FIRE IN THE SHADOWS
Not that Bella was spying or anything, but Chad had been installing the same jump into every room of the Z Labyrinth app since Adam showed him how to do it.
Not 360 different jumps. The same one over and over. In every room.
Chad never frowned when thinking about jumping. If anything, he smirked and was always too cocky and eager.
On top of that, he hadn’t done any exploring in the hour of daylight they’d had after arriving. Instead, he’d been the first to claim his bunk in the massive motorhome and kept plugging away on the trip app.
It was weird.
Chad never sat around when he wasn't forced to. He was always pedaling, or building something, or finding some random new way to almost-die doing something that did not have to be as dangerous as he was making it.
It drove Bella crazy.
And yet, his current stillness somehow felt worse. Somehow, Chad was never so loud to her as he was when he was silent, and Bella didn’t know how to be in the same space without confronting him about it.
Which was why she pushed up out of her seat at the retractable table to go join Adam and the others at the fire pit.
Chad didn't even seem to notice get up, leaving Bella feeling unsettled for reasons she didn't want to examine too closely. So she kept walking.
Only the sound of the hairdryer in the bathroom gave her pause.
As quickly as Chad had claimed his bunk, Whitney had claimed the shower. And she hadn’t left the bathroom in the 90 minutes since.
The girl was a total bathroom hog and, if Bella walked out the door right then, that meant she would be leaving Whitney and Chad alone in the motorhome.
The blonde had been blow-drying her hair for, like, 20 minutes and it still looked damp. That, plus the fact Whitney was totally OCD had Bella feeling certain nothing would happen between them if she got some air for a minute.
And Bella needed some fresh air—if only to escape Chad's cologne for a bit.
As Bella turned the odd door latch to the motorhome door and pushed, the insulated silence of the interior was replaced by a chorus of crickets singing in the cool of evening.
Above her, a spray of stars filled the sky’s abyss up until the horizon line, where the sea of stars met the inky black of a world in shadow.
Climbing from the horizon, a sliver of moon did little to illuminate the ground, making the single fire pit ahead of Bella the only source of light for as far as she could see.
Around the fire sat Adam, Kei, and their ever-chill driver. They'd set up an extra seat set up as if they’d been expecting someone else to appear. And here she was.
The group of them were all looking at the sky as Adam pointed something out, and Bella paused for a moment to appreciate the picture they made.
Adam didn’t open up for just anybody. Bella may not have seen the guy in forever but she’d seen the reels of his life and there was every reason for him to be freaking out right then.
But he wasn’t. He was connecting and expressing himself. His silhouette showed the body language of a normal guy … almost.
Bella had never seen Adam like this before. He was usually so tense—with cause. Now, suddenly, he wasn’t. Which was cool, but it also felt backwards since Chad was the one acting the way Adam should be.
But whatever. This whole trip was weird.
Case in point: they were sleeping up in the freaking mountains that evening.
It only took one look around to know that their current accommodations were no one’s first plan. But Bella wasn’t complaining. This was her vibe. She’d take the foothill they were parked on over any 5-star establishment any day, if only for the crickets and the unexplained spooky cracks originating from somewhere beyond the trees.
Like bait luring some fool to venture out and play hero.
You wish, Bella thought as she walked toward the firelight.
Kei noticed her approach first and said nothing.
Adam noticed her next and waved. “Hi. We saved you some Starbursts and marshmallows!”
Okay, no lies, some fire-toasted sweetness sounded pretty amazing right then.
“Thanks,” she said, claiming the seat between Kei and Adam, along with the Starburst bag on the small table next to it. “What are you all talking about?”
“How the world calendar would have to change if Ophiuchus was introduced into the modern zodiac,” Adam replied with a smile that made it pretty clear he’d been championing the topic.
“Riiiight,” Bella drawled, looking for pink-wrapped squares in the bag. “Sounds fun.”
