looks away. "The original keychains I made had our support group name as an acronym for a logo, and that..." She turns a deep shade of magenta and clears her throat awkwardly. "That...that did not go over so well.”

A few seconds pass as the gears in your head turn. "...Oh," you say finally. Your face screws up as you try not to laugh. "I...I-I see."

"It was baaaaad," Tiff hisses under her breath as she runs a hand over her face. "There's a reason I went into mental health and not graphic design."

You finally crack up at that and she laughs with you, and for a while, it's just the two of you sharing a nice, light moment...

Until someone behind you sneezes.

The two of you immediately pause and look around in surprise for the source of the noise. You could have sworn that you were the only ones in the room.

...And that appears to be the case. Because when you look around, no one else is there.

You frown, more than a little confused, and more than a little on edge. You could have SWORN you heard someone just now...but try as you might, you don't see any evidence that anyone else is there with you. Letting out another breath, you close your eyes and steady your trembling hand. There's no need to panic. No one overheard your conversation.

Everything is fine.

"Huh," says Tiff, turning around in a circle. She's just as confused as you are. "That was strange. Maybe those ghost stories about this building are true after all."

"Maybe so," you agree, tugging at the edges of your hat in thought. "Guess I'll have to do some investigating later."

"I'm sorry, what was that?" she asks, turning back to you.

"O-oh! I - nothing!" you lie, turning red. You keep slipping up today, what is WRONG with you?! "I-It's nothing, I was just talking to myself."

She looks at you with wide, innocent eyes, and you grin back awkwardly in a feeble attempt to look convincing. Finally she nods and smiles, sinking back into her chipper, sunny self. "Okey dokey! Well, it's getting late, and I promised Devi I'd make dinner tonight." She reaches out to shake your hand and waves goodbye as she skips out the door. "Thank you for your time! Enjoy your date with Mars! Let me know if there's anything I can do for you!"

"W-will do! See you later!"

You wave back a little too eagerly, your face bright red at the mention of the word 'date.' But you choose not to correct her, not if it means keeping her around any longer. Tiff is a lot more perceptive than you first thought, and the last thing you need is for her to find out about your passion for the paranormal.

Utterly worn out from what must have been a five-minute conversation, you sink back against the wall and sign. Last week, you found yourself having an in-depth conversation with a kid you barely knew. The topic? A seance you had conducted, and all of the strange things that came from it.

Later that night, you had cursed yourself for your carelessness as you lay awake in your bed, unable to sleep. Why did you do it? Why him? Why then? After staying so silent about it for so long, after keeping it a secret for years, why did you talk to someone about your paranormal investigations? As you replayed the events in your mind, you started to understand. It might have been the nostalgia brought on by the book in his hands. The X-Files books were something that shaped who you were, and you still held them dear to your heart. It might have been the embarrassment in his eyes when you caught him with his books. You were a child once too, and you remember what it was like to be teased and picked on for being the 'creepy' kid in the class. But whatever the case, your mind was not in the right place that day, and the words had fallen out of your mouth before you had even considered the potential consequences.

You really don't know why you had let your guard down like that. You swore to yourself a long time ago that you'd never let anyone see that side of you again. Truth be told, you haven't had your metaphorical shit together in a long, long time. It's something you've managed to keep well hidden, but now, with the stress and issues brought on by the Florpus, it's crystal clear to anyone who spends enough time with you that there's something...wrong. It's written in the dark circles under your eyes. It's written in the way your hand shakes when you're stressed. It's even written in your hair.

Groaning with exhaustion, you take off your hat and run a hand through your hair, the white patches coming into view as you do so. Everyone greys early in your family, but not THIS early. It's so embarrassing. No one's noticed so far, since you always keep the hat on to hide the roots, but if you don't get ahold of your stress and get your locks back to their original color, you're going to need some hair dye soon.

If you keep talking without thinking, if people see you expressing your beliefs about all things weird when you're clearly hanging on by a thread, everyone is going to start thinking that you're crazy.

Your grip on your bag tightens. You're not sure if you can deal with that again.

Shaking your head, you straighten up, put your hat back on, and start making your way towards the door. But then suddenly, your instincts go off, and the inner voice deep inside your head tells you to stop walking.

You pause in mid-step, and from behind you, for just a brief second, you hear another set of footsteps.

"Okay! Who's there?!"

You whirl around, now completely on edge. Once again, you're staring at an empty room. There's no one in the corners, in the seats, under the desks -

It's just you there.

But it's NOT just you there! You can feel someone's eyes watching you, and you KNOW what you heard!

Squinting around for answers, your expression changes when you catch sight of something odd. A little ways behind you, there's a spot in the room that seems to shimmer. Like the space above a hot grill, the air seems to fluctuate ever so gently, and the second you lay eyes on it, it carefully starts to move away from you. An idea forms in your mind, and you slowly walk backwards towards the wall without taking your eyes off of the spot, scrolling around on your phone as you do so. When you finally reach the light switch, you take a deep breath and shut the switch off. As soon as the room grows dark, you immediately turn on the flashlight function and shine it in the direction of the shimmering anomaly.

A humanoid shadow, strange and yet somehow familiar in shape, looms over you on the wall, cast by a body that doesn't seem to be there.

Your eyes grow wide and fearful as it straightens up in surprise. "H-Holy sh - !" you whisper softly. "Holy shi - !"

"DARKNESS FALLS ACROSS THE LAND - "

You jump a foot in the air as Vincent Price's voice reverberates off of the walls of the empty room. "Jeezus!" you cry out, dropping your phone and sending it clattering onto the floor. Panicking at what you've just seen, you snatch it up off the ground and bolt out of the room screaming while Michael Jackson's Thriller plays on.

"THE MIDNIGHT HOUR IS CLOSE AT HAND,

CREATURES CRAWL IN SEARCH OF BLOOD,

TO TERRORIZE Y'ALL'S NEIGHBORHOOD - "

You slam the door shut behind you, earning yourself a few nasty looks from people in the nearby computer area. Breathing heavily and sweating up a storm, you ignore their stares as you look down at the caller I.D. It's Mars. As you try to catch your breath and steady your wild heartbeat, you back away from the door and try to process what you just saw. Wondering if your new meds need to be adjusted, you answer your phone. "Y-Yeah, dude?"

"Yo, Speckles, you okay? I just saw Tiff walk out the front entrance. What's keeping you?"

"I...sorry, Mars." Taking one last look back over your shoulder, you adjust your bag and start walking. "I got caught up in something, but I'm on my way out the door. I'll be right there."

"Cool. See you soon."

As you leave the room and walk through the library, you curse yourself for your idiocy and lower the sound on your phone, rethinking your choice for a ringtone. You're so preoccupied with straightening yourself up, you completely fail to notice the door of the meeting room slowly opening behind you, or the shadows on the wall that pursue you silently down the stairs. As you focus on calming yourself down, they quietly trail after you through the bookshelves and out the front door. By the time you run into Mars again, you're all smiles and false confidence. And as you obediently follow Mars to the restaurant he's been talking about all week, two sets of phantom footprints follow you into the night.

----------------------------------

“Rodrigo!”

From the other side of the taco truck counter, a large man whirls around and beams as he catches sight of a green head of hair. "Mars Thompson! How you been man?! Haven't seen you in forever!"

"Eh, work's been kicking my ass," says Mars, shrugging. "Lots of crazy stuff going down lately there, got my boss calling me in for overtime, trouble with the roommates - " He leans on the counter and shakes his head. "Shoot, I haven't had a day to myself in three weeks."

Rodrigo makes a grunt of understanding. "Sounds rough, man. You want the usual?"

"Oh!" Mars puts a hand to his chest and flutters his eyelashes. "A man after my own heart."

Rodrigo rolls his eyes and scoffs, but when he catches sight of you, he freezes in surprise. "Oh. And who is this now?"

"Rodrigo, this here's my new best friend." Mars puts his arm around you and brings you closer to the light. "New Best Friend, this here's Rodrigo."

"H-hey, there," you nod shyly. "Nice to meet you, Sir."

"Ah. New Best Friend, huh?" The man rubs his chin thoughtfully as he looks you up and down. "Well, any friend of Mars is definitely a friend of mine. Bienvenidos a Neat-O Burrito! Best Mexican food in this city, no contest, and we got a little bit of everything for everybody! What can I get you tonight?"

"Uh...hmm." Trying not to salivate from the amazing smells coming from within the taco truck, your eyes glide over the menu as you think about what you want. "I'll take...a breakfast burrito with extra chile, and a medium horchata, please."

"Red or green chile?"

You look up in thought for a moment. "...Both."

"Ah!" The large man laughs in approval. "Alright, then! One cemita with the works, one breakfast burrito, an orange Jarrito and one medium horchata." He rings you up and hands you both your drinks. "Your food'll be ready in just a minute. You can go ahead and have a seat, and my daughter will bring it right out to you."

"Much obliged!" says Mars, and as the two of you walk over to a nearby picnic table and sit down, you decide to take in the scenery.

It's night now, and the sky has darkened from a dusky lavender to a deep blue. You followed Mars out to a parking lot just down the street to where the Neat-O Burrito taco truck had been waiting. It glows in the night like a greenish-yellow flame, and you watch in mild amusement as customers start to creep up through the darkness like moths. You can't blame them - you haven't eaten here yet, but this place has already won you over with the wonderful smells of cooking meat and spices. As you enjoy one of the last warm nights before fall, you take a sip of your horchata and feel yourself more at ease than you have been in a long, long time.

"Red and green chile, huh?"

You turn your gaze to Mars, who's eyeing you thoughtfully as he takes a swig from his soda and shakes his head. "You're gonna regret that, Speckles."

"Looking forward to it," you snap back with a smirk.

"Haha!" Mars winks at you. "I like you. You got spunk."

"I've never heard of this place before," you comment as you look back at the taco truck.

"Really? That's a shame. It's good eatin'. And the Reyes family is really nice. Their business deserves all the customers they can get."

You think about Rodrigo's reaction to Mars, and the way some of the workers in the truck had waved to him when he came up to the counter. "You come here a lot, don't you?"

"Oh, yeah," he says with a nod. "This is my favorite place to grab a bite in the whole city. Mexican food is the best food."

"Amen to that," you laugh.

At that moment, a young girl comes out with a tray laden with a large sandwich and a burrito the size of a small baby. She sets it down in front of you, and you both thank her before you tuck in. You take one bite out of your monstrous dinner...and suddenly all those mushy love songs on the radio make sense. Mars quirks an eyebrow at the stars in your eyes. The food in your hands isn't as good as it smells - it's a thousand times better. Soon, all manners and decorum have flown out the window as you gobble up your food like a feral child. Mars, in contrast, takes slow and steady bites as he watches you in amusement. "So, what's the verdict?" he asks, already knowing the answer.

"Mmmm!" you moan, wiping your mouth with a napkin. "This is amazing!"

"Not too spicy?" he grins.

"No! Just right! Exactly right, it's PERFECT! Ohhhhh, my God!" You take another big bite and savor the cheese and peppers. It's enough to bring tears to your eyes. "I haven't had a burrito this good since Roswell. Once you grow up eating the real thing, everything else just...doesn't measure up." You take another bite. "I'm definitely coming back here," you say through a full mouth.

