** Anson **
As it turned out, when Leo said road trip, he didn't really mean it the way I pictured a road trip; you know, with a bunch of people crammed into a car for hours, singing along to blaring bad music from the nineties, wind rolling through the open windows as the sun beat down on the passing scenery. Yeah. Not how our road trip went, not in the least…if you could even really call it a road trip.
Instead of travelling by car, what actually happened was we travelled via the magic plane – and I don't mean plane as in airplane, I mean plane as in heaven-vibrating-on-another-plane-out-of-body-experience kind of plane. It was thrilling in a bizarre way, but also utterly terrifying.
Our expedition crew gathered in the living room of Poppy's house and Leo commanded that we all hold hands. Bemused, I took one of Poppy's hands and Alistair took her other one, then we took hold of Leo's hands and, all at once, he lit up. I'm not kidding. He lit up with a green glow like something out of a sci-fi movie, and then the green glow spread. It rolled out from him, along his arms, and encapsulated me and then Poppy and Alistair, until we were all trapped in the light like moths inside an oil lamp. I could feel Leo's magic buzzing under my skin, that horrible pins-and-needles feeling that made me itchy, but I knew better than to try to scratch it – it wasn't the kind of itch that would go away like that. Then, Leo uttered a sentence in a strange language, possibly Latin, though I couldn't be sure, and…poof. Just like that, we weren't in Poppy's cosy living room anymore. We were flying through the air so fast that it felt like my skin was peeling off, my stomach lodged somewhere in my feet. All I could see was a blur of lines, glowing wires of neon green and blood red and cyan blue and every other colour under the stars, all writhing together in an impossible network that I couldn't really comprehend. It was seriously trippy and extremely uncomfortable.
And then, as suddenly as it began, it ended. It felt like it had taken ages, but it had likely only taken a split second, less than the time it took to blink your eye. With a jolt, we landed somewhere that was very clearly not Poppy's house, but we seemed to be at least on planet earth again. The abruptness of the journey and the disorientation made me sick and dizzy, and I collapsed in a heap as soon as my feet touched the ground. I knelt on hands and knees, gasping, trying furiously not to throw up. My arms shook and I felt like someone had rammed into my chest with a barge pole.
When I was sure I wasn't going to puke, and my vision cleared, I managed to haul myself shakily to my feet and look around. We were standing in a small parking lot that was mercifully empty of people. A handful of cars were dotted about on the black tar, glinting in the sunlight. To my left, the parking lot stretched for about another fifteen meters, then turned into a sprawling field of long grass and wildflowers, and I could see trees off in the distance. We were in the countryside somewhere, that much I could figure out.
To my right, there was the back of a stout, low building with a set of glass doors set into the wall. There was a sign over the door that proclaimed, in brightly painted letters, that we were at Bessie's Garden Centre and Café. Wonderful. A roadside tourist trap. I smiled. I'd been here before, when I was seven, with my mother and father. We'd been driving back from visiting my uncle, who lived near the border, and we'd stopped here to grab a bite to eat and use the bathrooms. I loved garden centres like this. They were quaint and friendly and full of things that a seven year old boy would find fascinating, such as little figurines of gnomes and lawnmowers that looked like mini tractors and sparkly wind-chimes that tinkled when you touched them.
"Bloody hell," Alistair said abruptly, shaking me out of my memories. I looked around for him but he wasn't standing with us. Poppy was frowning into the distance over my shoulder and Leo was scowling at ground. I looked down. Sure enough, Alistair was lying on the asphalt a little way away, looking pale and shaken. His eyes were unfixed, staring blankly toward the burning blue sky, and there was sweat on his forehead. "What the hell was that, witchy-man? That was seriously messed up. I think…I think I'm going puke in a minute." Alistair groaned and closed his eyes, rolling onto his side.
Leo made a semi-apologetic noise. "Sorry. Travelling like that takes some getting used to," he said.
"Some warning might've been nice," I muttered, leaning my hands on my knees while my internal organs settled back into their rightful positions. Leo cast me a genuinely sorry glance and had the decency to look just a little guilty, too. He raised his hand to brush it through his blonde hair, and his eyes looked even more startling in the sunlight, like emeralds under a flame.
A light touch on my elbow did no favours for my fried brain, sending goosebumps racing up my arm so fast I shuddered. I closed my eyes, swallowing, and wished my heart would stop jumping into my throat whenever Poppy touched me. It was like being zapped with cold, sweet electricity, and I was sure it was bad for my health. "We're going to be hiding out in Bessie's Garden Centre. Awesome plan. The vamps will never think to look here." I grinned, only a little sarcastic, and Poppy rolled her eyes – but she was grinning too, so I knew she wanted to laugh. I wished she would. Even if it did my brain in completely, if the last thing I heard as a sane man was her laugh, I'd happily be a drooling vegetable afterward.