“Yes. But it is long past the socially allotted time for a subject change,” Adam confessed. “These two have humored me quite long enough, so the timing is perfect to talk about Chad now.”
Bella choked on a nervous laugh before she could stop herself. Every part of her bristled at Adam's openness with other people present, yet he seemed so earnest she couldn't help but forgive him.
“We all know you like him,” the driver added, hiding an obvious smile.
Bella’s temper was on the verge of flaring when Kei added, “If nothing else, we have noses and that gives it away.”
If the comment was intended to get Bella to stop playing dumb, it succeeded.
“Right?” she replied, glad to finally have a witness. “Thank you for noticing!”
“It’s kind of impossible not to,” Kei replied.
“Smell what?” Adam asked—looking like he was really asking.
Bella’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious! You have to have noticed that body wash or cologne or whatever it is that he wears.”
Adam’s head tilted in confusion. “Chad doesn’t wear anything like that.”
“What? Are you seriously that nose blind?” Bella said, finding three pink Starbursts right out of the gate and reaching for a roasting stick that Kei ended up handing to her. “How can you not smell it? Teach me your secrets.”
Their driver smiled as if she had something snarky to add on the matter, but chose to stay silent for strategic reasons. Bella hated it when people she couldn’t read did that, so she focused on unwrapping her first three Starbursts as she made her next comment.
“He’s acting weird,” she said, palming the first wrapper and moving on to the next. “Any idea of what that’s about?”
Again, Adam acted like this was new information while the other two around the fire seemed content not to respond. “How is he acting weird?”
Bella rolled her eyes. “Adam, you see everything. How can you not notice Chad’s not acting in ways he usually does.”
Adam frowned. “I see him act this way often. Although, I would categorize his current behavior atypically anxious.”
“Ya' think? Programming the same jump 360 times in rooms that can do anything?”
"It's quite smart, actually," Adam thoughtfully, as if he might try it.
Bella rolled her eyes, unable to stop herself. “Please, Adam. He's anxious. Trust me on this one. Think about it, since when does he like to do the same thing twice? He’s tinkering with those VR rooms like his life depends on it.”
“Well, technically, they’re not VR—“ Adam started to say before Bella cut him off.
“You know what I mean. This isn't normal. Not for him.”
Adam shrugged. “If you say so. But I find current stress levels mostly typical, although I would agree it seems he fears his trick might fail, despite the fact he is skilled enough to do it. Perhaps, something has spooked him and he’s trying to figure it out.”
Wait. Chad was afraid and confused?
Heart lurching at the thought, Bella's eyes were drawn back toward the glowing lights of the motorhome. For a moment, her Starbursts were forgotten as she fought the urge to barge back in and get the truth out Chad.
Or, better yet? Get him to cancel the jump he had scheduled the day after they returned home.
Not postponing was madness.
Even Otto thought so, and he hated Chad. Filming Chad miss a trick would make Otto’s day—if not, his year. Yet even Otto had said Chad was crazy to go for it on film with no practice.
Now that Adam was confirming that Chad was nervous about it, it was all Bella could do not to march back into that motorhome and give him a piece of her mind on the matter.
But Bella impaled a strawberry Starburst on her roasting stick instead. “Enough about Chad. Next topic.”
“Excellent,” Kei replied. “Maybe you can help me get Gia to confess how it is that the circle of rocks around our camp acts as an effective barrier to keeping the coyotes out.”
The driver laughed in a way that made it clear she had no intention of disclosing any such thing. “All you need to know is that you are safe inside the circle and that things will get interesting for you real quick if you decide to step out. So, please, don’t step out. I’m not really in the mood to save anyone tonight. I’d rather rest up for tomorrow.”
Whatever that means, was all Bella could think as she gave the woman an appraising look. Their driver was a mystery, for sure, but one Bella kept forgetting to figure out when she had the time.
She kept getting distracted.
“You don’t seem very scared,” the driver pointed out, watching Bella more closely than she liked to be watched.