"Told ya you'd love it." Mars leans forward, watching you eat with a fond look on his face. "So, you're from New Mexico?"

At the sound of his words, you start to giggle and snort. His eyebrow quirks upwards again in surprise. "What's so funny?"

You shake your head apologetically and look back up at him. "Sorry, I know it was an honest question, it's just...I'm from all over the place." You put down your burrito and start counting off of your fingers. "Let's see...I’ve lived in New Mexico, Louisiana, Washington, Oregon, Maine, the Keys, Alaska, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Hawaii - I think? And then finally back to West Virginia." You look down at your food, deep in thought. "I’ve been moving around all over the country ever since I was a baby. Honestly, I can't even remember exactly where I was born." You huff and take a sip of horchata. "It was probably West Virginia, but I'm gonna have to look at my birth certificate again to be sure.”

Mars is staring at you. “Uh, wow. Jeez, Speckles, you sure get around."

"Well, I used to, in any case."

"So how'd you end up here?”

"I don't know. After high school, I moved around for a while, and I ran out of money and gas and...I had to stop somewhere," you shrug. "And that somewhere happened to be here. So I stayed, filled out some job apps, got an apartment and ta-da." You throw your hands up. "Truly I am living the dream."

Mars chuckles. "So after all that globetrotting, y'all finally found a place to call home?"

Your smile falters, but only for a second. "...Sure," you answer. "Why not?"

"So how long have you lived here, then?"

"Hmm. Maybe three years now? Getting pretty close to three years anyways. It's not where I thought I'd be living by now...I was actually hoping for a lot more nature...but it's all right." You give him a thumbs up. "Solid 6/10."

"Only 6/10?" he laughs.

"I like small towns a lot more than I do cities," you confess. "I always have. They're quiet. Low-key. Everyone knows you, and you know everyone. It's a simple life, but...I miss it. When we lived in West Virginia...well, 'almost Heaven' doesn't even come close to describing it. The mountains, the trees, the people..." You close your eyes and sigh. "It was perfect."

Mars smiles gently. "That sounds nice," he admits. "I've only ever lived in cities, so I can't relate. But honestly? I think I'm more of a city slicker anyways, and this town definitely blows my old home right outta the water." He sits back up. "You can probably tell by the accent, but I ain’t from around here neither."

"Yeah, I figured." You tilt your head curiously. "So, where are you from?"

"Pshht. Don't matter much." He scratches his cheek, and a shadow passes over his face. "Ain't like I'm ever going back."

You sense that the topic is a sensitive one, so you hurriedly clear your throat and change the subject. "U-um, you said were in the military?"

"Yep! For a good, long time. Didn't particularly enjoy it, didn't hate it, it was just...y'know, what I did. But I did like the friends I made there." There's a glimmer of fondness in his eyes, and his smile is genuine. "They got me through a lot of dark, dark times. I think about 'em a lot. Every day. They were turds, but you know, they were MY turds.”

“Where are they now?”

Mars takes another swig of soda and looks up at the stars. “...Good question.”

A beat passes before he looks back down at you with his trademark grin. “So. How's life at Bloaty's?"

"Oh man," you groan. "Its...it's been that kind of week. Apparently the animatronics are starting to turn on by themselves and wander around at night. We might get someone to stay after hours and keep an eye on them."

"Ooh. Sounds scary."

"I guess. Other than that, same crap, different day." You yawn. "It's not a glamorous job, the customers suck, and you will never get the smell of cheese out of your uniform. But, what can I say?" you shrug. "It pays the bills." You take another bite of your burrito before you continue. "Where do you work, Mars?”

“Membrane Labs,” he says casually.

You don't know what you were expecting for his answer, but it certainly wasn't that. You make an alarmed noise and immediately begin to choke on a piece of egg. Mars watches you in surprise for a second before patting you on the back. "Whoa! Whoa whoa whoa, chill out, Speckles!" Shoving your horchata in front of you, he's suddenly all concern and no jokes. "You okay?!"

“You’re a scientist?!” you cough out.

Mars stares at you for half a second before slapping his knee and bursting out laughing. A few other customers turn to look as he cackles so hard, he nearly falls out of his seat. “'Am I a scientist?!' Oh, Lord!" Finally, still giggling uncontrollably, he wipes a tear out of his eye. "That’s a good one! Naw, soldier, I ain’t never been much for technology and all that other junk. I’m a security guard. After I ended up here, I went looking around for a job, and it just so happened that they had an opening for a position I could pull off. It sounded like something I wanted to do, so I went for it, got the job, and there you go, I'm a Membrane Labs employee.”

He pauses to reach into his pocket and flashes an ID card on a red lanyard at you. "See? It's got my name and photo and everythin'!"

“Wow," you say, looking at it curiously. "What's it like to work there?"

“Eh, it ain’t a bad gig. Pays pretty well, too. Some real crazy stuff goes down there every other day, and the hours are long, but...it's okay." Mars finishes the last of his cemita and leans back. "It's honest work and I like it. Maybe one of these days I’ll find something else to do with my life, but for right now, I'm staying put."

There's a pause as Mars lets out a wistful sigh and turns around to look out at the city. "Take a look around, Speckles. What do you see?"

"Uh..." You shift around in your seat and think for a minute. "Cars, shops, a bar, an old payphone - ?"

"You know what I see? A fresh start."

Your eyebrow quirks up, and he turns back to you with a grin. "I've lived my entire life trying to live up to other people's standards, doing whatever it was they wanted me to do. My entire life was following orders, and that's it. I didn’t really know what to do with myself when I first wound up in this crazy town. For the first time in my life, I was doing what I wanted to do, living life how I wanted to live it. It took some getting used to. And to be honest, I'm still having a hard time adjusting to the culture. But this city? It saved my life." He stares dreamily into the distance. "I love it here. It ain't perfect, but I love it here."

As you watch him, a smile slowly spreads across your face. With fond eyes, you lean forward, resting your chin on your hand. "So, how'd you end up in this city, Mars? Was it somewhere you always wanted to visit? Or did you just end up here by accident like me?"

Mars's eyes widen. "Uh. Wow." He laughs and scratches his head awkwardly to try to play it off, but you can tell that he's suddenly more than a little uncomfortable. "Uh, that's a good question, Speckles. I actually never really heard of this city before I came here. I just...got stranded here l-last year."

Your smile fades as you realize what he's telling you.

Around you, everything remains the same. The Neat-O Burrito customers continue to eat at the other tables and the Mexican music keeps playing while Rodrigo and his family take orders. But there's a shift in the atmosphere around your table as Mars grows serious. When he speaks again, his voice is noticeably quieter than it was before, and he's not looking at you. "It was completely by accident. During all the chaos, I was just trying to get somewhere - anywhere - that was safe. And I just...Well, I guess you could say I just crashed into this place. Go figure. It was a really scary time in my life. I didn't know anyone here, or even where 'here' really was, or what was happening, or how I even ended up here. It was scary and I'd never felt more alone. But then, I met an old war vet. We were both out of a home, and he found me trying to find some shelter. I was terrified when I first met him. I wasn't..." He bites his lip and regret flickers across his face. "I was out of line."

"Mars..." you whisper.

He sighs again and hangs his head. "I wasn't...exactly...a nice person before I came to this city. And when Thompson found me, I was just some paranoid, angry stranger on the street. He didn't owe me anything, and he could have, should have, just left me there and moved on with his life. But he didn't. He helped me. He gave me a place to stay, some food to eat, and never left my side for a second. He was always there for me, right up until the day he passed on."

You raise your eyebrows and he bites his lip. "He was really old, and a little sick. It was...his time. ...I never really had a family. No idea what’s it’s even like to be part of one. I just kind of existed until I got into the military, and I made friends, but...duty and rank still separated us.. But...Thompson? He was the closest thing to a....f-father...I’ve ever had." He pauses, and his eyes grow sad. "I miss him.”

There's a pained look on his face as he sits there, lost in memories. But he looks up in surprise when you gently place your hand over his to comfort him. "Mars, I'm so sorry," you murmur.

He stares with wide, amazed eyes, looking at you, then down where your fingers and his own meet. Suddenly, he flushes bright red and pulls away, laughing nervously and avoiding your eyes. "Tch! Look at me, getting all sappy." He runs a hand through his mullet in an effort to compose himself, but there's a slight tremor to his voice. "S-sorry, I came here to give you a good night out, and here I am, actin' like a crybaby. Y-y'all don't need to be hearing this."

"It's okay," you reassure him. "Trust me. I know how you feel." There's a pause. "He really meant a lot to you, didn't he?"

Mars swallows and nods. "...He's why I'm doing this," he admits. "He's the one who helped me find a support group when my PTSD started to mess up my life. If it weren't for him, I'd still be living in denial, lying to myself and probably getting worse." He lets out a long, shaky breath. "Before he l-left, he made me promise to keep going. Someday...I'm going to get better. I'm gonna get past this and move on with my life. I owe it to him."

"...You owe it to yourself."

He presses his lips together and nods. "If you say so."

A moment passes between the two of you. Mars shifts around in his seat, flustered and embarrassed by his emotional outburst. You nod thoughtfully as you absorb his words. After a moment, you raise your horchata at him in a toast and give him a kind smile. “To getting better.”

His eyebrows fly up, and then he snorts, a grin returning to his face. Before you can stop him, Mars grabs his soda and interlocks his arm in yours in a symbol of friendship. "To getting better, together."

You smile. "Cheers."

"Salud!" With your arms still interlocked, you both finish off your drinks and sit back. "Sa...Salud," he mutters, sounding out each syllable. "Sa....lud?" Frowning, he turns around to where some Salvadoran kids have been watching him from the next table over. "Did I say that right?" he asks bashfully.

The kids all giggle and shyly turn back to their food, and Mars shrugs and turns back to face you. "So, why’d you move around so much?”

That question catches you off guard. “Huh?"

"From the sound of it, you've lived in over half the country." Mars tilts his head casually, but his gaze is intense. "How come?"

"Oh." You avert his eyes. "PCS."

"...Huh?"

"Permanent Change of Station," you clarify. "My Dad was in the army. Worked for Military Intelligence. We kept relocating for his job. It wasn’t his fault, it just comes with the territory when you're in that line of work." You start to wrap up the remaining half of your burrito in a neat little package to take home. "Sometimes, it was kind of nice. I got to live in a lot of beautiful places I never thought I'd see. I've been to both oceans, seen every historical U.S. site. I even got to ride a moose once. But none of the places we lived in...they never really felt like home. And having to grow up always being the new kid wasn't always easy." Your smile vanishes. "I got dragged into a lot of fights.”

“Sounds rough,” says Mars, watching you intently.

You can't keep the bitterness out of your voice as you sigh. “Yeah. It was. But you know, in the end, it didn't matter." You smile gently. "I had Dad, and he had me. We were a team. All we ever really needed was each other.”

“He sounds like a pretty great guy."

"He's my hero. He always will be."

"Where is he now?”

There's about ten seconds of silence after his question, but it feels like an hour. You bite your lip hard enough to draw some blood, but don't answer his question. His smile fades when your distant expression starts to darken, and he opens his mouth to say something, anything to redirect the conversation.

