Chapter Two: First Step

I must have fallen asleep because I wake up to a knocking noise coming from the balcony doors. Rubbing my eyes and forcing my heavy eyelids to stay open, I take Chinchou with me, her glowing orbs at the end of her antennae leading me through my dark room. When I part the curtains and unlock the door, I come face to face with a Charizard. It’s not my proudest moment when I jump and fall onto my butt, Chinchou holding onto my tank top so she doesn’t fall. Needless to say, I’m wide awake now. It’s even more embarrassing when I hear a laugh coming from behind the Charizard.

“So, the rumors are true,” the boy says as he dismounts his Pokémon, returning his Charizard to her Poké Ball. “Ms. Zoey Tsai has returned.”

I roll my eyes, Chinchou hopping off of me and waddling to hide behind me. “It’s good to see you too, Raymond.” Raymond Madsen had been one of my travelling buddies during my Pokémon journey, his Charizard (a Charmander at the time we began) having been his starter Pokémon. A lot of my hometown friends had started their journeys around the same time and, though I had begun my journey with a different group, I ended up with Raymond and another pair for the rest of the time. “How did you know I was home?”

“Well…” He comes in and helps me up. Ever the gentleman, the jerk. “Let’s just say a little Pidgey told me.” When he smiles, his skinny face gains shape, and his sad eyes twinkle just a bit. “How have you been, Zoey? Heard you’ve been busy, what with all those contests and getting into the Ribbon Syndicate and all.”

I shrug it off, ignoring the Butterfree in my stomach fluttering about at the thought of him keeping tabs on me. I tell him my accomplishments this last year were no big deal. After all, they had all been distractions to get my mind off of what happened. “What about you?” I try to get out of being the center of attention. I fidget with my pajama shorts, pulling them down more to cover more skin. “What have you been up to?”

“Oh, just doing some things here and there. Mostly racing.”

That catches my attention. Pokémon Racing is actually a fairly new sport with a quickly growing fan base. The sport is fairly simple, mostly just people mounting their Pokémon and racing through different terrains, either capturing flags or completing different tasks. With his Arcanine and Arcanine’s Extreme Speed, it’s no wonder Raymond took it up. I clearly remember his habit of taking Arcanine out for rides past a hundred and twenty miles per hour.

“Oh?” He finally notices the water creature poking her head out from behind me. “You’ve got a Chinchou?” At first, it seems as though Raymond is implying the same thing my father was during dinner, but he kneels down, pats Chinchou’s squishy head, and smiles at her. Chinchou takes an instant liking to him and comes out of her hiding place. “I should’ve known. You’ve always liked cute Pokémon.”

Maybe it’s my paranoia, but I know he only adds in the last two sentences to change the tide of the conversation. I can’t help but feel as though he isn’t comfortable with the black cloud hanging over my head. “Why are you really here, Raymond? It’s not like you to make small talk.” If he’s here to assess my state of mind then it’s better to get it over with.

He stops rubbing Chinchou’s head and tilts his head upward to look at me. “I wasn’t the only one who missed you, Zoey.” He reaches into his backpack and takes out a Poké Ball encased in a ball capsule stamped with three fire seals. I already know which Pokémon is housed in that Poké Ball before he’s released onto the balcony.

Thanks to the fire seals, harmless orange flames burst from the Poké Ball, and from those flames, a Typhlosion―my Typhlosion―rises. At five feet and seven inches, Typhlosion doesn’t exactly tower over me and is maybe a head or so taller than me, but he is, or rather was, the tallest of all my Pokémon. I almost forget how fierce he is. When he sees me, his eyes narrow, the flames on his back blazing. He charges forward and tackles me . . . into a tight bear hug, his face rubbing against mine. Correction, I almost forget how sweet my Typhlosion is.

“I missed you too, Typhlosion,” I say in between laughs. I haven’t laughed this hard since Chinchou tried to learn thunderbolt―let’s just say it was a very funny attempt and leave it at that.

“I’m returning him to you, Zoey,” Raymond says, putting Typhlosion’s Poké Ball into my hand once Typhlosion has released me from the embrace. To emphasize his point, Raymond takes my fingers and encloses them around the capsule.

“But . . . I gave him to you, Raymond,” I protest. However, when I try to give Raymond the ball back, he shakes his head and refuses.

“You gave Typhlosion to me when you were at your lowest point, but now that you’re back, I can see that you’ve gotten better. You may not be at a hundred percent yet, and you won’t be able to get there, at least not by yourself and not when you’re running away from the past,” he explains, and I haven’t seen him this serious since I gave him Typhlosion. “I hope that, by giving Typhlosion back to you, you’ll slowly piece yourself back together and rise up from the flames that brought you down, just like your Typhlosion does every time he gets out of his Poké Ball.”

I don’t know I’m crying until he wipes my wet cheeks with his hands. “Since when did you get this cheesy, Raymond?” But instead of being upset, I’m laughing through my tears.

