Welcome to Ilirea, Texas. Est. 1897. Pop: 15,200 people. 45,000 cattle.
Eragon sat looking at the sign in front of him, reading those four lines over and over again, until his eyesight began to blur and his head started to hurt. He was perched on the hood of his car, long since cooled from the hours it had been sitting there not running. He didn't know how long ago the sun had gone down, but Eragon didn't really care. Another day ended; another day of the same boring crap. He'd thought he could make it through this last year of school, but the summer was almost over, leading into his senior year. And his patience was starting to wear thin.
To top it off, football camp was starting in a few days. He loved football. Ask anyone, and they'd tell you they'd never seen someone play with as much passion as Eragon did. But as much as he loved it, it wasn't hispassion. That was reserved for a different sport, one that his dad didn't take seriously at all: lacrosse.
All summer, he'd been stewing on how best to tell his dad; how to tell him that he didn't want to go play football for Louisiana State University, with his cousin, Roran. He wanted something more... something that hadn't been his dad's dream since he was ten.
A hot wind was blowing from the west, stirring his dark hair all across his forehead and flinging dirt up into his eyes. He rubbed at them fiercely, though he should have been used to it by now. After almost eighteen years of living in the flatlands of eastern Texas, wind was something he'd gotten used to. But that didn't mean he had to like it. In fact, he hated it. He associated memories of his childhood in accordance with the tornadoes from that year, which wasn't exactly happy.
The road into town stretched behind him, and he could hear the hum of an engine approaching. It seemed they'd sent Search and Rescue out after him, which was happening more and more often lately. The bike came to a stop just behind his car where it was pulled off onto the shoulder. Its rider cut the engine and dismounted the motorcycle, taking off his helmet in the same, fluid motion.
"What the hell are you still doin' out here, man?" Murtagh asked in his deep, gruff voice. "It's after midnight. Mom is worried sick about you."
"Isn't she always?" he muttered under his breath. His half-brother came to stand next to him, setting his helmet on the hood of Eragon's car.
"Would you just come home? It doesn't do anyone any good for you to sit out here night after night. You're actin' like some damn mopey teenager." That drew a laugh out of Eragon, and he looked over at his brother.
"You seem to have forgotten that I am a mopey teenager," he shot back. Murtagh gave a rare smirk before looking out at the bare, open road before the two of them.
"Not according to your dad, you're not. You're supposed to be a man now," the older boy muttered darkly, and it didn't escape Eragon's notice the venom that had seeped into his brother's voice. But before he could say anything, Murtagh pushed up off the hood and grabbed his matte black helmet, painted with dark red flames around the visor. "Just be home before two, alright? School starts in two weeks and you need to get on a regular sleeping schedule." Eragon twisted around to look at his brother as he walked back towards his bike.
"Since when do you care if I'm on a regular sleeping schedule?" he called after the older boy with a bit of a laugh. Murtagh tossed back his dark, collar-length hair as he prepared to put his helmet back on.
"I don't," he said. "That's Mom talking." He gave his brother a wry smirk before pulling his helmet on and mounting his motorcycle. The bright red machine roared to life as Murtagh turned the key, and then he was speeding off as fast as he'd come. Eragon watched him disappear into the darkness of night, and then turned back to the sign.
It sat there, as it always had, twenty yards away and mocking him with its utter banality. His entire life had been spent in this cow-town, and it had been as dull as the sign that welcomed what few visitors the town ever received. One more year, Eragon, he thought to himself. One more school year in this hellhole and then you're free. Just a little bit longer.
With a heavy sigh, he hopped off the hood of his car―a '77 Pontiac Trans Am his dad had lovingly restored and given to him as a gift for his 16th birthday―and walked around to the driver's side. He pulled the door open and slid into the seat, buckling his seatbelt and then gripping the steering wheel tight. But he didn't reach for the keys, which still stuck out of the ignition. His brow pulled together into a scowl as he stared out the windshield, the only sound his heart hammering in his chest.
What he wouldn't give to turn over the engine and tear out of this place like a bat out of hell. But you couldn't do anything in this world without at least a high school diploma, not anymore, anyways. So, no matter how much he'd like to just leave, he knew there was no way he could. Besides, Saphira would have killed him. With just the slightest hesitation, he turned the key in the ignition and then angled the car back into town.
"Eragon, you need to get down here right now." He sighed heavily into the phone, smirking slightly at the exuberance in his friend's voice.
"I don't see what the big deal is, Saphira," he replied, propping his head up on his arm as he lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling of his room. "They're just people."
