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See that girl kneeling next to the bookshelf in the library? She's whispering the book titles to herself. That's me. Back away slowly, and then run.

The Hero (#champion)

April 2, 2020


    If he was honest, he had no idea where he was going.
    It had all started, of course, when he’d stolen the horse. This had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he was beginning to regret that decision. Why hadn’t he taken one of the cars instead? 
    His mind went in the same tired old circle that it had been on for the past hour. He couldn’t possibly have stolen one of the cars—they were all registered, and there wasn’t a single charging station on this road. 
    It had been only a few days ago that he was but a mere domestic worker for the wealthy McAdams. He had always longed to travel, of course, and their house was so close to the old abandoned highway that the longing accelerated to the breaking point. After a year, he found himself stealing one of their horses, Ginger, and riding away in the dead of night—with nothing  but the clothes on his back, he thought. This wasn’t strictly true...he had also stolen a few hundred dollars out of the large vase in the front hall. Mr. McAdams always stuffed dollar bills down there when he thought no one was watching.
    He had been on the road for days, and the last person he’d talked to had been at a gas station the previous day. He’d felt bad for the owner—an old man who looked to be in about the same good shape as his gas station. There was, of course, almost no money to be made in selling gas these days. He almost wished that he’d had a gas-powered car to give the guy a little more business. He’d bought a donut and some beef jerky which he’d been steadily consuming since then. The bag was almost empty, and he was beginning to get hungry. 
    The road stretched out before him, wide and empty, going everywhere and nowhere. He began to imagine food at the end of the road, the fast food strip malls of his childhood, now gone, greasy food in a paper bag and a styrofoam cup of fizzy soda that burned your throat as it went down your throat. His stomach grumbled.
    The clouds above him grew in darkness. 
    Looking into the distance, he caught sight of something. A sign. His eyes widened, then squinted to read it.
    TACOS TACOS TACOS, blue and flashing and the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
    He almost fell off of Ginger. Righting himself, he kicked at her sides and spurred her into a joyful gallop. As they neared the stand, he imagined plates and plates of tacos, piled up to the ceiling. He wondered if horses could eat tacos.
    The sign grew larger as he neared it, and soon he caught sight of a smaller, yellow one right beneath it, reading Best Prices Best FoodCome and Eat!
    Finally they reached the stand. He leapt off of Ginger and looped her rope around a nearby pole. “I’ll get you food too,” he said, pointing at her. Then he fairly ran inside.
    The inside of the taco stand was just as neon blue and yellow as the signs outside. To his left and to his right were small booths with neon lights stuck onto their sides. Most of the booths weren’t in front of a window, but instead each sat below a large metal safe embedded in the wall, blue neon lights flashing around it. The ceiling was completely covered in vines, twisted in with small yellow and blue lights. They almost look like Christmas lights, he thought, and spent a good minute gaping up at it, trying to pinpoint where and how the vines were growing on the ceiling.
    “Are you going to order?”
He followed a large flashing yellow and blue arrow to the counter, where a teenage girl leaned up on her elbows, blowing a piece of her bangs out of her face. The name tag pinned to her shirt read "Imogen". She stood up as he neared, eyes fixed on the menu posted above her. 
    He only had twenty dollars, but ten was apparently enough to order the Very Giant Plate of Tacos. Breathlessly, he placed his order. The girl punched a few keys on the huge, old-fashioned cash register and pointed at the booths. 
    “Your order will be ready shortly.” 
    He nodded and followed another neon arrow to a booth in the back. Marvelling at the almost-full napkin dispenser at his table, he looked around and realized that every other table has one. He wondered if out here they have a way of turning prairie grass into paper. Unable to resist, he took a napkin out of the dispenser on the table, glanced around and began to fold it into a star.
    “That your horse?”
    He yelped. Turning around, he found himself nose-to-nose with an old woman with many long, twisted braids falling down her back.. Her face was so wrinkled as to give the appearance of someone who had taken a year long bath, and she couldn’t have been taller than five feet.
    She pointed outside and repeated, “That your horse?”
    “Well, you’d better go bring him in before the twister gets here.”
    “What?” But she was already walking away. 
    He stood, leaving behind his many-folded paper napkin, and walked to the door. He attempted to push it open but found that he couldn’t. He shoved his back into the door and slowly pried it open. Standing outside, he had to hold a hand up over his eyes to see as pieces of dirt and grass whipped by in the wind. Ginger was still standing where he left her, whinnying nervously. 
    He walked to her, practically sideways against the wind and led her towards the front door of the restaurant. He could see another girl standing just inside the door, and he waved his hands at her and shouted, “CAN YOU OPEN THE DOOR?”
    She nodded and, pressing her hands to the door, shoved it open. At that moment, he realized that Ginger was very likely not going to fit through the door. He briefly wished he’d left off of horses and hot-wired a car instead. 
    With his pushing from behind, Ginger squeezed through almost all the way, but became wedged in the door at her hindquarters. He groaned and shouted to the girl “PULL FROM THE FRONT, WILL YOU?” And he began to push from behind. He could faintly hear Ginger’s complaints.
    Glancing behind him, he saw something long and dark moving in the distance. The twister, he thought, and pushed harder. 
    Finally, with a pop, Ginger squeezed through. He slipped in behind, breathing heavily. The girl says, “Pretty horse.” She was taller than him, with a pair of glasses pushed up into her curly hair. The name on her name tag is "Jane".