But at that moment, you hear someone scream from the other side of the parking lot.

"The end is coming!"

The sound makes you jump, and the two of you turn to look for the source of the noise. Rising from his seat, Mars looks over your head and squints at something in the dark. "What the...?"

You turn around just in time to catch sight of a figure in a dirty white hoodie stumble into the the circle of customers surrounding the truck. A shaggy-haired black kid, no older than fourteen, whirls around like he's lost, screaming at the top of his lungs. "The end is coming! The end is COMING!"

"¡Ay! ¿Este chico otra vez?" From within the taco truck, one of Rodrigo's sons pokes his head out furiously. "¡Oye! Didn't we tell you to stay away from our business?! Go mess with people somewhere else!"

Everyone in the parking lot watches as the boy in the hoodie stands hunched over, struggling to catch his breath. You stand up from your seat, concerned by the way he's shaking. This is real. Whatever has the boy so frightened, his fear for it is real. "H-hey, there."

The boy whirls around and locks eyes with you, startled by the sound of your voice. His hair is messy and wild in the evening breeze, and even from this distance, his grey eyes shine like moons through the darkness. It's a little unnerving, and you smile nervously on instinct. "A-are you feeling okay? You look..." You step forward, eyeing the paint stains on his jeans and shoes, and the slight twitches of his head. "You look like you're in trouble."

"Dude. That's just Agent Delphi."

You glance over to the side and catch sight of a teenage girl sitting at a table with her boyfriend. She glares disdainfully at the boy in the hoodie while her boyfriend rolls his eyes. "He's in my homeroom. He pulls this crap like, ALL the time. Ignore him. It's just another one of his stupid jokes. NOTHING is wrong. Trust me."

The boy turns to her, shaking his head. "My name is Cas," he pants. "And this ISN'T a joke!"

As soon as he catches his breath, the boy - Cas? Agent Delphi? - jumps up onto an empty table and addresses the crowd like a preacher to a congregation. "Listen up, people! I've got something to say! Our days are numbered! And unless we do something about it, it's only a matter of time before everything in this city is destroyed! We have to act, and we have to act now!"

"Kid, I think you've been reading too much Truthshrieker," a man yells out from the crowd. A few chuckles spread through the line of customers, and the teenage girl who spoke earlier rubs her temples and mutters something about hating incoming freshmen.

The boy looks around at the crowd, flushing red in embarrassment. "This is serious!" he shouts, hopping off the table and marching up to the onlookers. "Why are you just standing there laughing at me?! Don't y'all get it?! You're in terrible danger!"

"Man, shut up!"

"Go home, bro!"

"Don't you have homework to do? It's a school night, aren't your parents worried?"

"Hey, kid!"

Mars walks out of the crowd, raising his hands in surrender. "Look, I don't know what's got y'all so spooked, but maybe we can help you."

He glances over to you. You nod. "Everything's gonna be okay," you say soothingly. "Just calm down and take a deep breath - "

"Calm down? Calm down?!" The boy shakes his head and throws his hands up in frustration, his voice cracking from stress. "Man, didn't you hear a word I just said?! You're all gonna die!" He points straight upwards at the stars far above his head, causing you to take a step back in surprise. "The sky's gonna split open and the shadows are gonna come bleeding out! Black! Black like you ain't never seen black! They're going to leak out and eat the whole planet! Just like before! Just like last year! I've seen it! And I've seen them!"

Suddenly, he pulls out two cans of spray paint from the depths of his hoodie and starts shaking them as he jogs over to a nearby wall. A few of the people in the crowd cry out in disapproval when he begins tagging it, one of them threatening to turn him in for vandalism if he doesn't stop. But he ignores them completely, beads of sweat trickling down his forehead as he hastily paints something in glow-in-the-dark paint. As the vivid image starts to come to completion in shades of sickly green and neon pink, your blood runs cold when you recognize what he's drawing.

When the boy in the hoodie finishes his work, he stands back and points at the image he's made. A huge pink ship looms over him, and on its hull is some kind of horned being, with large staring eyes and a sharp, pointy face. The picture sends a wave of hushed and panicked whispers into the crowd, and the boy babbles on frantically, near hysterical with fear. "I've SEEN them! The insects! The invaders! When our time runs out, we're gonna fall to the shadows and they're gonna swarm the Earth like locusts and take whatever's left! They've done it before! They'll do it again!"

People are shouting things at him in scared, furious voices, but you can't make out the words. The world seems to spin, and suddenly, Mars is catching you. He holds you by your shoulders and calls your name desperately. From somewhere to your left, a familiar voice - two familiar voices - say something, but you don't even acknowledge it. All you can do is stare at the glowing symbol on the wall and remember.....

You're in a grocery store. You walk with the others in your group through the aisles and desperately try to find an exit in the darkness with your phone's flashlight function. You made a pact together not to leave the shelter, but the tremors in the Earth are getting more and more frequent. Something is happening outside, and you need to know what's going on. All of you do. None of you want to be stuck in a basement just waiting to die. You don't want to die at all, but if you must, you'd rather face your death head-on.

It's what he would have wanted.

Finally, you make it through the boarded-up doors and walk outside for the first time in a week. But all any of you see is black. An endless void stretches on into infinity, swallowing everything you can see. You crane your neck upwards to follow it, trying to see where it ends, but it just keeps going and going and going. Your hair starts to stand on end from the purple lightning that shoots out of the strange black void, and with a sinking stomach, you watch as some of the objects in the sky - planets, cars, buildings - are swallowed up into the darkness.

You turn and you run.

People call out your name, but you ignore them as your fight-or-flight response takes over your mind. In your blind panic, you have no sense of direction, and no idea where you're even headed. All you know is that if you don't get away right then, right now, that void is going to swallow you up and that'll be the end of you. In your terror, time seems to skip and only a handful of things get past your primal fear. You notice that gravity doesn't seem to work in some areas, and you have to struggle not to float up into the air. You see a brilliant blue light in the sky, one that sends out a powerful shockwave when it hits the earth and nearly sends you flying. You see buildings decimated by this same light, over and over, and you begin to hyperventilate when you realize that you might be next.

Finally, as you run through what used to be one of the busiest highways in the city, you trip on a piece of debris and land wrong.

Crying out as you face plant onto the concrete, you flip yourself over, wincing from the fresh burst of pain blossoming in your now-sprained ankle. You try to get up, but scream and fall over the moment you attempt to put any weight on your injured foot.

You're a sitting duck.

It was a mistake to leave the grocery store. It was a mistake to run from the group. The world is ending and you're going to die there, all alone on this road, unable to move or even defend yourself. You look around for someone, anyone, and open your mouth to scream for help -

But then you see them.

Far above your head, in the section of sky that's not endless black, hundreds if not thousands of strange pink aircrafts fly closer and closer. They're unlike any you've ever seen before, and with a sinking feeling, you notice that several of them seem to be little more than oversized weapons, with their barrels all pointed directly at you. In the center of this fleet, bigger than the city itself, is a massive ship, and on the hull, a sinister insignia glares down at the doomed city beneath it.

And in that second, you realize...there is no more running. There is no escape. This is the end, and -

"Hey...Hey! What's wrong?! Are you okay?!"

"I'm not crazy," you mumble out loud, unaware that you're even doing so. "He saw them too. I wasn't the only...he saw them too. I'm not crazy, not crazy, not crazy, I'm not crazy..."

"You're not making any sense! Come on! Snap out of it!"

Out of nowhere, a small, stubborn voice literally SHAKES you out of your own memories, and just like that, you come rushing back to the present. "What?!" You look around, confused, the world swimming before you eyes. "W-where am I?!"

Holding you firmly by the shoulders, Gaz Membrane watches you with concerned eyes. "Are you gonna be okay?"

"H-huh?" Breathing hard, you blink at her a few times. "When did - where'd you come from?" you ask stupidly. "What's going on?" You look her up and down, growing even more confused at the sight of the strange futuristic-looking black suit she has on, and when you look to your left, you catch sight of her brother. Turned away from you and dressed in the exact same outfit, Dib Membrane films something on his phone, babbling excitedly. "Gaz, did you hear what he said?! Are you seeing this?! What does this mean?! What does ANY of this mean?!"

As you sit up off the ground (When did you get there? How long have you been there?), Gaz squints at you for a moment before her eyes light up in revelation. “...Hey! I know you! You’re that Bloaty’s employee who delivered our pizza the other night. The one who had to bring us our order twice.”

“Wait? What?" Dib whirls around suddenly and looks at you in surprise. It only takes a second for him to recognize you as well. "Ohhh. OHHH! It IS them!" He slaps a hand to his head. "How did I not catch that?!”

"Some Investigator YOU are!"

"I-it's not my fault, they look totally different out of their uniform!"

"What's going on?" you interrupt. Trying to ignore the phantom pain in your ankle, you pull yourself to your feet and look around. "What happened? Where's Mars?"

"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!"

The voice that rings out through the parking lot catches your attention, and the three of you turn to see what's going on. Three figures are standing in the middle of the crowd of onlookers. One of them is Mars, his arms crossed and his expression grim. The other is a black teenager in a letterman jacket. Looking around with nervous eyes at the people who are watching him, he tries once again to pull the boy in the hoodie away from the scene. "Cas, come on, man, we gotta go home - "

"You don't understand!" the boy screams at Mars, squirming out of his brother's grasp. "I'm trying to SAVE you! I'm trying to save ALL of you! I know it sounds crazy, but just TRUST me!"

"Son," says Mars, and you can hear the iron in his voice from where you stand. "I'm SORRY, but it's time for you to go. I know you're not happy about it, but you need to leave before this goes any further."

"No, no please, you have to listen to me!" Out of nowhere, the boy rushes up to Mars and holds him by his shoulders, shaking him in desperation. "Y-you have to listen! Please! Just listen!"

"Cas, that's enough!" The teen in the letterman jacket grabs him from behind, trying to ease him off of Mars. "This is the third time this week, this has to STOP - "

Snarling in frustration, the boy wiggles and squirms even as Mars firmly but gently takes his hand off of his shoulders. As his older brother holds him back, he starts to tear up. "Why won't anyone listen to me?! I just want to HELP!"

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Mars's gaze softens. "Look, I'm really sorry, and I don't know what's got you so scared, but - "

"The Florpus is coming back!"

The crowd gasps loudly at the sound of that word, and beside you, Dib and Gaz's eyes grow big and wide. The boy in the hoodie summons all of his strength and lunges out of his brother's grasp, latching on to Mars's arm. "It's coming back! And we're not gonna survive! Not this time!"

"That's enough!"

You jump at the sound of Mars's voice and watch in horror as he shoves the boy away from him. The funny, laidback guy you know is GONE, and what's left is pure anger as he takes a step forward, his body language dangerous. "You don't know what you're talking about! Do you think you're being funny?! Is this some kind of sick joke?!"

"Mars!" Realizing what's happening, you immediately make your way through the onlookers as fast as you can.

The boy in the hoodie is so taken off-guard by Mars's outburst, he starts to back away. His older brother immediately steps forward, shielding him from your friend. "Leave him alone!" he shouts angrily. "Don't you EVER touch my brother like that again, you hear me?!"

