If Atlas had to describe Underwood in one word it would be 'ominous'. As soon as the large, dilapidated sign signifying the beginnings of the town came into sight, all that seemed to follow was a continuous line of tall, thin trees stretching out along the narrow road. The twisted trees served as frame to the seeming lack all human civilisation. This really was the middle of nowhere. It sort of reminded Atlas of the horror films his elder sister used to make him watch when he was younger; stories set in backwater, murky places where insane serial killers lurked, crazy cults had meetings and inbred mutants with a penchant for human sacrifice did their slaughtering. The latter had been a particularly horrific film that no five year old should have been made to watch. Eleven years down the line Atlas still had nightmares about that stupid film from time to time.
"Have you fallen asleep?" Richard took his eyes off the road to briefly give the boy a sweet smile through his thick moustache, "Don't worry, we'll be there soon."
Atlas continued to stare out of the window. He had remained silent for the majority of the journey thus far and was not planning to change that any time soon. At the beginning of the drive Richard had made quite the effort with him, he was a very bubbly man, trying to initiate a dialogue about whatever inane topics popped into his head - "what nice weather we're having" or "watched any good films lately?"; that kind of thing. They were the usual devices that people used to gateway into bigger, more interesting conversations. However, all lines of questioning quickly fizzled out in minutes due to Atlas' inability to keep the dialogue going. And so, the two of them had stayed silent for all the remaining three and a half hours of the drive. It wasn't that Atlas was rude or anything, and Richard, even with that creepy facial hair, seemed like a perfectly nice enough guy. It was more down to the fact that the awkward teen found that he didn't particularly excel at small talk. Especially not when it concerned complete strangers or talking about himself. He had attempted numerous times before to be one of those people who could maintain conversation with anyone. Evidently none of them were very successful attempts.
Much to Atlas' delight, in the distance the beginnings of an actual town began to slowly glide into view; a town with houses and buildings and everything. As Underwood approached, ridiculous fears of having to camp in the wilderness for the next year, fighting off monsters and demons were quickly streets were modest but seemed modern looking enough: a petrol station, a large supermarket, even a selection of bars - all the usual and completely normal town-like-things. It was starting to look a little less like horror movie territory now and more like an ordinary small town.
The car twisted through the roads, allowing for a brief tour of the sights. Atlas begrudgingly gazed out of the tinted window to try and soak some of it in. A few minutes later the Sat-Nav barked out it's final orders and the vehicle turned into a small estate. It then instructed them to come to a halt.
You have reached your destination.
This was it. This was his new home. For the foreseeable future anyway.
You have reached your destination.
It mocked him once again with it's robotic voice. The boy looked at Richard with an expression akin to that of a rabbit caught in headlights, which the man found rather amusing, "Don't look at me like that, buddy. It's going to be fine." He chuckled, "Come on."
Atlas had a feeling that when Richard was younger, he probably never had to do anything like this otherwise he would have known that this wasn't going to be fine. Not only was this a completely new family to get accustomed to it was also: a new set of rules, a whole new place to find his way around and most frighteningly of all - a new school. Atlas would have to try to fit into a new social structure and somehow make friends, which was, like small talk, something he was atrocious at. This was to be the start of a year filled with uncertainty and anxiety. Of course, there was a level of gratitude underlying all this fear; without this foster family he really would have been screwed. But still, he wished his sister didn't have to leave the country.
Richard and Atlas got out of the car, moving to then remove the boy's modest amount of belongings from the boot: one battered suitcase full of clothes and one Vans backpack with his laptop inside.
Richard led the boy to the front door and rapped confidently upon it.
"If that's Mrs. Parker again, I swear..." A muffled voice grunted from inside the house.
Atlas could hear said someone banging as they rushed to greet them, but when he looked to Richard for reassurance the man simply smiled, once again. He seemed to do that a lot. Pearly white and amazingly straight teeth flashed from under a furry lip. It was more annoying than comforting.
When the front door abruptly opened, it was to a rather flustered looking, middle-aged woman in jogging bottoms, "Oh. Richard. Oh. Oh gosh, is it four already?!" She glanced down at her bare wrist for a moment before her eyes shot back up, "Please, come in."
Richard placed a hand on Atlas' shoulder and gently prompted him to enter the woman's home.
"I'm Ruth. You must be Atlas! Would either of you like a tea? Or a coffee?" Ruth took down her hair and re-tied it into a neater looking ponytail in an attempt to make herself look more presentable. It did little to help.
"Thanks for the offer, but I have to be off I'm afraid." Richard said politely, setting down Atlas' suitcase, "You have my number if you need anything."
Ruth smiled, "Of course. Thank you Richard."