"No," Leo said, turning to us with a serious expression, "We just need to dot around for a while first. Leave enough false trails to give us a head start."
I frowned. "I thought you were going to be hiding Poppy's magic traces?"
Leo nodded. "I will be. But hopefully the vamps won't know that, so they'll spend all their time tracking down false trails and then be completely stumped when we appear to be off the grid," he explained, tipping his chin up so his eyes flared an astonishing bright green in the sunlight. I got that weird, vague feeling of familiarity again, like I'd known Leo in a past life. I shook it away.
"So," Alistair said, grunting as he climbed carefully to his feet, "We have to do that again?" He didn't sound thrilled by the idea. In fact, he looked like he distinctly wanted to lie down on the gravel again. Poppy frowned at him, concerned, a crease forming between her brows.
Leo nodded. "At least a few times. It's called Wiring. We follow a different wire of the magic realm to take us where we want to go. Each wire goes to a different location. It's kind of like a railway network for magic users," Leo explained. I blinked, coming to terms with the new information, an insight into this new world I had unwittingly become a part of. Alistair stared at Leo like he'd just spoken Gaelic. Poppy's mouth quirked slightly at Alistair's dumbfounded expression.
After a momentary pause, I put in, "Better than the public transport service I'm guessing." To which Leo's response was to grin. Poppy's giggled adorably.
Alistair snorted. "Yeah, aside from the crippling nausea and disorientation upon landing."
I shrugged. "That's different from riding the bus with druggies and homeless people who smell like weed and piss how?"
That made Alistair hoot with laughter, and Leo grunted as he choked back chuckles. I grinned. Poppy shook her head and rolled her eyes at me, tapping a fingertip on my arm. "Charming," she muttered sarcastically. I bowed dramatically, holding out my hand for hers, but she stepped back, giving another obligatory eye roll, though I could see she was smiling. "Are we going to sand here all day and make jokes, or are we going to get a move on? I'd kind of like to get the bouncing around part of this over quickly and then take a nice, hot shower." She closed her eyes as if imagining herself in the blissful shower, and, of course, that made me imagine the same thing. Heat bubbled inside me and I bit my lip. Alistair made a soft noise and I glanced at him. He raised a brow, as if he knew what I was thinking, and I blushed, turning away.
"She's right. We shouldn't be standing around in one place for too long. Not before we've established some false trails," Leo pitched in so smoothly that I suspected he'd been interpreting my thoughts as well and felt the need to change the subject. He held out his hands and I grasped one while Alistair grasped the other, sighing heavily to let us know he wasn't enjoying this trip so far. Poppy took my other hand and Alistair's free one, and then we were off again, zipping through time and space – or at least the time and space of the magical realm – following a pulsing, electric blue line of writhing energy. I wondered how Leo knew which wires went to where, but I supposed there was some sort of inbuilt map designed into his magic genes or something. Or maybe there were signs posted on the wires that were just invisible to anyone without working magic.
The next location we stopped off at wasn't familiar. There were tall, ugly buildings and lots of people jostling each other on the street and honking traffic clogging the roads. Nobody even blinked at the sudden appearance of four teenagers popping out of thin air in the middle of the street. They just walked around us or bumped into us. Leo gave us all a few moments to compose ourselves and get over the severe jolt of the abrupt landing. Then we took off again, still with nobody batting an eyelash at us.
Location number three was an airport, teeming with people hauling luggage and striding purposely about in suits. Families with screaming children muddled around in shorts and sandals, obviously prepared for a holiday to somewhere warmer than Scotland. That wasn't hard to find. It was a three hour flight to France, where sun and baguettes were in abundance.
After the fourth Wire, Alistair finally puked. He barely managed to stumble to a rubbish bin in the corner of the children's play park. Thankfully, there were no children in this particular park, but there was woman walking her dog on the street who stopped and gaped at us while her dog used a nearby lamppost like a fire hydrant. I was feeling queasy myself, but I managed to swallow my stomach – barely. Poppy had gone slightly pale – well, paler – and Leo was sweating slightly, fine strands of blonde hair sticking to his damp forehead. He was breathing hard, like he'd just run a marathon, and I wondered how much juice it took to do multiple Wirings so quickly. Probably a lot, judging by the way he was supporting himself with the rusty seesaw.
I walked over to him – okay, more like waddled over, because I was clutching my stomach and wheezing and generally trying to keep my stomach contents in my stomach – and leaned against the seesaw next to him. Poppy sat down on the grass very abruptly and I shot her a concerned look. She just smiled wanly up at me, meant to be reassuring I suppose, but she'd gone even paler and I wondered if she was feeling just as sick as me and Alistair. Tactfully, I let her sit there quietly instead of pestering her by asking if she was feeling alright. But Leo, I pestered, mostly because I was more concerned about him right now. He looked like he might pass out in a minute. "You okay, mate?" I asked in the gruffest way I could, trying not to sound condescending or something. Some guys got upset when you asked if they were okay, like you were somehow implying they were weak. I'd made the mistake of stopping to help out a drunk guy crouched on the kerb once, asked if he needed help, and got punched in the jaw. After that, I never tried to help out a stranger again – unless it was a woman, because they were more likely to accept it if they did need help, and a lot less likely to punch me for asking.