“Of what?” Bella countered, pushing the next two Starbursts on her roasting stick at the same time.
“Oh. Yeah. Those,” Bella said, holding her bounty over the fire and starting to roast. “No. This is not my first rodeo. I'm good.”
“Glad to hear it,” the driver replied, leaning back in her chair and looking up at the stars as if she was done talking for the foreseeable future. It was a little awkward to have her there in the first place, but it was also obvious why she couldn’t leave and give them privacy.
She was the responsible adult in all this. She couldn’t very well leave three teens in her care alone in coyote territory.
For a moment there was nothing but the sound of the crickets and the crackle of the fire as Bella heated her pink goo. Then there was the sound of something bigger than a twig snapping just outside the stone circle.
“They do make it tempting, don’t they?” Kei mused.
“Tempting to what?” Adam asked -- his voice even, despite having every reason to be the most nervous.
“Meet,” Kei replied with an unmistakable tone of excitement.
Adam shook his head. “So far, I can’t say that’s true for me. I can only imagine that would be like meeting drunk children who like to eat meat. And that sounds un-tempting to me.”
The response got a rare laugh out of Kei and an appraising look from their driver.
“Are you not at all afraid?” the driver asked.
Adam’s head tilted as he considered the question. “Afraid? No. I feel embarrassingly secure, actually, given the fact that everyone here is likely to protect me in the event of an emergency. And I would never want my recklessness to be the harm of you, so I am content to stay where it’s safe. And, no, I do not fear the coyotes.”
Bella grew still as the meaning of his words washed over her and backpack of fears she hadn't even known she was carrying lifted off of her back.
He was still the same Adam she remembered. And now that she knew that, she just needed to teach him how to speak to people his own age, not like an encyclopedia entry.
And how to dress, of course, she thought, twirling her Starbursts over the flame.
Adam needed a baseline understanding of acceptable male fashion with some tips on flare. And he needed someone besides Whitney giving him tips out in the wild.
“If only your parents could see you now,” the driver said softly.
“They would not believe,” Adam replied. “I would be on a helicopter right now.”
“True enough,” the driver laughed as Bella couldn’t help but agree silently.
Honestly, Bella had thought this trip would be more like two weeks of babysitting, and a whole lot less like whatever this was she was experiencing. So far, pretty much everything about this trip was straight out of the Twilight Zone and Bella had no idea what to do with that as the top Starburst on her stick started dripping.
Bella focused on the Starburst, pulling it away from the flame and letting it cool a bit before she touched it and decided it needed at least ten more seconds to not burn her mouth.
“But enough about fearful thoughts. Want to talk about the stars?” Adam asked, aiming the question at Bella before looking up at the sky with an expression of a kid in a candy shop. “I’ll let you choose this time. Pick a star—any star—and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Bella glanced up at the flood of stars above her. There were so many visible out here that it was hard to point out any specific star, in particular. Yet Bella would definitely rather learn about a new star than go back to talking about Chad or get into the topic of Adam’s parents.
She wasn't in the mood to rant, and that's exactly what she would do if they kept talking about either of those topics.
Adam might be in the habit of forgiving every terrible person he’d ever met long before they thought to seek his forgiveness, but Bella was not so evolved.
So, yes. Talking about stars would be a nice, neutral topic.
And to get it rolling, she just had to pick one.
“That one,” she said, pointing nearly straight up. “That triangle above? Any of the three stars there.”
“Unreal,” the driver said as Kei muttered, “Interesting.”
Meanwhile, Adam’s lips curved into a bright smile. “Those three stars you have selected are the head of the serpent in the constellation known as Ophiuchus.”
“Of course, they are,” Bella said, popping the roasted candy into her mouth and shamelessly tuning out Adam as she enjoyed toasted goo.
And long after the candy was gone, he was still going on about a tale written in the stars that may or may not be the missing thirteenth sign of the zodiac. A story that was cut short when the fire burned down and they all claimed their bunks for the night.