Whilst Atlas had not grown all that attached to Richard in the brief number of hours they had been required to spend together, cooped up in that tiny car, forced to listen to the man's best of the 80's playlist – which was actually pretty decent now that he thought about it. I mean, Africa by Toto was, and always will be a complete tune, but despite all that; he wished the man would not leave. Richard leaving meant that all of this was for real. He would be officially on his own.
With a small wave of his hand, the mustached man exited the house, leaving Ruth to lead Atlas into the living room. It gave Atlas a chance to quickly analyse the woman's home, which he found to be pretty average. Average was good. Average meant that, best case scenario, Ruth and her husband were probably normal, working class folks who wouldn't give him too much grief. The house was a modest size, not perfectly tidy but not a mess either. Things were looking alright for the time being.
"Can I get you a drink Atlas?" Ruth said, interrupting his brief surveying of the surroundings "And I apologise for the state of me, I've been doing housework all afternoon, I must have lost track of time."
His mouth was dry, so very dry.
"I'm okay for a drink, thank you." He answered politely, joining the woman as she sat down on the sofa. He internally chastised himself for not daring to take Ruth up on her offer.
"Atlas. That's such an unusual name, isn't it? Especially since your sister is called Layla..."
The boy smiled, he missed Layla already, "Yeah. Mum was really into Greek mythology when she was pregnant with me apparently."
"Makes you sound like the protagonist in some sort of young-adult, action adventure story."
The boy kept smiling, unsure as how to respond to such a weird observation. Maybe Richard was on to something with all this smiling stuff. Smile through the awkwardness to try and make things feel more normal. They didn't, of course they didn't, but it was worth the try.
"Right! I'll show you to your room." Ruth said suddenly, jumping to her feet, "There's three foster children living with my husband and I at the moment-"
Ruth grabbed Atlas' suitcase and began to make her way up the stairs, still chatting happily away. Atlas got the message and obediently followed suit.
"There's Milly and Mylo. They're twins, six. Little trouble makers but incredibly sweet. And then there's Freddy, he's thirteen. Absolutely nightmare, but for Godsake don't tell him I told you that. Their rooms and the master bedroom are on this floor and then-"
Tip-toeing slightly, Ruth reached up to pull down a chord from the ceiling.
"When we have the foster kids we generally have them share rooms, helps them socialise and such. Since you're a bit older than the kids we usually have, we thought you might prefer a little more privacy, so Harold and I tried to do up the attic a bit."
She pulled down a set of ladders from the hole in the ceiling.
"We've only been using it for storage anyway so it was a good opportunity to clear some rubbish out. It's nothing special and it might be a little chilly in the winter, but I'll get you a few more blankets or a small heater or something-"
The pair climbed slowly up the ladder and into said attic.
"There we are."
Atlas was pleasantly surprised. It was a decent sized space with everything he could possibly need already set out for him. There was a bed in the corner, a desk to the side and a small wardrobe. It looked like Ruth and Harold had done all they could to make the attic look as homely and comfortable as possible for their new arrival. Needless to say, the thought of that filled Atlas up with warmth. The boy looked to Ruth, his eyes starting to tear up little. As sensitive as Atlas was, and he was really quite sensitive, it had still been a rough couple of months. So far, this was seeming like a agreeable outcome to what could have been a horrific situation.
"Thank-you." He said softly, taking in the attic, taking in Ruth's concerned expression.
"Oh honey." Ruth dropped the case and moved over to the boy, putting her hand either said of his shoulders, "Don't get upset." She pulled him into a warm embrace and Atlas allowed himself to enjoy the physical contact, even if it did feel odd for a woman he'd just met to give him a hug.
When she pulled away, Atlas rubbed furiously at his face with the sleeve of his hoodie, "Sorry about that. I don't usually-" Cry. He didn't finish the sentence. He actually cried quite frequently and decided not to lie to his new carer. He cried at sad films. He cried at cute animals. One he cried because his cup of tea had gone cold.
"You've nothing to be sorry about." The woman gave his shoulders a squeeze, "I'll leave you to get settled. Dinner will probably be about sixish, if you need anything in the meantime just let me know."
After he had managed to haul his things into the attic, Atlas carefully placed his laptop down on the desk and made his way to his new bed. This was nice. This was almost perfect. He felt as though he didn't quite deserve this, but pushed aside all those negative thoughts to instead focus on just relaxing for a little while. Gazing up at the slanted ceiling, Atlas lounged out across the duvet. Comfy. He thrust his left hand into the air, flexed it and then stilled. Narrowed, his eyes fixated on his palm. He concentrated on it for a moment, thinking about an oh-so familiar heat and then suddenly the centre of his hand began to tingle as a small, orange flame pittered into existence right in the middle. As soon as it had come, the flame was extinguished. Atlas' arm fell back onto the bed.
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.