"Mars, that's enough!" you say, rushing forward and holding him by the shoulders. "You're done, okay?! You're done!"

"It's not funny!" screams Mars, ignoring you as he yells over your head. "Do you hear me?! It's NOT FUNNY! I lost people to that thing! I lost EVERYONE to that thing! And you're just gonna swoop in and make up these lies for attention?! You're just gonna spit on their graves for a cheap laugh?!"

"Mars! Please stop!" you beg. Behind you, some other people in the crowd start to come forward and stand in front of the boy and his brother. A few of them ask if he's okay, while others urge Mars to stand down.

The boy himself stares on, breathing hard. "I-I wasn't...n-no..." he stutters nervously, cringing at the fury in Mars's voice. "I w-wasn't trying to do any of that, I swear! I came here to warn you about what's coming - !"

"How dare you act so innocent?!" Trying to push past you with surprising strength, Mars's eyes glow like fireflies in the light of the street lamps. "Just who do you think you are, you rotten little smee - ?!"

"MARS!" Losing patience, you grab him by the sides of his face and force him to look straight into your eyes. "STOP!"

Mars is still breathing very fast, but as you maintain eye contact, the fury in them starts to fade. Slowly but surely, he comes back to himself. He's pale and sweating hard, and when he turns around, you can tell by the way he's staring at the crowd that he doesn't entirely know where he is.

Everyone is staring now, even the workers in the taco truck. You look over your shoulder and lock eyes with the Membrane kids in the distance. They're gawking at you like you've grown an extra head. You don't like it. You don't like any of these stares. Shaking your head to try to focus, you turn back to the boy in the hoodie and his brother. "I..." You meet the younger boy's gaze. "D-Did he hurt you? He pushed you, but are you hurt?"

The boy shakes his head frantically, trying to steady his breath. Behind him, his brother places his hands on his shoulders, still glaring at Mars.

"He shouldn't have yelled at you like that. Or put his hands on you. That was out of line." You bend down and lower yourself to the boy's eye level. "C-Cas...I'm really sorry, okay? You didn't deserve that. I...I think it might be a good idea to head home."

The boy looks down at his feet, but he doesn't answer. On cue, his older brother starts to guide him down the street, his arm thrown over him protectively. "Come on, Cas," he mutters. "Let's get out of here. Mom's starting to worry."

Trying not to stare at the image on the wall to your left, you throw your own arm over Mars and let him lean up against you.

He doesn't respond.

"What's wrong with him?" someone in the crowd asks, eyeing the dazed look in your friend's eyes.

"N-nothing. He just needs some space." The crowd parts to let you through, and you keep your eyes forward. They're not who you need to focus on right now. "It's okay, Mars. Come on, let's go for walk."

Together, you and Mars walk through the streets for a good, long time. It's on purpose. You take the scenic route back to the library, leading him through all the quiet areas where you know there won't be a lot of people and extending the walk for as long as you can. You can feel your heart rate going back to normal, and you can hear his breaths evening out as well.

There's a soreness in your jaw from when your teeth were clenching together earlier, and despite the fact that it's been fully healed for almost a year, your ankle aches terribly. It's very distracting. You know you're limping a little, and you're sure Mars has probably noticed. But you do your best to carry on all the same.

Mars lets you guide him, but doesn't speak. He doesn't need to. Watching him go back to normal is enough for you.

"Do you need me to take you to a hospital?" you ask after a while.

He shakes his head.

Finally, you're back at the library, and you're coming up on your car, right where you left it in the parking lot. "Are you feeling better?"

It takes him a moment to respond. His voice is hollow. "I...I-I-I wanna go h-home. I don't..." He's still looking down at his feet, but you can see the humiliation on his face. "I-I'm sorry, I just - "

"Shh. It's okay. You said you took the bus to get here, right? I'll drive you back tonight. I just..." You gently lift his chin up to meet his eyes. "I wanna make sure you get home safe."

Mars nods his head slowly, smiling for half a second. He looks so tired and worn, it makes your heart ache.

"All right. Sounds good. Just...give me a minute. I could really use a quick smoke."

You walk together with him to your car and open the door so he can get comfortable. After starting the ignition so he can mess with the radio, you walk around the back, lean up against the car and take a deep breath as you try to steady your hands. They've been shaking ever since you saw the boy's painting. You try to push the image out of your mind while you take out your pack of cigarettes and light one, but it's no use. You haven't been able to get those ships out of your head since last year.

The nicotine does NOTHING to take the edge off. Your mind is filled with a thousand and one different questions. Before tonight, you thought that maybe you'd been hallucinating that day. You figured that the panic and fear from whatever you went through had scrambled your mind and left you seeing things that weren't really there. Maybe you had been hyperventilating too hard and weren't getting enough oxygen to your brain. Maybe you had gotten a mild concussion when you fell.

Maybe you were just going crazy.

You clench your hands into fists. You're not going crazy. Because someone else saw them too.

Slowly, cautiously, you tilt your head upwards and look at the few stars that shine through the storm clouds rolling in.

What does this mean?

You narrow your eyes suspiciously, taking in a long, deep drag as you contemplate the void that exists high above the Earth's atmosphere.

What's out there?

Forcing yourself to try to calm down, you let out a huge plume of smoke, thick as fog and twice as rancid. And when it parts, you notice that you've been followed.

You freeze at the sight of the Membrane kids, holding hands and staring up at you. "Um. H-hey." Clearing his throat nervously, Dib Membrane takes a cautious step forward towards you, rubbing the back of his neck. "Is he...is your friend gonna be okay?"

"Huh? Oh. Yeah." You nod slowly, hoping you look more confident than you sound. "He'll be fine, d-don't worry. He just needs some peace and quiet, so he's gonna turn in for the night. It's probably time I headed home too. It's, uh." You tap some of the ash off of your cigarette. "It's getting late."

"What about you?"

Your gaze shifts over to her, and Gaz holds herself and shrugs awkwardly. "You started freaking out when you saw the M - when you saw the wall."

"Oh. That..." You let out some more smoke, and a few unwanted images flash before your eyes. You blink them away, grounding yourself with the smell of the cigarette and the cool breeze. "Um...I'll be okay." you lie finally. "It was nothing, just...long day at work you know?" You laugh awkwardly, trying to lighten the mood. "It's just some dumb grown-up stuff. You two don't have to worry about that sort of thing. I'm okay. Really."

You give them what you hope is a comforting smile, but they don't smile back.

There's a long, awkward silence before you drop your cigarette and crush it under your shoe. "I'm sorry, but it's getting late. You two have a good night, okay?" You turn to leave. "Stay out of trouble."

“Wait!"

Surprised, you turn back around and look down to see Dib clutching your sleeve. "What’s your name?” he asks.

"Huh?"

"Your name. I never got it before. What is it?"

You pause. “…Reeder. Reeder Rennard.”

Suddenly, a crack of thunder breaks out overhead. The two of you look up, and you catch the faint but unmistakeable smell of rain on the wind. “That doesn't sound too good," you comment, looking back down. "You kids want a ride home? I don't want you getting caught up in some storm."

"No thanks," says Dib. "We'll take the bus. Come on, Gaz." He reaches out to grab his sister's hand, and they take one last look at you before they start walking towards the bus stop by the corner. "See ya, Reeder.”

"Bye," you call out. "Be safe."

You watch them leave for a moment, then make your way into the driver's seat. A familiar song is playing on the radio, and Mars is humming along to the music. It takes you a second to recognize it, but once you do, you realize it's "Take Me Home," by Phil Collins. "Huh," you comment. "Didn't take you for an oldies guy."

Silence.

Buckling up and fiddling with the mirror, you turn to him, smiling gently. "How you doing, Mars?" 

Mars doesn't answer or make eye contact, but after a pause, he slowly gives you a thumbs up in response.

You nod and place your hands on the steering wheel. "Sit tight. We'll get you home."

"....Reeder."

Your heart skips a beat when you feel his hand on yours, and when you turn to him, he's looking at you, eyes flickering around as he tries to figure out what to say. "....Thanks," he murmurs finally.

You squeeze his hand and smile. "What are friends for?"

He smiles back, and with that, you put the car into reverse, pull out of the parking space, and drive off into the night.

--------------------------------

“So...what did you think about the meeting?”

Gaz doesn't answer.

Dib shifts uncomfortably in his seat as he watches his sister play on. She's always been the quiet type, and he'll be the first to admit that he tended to gloss over her feelings a lot in the past because of that, but he can tell that she's not in high spirits. It's in the subtle changes in her posture, the way she's pressing the buttons of her Gameslave 2 just a little bit faster then usual. There's a lot stewing around in her mind, heavy thoughts that seem to weigh her small frame down. As an older brother, it's pretty hard to watch.

So, he tries again, hoping to break her out of her silence. " I...thought it was pretty good. You were right. It might be the kind of place we've been looking for. A.S.S...." He snickers, and elbows her gently in the ribs with a grin. "Man, they did NOT think that name through, did they?"

She doesn't answer.

His grin falters, and he coughs awkwardly into his hand. "A-anyways, uh, it was a good idea to stake out a support group session with Dad's camoflauge suits. I know you keep saying I'm 'the dweeb with the Internet connection', but there really wasn't any info about A.S.S. online." He starts kicking his feet back and forth as he thinks. "There's no social media pages, no websites, nothing. I looked all week, but I couldn't find anything about A.S.S., or any support group like it either." He pauses and reaches into his trench coat, pulling out a familiar black card, the one you dropped last week. He inspects it thoughtfully. "...We got lucky. If Reeder hadn't dropped this, we'd still be in the dark."

There's a beep of victory as Gaz moves on to the next level. She doesn't answer, but straightens up a little before she presses 'PLAY'.

Dib twiddles his fingers, silent for a moment as he thinks. "...You know, I was in a group chat the other day talking to Agent Wendigo, Agent Goatman and Agent Sallie." He waves the card. "I showed them this to see if any of them had heard about it, but they were just as clueless as me. Agent Wendigo was really interested in finding out more about the group, though. She never said it out loud, but I think... I think she might want to join one herself, if there's something like it in her city."

Silence.

Drooping in defeat, Dib sighs and sits back. For a moment, there's just the sound of Gaz's video game and the churring and whirring of the near-empty bus they're sitting in. Finally, though, he speaks, more to himself than to his sister. "...It's so messed up, Gaz. Did you see how many people were in that room? Did you hear what some of them have to carry around inside them every day? And they're probably just the tip of the iceberg. If so many people need this kind of help, then why is everyone so quiet about it? Why aren't they talking about it on the news, or getting the resources out there?" He looks out the window at the rain that's starting to fall. "That lady said that there's a stigma on people who want to talk about last year. I've seen it for myself, we both have. But...she also mentioned that she wants to get the word out. She's probably not the only one. By that logic, there SHOULD be more info about this stuff online, but there just ISN'T. And it's crazy, you know?! It's like...it's like someone's trying to keep people from talking about the Florpus."

Gaz keeps playing. Thunder booms overhead, but the silence continues.