    “Thanks,” he panted.
    “We don’t get many people traveling by horse around here. Lots of dune buggies, Jeeps, burros…”
    He nodded and tried to think. “Um,” he said, “So shouldn’t we be in the basement by now”
    “Oh, we don’t need to do that.” The girl laughed. “Grandma built this place with some of the best Gorilla Glass she could get. We’ve had three twisters this summer so far and the only damage has been to the sunflowers."
    “Oh,” he glanced outside. The twister was nearing them. 
    “You ordered the Very Giant Plate, right?” It’s the girl he ordered from, the one with the bangs..
    “Yeah, that was me.” 
    She shifted a plate the size of Ginger’s hindquarters, piled with tacos, and put it down in front of him. It landed on the table with a thud. “Good luck.”
    He sat down at the table. His legs shook so hard that he had to place his hands on his knees to force them to still. With trembling hands, he picked up a taco and began to eat.
    After a little while, he realized that he had already downed ten tacos. His hands have stopped shaking. He felt brighter, somehow...more awake than he had been when he’d started. Examining the plate, he found a vegetarian taco and held it up to Ginger, who devoured it in one bite. Giving her two more tacos, he leaned back in his chair. There were still at least twenty tacos left, and he set to work munching his way through them.
    He finished the entire plate in twenty minutes. The twister had passed by, whipping through the sunflowers in the next field. The girls and their grandmother continued to flit in and out of the kitchen, supremely unconcerned with either the twister or the horse standing in the middle of their restaurant.
    “All finished?”
    He resisted the urge to yelp again as a third girl appeared at his elbow, nodding rapidly. This one was small, quite thin, and wore her name tag (which read "Mabel") pinned to a blue apron. She picked up the plate and went to the kitchen. As she pushed through the swinging door, the old woman came out. He gulped as he realized that she was striding towards him.
    “You traveling far? Got a place in mind?”
    “Just wandering, then? That’s fine, fine.” She brushed an invisible speck off the table. “You got a map?”
    She tapped her long brown fingers on the table and nodded to herself. “Let me go get one for you. You’ll need it, since you have of course disabled your wrist’s tracking mechanism.” He gaped at her, and she fixed him with a glare. “Don’t tell me you forgot to do that?”
    “No, I disabled it.”
    “Good.” And she strode away towards the far corner of the restaurant, returning with a map in her hand. He took it and unfolded it across the table.
    It was blank.
    “Are you sure this is the right map?”
    But the old woman was gone. The three girls emerged from the kitchen.
    “She sent us to give these to you,” says the tallest, the one who had helped him with the door. She held out her hands, where something was placed that had been covered with a cloth. A dish towel, he thought, and had to resist the urge to giggle at the absurdity of it all. Ginger watched with seeming interest from next to him as he lifted the dish towel to reveal a gleaming dagger. 
    “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He jumped back, raising his hands. “I don’t need a weapon, okay? I care of myself, alright?”
    “Sure,” said the girl, still holding it out in her hands. “Just take it, please.”
    He reached out and took it from her. It was heavier than he thought it would be, and he turned it around and watched the light glint off it. There were words engraved upon the handle. He squinted to read them, for all the world it looked to be nothing but gibberish.
    He looked up to ask about the meaning, but the girl with bangs, the one he’d ordered from, was already in front of him. She held out another dish-towel-covered object.
    “Are the towels really necessary?”
    She sighed. “Look, Grandma likes the mystery of it all. Just take it off.”
    In her hands was a small silver flask.
    “She wanted me to tell you that it won’t take liquor,” said the girl. “It holds water and nothing else. But it’ll keep giving you water for as long as you need it, so you’ll never have to refill it.” She handed it to him. “She also said something about using it for good purposes or whatever.”
    “Thanks.” He put it in his pocket.
    The last girl, the small one who had cleared his plate, had no dishtowel, but a brown paper bag. She handed this to him. “It’s tacos, for the road.”
    He took the bag, cleared his throat. “Um, so...why are you giving all this to me?”
    The tall one spoke. “Grandma does this for the heroes.”
    “Yeah.” She looked him over, pursed her lips. “Heroes.”
    “I’m not a hero, though.”
    “No kidding,” mumbled the girl with the bangs.
    The small one elbowed her. “What she means is that the people Grandma usually does this for are usually...more muscular.”
    “And taller,” added the second one.
    “Honestly,” said the first one, in a lowered voice, “We don’t know if she’s crazy or if there’s actually anything to all the heroes. But she has a stash of these objects in the back room, and she gives them away to anyone she likes the look of.”
    “Maybe she’s just trying to clean out,” said the second one.
    The small one said, kindly, “I’m sure you must have something heroic you’re going to do.”
    He swallowed. “I mean, I didn’t have anything in mind…”
    They all looked at each other. “Well, good luck figuring it out,” said the tall one, business-like. “Will your horse fit through the door again?”
    This time, without the wind, adrenaline, and urgency, it took about fifteen minutes to get Ginger back through the door. Finally, he stood outside the taco stand, with a dagger, flask, blank map, and backup tacos in his bag. He got up onto Ginger, utterly bewildered. The girls stood below him. The tall one and the one with bangs had their arms crossed.
     “Can I—can I ask something?”
    “Sure,” said the tall one.
    He pointed inside the restaurant. “What’s in the safes?”
    The small one glanced at the tall one, received a shake of the head, and said, “We don’t know. Grandma won’t tell us.”
    “Oh. Okay.” He nodded, and kicked his heels into Ginger’s sides.
    Slowly, they rode away, into the endless roads and fields of fallen sunflowers.
I switched tenses at some point, so there might be some words I forgot to correct in there.

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