April 2019. 15:00. The night before the disappearance.
For the past 19 years of Kiri’s life, she had come to terms with the notion that her “fate,” or whatever people liked to call it, would never amount to anything. In her imagination, this “fate” was a faint wavy blue line, emerging from her past and running into the middle of her back just beneath her ribcage. It meandered out from her chest to nothing more than the next college class she had to attend, her next shift at work, or the next errand she had to run. Anywhere beyond that was vast emptiness. She figured it would turn out fine, though, if she just resigned herself. She could continue to live this way: stuck, and after some time, comfortable with it.
Her shift was about to end as the blazing sunlight of the mid-afternoon slowly crept behind the trees surrounding the local chicken farm. She emptied the last of the chicken feed onto the grass for the babbling, bobbing chickens that circled her feet as she did at every shift’s end. Her vacant stare became animated when she heard the “ka-ching!” of an email notification. She fumbled for her phone in the pocket of her khaki pants, almost excitedly as if some part of her was hoping things would be different somehow—like maybe that faint blue line would light the way to something beyond her next day’s schedule.
It was a rejection from Lacrelon University, which said, “Dear Ms. Avelen, we regret to inform you that we cannot admit you into our University at this time. However, there will be opportunities in the future—” Etc. Etc. As if their softened words made a single speck of difference. She scowled. Added the email to the “what u deserve” folder—a long list of rejections from other universities and scholarship applications from within the past year. She kept the folder just to remind her that she shouldn’t expect much, or at least she should be suspicious of the good things that came to her. At least, it gave her a thick skin—or so she liked to tell herself.
She pushed down the initial hurt and resentment as she placed her phone back in her pocket. Pretended it was just a normal part of the day, and returned to the farm’s visitor center to clock out.
If there was one notably good thing about today among all the neutral and expected things, she managed to duck out on time from work, barely scathed by only one snarky comment from her elderly lady coworker about how Kiri should seriously consider working at their restaurant, grow out her hair, wear pigtails, and “take advantage of that untapped femininity” for extra tips. The other rambunctious elderly ladies working at the farm passed it off as a joke as they always did. They said, “Oh, she’s just projecting because of her tiny boobies. You’re perfectly fine right here as you are.”
“No shit I’m projecting,” the eldest shot back. “I would’ve killed for a rack that large as a young’un. Add on the pigtails and I could’ve had a real retirement savings.”
It was always like this. The chicken farm ladies doted on her in all the wrong ways. Not for her intellectual endeavors, god no. She just smiled through it. Relied on the fact that, at the end of the day, her paycheck was higher than the average entry-level worker’s in this town.
The youngest of the ladies wearing the polka dot blouse stopped Kiri at the exit, holding up a green and yellow floral dress toward her. “By the way, I found the perfect dress for you. It’s just your color and—”
“That dress again! She’s already tried that one on and rejected it two days ago, ya ditz!” the lady with the frizzy curls interrupted.
“Ah, then, how about this—”
“That one, too. Yer memory’s goin’ if ya still haven’t given up tryin’ to make her farm mascot material.”
There it was again. Kiri had no chance to speak over them as they squabbled over how they wanted to see her like she was their dress-up doll. She smiled with her lips but her pale green eyes remained glazed over as she waited for them to grow tired of the conversation. At least it never took long.
The eldest turned the conversation back to its original topic. “Kiri, really consider that restaurant position! I’m planning to raise your wage a bit more, but that’s all I can do for the time being. You’re gonna need the extra job if you want more.”
Kiri politely declined as she always did, using the usual excuse that she was too busy with classes, and did her best to hide her disheartened expression.
* * *
Amazingly, Kiri made it a solid 20 minutes early to her Thursday “Major and Career” class, still wearing her tacky blue and yellow work shirt with a cartoonish logo of a police chicken covering her entire back with the words “Gold Egg Farms” and “No fowl play here.” She didn’t mind this very much. People hardly noticed her. She didn’t speak to anyone in class, after all. And nor did they speak to her. It had been this way for as long as she could remember. The one or two close friends she had during grade school had left town after high school graduation and she hadn’t worked up the courage to make more friends. She wasn’t sure it was worth trying, at this point, considering everyone in this classroom, let alone this whole community college, had established their friend groups as far back as elementary school.
She laid out her pen, doodle-riddled notebook, and a small, yawning metal dragon statuette neatly in their designated corners of her sun-stained wooden desk. Then, she hunkered down in her chair, scrunching her broad shoulders together. She mentally prepared to listen to the professor ramble as usual about subjects completely unrelated to finding a major let alone a career—a fate, as it were. And Kiri was beginning to wonder if fate was real. This really would be how the rest of her life went if she didn’t find her calling soon.
However, today the professor decided to actually hand out an assignment for once. Kiri wasn’t sure if this was a breath of fresh air or just a new source of anxiety. “An interview with your neighbor,” the professor called it, pushing his round spectacles up the ridge of his nose like he was trying to look dignified. “…So that maybe your fellow classmates can help you with your career path.”
A little late in the year for that, Kiri thought and sunk into her chair even further with a scowl on her face. At the same time, she expected this. Goldtown Community College was reserved for those students who hadn’t figured out left from right let alone what they wanted to become.
Each student partnered with the person directly next to them. Her interviewer and interviewee was the brown-haired, brown-eyed, lacrosse-playing hunk called Gabe Hartman. He leaned over toward her, that big goofy grin on his sun-speckled face that hadn’t changed since they were five years old—except the fact his face was clearly more chiseled and unsurprisingly the magnet to girls’ affections, even if he was kind of dumb. If his face wasn’t enough, his endless happy energy left no room for anyone to hate him. It was exhausting, if anything. Kiri had always noticed the boys and girls hanging around him but never really paid attention to why until now as he stared directly at her with his eyes that screamed “charisma!”
She and Gabe sat in the back of the class. He hadn’t ever really talked to her, let alone looked at her during the entire semester until now. In fact, he hadn’t interacted with her for more than two seconds every single year they had been going to the same schools. And it probably would’ve stayed that way if not for this unhinged professor. Of all days, she had to wear this tacky chicken farm uniform.
After the bout of normal, albeit boring questions, Gabe asked his final question in that energetic, humorous voice of his, “Sooo. If you could be anything you wanted—I mean literally anything. What would you be?” His silly brown eyes glowed like he genuinely wanted to know and yet they begged for an absurd answer.
Though the question itself was as boring as the rest, something about the way he said “literally” with such emphasis resonated with Kiri. Without thinking, she said, deadpan, “A dragon that can travel through space and time, I guess…” She couldn’t bring herself to look him in the eye. She could feel him staring at her intently, though, like he wanted her to clarify. She blushed, realizing what she just said. She fidgeted with the tips of her blond pageboy-cut hair, searching for anything else to say to backtrack.
But before she could even think, Gabe burst out laughing, turning some of the curious eyes of the other students toward them. “Well, how cool is that? A goddamn dragon! I’d sure love to get on the dragon shapeshifting trend with you, too.” He was on the brink of joyful tears. “I totally just meant like, something on the human spectrum of things you can be, but honest to god, that’s awesome!”
By the end of that class, he had flicked a note onto her desk that said:
Party in the plains! Meet @ Riverwood Bookstore tonight @ 6.
Some concept art from this chapter.