"Yes, but they're new people," she quipped back. "I mean, can you imagine moving to a new town your senior year of high school? Especially this dump."
"Actually I can," he said quietly, still stewing on the radical thoughts he'd had the night before.
"Are you gonna come down here with me or not?" Saphira asked exasperatedly. He could just picture her, standing there with a hand on her hip and one eyebrow cocked above the other.
He glanced at the clock that stood on his nightstand. 1:32PM. Finally, he let out an exaggerated sigh. "Fine, give me twenty minutes and I'll be down there. Gotta shower first."
"Yay!" she squealed happily. "Alright, see ya then." He hung up the phone, threw it next to him on the bed and then bounded up, peeling his shirt off as he went.
True to his word, Eragon was pulling into the driveway of Saphira's house twenty minutes later. She was standing in the driveway, just in front of the garage, bouncing on her toes like an excited schoolgirl. And she was beaming from ear to ear. Eragon would never understand her fascination with the new people that moved to their sleepy little town.
"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" she said impatiently as he stepped out of the car.
"Aren't they just around the corner?" Eragon asked in exasperation.
"They might be finished already. Come on!" And she was off, bounding across her front yard and onto the sidewalk. Eragon followed behind her with a small smile on his face. Her short, wavy blonde hair bounced wildly as she ran, exposing the back of her neck where there was a tiny tattoo of a dragon snaking its way from her hairline to the top of her shoulder line. She'd gotten it at the end of her junior year—with her mom's permission, of course—and had been showing it off to all their other friends ever since. She'd always been a bit of a rebel, but Eragon thought the tattoo was a little extreme, even for her.
The two of them strolled down the sidewalk of Saphira's neighborhood, following the sounds of shouting voices and shuffling boxes. At the corner of Saphira's street and the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, they stopped, leaning against a six-foot tall fence and peeking around it. Across the street, in front of a modest two-story home, was a moving van and a couple cars. Several people were rummaging about in the back of the van, and Eragon could tell most of them worked for the moving company. But there was a boy among them, whom he had to assume was what all the fuss was about.
"There, that's him," Saphira whispered, pointing to the boy Eragon had already picked out and confirming his suspicions. "Look, doesn't he seem like he's in our grade? What do you think?"
Eragon watched the kid for a few moments, lugging boxes from the back of the truck to the front door. "He's small," he finally remarked. "No use at all."
"Oh, shut up," she snapped. "I wasn't talking about football. Contrary to what you might think, some people actually have interests other than sports."
"That's rich, coming from you," he laughed. "Miss 'Star Softball Pitcher'. Don't try to lecture me."
"It looks good on college applications, alright?" she muttered in indignation, quickly turning back to spy on the new additions to the neighborhood.
After ten more minutes of just watching, Eragon was growing impatient. "Has your curiosity been satisfied yet?" he asked. "They're not aliens, and they don't look like murderers to me."
"No, they aren't aliens," Saphira replied slowly, "but they are Asian, which would make them only the second Asian family in town. Wonder what that's like..."
"You do astound me sometimes, Saphira," Eragon said with a shake of his head. "Come on, let's get out of here. I've only got today and tomorrow before football camp starts, and I don't want to waste my last days of summer." He began to walk back the way they had come, and Saphira let out an irritated growl before bounding after him. "You know," he said over his shoulder, "it would be a lot less awkward if you just introduced yourself to people when they moved into town, instead of spying on them from a distance."
"Yes, but it's a lot less exciting." She stared at the sidewalk, kicking at some loose pieces of gravel until they skittered off into the street. "How did college visits go?" she continued, shifting the subject away from her odd habits. "See any hot chicks?" He'd just come back a week ago from visiting a few colleges that were nearby, but the two of them hadn't had a chance to talk about it yet.
Eragon smirked and chuckled at his best friend, shaking his head at her blunt nature. They'd known one another since they were toddlers, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that they would try to date. But that had been two years ago, and they'd both decided they were better off as friends. He was just happy that their expedition in romance hadn't ruined their friendship.
"Only a hundred," he replied, gaining a groan and a rather exaggerated eye roll from Saphira. "But they went fine, thanks for asking. Dad still wants me to go to LSU, and I still haven't told him that I would rather go a thousand other places than LSU."
"Louisiana isn't too far from A & M though," Saphira said softly. Eragon could hear the hope in her voice, and it killed him. He'd hoped to put off this conversation until later, but it seemed that fate was working against him.