Dib sighs and takes off his glasses to clean them. "It sounds stupid, I know, but....with all the stuff that's going on lately, maybe it's not so crazy after all. Zim's gone off the grid again, the Truthshrieker forums are starting to get really creepy, and...." Dib pauses, and he puts his glasses back on and pulls out his phone. Sticking his tongue out the way he always does when he's in deep thought, Dib begins to scroll through the pictures he took earlier that night. He looks through them all, once, twice, three times, before picking one and enlarging the boy's face to get a closer look. The boy - Cas, or Agent Delphi? - stares back up at him, frozen in time and utterly terrified, his haunting grey eyes looking at something Dib can't see.

Frowning thoughtfully, Dib swipes right and presses play to watch a short video. In the quiet of the nearly empty bus, the boy's panicked voice rings out clearly. "The Florpus is coming back! It's coming back! And we're not gonna survive! Not this time!"

Dib's eyes narrow supiciously. "I can't remember if there's an Agent Delphi in the Swollen Eyeball Network, but whoever this kid is, we need to find him." He scrolls left a few times, and lands on the photo of a neon green symbol. "He drew the Massive. He knows what it is! He knows about the Invaders! What else does he know, and how?! Gaz...Gaz, did you hear what he was saying - ?!"

"I don't care, Dib."

Dib jumps at the sudden sound of his sister's voice. Gaz continues to play as she speaks on. "I don't care about some stupid kid who goes around screaming at people. I don't care about some stupid magazine or the people that read it. I don't even want to care about some stupid alien who's too stupid to get anything done. The only person I need to focus on right now is DAD. And the same should go for YOU."

Guilt starts to pool in Dib's stomach as he watches Gaz pause her game, sigh, and start digging around in her pockets. "On second thought...maybe we can try to check on Zim later, just to make sure his dumb face won't get us all killed with one of his lame plans. He's a loser 99% of the time, but...the other 1%...I guess I learned my lesson last year. We'll find him." Her eyes flash with fiery determination. "Count on it. ....But in the meantime, here."

She pulls out a familiar pink card and shoves it in her brother's hands before she goes back to her game. Dib looks down and reads it, realizing who it belongs to. "What the....hey, where'd you get this?!"

"Nabbed it off of your new friend when they weren't looking," she answers casually. "Tiffany St. D. See what you can dig up on her. Maybe we can set Dad up with an appointment."

Letting out a long, steady breath, Dib tucks the card away in his coat before looking back to her. "Do you really think he'd even go? He still says that everything we went through last year was just a hallucination."

Gaz freezes.

Dib looks down at his boots. "...He's not gonna say yes to any of this. He's not the type. You know he's not."

"...Too bad," she says finally. "We're not giving him a choice."

There's a loud series of despondent beeps as Gaz loses the level she's on. She doesn't seem to care, simply pressing "SAVE" and shutting the game off before crossing her arms and sitting back. "He can't run from the truth forever. Dad needs help. Help WE can't give him." Her nostrils flare as she glares into nothing. "But we're gonna get it for him. Whether he likes it or not."

Her words hang in the air, burning like fire with a power only she seems to be able to wield. But there's an undercurrent of something just beneath the grit and purpose in her voice. It's fear.

And it's not for herself.

Slowly, carefully, Dib puts his arm around his little sister in a gesture of comfort. "It's gonna be okay, Gaz," he murmurs gently. "We'll figure this out together. I've got your back. I promise."

Gaz doesn't answer, and she actually seems to pout even harder at the sympathy in his words. But after a moment or two, she silently leans into the hug. If there's one thing she hates, it's showing weakness, and any other day she'd punch him in the arm for even offering her such an intimate gesture.

But this is not that day.

Dib stays silent when she lays her head on his shoulder and shifts around to make her more comfortable. Outside, the storm rages on.

They sit like that for the rest of the ride home.

Chapter Text

"Take that look of worry,

I'm an ordinary man,

They don't tell me nothing

So I find out what I can,

There's a fire that's been burning

Right outside my door,

I can't see but I feel it

And it helps to keep me warm,

So I, I don't mind,

No I, I don't mind..."

In the dark womb of your truck, you glance sideways at the passenger sitting next to you.

The rain is coming down hard now, and as the thunder rumbles overhead, Mars leans up against the window and continues to sing along to the song playing on the radio. As he gazes at his own reflection in the glass, his eyes are distant and troubled. But he seems to have calmed down from his episode earlier.

He's not okay. But he's doing better.

"Seems so long I've been waiting.

Still don't know what for,

There's no point escaping,

I don't worry anymore,

I can't come out to find you,

I don't like to go outside,

They can't turn off my feelings

Like they're turning off a light,

But I, I don't mind,

No I, I don't mind,

Oh I, I don't mind,

No I, I don't mind...."

The stoplight turns green.

You turn your attention back to the road and keep driving.

It's been a long, quiet trip for the two of you. All the rain on your windshield and water on the road means you really have to drive carefully, and that, on top of the fact that Mars lives clear on the other side of town, has really lengthened the travel time. But despite the awkward, uncomfortable first few minutes, where the aftermath of what happened was still weighing heavily on both you and Mars, the silence now is just...nice. Comfortable. Peaceful.

You keep your eyes on the road and follow the directions Mars gave you earlier. He really hasn't said much since you left the library parking lot, but he HAS been singing along to all the oldies on the radio. He really seems to have a soft spot for music. You should have guessed, with that punk haircut of his and all the patches and buttons on his battle jacket. So in the end, you're not that surprised.

But what does surprise you is how much he seems to like this particular song.

"So take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

Oh Lord,

'Cause I've been a prisoner all my life,

And I can say to you...."

It's in the way he sings it, in that low, scratchy voice of his. He sings so quietly, you can barely hear him over the sound of the rain, and it's almost like he's not even aware he's doing it. But even so, he's on-key, and keeping up with every last word, even going so far as to hum along with the instrumental breaks. He welcomes the song like you'd welcome an old friend after years spent apart, or a quiet bedroom at the end of a long day. It's like...a safe space.

This song feels like his safe space.

You're not one to judge - music is a universal blessing, and there have been loads of times where a few of your favorite songs got you through an awful shift at work. But you are surprised that, out of all the songs out there, Take Me Home by Phil Collins would be a soft spot for the strange man sitting next to you.

You roll your shoulders back and tear your eyes away from Mars.

Life is full of surprises.

"But I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home..."

Thunder rumbles overhead and vibrates through your car, your bones, your head. You make a left and keep driving. Mars keeps singing.

And as you listen to him sing, you have to admit -

He's not half bad.

"But I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home,

'Cause I don't remember,

Take, take me home..."

The song dwindles away, and the DJ on the radio comes back and starts pitching an ad for Chicky Licky's. Mars sighs softly and sinks back into a state of utter stillness. You don't realize it right away (and when you do, you can't help but be surprised at yourself), but soon you're glancing at him from the corner of your eye again.

His face is even and his body language is relaxed, but you can tell from the look in his eyes that there's something on his mind as he watches the raindrops pelt against the window. From this angle, it's hard to tell if he's staring at the cityscape outside or looking into his own reflection, but either way, he's too transfixed and distracted to blink, and you have a clear view of his eyes in the glass. They're kind of nice, you think to yourself. Very striking and unique in their color. They're the shade of the the sun looming just over the horizon at daybreak. They're the color of stoplights warning you to slow down before you crash.

Huh, you say to yourself. That's interesting.

It's then you realize, for the first time since you've met him, that you've never seen his eye color on another human being before.

Suddenly, Mars blinks and meets your eyes in the reflection. "Turn right."

"W-what?! Oh." Flushing red in embarrassment at getting caught staring, you jolt and turn back to the road, following the directions he gives you.

"Make a left here," says Mars, shifting in his seat and sitting up straight. "Good. Now make a right. Yeah, and just keep going 'till you see the flamingos. Annnnd.... we're here."

Leaning forward a little from curiosity, you pass an army of cheap plastic Florida birds and drive into a run-down trailer park. As you carefully make your way down the road, you pass a large, faded sign. You read the peeling letters on it out loud, but it's harder than it sounds because several of them are missing:

COLON_ _ _ E _ _ _ _ E _

WELCOMES Y _ U

"'...Colonee Welcomes You?'" you say questioningly.

Beside you, to your pleasant surprise, Mars snorts and flashes a small smile at the tone in your voice. "Colonial Estates, actually," he laughs, scratching his face. "We, uh, we really need to get a new sign."

"Yyyeah," you agree, looking around warily at the unfamiliar neighborhood. "That might be a good idea."

The storm is still going on overhead, and as you listen to Mars point and guide you to where he lives, the lightning and the thunder put you on edge as you glance around the trailer park nervously. This place is a DUMP. Objectively. It's a total dump. Everything is rot, rust and ruin, and you're suddenly reminded of that Japanese horror game series you love so much as you take it all in. The homes you see are absolute eyesores, dilapidated and run down, with faded paint from the 1970's and every single window either cracked, caked over with dirt or boarded up. The neon lights and street lamps flicker ominously as you drive around pothole after pothole after freakin' pothole, and in some of the homes you pass by, you see a glow in the windows that's just a tad TOO bright to be coming from a TV screen. Every now and then you'll pass by a yard with a dog, and they leap at the fence viciously, barking at you with malicious intent. On this dark and stormy night, it's hard to make out what breed they are exactly, but they're certainly ones you've never encountered before.

And then there's the people.

You see them in the windows, watching you pass, silhouetted by the strange glowing lights in their broken trailers. They're the shadows pressing up against their screen doors, the ominous figures that follow you from their rocking chairs on their porches. To your surprise, there are even some people walking around on the sidewalks, probably either coming back from errands or from a visit to a neighbor's home. And as you watch them through your window, every last one of them comes to a slow stop and just stares at you through the glass.

You don't know why, but you can feel the eyes of the entire trailer park on your car.

It's...a little unnerving. To put it mildly.

"S-so this is Colonial Estates, huh?" You try to keep the tremor out of your voice as you force a lighthearted, conversational tone. "I've never heard of this place before."

"Yeah, well, most folks think it ain't really worth remembering, iffin' I'm being honest." Mars surveys the trailer park and the people outside with a warm fondness, completely oblivious to your discomfort. "Sure, it ain't exactly the fanciest place in the world, but hey, the rent's cheap! Though, that's probably because of...WHERE we are, too."

"Hmm?"

Mars turns his attention somewhere else, and you follow his gaze. At the end of the street, behind a rusted chain-link fence littered with holes, you see dozens of strange, irregular shapes sitting under the rain, illuminated only by the unreliable street lamps overhead. In this downpour, it takes you a moment to figure out what they are, but soon you realize they're broken cars, washing machines, old stoves, abandoned furniture - and your eyes widen when you figure out that Mars lives right next to the city's junkyard. "O-oh," you stutter. "I...see."

"Yep," says Mars, grinning at the mountains of trash. "Pretty cool, huh, Speckles? Cheap place to stay, scenic view - Yep." He leans back in his seat, unaware of the way you're side-eyeing his un-ironic optimism. "Don't get much better than this, soldier. Oh! We're here!"