Leo nodded mutely, pressing his lips together until they turned white and bloodless. He closed his eyes and I could see the thin purple veins patterning the backs of his lids. I frowned and put an arm under his, across his back, and helped him sit down. "Sit for a minute, Leo. Take five. If the vamps show up before you're done resting, I'll tell them to make an appointment." I dropped to the ground a little way away from him, giving him space, and Poppy shifted over to rest her head on my shoulder. I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and she snuggled against me, sending electric shivers scattering down my body. It felt funky to be chilling internally while the sun beat hot on my skin – good funky though.
Finally, Alistair stopped heaving and stumbled his way over to us before collapsing in the fresh green grass on his back, sprawled out like a starfish. I wondered how he wasn't boiling in all that black, especially his coat. His hair flopped over his eyes and he twitched as if he were about to move it, but it was too much effort so he left it. He groaned, opening his eyes to gaze glassily up at the blue-and-white sky. His skin was faintly sallow. "I should have stayed at home," he grumbled.
I shot him a look. "We did give you that option. You chose to ignore it. Now you have to suffer the consequences," I stated, though I did feel just a little sorry for him. This wasn't his fight but he'd decided to come along to help us out. Truthfully, if our positions were reversed, I'd probably have done the same thing. Plus, it was hard not feel sorry for anyone feeling as sick as I currently was. The lovely scent of Poppy's hair was helping the nausea though. Forget ginger and Andrews salts: Poppy was a much more pleasant cure for an unhappy stomach. She was also a good cure for sore eyes and loneliness. Bad for my CCD though, since my head kept producing lines of poetry about how she looked or smelled or moved. Also very bad for RHS – Raging Hormone Syndrome. The image of her in the shower kept popping back into my head without permission, and I was starting to wish she wasn't sitting quite so close. It was making me want to do things I'd only thought about doing before. Yeah. Amazing discovery: Anson McLeod is just like every other teenage boy after all. My mouth turned down at the thought.
"Okay, so where do we go from here? More bouncing? 'Cause I really don't think my stomach can take much more of that," Alistair sighed, folding his hands behind his head. The colour was slowly coming back into his face at least.
Leo shook his head, then frowned and grunted. "Ugh. Dizzy," he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut, then carefully opening them again to make sure the world had stopped spinning. Then he said, "No, no more bouncing. We need a car, drive it to a hotel somewhere, and then…" He shrugged. "We sleep. We can start making longer-term plans tomorrow. It's unlikely the vamps will catch up to us for at least a few days, if not longer. I'm not sure they'll even know we've left yet. Not if Lyle's true to his word and keeps his mouth shut." He sounded a little sceptical on that.
Quietly, Poppy defended Lyle. "He's not going to rat us out, Leo. We can trust him, you know that." Leo made a non-committal noise, neither agreement nor disagreement, and Poppy just sighed.
Alistair, though, perked up a bit at the mention of a car. "Woo, real road trip! That's more like it."
"Yeah, except we don't have a car. And can anyone here drive?" Poppy asked, that cute line forming between her brows that made me want to kiss her just right there on that spot. I restrained myself and looked to Alistair. I couldn't drive, never really had the same desire to as all my classmates, but somehow I just knew Alistair could drive. If he had a legal license or not was a different story.
He flashed a grin, sitting up, clearly feeling better. "I can drive, and I can get us a car. I told you I was going to be useful."
Poppy eyed him warily. "How are you going to get a car exactly?"
Alistair shrugged. "Don't tell me a vampire has issues with a little grand theft auto?"
"No, but the more discreet we are, the better. Driving a stolen car is hardly discreet," Leo pointed out. I had to agree. Alistair just gave us all a secretive smile and got to his feet.
He brushed grass off his long black coat as he said, "Don't worry about it. Just let me do what I do. If I'm not back in twenty, you'll know the vamps have eaten me and you should witchy-jump to Mexico." And with that, he turned and walked off with a purposeful stride, rounding the corner of the street and disappearing from our view.
Once he was gone, Poppy, Leo and I exchanged uneasy glances. Then Leo said to me, straight-faced, "You attract felons and vampires. I wouldn't stand next to you in a lightning storm." At that, I laughed, mostly because he was right. Somehow, I wondered if being different was another way to say I was unlucky and I just hadn't realised it all these years. But then I looked at poppy and thought, If I'm unlucky, I don't want to be lucky.