"It's nearly a six hour drive, Saphira," he said, keeping his tone light.
"Yeah, but it's a hell of a lot closer than Colorado," she shot back, suddenly angry instead of joking. Eragon had mentioned a while back that the University of Denver had one of the best lacrosse teams in the nation, but he hadn't imagined Saphira would figure out that he was trying to work out going to college there. She was a lot more clever than he'd given her credit for.
"Don't, Eragon," she cut him off, picking up her speed and practically jogging to her own front door.
"Hey, wait a second! Are you even gonna give me a chance to explain?" he yelled, running after her and into the house. By the time he made it across the front threshold, Saphira was already halfway up the stairs in a beeline for her room. Down the main hallway and into the kitchen, Eragon saw Saphira's mom poke her head around the corner.
"Everything okay, Eragon?" she called to him in that sweet tone she always had. Mrs. Brighton was practically Eragon's second mom, and he'd always felt welcome in this house. She was used to Eragon and Saphira's little spats, and tried to help in any way that she could.
"I've got it under control, Mrs. B. Thanks," he said, giving her a reassuring wave and then trodding up the stairs. When he got to Saphira's room, she was sitting in her favorite fluffy chair with her knees pulled up into her chest, and she was staring out the window with an angry scowl on her face. Eragon perched himself on the edge of her bed, resting his elbows on his knees and just waiting for a moment. He knew from years of experience that it never went well if he tried to push her.
"When were you gonna tell me?" she finally asked after several minutes of heavy silence.
"It looks like I didn't have to." He was trying to be joking, as he always was; Eragon didn't like to let things get too serious. But she was not amused. That was clear enough by the hurt he could see in her bright, blue eyes. "Look, Saphira. I tried to tell you a thousand times, but the moment was never right. And, if I'm being honest, I didn't want to tell you, because I knew this would happen. I hate it when we fight."
"Don't you think you ought to let your best friend know you want to move a thousand miles away from her?" she said forcefully, tears brimming in her eyes.
"Well, it's only nine-hundred and forty miles, to be fair." Saphira shot him a murderous look, and he decided it might be better to lay off on the jokes for now.
"You've already mapped it?" she asked incredulously. He offered a shrug and a sheepish look in reply. "What's so great about this school anyways?"
"Well, for starters, it's a thousand miles away from my dad," he began slowly. "And secondly, DU has one of the best lacrosse teams in the country. You know better than anyone I'd rather play lacrosse than football. But, to do that, I have to get away from here. Saphira, you know what my dad is like. He's got these huge, great plans for me. I just... I don't know how to tell him that's not what I want."
"Like this: 'Hey Dad, just wanted to let you know that I don't want to go play football for LSU after all, and I'll be moving to Denver next summer.' There, not so hard." Her voice was thick with sarcasm, but Eragon didn't let it get to him. He knew she was only acting this way because she was hurt. "Really, Eragon, I didn't think you were so spineless," she said, tearing her gaze away from him and looking back out the window to the street below.
He sighed and stood up. "Sorry to disappoint you, Saphira," he said quietly. With that, he turned and left, bounding down the stairs and back out the front door. He expected Saphira to come after him, like she usually did. She hated it when they fought just as much as he did. But as he sat in the driver's seat of his car, staring at the front door expectantly, he slowly realized she wasn't going to chase him this time. "Fine," he mumbled angrily, cranking the keys in the ignition. The engine roared to life and he punched the gas after throwing it in reverse, his tires squealing on the concrete and asphalt as he went.
Eragon knew he had a temper, and it wasn't a good thing for him to be behind the wheel of a car when he was mad. Which is exactly why, when he pulled onto the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, he didn't see the figure step into the street in front of him. With a gasp and a curse, he slammed on the brakes, causing himself to fly forward and knock his head on the steering wheel. The car came to a screeching halt, and when he looked up out the windshield, he didn't see anyone.
He cut the engine and jumped out of the car, not even bothering to close the door. As he ran around the front of his car, he saw the person who'd stepped out in front of him, sitting on the asphalt with a hand to their head.
"Oh god, man are you okay?" he asked, kneeling down next to the kid that he recognized as Saphira's new neighbor.
"Ah... I dunno," the kid mumbled, rubbing a spot on the back of his head.
"How hard did you hit? Do you feel dizzy? Any pressure? Come on, man, talk to me." Eragon ran through the list of questions his coaches always asked when they were concerned a player might have a concussion.
"No, no I'm good. Um... I just need to go home," the kid replied.