You come to a stop at the very last trailer at the end of the street, and you struggle to keep your face straight, because it is hands down the most hilariously bizarre one in the entire trailer park. It's ugly, but cute, like a pug, but in house form. It's...pugly. There are strings of Christmas lights everywhere, and the flower pots all over the edges of the front steps overflow with life. Some of the junkyard seems to have leaked over to his front yard, with tires and broken machinery everywhere, but all of it has a fresh coat of paint in eye-bleeding, fluorescent colors. You see windmills, you see birdbaths, you see bubblegum pink yard flamingos, you see a manatee-shaped mailbox with a rainbow lei around its chubby neck, and above ALL of this mess, you see an American flag with its stars replaced by a white peace sign waving in the wind.

"Uh. Wow." is all you can say. "Sweet...sweet digs, Mars."

Beaming with pride, Mars takes in a deep breath and turns to you with a grin. "Home, sweet, home, am I right? Welp." He claps his hands together. "Guess this is it! Hang on, gimme a sec and I'll get outta your hair."

He begins to fish for something in the depths of his battle jacket, and as you put the car in "Park", your eyes move upwards...

And you scream when you see what's in your rearview mirror.

"AAAH, wha-a-at the FU-U-UCK?!"

You whirl around and look behind your car, where a circle of the trailer park residents now stand. They must have been following you, you realize as you eye them warily, heart beating fast in your chest. In this darkness, in this rain, you can't make out their faces under their hoods, but you can tell that they're all wearing the same exact pink rain poncho.

Somehow, that just makes everything even more creepy than it already was.

"Oh! Whoops, ha-ha. I...guess you met the neighbors."

You turn your attention back to Mars, your eyebrows flying up as you watch him put on an identical rain poncho. "Uh, actually," you stammer, "I think THEY met ME? Or....you know...." You glance back nervously. "They FOLLOWED me?! Were they stalking me?! Why were they stalking me?!"

"Eh, don't mind them," he says reassuringly, bringing his hood up over his hair. "They're good people! They're just curious because they don't recognize your ride, is all. We don't get a lot of visitors out here in the sticks."

You raise an eyebrow at the way he beams back at you, now dressed on a poncho of his own, and you take another look back at the crowd behind your car. "Can you, like, vouch for me or something?" you ask. "I'm gonna need to get back home, and I can't do that if they're...blocking the road. Why are..." You cringe. "It's like they're fencing me in, i-is this normal here?!"

"Yeah....well...." sighs Mars, following your gaze back. "They ain't exactly the friendliest bunch when it comes to strangers."

There's a brief stretch of silence between the two of you, and you watch as his gaze darkens just a little. "Mars?" you ask.

He doesn't answer.

"...Mar - ?"

"They're like me."

"What?"

"The people here. They're all like me."

He turns to you again and sits back in his seat, crossing his arms."After...y'know...The Incident...all the people who lived here lost their real homes. Some of them are from my neck of the woods, and others are from WAY outta town. But all of them are still getting used to this city. We're all holdin' our own pretty well, but...." He looks at you. "Livin' through the end of the world - it...does things to you. Everyone here is just trying to move on with our lives, but there's definitely a Hell of a learning curve. It's homesickness, it's culture shock, it's finding your place in a new world - it's everything. I mean," he looks at you. "When everything that's normal gets torn away from you, it can be pretty damn hard to start over, you know?"

Your eyebrows fly up, and your expression softens a little as your eyes grow distant. "...Yeah," you say at last. "I know."

Mars sighs, his voice serious. "You're right. From an outsider's perspective, I guess it is kind of a bad look. Heck, I've been livin' here for months now, so I'm used to everyone here being so on edge, but...Speckles, they ain't gonna hurt ya. Truth is, they're more scared of you than you are of them. New things freak a lotta them out. Folks here at the Colonee - we understand each other. We like to stick together, look out for one another and all that." He shrugged. "It's a...Trailer Folk thing. Nothin' you need to worry about."

With that, he opens your car door and hops out, holding up a hand to the crowd and flashing them a smile. "Hey, fellas!" he chirps.

The effect it has is automatic. Just like that, the crowd of people in pink ponchos begins to disperse, some of them waving back at Mars as they return to their own homes. You notice that one of them - A kid? Probably, judging from their height - keeps standing where they are. As lightning flashes overhead, their face is illuminated long enough for you to meet a pair of sharp, purple eyes and the longest lashes you've ever seen -

But then, another figure - even shorter, and much more rotund - takes the girl by the hand and leads her back to their trailer.

"Alright, soldier!" says Mars, turning back to you. "Time for you to mosey on home. See you next week, okay?"

You nod, and you turn to start the car up again.

"Uh!....Spe....R-Reeder?"

The uncharacteristic tremor in Mars's voice catches your attention, and you meet his eyes. "Yeah?"

There's hesitation on his face as he opens his mouth and tries to figure out what to say. It takes him a minute to say anything at all, but when he does, his tone is humble. Maybe even...bashful. "W...what you did back there, talking me down, snapping me out of it..." Looking you in the eyes seems to be too much for him, and he glances away and fixes his eyes on a nearby lawn flamingo. "I shouldn't have blown up like that, 'specially not at some kid. It was...it wasn't right. And I'm sorry you had to see me like that. I...I know it ain't your job to babysit me, but....if you hadn't been there, I...." He clears his throat. "Thanks for puttin' me in my place, soldier. I...I n-needed it."

His awkward, yet genuine, sincerity touches you, and you smile. "Hey, come on, dude. That's what friends are for, right?"

He looks back at you, surprised, but returns the smile with a shy, upward quirk at the corners of his lips.

"You got my number. Call or text me whenever you need to talk, okay? I'm heading out." You wink, and start the car. "See you, Mars."

His lips split into a smile. A real one this time. "...Good night, Reeder."

And with that, you make a U-turn and start your long journey back home.

It takes a few minutes to drive yourself out of Colonial Estates, and despite what Mars told you earlier, you can't help but hold your breath as you make your way out of the trailer park. Something about this place doesn't feel right. You could swear that you feel the eyes of every lawn gnome, flamingo, stone angel and scarecrow follow you as you drive through the streets. But soon, you're out of there, turning onto the main road and making your way back to your apartment.

It’s pretty late now, and you’re not gonna get home anytime soon.

You let out a long, resigned sigh and crick your neck from side to side.

Might as well enjoy the ride.

At the next red light, you begin to fiddle with your radio. The stations in this city all suck, but having something to follow along to will help keep you awake. Besides, you really do need something to break up the otherwise empty silence.

You hate silence. It's too suffocating. Too lonely.

The light turns green, but you’re still trying to find something decent to listen to as you drive on. You skip back and forth between reggaeton, political diatribe, the local Spanish station, Truthshrieker Radio, and a late-night religious program until finally, FINALLY, you get something.

Something you weren’t quite expecting.

“Deep into the night,

With the moonlight as my guide,

I go wander through the pines and make my way to nature's shrines....”

You freeze and glance down at the radio for a beat.

Oh. It's THIS song.

As you slowly lower your hand from the radio dial, a car honks impatiently behind you, and you casually flip them off before making a right and heading onto the freeway. There aren't a lot of other drivers out tonight, just a long stretch of road with no one to keep you company but this music.

“And I look up to the sky,

And I know you're still alive,

But I wonder where you are, I call your name into the dark.....”

You know this song. You know it all too well. For a brief moment, you consider changing the radio back to the religious program, just so you don't have to subject yourself to it.

But, for whatever reason....you don't.

“I wake up in the morning, oh, and I don't know where I've been,

All alone on a mountainside and I'm huddled in the wind,

And it feels like I've been away for an era but nothing has changed at all,

And it feels like I've been with you, oh, but what did we do and where have you gone?”

Raindrops pelt your windshield as the guitar break kicks in. It’s not a pretty ride, and you just know you’re going to get home bone tired, but with Lord Huron in the background, the ride has become a little easier. You like this band. You hate this song - you hate it with a passion - but you like the band.

Hmmph, you think. This song WOULD show up on a night like tonight.

Whatever. It's too late to change the radio now.

You grip the wheel a little tighter and keep driving.

“On the night you disappeared,

Oh if I had seen it clear,

But a strange light in the sky was shining right into my eyes.....”

Out here, on this lonely stretch of road, you find yourself passing the city’s airport, and you can’t help yourself as you glance to your left and look at all the planes out on the tarmac. It’s a beautiful sight. You watch it for as long as you can.

“There was no one else in sight....

Just the endless frozen pines....

But I wonder all they know ‘cuz they don't die and they don't grow....”

You are very tired. Not sleepy. Just tired. You sigh deeply, suddenly realizing just how much your bones ache and how heavy the bags under your eyes feel. This is dumb. You're way too young to be this exhausted. If you had known you'd be this tired as an adult when you were a kid, you would have never let yourself grow up.

You didn't think you'd be this tired.

You didn't think you'd be a pizza delivery person. You glance at the airport, and remember that you'd always hoped for....more.

You never thought you'd witness the apocalypse. Or survive it. You never thought you'd be an insomniac with PTSD.

As your shoulders sag from the weight of so many worries, you let out a long, bitter sigh.

Life is never what you expect it to be, you think wearily.

“I am ready to follow you even though I don't know where,

I will wait in the night until you decide to take me there,

Cuz I know I don't wanna stay here forever, it's time to be moving on..."

As you listen to those words, you glance at the dog tags hanging from your rearview mirror. In the low light of the dashboard, the name “Rennard” winks back at you through the darkness. You frown, and old, painful memories begin to creep up to the surface.

“Oh I don't want to be the only one living when all of my friends are gone - “

Suddenly, a loud noise draws your attention back to the radio again. You blink in surprise at the static that’s now playing through the speakers, like a gentle ocean roar. You wait to see if it will clear up, but when it doesn’t, you turn your eyes back to the road and begin to fiddle with the dial. Somehow, the static only gets worse the more you try to fix it, and after a full minute of multitasking between the radio and the road, you give up and try to turn the sound down.

But the second your fingertip lands on the volume, things get weirder.

“What the - ?!”

Your eyes widen when small sparks of purple lightning begin to crackle all across your dashboard. You pull back when one suddenly lashes out at you, leaving your fingertips slightly numb. As you scream in pain, the volume turns itself all the way up and all of the other dials and buttons on your dashboard start going crazy. Your ears start to hurt from the sound that's now BLARING out of your speakers. It’s so loud and intense, you start to seriously worry if it’ll crack the glass on your windows. With one arm on the steering wheel, you try to figure out a way to turn it off. You’re so wrapped up in avoiding the sparks and working with your uncooperative car, you don’t even notice what’s going on outside.

But when you finally look back at the road, your heart freezes as you do a double take.

Because it's not there.

The road, the airport, the sky, the city. It's all gone.

Nothing's there anymore.

"...What...?"

Wait, what?!

You slam on the breaks and come to a messy stop, screeching to a halt in the middle of....wherever you are. The sound echoes loudly through the inky black nothingness, traveling much, much father than it should. With both hands on the wheel, you look around, your heart sinking at the sight of the endless void all around you, with only a small patch of dark, featureless ground lit up by the lights of your vehicle. The onslaught of radio static is still present, and it too travels through the air and echoes eerily all around you while your stomach churns.

