The kids followed the path out of the circle of temples and under a vine-covered archway, out into an endless garden. A sea of white chrysanthemums extended all around, their stems bending in the gentle breeze. The rustle of their petals mingled with the sound of the chirping finches that bathed in a nearby fountain. Little droplets cascaded from their feathers, glistening sapphire-like in the approaching twilight.
“Wow, this place is beautiful…” breathed Cindy. She tossed her hair, looking over her shoulder at Jimmy. “Wouldn’t you agree, Neutron?”
“I’ll say! Look at those Bombycilla garrulus in that tree over there! Simply stunning!”
She glared at him. “Typical…”
Jimmy didn’t seem to notice her irritation as they walked down the gravel path into the growing darkness.
“Uh-oh, guys,” said Libby. “Look.”
Ahead, the path split into two smaller walkways, one lined with white stones, and the other with gray.
“I wonder which way Aurora an' me went?”
“I guess we’ll have to split up,” said Jimmy.
Libby shot Cindy a sly glance before crossing her arms. “That’s fine with me, but I ain’t lettin’ Sheen out of my sight. If I do, he’ll go makin’ a fool out of himself. He and I’ll take the white path.”
“What? I don’t want to go with Neutron!”
“Well I’m not exactly thrilled about it either!” shot back Jimmy.
“Will you two get it together? You seem to forget that your contant fightin’ is what gets us into most of these messes in the first place! Now just suck up your pride for ten seconds and walk down the stupid path!”
Cindy and Jimmy blinked in surprise, then grouchily headed off together.
Libby planted her hands on her hips. “Finally! I've had about enough o' the two of them for today.”
Sheen had sprung off the path and was busy wading through the flowers. “Man, you could play a killer game of hide and seek in this place! Uh…hey Libs, who are you talking to?”
“Oh, I’m just thinkin’ out loud. Let’s go…it’s getting really dark.”
Sheen and Libby ventured further into the heart of the garden as Cindy and Jimmy followed their path through a grove of gingko trees. The fan-shaped leaves rustled in the night wind, but the sound was no louder than the flutter of wings. The crunching of their sneakers on the gravel was deafening by comparison.
“Jimmy?” said Cindy quietly.
“Do you think we’ll end up like them…like Aurora and DJ I mean?”
“Aurora and DJ? Where did that question come from?”
“Just answer it.”
“Well, it’s impossible to become exactly like them, since I was never exposed to the Megalomanium, but otherwise I suppose anything’s possible. Why?”
Cindy looked down, her blonde bangs spilling over her eyes. “Because I don’t want it to turn out that way. I don’t want to become her.”
“Listen, Cindy, I sympathize, but if you're looking for reassurance, I'm afraid I can't offer any. The truth of the matter is, we're not always in control of the future.”
“What if we could be? What if we can change it?”
“Look, I've been there, but you have to mess with the laws of physics and it just gets really messy...”
“No, I don't mean literally change the future. I mean affect the future. Look how much we’ve altered Aurora’s life since we came here. If we hadn’t shown up, she never would have come to Earth, and she never would have been reunited with Libby. You never would have thought up an antidote to the Megalomanium, and she would have killed DJ. How do you think that would have made her feel?”
“I don’t know…happy I guess.”
“You are so clueless, Neutron,” she said with a sideways glance. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
“Get what? It’s pretty simple. She said herself that she wanted revenge.”
“Pfft. Revenge is overrated.”
“Are you going somewhere with this?”
She shot him a warning glance. “Hey! What is up with you? Can’t we just have a conversation without it having to having to turn into something profound?”
“You’re the one blabbering about the future, not me,” he said testily. “If you’d just be quiet then we wouldn’t have a problem.”
“Jeez, how rude can you be?”
“You’re one to talk….I don’t think I’ve heard one nice thing come out of your mouth since I met you.”
Cindy jerked to a halt. “See, there we go again, arguing! Don’t we ever do anything else?”
He gazed spitefully over his shoulder. “You’re the one who started it. You always start it.”
“Ya right! You’ve started it plenty of times!”
He whirled to face her, his breath like smoke in the chilled blackness. “What are you talking about? In case you’re too stupid to remember, I’d like to point out that it was your fault that everything went wrong in this universe in the first place. YOU were the one who sprayed the Megalomanium in his face! You’re the one responsible!”
“WHAT?” she gasped. “You were the one who invented the stuff, so it’s your fault, not mine! Besides, your future self is the one who went psycho and killed everyone. He destroyed all our lives, not me!”
“You’re so pathetic! Always blaming everyone else!”
She clawed at her hair in frustration. “UGGHHH, I can’t even believe you! What is your problem?”
“What do you mean, MY problem? You’re the one with the problem, Vortex!”
“YOU shut up!”
“You…you…UGHHHH! I HATE YOU!” she shouted.
“Not as much as I hate you! I’ll always hate you! I’ll hate you till the day I die!!”
Jimmy and Cindy faced off, bristling with rage. The air around them crackled with the intensity of their anger as the wind caressed the trees. Jimmy slowly relaxed, then slumped.
“I just don’t understand you, Vortex,” he sighed, covering his eyes. “I’ve never been able to understand you.”
“I think you understand me just fine, Neutron," she said, anger receding. "And I think you’re upset for the same reason I am. Seeing ourselves grown up this way…it's awful, isn’t it?”
He looked away. “Ya…it is.”
There was a moment of silence, each absorbed in thought.
“It’s so unfair,” she said at last. “This is not how I wanted things to end up.”
“I know. Neither did I.”
“Will it ever stop, Jimmy?” she asked softly. “Will we ever do anything besides this?”
The two of them stared at each other from opposite sides of the path, and a dust cloud tumbled in the seemingly endless expanse between them. Jimmy’s expression grew sad.
“I don’t know, Cindy,” he sighed. “Sometimes I think the whole world is against us. It's like somehow, we’re meant not to be…”
Jimmy smiled sadly. “I know, and I’m sorry. Let’s not talk about it now, though, OK? Come on, I don’t think the path goes much further. We should start back.”
Sadness wrinkled her brow. “Is it really hopeless then?”
Jimmy looked at her through blank eyes, then wrapped his arms around her - but no warmth welcomed her in his embrace, merely resignation and an aching loneliness.
He turned and walked off down the path. She trailed a few feet behind him, her heart growing heavier with each step. But somewhere inside her, like a spark, another feeling grew. She cast him a fleeting glance.
“Possibility,” she murmured to herself. “Now there’s something that's not overrated.”
-> Chapter 20 ->