"Come on," Eragon said, leaning down and angling his shoulder underneath the other boy's. "I'll help you, let's go."
"I'm fine, really," the kid protested as Eragon helped him to his feet. But as they began to walk back to the house with the moving truck out front, he stumbled and Eragon had to catch him before he fell. Eragon adjusted so the other boy's weight was fully on him, which wasn't easy considering the kid was about six inches shorter than he was. But they finally made it back to the house and Eragon helped him inside, stepping carefully around perfect stacks of cardboard boxes.
"Hello!" Eragon called loudly when he didn't see anyone. "Somebody!"
"Oh no, please..." the kid mumbled, hanging his head and putting a hand to his temple.
Suddenly, Eragon heard a frantic call coming from the kitchen. "Fírnen! Is that you?" A short, black-haired woman appeared before them at the end of the hall, her face set into a look of surprise. "What happened?" she said forcefully, rushing down the hall and pulling her son away from Eragon.
"It's nothing, Mom. Really, I'm okay," the kid—who Eragon now knew was called Fírnen—said slowly, allowing his mother to put her arm around his shoulder and lead him down the hall. Tentatively, Eragon followed behind, taking care to remain as quiet as possible. There was a table already set up just off the kitchen, and the woman pulled out one of the chairs so Fírnen could sit down.
"What happened to him?" Eragon looked up and saw the tiny woman shooting daggers at him with her dark eyes.
"I... uh, I hit him with my car," he explained hesitantly. She sucked in her breath quickly and then turned back to her son, speaking quietly in a language Eragon didn't understand. "Look, I've got insurance. If he needs to go to the hospital..."
"That will not be necessary," Fírnen cut in forcefully, looking up at Eragon where he stood awkwardly at the hallway entrance. "Thank you for seeing me back to my home, but I'll be fine, really." Fírnen spoke a few more words in the language Eragon didn't understand before the woman turned to him and thanked him as well.
"Alright then," Eragon said awkwardly, turning and looking around him while he decided what to do. "Um, I guess I'll see you around then." And with that, he hurried out of the stranger's house and ran back to his waiting car.
"What do you mean you hit someone with your car, Eragon?" His mother had not taken the news as well as he'd hoped.
"I was driving down the street in Saphira's neighborhood," Eragon explained calmly, "and I wasn't paying attention. I was... mad, alright? And the next thing I know, he's right in front of me. I tried to stop but I must have clipped him with the front end. He hit his head on the asphalt, but he said he was okay."
"Eragon, people do not just turn out 'okay' when they get hit by a moving vehicle. Did you at least get his mother's phone number? I want to call her," his mom said quickly, wringing her small hands in front of her.
"No, Mom, I didn't get her phone number. God, you should have seen how she glared at me, like I was some deathly parasite there to infect her precious son." Eragon paced around the kitchen quickly before settling for leaning up against the counter. "Besides, it's a small town, and you wouldn't be able to miss this family."
"What do you mean?"
"I think they're Chinese, or something," Eragon said.
"Oh," his mother exclaimed, "that must be Professor Liu and his family. Deborah was telling me that he was just hired at the local college as the new Physics Professor. They moved from... Pennsylvania, I think."
"Well, I'm sure the son wishes he was back in Pennsylvania right now. He wouldn't have a raging headache and a nice set of bruises on his legs if he was." Selena stood from the breakfast table and walked over to her son, putting her hands on his shoulders and looking up at him with concerned hazel eyes.
"I know you didn't mean to hit him," she said, "but now you know you have to be nice to him at school." He smirked down at his mother and allowed her to plant a kiss on his cheek.
"Yes, Mom, I know," he sighed.
"Go on, get washed up for dinner." She turned away and walked back to the stove where she had been cooking before Eragon came in to tell her the news. He did as he was told and marched off to the bathroom, rolling up his sleeves as he went.
When he was finished washing his hands, he looked up into the mirror and inspected his face for just a minute. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he knew it was because he hadn't been getting enough sleep. Not just because he was staying out late at night, but also because when he was home, the sleep just wouldn't come to him. The closer his senior year got, the harder it was becoming to keep his secret. And especially now that Saphira knew, he hoped she would keep it to herself. If his dad found out from anyone other than himself, Eragon would be in a world of hurt.
He dried his hands quickly and then fished his phone out of his jeans pocket, checking the screen briefly. Still no messages from Saphira. She couldn't still be mad at him, could she? He sighed and put his phone back where it belonged. Girls confused the hell out of him sometimes.