In front of you, everything on your dashboard is going crazy. The dials move back and forth from side to side, like a metronome, and your clock is steadily counting down backwards from midnight and then back up again, over and over and over. The radio continues to blare out static, but this time, when you reach out to work the volume, it chooses to obey, just enough so you can lower the sound to a more bearable degree. Puzzled, unnerved, and slowly succumbing to the dread in your gut, you pull out your cellphone to see if it's in the same condition.

What you discover there alarms you even more. For some reason, the time on your digital clock now reads "0:00", and the date is set to 00/00/0000. When you attempt to make a call to someone (out of sheer, blind optimism), there's nothing but dead static for three seconds before the phone automatically hangs itself up. Then, just as you're about to see if you can manage a text, the phone turns itself off. Then on. Then off again. Then on again.

Creeped out beyond belief, you stash your phone away. Your breathing is starting to become uneven and your hands are starting to shake.

What the Hell is going on?

"This can't be real," you hear yourself say, your voice almost inaudible under the static. "This...this has to be another dream, right?"

For a long, terrifyingly still period of time, you sit their in your car, contemplating on what happened between now and the last time you were surrounded by a recognizable Earth. Did you die on the way home? Did you fall asleep at the wheel? Is this a hallucination from your insomnia, did something you ate or drank earlier mess with your meds, did you inhale some kind of fumes?

Or are you just crazy?

A thousand and one questions race through your head as you sit there, wholly unsettled, staring out of the windows with a worried expression.

There really is NOTHING OUT THERE. No buildings. No people. No other cars. No sign of life at all except yourself. It's just...

Black.

Suddenly, a voice rings out through your head, unbidden and unwanted.

"The sky's gonna split open and the shadows are gonna come bleeding out!"

...No.

Your hands on the wheel begin to tremble harder as memories of a large hole in the sky come back to you for the second time that night. You shake your head, as if to rid yourself of them, but here, in this void, the presence of your past looms over you in the worst way possible as Cas's words all come back to you.

"Black! Black like you ain't never seen black!"

No. No no no. You squeeze your eyes shut to block out the sight of the endless nothing all around you, your denial so strong you can almost taste it on your tongue. Absolutely not! What that kid said earlier has absolutely nothing to do with...with whatever this is - !

"They're going to leak out and eat the whole planet!"

NO! The memories, the terror back then, the terror you feel now - it's overwhelming, and the static only gets louder, sending you closer and closer to the brink of another breakdown as your grind your teeth together. Stop it, stop it, STOP IT, DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT - !

"The Florpus is coming back! And we're not gonna survive! Not this time!"

"SHUT UP!"

In your fear, you bring your fist down hard on the radio. The steady crackle of static gets louder, and the dashboard begins to spark with purple lightning again.

And you realize, with a sinking feeling, that you've seen that purple lightning before.

Then, out of nowhere, the static evens out. And just below it, you hear faint voices coming from your speakers.

"-y T------....! In---ing....m-ss--e...--om Envoy -ess-l 8---....."

Once you hear what you assume to be another human being, you steady your panicked breathing and turn your full attention to the radio.

"Sta-u-....r-p---t...!"

"All systems are ----- oper----a-l....b--....th--- a-e st--l - few --- c-mpl-ca--on-s...to the e-gin-...."

"-ell, wh-tever -hey ar-, g-t t-em f-xed!"

You hear three voices. Maybe four. Maybe more. Most of them are pretty unremarkable, but two stand out to you, commanding and sharp, in a way that makes it almost sound like they're in charge - whoever "They" are. The longer you listen to their strange, disjointed words crackle through the static, the longer you sense something is...off. Whatever they're talking about doesn't seem to be about news, or sports, or anything you've heard on the local stations. It sounds like it's some kind of...sci-fi radio drama?

It sounds like it. It sounds like it should all just be some kind of weird play.

But...the fear in their voices....it's real.

"S-rs, we don'- -ave any w-- of kno--ng w-en -r if we'll be able to -- bac- h-me!"

"Well, KEEP T--ING!"

The sheer venom in that last voice makes you jump a little, and what they say next makes your stomach drop.

"On- w-y -r a-o-her, we're g-tting ou- of th-s Florpus, if it's t-e -ast! Th-ng! We! -o! Understa--?!"

Florpus.

Did...did they just say...?

The static swells to a crescendo, and in the silence of your car, one voice - no a dozen voices all at once - ring clearly through your car.

"Yes, my Tallest!"

".....'Tallest'.....?" you repeat quietly.

The radio goes silent. Then, you hear whispers, dozens, if not hundreds of panicked whispers, all overlapping each other as they hiss out of the static together.

"Wha - was th-t?!"

"I hea-d s--ething! Som-th-ng fr-m -ne of the - "

"That's impossible! Comm--ica-ion d-vic-s ar- u-ele-s her- - !"

"W-at i- th-re's s--ething o-t th-re?! Wh-t if -e're not alo- he-e?!"

"Th-t ma-es no se-se, n-th-ng's sho--ng up on the r-dar!"

"S-rs, wh-t -re you- ord--s?!"

"Sh-t u-, sh-t UP! W--ld y-u a-l j-st BE QUI--?! .....Let m- th-nk..."

The panicked voices subside, and for a long, stressful pause, there's silence. You hold your breath and listen for whatever's coming next, and, finally, the other voice - the other commanding voice - speaks up.

"Ho-d on. I h-ve an idea."

There's another brief silence, and to your amazement, the dials and buttons on the radio move by themselves. As they do, the static dies away, and in the dark womb of your car, the (now crystal clear) voice coughs, clears its throat, and says one, and only one, word.

"Marco."

You blink.

You don't know what you were expecting, but it certainly wasn't THAT. Marco. Marco? Who is Marco?

Maybe you'll never know. Fifteen solid seconds of silence follows after that. Without the static, this world is eerily quiet, and you hold your breath and stay very, very still, watching and waiting to see what happens next. You don't know why, you don't know how, but as you sit there in your truck, it feels like you're under some kind of spotlight, and thousands of people in some invisible audience are waiting for you to speak.

Then, while you're in the middle of that thought, the voice speaks again, this time a little more aggressively.

"I said....MARCO. Marco? Marco! Mar-Co?! Is this thing on?!"

Your face scrunches up in confusion, and then.

It clicks.

Licking your lips nervously, you bring your face close to the radio, and in a shaky, bewildered voice, you answer back:

"....Polo?"

Almost immediately, a thousand or more voices scream out in response, and you leap back in your seat, every bit as startled as they are.

But then, purple lightning begins to crackle out of your radio again. And this time, it spreads.

You shriek and scream, not out of pain, but out of fear, as purple lightning sparks all over yourself and your car. Through the haze of terror, you can see the world outside glitch out, strange flashes of images and colors blinking in and out of reality faster than your mind can keep up. The lightning grows stronger, there's a burst of light -

And then it stops.

Heart beating against your ribcage, you grip the wheel tight and look around at the sight of the empty freeway around you.

Freeway. Road. Sky.

EARTH.

Your jaw drops open, and you straighten up.

You're right back where you started.

Blinking in surprise, you take a look around to get a sense of where you are exactly. You're close to the airport, just like before - in fact, it's almost like you never went anywhere - but the storm has stopped, leaving the world heavy with the smell of rain, and the edge of the sky glows a telltale pink.

....Sunrise.

Sunrise?!

You glance towards the clock on the dashboard, your eyes widening. According to your clock, it nearly five in the morning.

Whipping out your phone, you turn it on and check the time, confirming it to be true. "W....what the - ?" you begin.

But you don't get to finish that sentence.

Behind you, you hear the sound of a loud engine roaring closer and closer, and you jump and scream as a white motorcycle whizzes by your left, JUST BARELY missing you. It slides across the asphalt and swerves to come to a stop, about ten feet in front of your vehicle, leaving fresh, smokey skid marks on the road as it does.

You curse loudly and clutch your chest, trying to steady your breath. It's then that you slowly come to the realization that the other person almost crashed right into you because, for some reason, you were stopped right in the middle of the road. If they hadn't acted in time...

You shudder at the thought. Not for your sake, but for theirs.

They seem to be having the exact same revelation, their shoulders moving up and down as they breathe heavily and step off of their bike onto solid ground. Before you know it, you're whipping off your seat belt and stepping out of your car, rushing over to them as fast as you can. "Oh my God," you cry. "Oh my God, are you alright?!"

They don't answer, but as you step forward, they turn to face you, and your next sentence dies in your throat. Whoever they are, they're HUGE, tall and solid and utterly imposing in their stark white motorcycle outfit. You're a grown-ass adult, and you don't even come up to their shoulder. As you stare into your own reflection on the dark surface of their helmet vizor, a thought suddenly occurs to you..

Stepping out of your car to talk to a complete stranger who almost died because you were stopped in the middle of the freeway? In the dark?

Yeah, well, that might not have been the best idea.

"H-hey," you stammer nervously, too afraid to move from your spot. "Are - are you okay? I - "

The stranger stands rigid, watching you in perfect stillness as you begin to ramble, the way you always do when you're nervous. You even slip back into your old accent. "I-I'm real sorry Sir, I shouldn't 've been there, it was a jackass move on my part to just stop in the middle of the road. Something was goin' on with my truck, it was the...it was the CRAZIEST damned thing, I ain't never seen anything like it, so I-I-I stopped ta take care of it, you know, because I couldn't drive right, but I didn't realize I stopped ... THERE, I didn't think I was being a danger to other drivers, I...I guess I didn't THINK at all, t'be honest." Pausing to bite your lip, you look him up and down nervously, trying to figure out what to say next. "Are y'all okay? Is there anything I can do to help - ?"

"Stop talking."

You immediately pause and swallow nervously as the biker presses a button on the side of his helmet. Suddenly, the visor slides away, and you're staring right into the most intense and fierce pair of brown eyes you've ever seen on another human being.

Or rather, those eyes are staring right into you.

The man leans forward, narrowing his gaze in a sharp, heart-stopping glare as he looms over you, seemingly oblivious to the way you're shaking. "H-hey listen, Sir, I really don't want any trouble!" you stutter gracelessly, too intimidated to break eye contact.

He doesn't answer, but as you look up at him, you get the strangest feeling that you've seen those eyes before. Somehow. Somewhere.

On someone else.

But then his face - what little of it you see - lights up in recognition. "I know you."

You blink, glancing this way and that awkwardly. "Uhhhhhh...."

"You..." He points at you, looking you up from head to toe. "You work at Bloaty's Pizza Hog, don't you?"

Oh dear God, he knows where to find you. Oh shit. Oh fuck. Abort. ABORT. "Nnnnno?" you lie, taking a step back and playing with your hair nervously. "Heh. What, uh, makes you think that?"

The man gives you a long, long stare before wordlessly pointing at something on your head.

You follow his finger, and in a single, heart stopping second, you suddenly remember that you are, in fact, wearing your trademark Bloaty's baseball cap on your head. Man. This just keeps getting better and better. "...Oh," you say stupidly, laughing nervously and trying to play it off as a joke. "Right. I...I forgot that was there...I mean, yeah, that pretty much just...That's one heck of a giveaway, right? Ha ha ha. Ha Ha. Ha. Ugh..." You cover your hand with your face and realize you're caught. "Gotdang it," you mutter. "Why am I so bad at this?"