✿。.:**:.。✿

Breakfast the next day goes the same as dinner had, though my mother is even more enthusiastic and has gone on to cook mountains of pancakes, plateaus of bacon, and a sea of sunny side-up eggs. My sisters are peeking up at me through their eyelashes and glancing at each other every so often with the same mischievous look they always give each whenever they are up to something―I would only find out in a few minutes later that ignoring their sly smiles is not a good idea (as it always is). All the while, my father eats with a vengeance, ripping apart strips of bacon, stabbing his pancakes, and popping yolk after yolk. I don’t bother asking what’s wrong and, of course, my father isn’t stupid enough to repeat his mistake from last night, but he asks something equally as bad.

“So did that boy step into your room last night?”

I almost choke on my cereal, its cinnamon flakes going down the wrong way. “Of course not, Dad!” I count my stars I didn’t stutter, but as Amelia and Audrina start teasing me, I could feel my face turn pinker than a Clefairy. So that’s why they were passing each other their infamous beams. I take a slip of my orange juice to hide my embarrassment. “Why would you think―”

A yawn comes from the stairs, and I’m absolutely mortified. “Good morning, Mrs. Tsai.”

“Oh, Raymond, I didn’t expect you for breakfast. Would you like pancakes?”

If I wasn’t red before, I am now. My sisters can’t contain their laughter, guffawing and almost falling off of their seats. I try to explain the situation to my father, to explain that Raymond hadn’t slept over and had probably let himself in through the balcony, but my father is glaring holes at my friend―Daddy has never liked Raymond or any boy I’m friends with, for that matter, but Raymond has never really minded it or even noticed it.

“Good morning, Mr. Tsai.” In fact, Raymond doesn’t even realize steam is coming out of my father’s ears. Leave it to Raymond to break the peace of morning. “Twins,” he greets Amelia and Audrina.

“Morning, Raymond,” Audrina says in between her giggles.

“Or should we call you brother-in-law now?” Amelia asks, sending both Audrina and her into another fit of hysteric laughter. I don’t dare to look at my father as I try to finish the rest of my breakfast as quickly as possible.

Fortunately for me, my mother doesn’t take Raymond’s bait and is cordial. “What brings you here this morning?” she asks as she places a stack of pancakes in front of him and tells him to help himself to the eggs and bacon.

I ignore most of the conversation, my meal done. I want to stay longer, to have more bacon, but I do not want to stay another minute under my father’s intense scrutiny. I don’t pour any more cereal into my bowl or reach for any more food and bring my dirty dishes to the sink. Instead of turning on the faucet, Audrina’s Slowpoke sits on the ledge of the sink and, when he sees the dishes in the sink, he uses Water Gun, shooting out water and rinsing the dishes. Thanks to Slowpoke and his hobby of cleaning things, he ends up saving us a lot of money on our water bill.

“Why, that’s a great idea!” I hear my mom say, ignoring my father’s protests. “Of course, Zoey can go!”

Wait, what? I turn around to find a crooked smile on the jerk’s face. If there is anything I dreaded more than the twins’ wide grins, it’s Raymond’s crooked smile. Just what has he got planned this time?

✿。.:**:.。✿

We don’t stray far from town, just west into Route 29 and a bit past the tall grass. With Raymond’s Arcanine out, no wild Pokémon dare to pop out at us. And in order to keep me from turning around and going back home, Raymond has put me on his Arcanine against my will. While Chinchou and Meowstic are content with the ride, I puff out my cheeks and hmp at Raymond every time he looks my way. It doesn’t take long for us to reach our destination, and we soon near the Green Apricorn tree. I hear the battle before I see it. A Swampert and Sceptile are duking it out as we arrive onto the raised ledge.

“Looks like Rickie and Jessie have already started,” Raymond comments. He’s about to return his Arcanine to the Poké Ball, but he remembers Arcanine’s passengers and decides otherwise. If Arcanine had returned to its artificial home, my Pokémon and I would have fallen to the ground, and I would not have been so happy. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to help me down before he withdraws Arcanine. As Arcanine returns to his Poké Ball, my Meowstic and Chinchou begin falling to the ground, but I’m able to catch Chinchou before that happens, and Meowstic lands on her feet.

“Hey, Rickie, Raymond’s here. And . . . is that Zoey?”

Before I could recognize the voice, a few others chimed in, and soon the battle is forgotten. A crowd of friends run towards me, and I almost bolt out of there, but Raymond grabs my wrist and holds me in place. “Why run away again?” he asks in a harsh whisper. When he realizes how severe he sounds, his eyes turn apologetic, but nevertheless he does not retract his attitude. “They’re our friends, your friends. Remember, you came back to rid yourself of ghosts. You cannot do that if you avoid everyone who loves you and want only the best for you.”

I can’t argue with him, but his tight grip on my wrist doesn’t prevent me from partially hiding my face behind Chinchou. I sigh, realizing it’s become a bad habit of mine that I do way too much. I make a mental note to improve on that.

As our friends come near, they start tackling me into hugs just as my Typhlosion had, and I start to realize how foolish I had been to even think of running away from them. Their hugs are warm, and their smiles and eyes are happy without any sort of pity. Why have I only assumed the worst ever since my Lanturn’s passing?

Maybe returning home isn’t such a bad idea, after all…

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