There's a brief beat of silence as you wait for him to say something. But when you hear a snort of amusement, you look back up at him in surprise. As of right now, the only part of his face that's visible at all are his eyes, but despite your nervousness, you get the strangest feeling that he's smiling at you.

You don't know what to make of that.

"Uh..." you say awkwardly, rubbing your arm. "So. You good? W-we're cool?" You give him two thumbs up. "No hard feelings?"

Raising an eyebrow at your awkwardness, his eyes crinkle at the corners as he smirks, and to your surprise, the man steps forward and prepares to speak again. But before he can get a word out, you hear a small "Schrk!" noise, like a walkie-talkie turning on, and a small, disembodied voice comes out of nowhere.

"Sir? Come in, sir! Sir, do you copy?"

"What the - ?" You look around. "W-who said - ?"

"Hold that thought," says the biker, cutting you off sharply, and he turns away from you and presses another button on the side of his helmet. "Hello?"

There's a long, awkward silence as the man has a brief conversation with the voice on his headset. A gust of cool wind blows across the road, and you shiver and hug yourself as you listen to the stranger's short, weird conversation. "Yes. Yes. Yes. No - well....sort of. The readings are getting stronger, but I still can't figure out where they're coming from. The source of the anomalies keeps fluctuating, I can't seem to catch up to it. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-HUH. Mmm. Yep. Yeah, I stopped. No, nothing happened, I just..."

He pauses and looks over his shoulder at you, and you freeze in place for a second or two before flashing him a small smile and awkwardly waving back. He seems to get a kick out of that, and he snorts and returns the gesture before continuing his conversation. "I....ran into someone. No. Wha - ?! What are you - ?! NO, not LITERALLY! No! What?! No, I - I DIDN'T HIT ANYONE! Simmons! You've SEEN my driving! I'm a perfectly safe driver!"

The voice from the other end of the headset bursts out laughing, and the biker, so frightening only moments ago, stammers and sputters in frustration, stomping on the ground and raising his voice indignantly. "YES, I'm being serious! I'm a safe driver! I'm the best driver I know! We've carpooled together hundreds of times!" He pauses to listen to the titters and snarky comments on the other side of the line before crossing his arms and pouting. "Well, that's YOUR problem then, isn't it?! I swear on my medical license that I've never, ever -.....What? ...OH." His head sinks down into his collar like a sheepish turtle. "Oh, y-y-you heard about that, huh?"

The voice on the other line changes its tone into something sarcastic and unimpressed, and the biker begins to scratch the back of his neck awkwardly and shuffle his feet. "Look, it was just the one time. I was young, and stupid, and I just got my ninth phD....It...It doesn't count! I was just....Senior pranks were VERY common on that campus and....I mean, maybe there were a few girls and boys in my class that I wanted to impress, yes, but....Simmons, I-I-IT DOESN'T COUNT!"

You don't know what it is. Maybe it's because you're caught off-guard by what you're seeing. Maybe it's your exhaustion. Maybe it's because, after all the weirdness that's gone down tonight, you really need a laugh. But listening to this giant speak like a flustered middle-schooler is too much for you, and you bring your hand up to your mouth to stifle a giggle.

The biker looks around, suddenly remembering that you're there, and what little of his face you're able to see turns bright red as he makes eye contact with you. Straightening up and coughing into his hand, he lowers his voice. "There's a situation here. We'll talk later. Wh - NO, I'm not making up an excuse! I have...things...to attend to! Simmons! SIMMONS! Ugh! Good-BYE!"

He presses the side of his helmet again, and takes a breath in and out to calm himself. "Grad students," he grumbles under his breath.

With that, he clears his throat and turns back to you, the picture of stoicism once more. "You didn't hear that," he says firmly.

"Okay," you say, a smile plastered on your face.

"I mean it," he says, giving you a sharp look. "None of that happened. That conversation was classified, understand?"

You laugh, really truly LAUGH, and the sound of it seems to ease him somehow. You smile back at him, and the sight makes his face flush pink. "Your secret's safe with me, Chief," you say reassuringly, trying to control your giggles.

After a moment, the man chuckles with you, rubbing the back of his neck bashfully and averting his gaze. It's surprisingly endearing. You didn't think a guy this huge with eyes that intense could turn out to be so...cute.

Suddenly, a loud beeping comes from a device clamped onto his wrist. The man looks down at it, narrows his eyes in determination, and immediately hops back onto his bike. "I gotta go," he says, his voice serious once more. "Don't worry. We'll talk later."

"W-we will?" you ask, puzzled, but he's already starting up the motorcycle. This is the first time you've paid attention to it since this whole business went down. It's amazing, sleek and white with black accents and blue neon lights that all come together into one seriously eye-catching design. It's like something straight out of a sci-fi poster; you wouldn't be surprised if it could fly. As he prepares to leave, you catch sight of something on the back of his jacket - a bright blue logo that consists of two letters, one you've seen thousands and thousands of times before - An M and an L, mushed together into one symbol.

Your eyes widen in recognition. "....Membrane Labs," you whisper out loud.

Shifting around at the sound of your voice, the biker looks back at you one last time...

And gives you a wink.

And then, he turns around, closes his helmet, and takes off into the early morning.

You watch him go. Your cheeks are on fire and your heart is beating fast again. But this time, you kind of like it.

There's a small voice in the back of your head that's telling you to stop being an idiot and to go back to your truck and get out of the road, and behind that, there's an even smaller voice reminding you of the strange...event...that took place earlier. One that seemed to suck away six hours of your life and leave you stranded in a dark, endless void.

But all you can think about right now are those dark brown eyes.

----------------------------

It's six in the morning when you finally arrive back at your apartment complex.

You park your car with a deep, exhausted sigh and grab your stuff off the seat next to you, including the leftover burrito from the night before. You don't understand what happened last night, or where six hours of your life magically went. But right now, you don't care. All you want is to get some sleep before your shift at Bloaty's this afternoon. You want to call in sick, but you need the cash, and there's no way your boss is going to let you off the hook on a Friday night. You have to rest. You need to. You don't want to think about pink ponchos, or voices on the radio, or kids with prophecies or purple lightning that comes from holes in the sky.

All you want is to fall onto your bed and SLEEP.

But just before you leave, just before you step out of the car, you turn back and gaze at the dog tags hanging from your mirror.

In the wee hours of the morning, the name “Rennard” winks back at you through the darkness.

You hesitate for only a moment before reaching out for them.

Soon, you're pulling the chain over your head, balancing the stuff in your hands as you do. The second the cool metal touches your neck, you feel a flood of relief wash over you. Wearing these always makes you feel safer.

Suddenly, you catch a flash of movement from the corner of your eye. Whirling around, you watch as something disappears behind the dumpster at the edge of the parking lot. Too tired for patience and already on edge from the weirdness that's been piling up on you since the night before, you go rigid, your hands balling up into fists. "Hey!" you yell. "Who's there?"

No answer. You stand there, holding still, glaring into the shadows and waiting for something to happen. Then, from behind an abandoned couch, there's a shuffling sound, and you can see something - or someone - crawl under a nearby car.

You could turn around. You could walk into your building, crawl into bed, slide under the covers and sleep, and forget about whatever this is supposed to be. You want to. You know it's the healthiest option for your tired, frazzled mind and your weary soul.

But if you leave this alone, then you're just gonna wonder, and the 'not knowing' is just going to keep you up at night.

The dog tags around your neck clink together with each move you make, the sound giving you a confidence boost as you stand tall and march over to the car. You get closer, quietly crouch down, look underneath to see what waits for you there -

And the second you see him, the fierce look on your face melts away. "...Hey there."

Two big eyes stare back at you from the darkness, their owner shaking in terror as he scoots further back into the shadows.

"Hey, little guy," you coo, sweetening your voice as you peer at the creature under the car. "Don't be scared, it's okay."

The animal just shakes harder, curling himself up into an even smaller ball. Looking down at the bag you hold in your hands, you take out your leftover breakfast burrito from the night before and tear off a piece, holding it out to the little thing with a smile. "You hungry?" You wave the food around, hoping he can catch the scent. "Come on out. It's okay. I'm not gonna hurt you."

The moment the critter sees the food, his face lights up. Slowly, carefully, the animal crawls out from under the vehicle, creeping closer until, finally, he snatches the food from your hand and wolfs it down in one bite. As soon as it swallows the morsel, it turns back to you, eyes shining hopefully as it looks at the rest of the burrito in your hands. You give him the rest of your food, tearing it up into easy-to-eat pieces as he gobbles up every last bite of egg and tortilla beside you. As he eats, you scoot closer, snap a photo of him with your phone, and put it away to get a good look at him.

It's a little dog, bright green, with a funny wall-eyed stare, black ears, black paws, and a little black tail that wags when he eats. His fur is matted and dirty, caked with mud and soaking wet. You realize, with an aching heart, that he must have been out in the rain last night, possibly even longer, judging by the way he's crushing that burrito. "What are you doing out here by yourself?" you ask him.

The dog turns to you, holding the last piece of burrito in his paws as he tilts his head up at you.

"Where's your owner?" you ask. "Hmm? Do you..." You look him up and down, but there's no collar, no sign of identification or that he belongs to someone. "Do you...not have one?"

You don't expect him to talk back to you - of course you don't, he's just a regular dog - but the moment you ask him that, the poor thing wilts and tears up, and your heart immediately breaks as the creature looks down at the ground in sorrow.

"Awww....baby....," you murmur, scooping him up and cradling him in your arms.

Blinking up at you in surprise, the dog watches as you take off your hoodie and wrap it all around him. Making sure he's cozy and warm, you stand up, hugging him close to your body. "Come on. You can stay with me for a little while. We can give you a bath and get you some more food." You tilt your head and give him a soft smile. "How does that sound?"

The dog looks up at you, wagging his tail happily, and he opens his mouth -

But you hastily SHUSH him before he can make a sound.

"But you gotta stay QUIET!" you tell him, looking around to make sure no nosy neighbors are watching this go down. "Pets aren't allowed in this complex. It's like, a really big deal if you're caught with one. If anyone hears you, then we'll both get in trouble, and they'll take you away from me. So no matter what, NO NOISE. Okay?" You smile at him and scratch him behind his ear. "Do you think you can stay quiet for me?"

The dog taps his chin with a paw, almost as if he's contemplating what you're saying. Then, he looks back up and you and....salutes?

You shake your head and look again.

Yeah, this dog is....saluting at you.

Huh. Neat trick.

"Come on. Let's get some sleep."

Cradling your new friend in one arm, you type in the code to open the lock and walk inside. As you go up the stairs to your apartment, you think about how you've always wanted a dog, and how you always asked for one....and yet, you never got a chance to be the owner of one of man's best friends. Dad never thought it was a good idea. Too much moving around was bad for animals, he said. So, you never got one.

But that didn't keep you from hoping.

Owning a dog was a really big deal to you when you were a kid. You read books about them. You watched movies starring them. You had a dozen dog plushies. You even wrote down a huge list of all the names you'd use if you ever had a chance to own a dog when you were older.

It's that very list you're thinking of as you open the door to your apartment. And it's one name on that list that stands out above all the rest.

You look down at the little green dog in your arms and smile.

"I think I'll call you...Gir."