Somewhere in Connecticut, on a particular early August morning, within the large, infamous reformatory site Reality Check Summer Camp, was a packed cafeteria populated with eager children, teenagers, and counselors alike. This long Summer of helping troubled individuals regain their grasp on society was finally at its end, and all the guests were waiting for their rides back home, be it a bus or from their own parents. But within this crowd, one figure who was sitting in the corner by herself was very unusual from the rest. She was officially documented and always referred to as Luz Noceda, but unbeknownst to everyone, the girl was in reality a shape-shifting basilisk from the Boiling Isles simply named Vee, derived from her original title “Experiment Number Five”.
It had certainly been an interesting three months for her there. When she first arrived in her new disguise, she was naturally as timid and afraid as one could possibly get. Not just from her days on the run still being fresh on her mind, but being thrust into an environment unlike anything they’d ever seen before. Would she really be able to fit in? Would her true identity be exposed? And, most worryingly, would the actual Luz ever find out about this? But she recalled how this Camila woman radiated such instant comfort, and with the promise of a new, real life on the horizon away from danger, it all seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up. And little did she know how much of an informative eye-opener the camp itself would be, and how lucky she was to learn so much about human life and society.
Throughout her time, Vee found herself learning about personal finance, administrative work, government action, and… what she appreciated most of all… public radio - just to name a few subjects. Most of the people around her seemed bored out of their minds, which she couldn’t understand. Human lives could only be so interesting without any magic or wizardry around them, after all. But when she wasn’t engaging in that, she was taking routine expeditions of the wilderness around the camp and enjoying the modest, but refreshingly non-sentient meals provided. But as satisfying as all that was, it was not what pleased her the most about the experience.
Vee looked back to the three friends she got to know in her cabin, and smiled as they waved. True, they all knew her as Luz Noceda, but they were all her friends. When they first got packed together in cabin 7, she tried to shut herself out from their company for a week or two, fearing she’d be too suspicious or weird given her background. But as it dawned on her how unique and chill they each actually were, she slowly began to open herself up and before she knew it, she didn’t seem like any more of an outsider than they did. Any time she’d act naive on a concept like non-acid rain or let mentions of the demon realm slip, they believed it was all in Luz’s imagination, took it in good humor, and even appreciated her for it. And Vee loved all the games and laughs they got to share together during their stay. Vee really couldn’t think of any better company to spend her first three months in this unfamiliar realm with.
Not another minute passed, however, until the doors to the cafeteria swung open to reveal a Dominican-American woman with short, slightly jagged hair, red-tipped glasses with square-ish frames, and a green jacket over a sky blue, v-neck shirt. She scanned the crowd in front of her until she spotted the unmistakable appearance of her daughter. Upon detection, she eagerly waved and Vee did not waste a second to start rushing in her direction.
“Mija!” said Camila Noceda, in tears as she happily clasped who she thought was Luz. “I’m so glad to finally see you!”
Vee was caught off guard at first, but upon suddenly being reminded of her compassion, she returned the gesture by squeezing the woman tightly with her arms.
“You don’t know how happy I am to see you too, mama,” she said.
She really was. Despite having constantly written to Camila, and eagerly looking forward to their inevitable mother-daughter time, the extent of their direct interactions only went as far as the initial car ride to the camp, and even at that it was kept fairly subdued. But to a creature that never had a home nor a loving parent… the brief taste satisfied her more than all the magic in the world could. And now she was able to have as much of that as she could possibly want.
“Whoa, you’ve really toughened up here…” Camila reacted with warm pride.
Vee suddenly let go, not wanting to suffocate. “I take it you’ve read my letters?”
Camila nodded. “Loved every single one, and I’m so proud of how much you’ve changed here.” She chuckled as she thought back to the morning Luz was set to depart, unaware that was the last time she saw her real daughter. “I never expected this would go over so well for you; to think you were so anxious before we left…”
Vee nervously shared the chuckle, not sure how she was supposed to react.
“Also, what happened to your phone? I haven’t been able to send any texts to you in the last month!”
Vee shook. She barely knew what exactly phones and texts were, but she constantly saw her campmates use them whenever she’d slowly scan her surroundings in the cafeteria. But it never occurred to her until now that Luz had her phone with her when she entered the demon realm. And if her last messages haven’t gone through...
Before she could think about it any further, she let out a response she made up on the spot. “Oh, I… lost mine. During an expedition. I guess it got destroyed or... something. ...Yeah.”
Camila’s face began to tense upon hearing this, which made Vee wince. But a second later, those fears went away. “Aww, don’t worry mija,” she said in her warm voice. “We’ll just get you a new one in a couple days.”
Vee let out a sigh of relief.
“Now, how about we get home and get to those mother/daughter activities you were talking about?” said Camila, ruffling “Luz”’s hair and leading her out the door towards the parking lot.
“Yes!” said Vee excitedly, who wasted no time in following.
When Vee finally arrived in Luz’s bedroom and promptly shut the door behind her, she took a moment to let herself breathe and think.
“I’m… I’m home,” she thought out loud.
She couldn’t believe everything had been working out like this.
As she laid on her… Luz’s bed, Vee was contemplating everything that was going on. Was it right to keep lying to Camila about her identity? Was it right to go to camp and school in Luz’s name? Could she really expect to keep this up forever? Luz was going to return sometime… right?
But then she had flashbacks to her time enslaved under Emperor Belos. When all there was to her life was draining magic from innocent creatures, being used as nothing more than a tool. When she truly was a basilisk. She couldn’t bear even the thought of returning to a life like that. Maybe it isn’t selfish to want to be treated as a creature with feelings, to want to live in a realm that’s been so welcoming to her.
And let’s be real, if Luz was to return, surely she would have by now? She remembered how happy Luz appeared working for the Owl Lady, Camila’s words about her feeling like a total outcast prior to camp, and most importantly… the knowledge about Luz’s phone connection no longer existing. Vee couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to pass up a pampered, carefree life like this, but… it seemed safe to assume by this point that Luz wasn’t coming back for a long time. And that’s if she was even still alive to do so.
And Camila… knowing her daughter was gone from her life, possibly forever… her heart would completely shatter. She clearly missed her Luz when she was gone for only a few months at a safe, non-threatening camp, but this… no. Vee didn’t want to even think about the idea. Such a kind, friendly woman deserves all the happiness she could get, and a daughter who would never leave her side. If Luz isn’t going to be that daughter, then she will. Yes, Vee must keep the disguise and identity going… for her sake.
Still lying, Vee then glanced at the mirror which doubled as a door to Luz’s closet. She gave another look at the clothes she was wearing. It was the same outfit she wore when she first took on Luz’s appearance, complete with the hoodie that felt awkward to lie on, shorts and leggings that just weren’t comfortable in the current climate, and those white loafers that she got so dirty in the grime and muck.
“Well... “ she thought to herself, “if I’m going to continue living as Luz Noceda, I might as well try to do it the way I want to live.”
Camila hadn’t heard from her girl in a while, so she naturally began to get anxious. She slowly walked to Luz’s door and left three delicate knocks. “Mija, are you ready for lunch?”
A moment later, “Luz” opened the door for her, and Camila was caught by surprise by what she saw. The girl’s normally tomboy-ish appearance was replaced with a more plain-looking hoodie, complemented perfectly with a yellow, buttoned shirt, along with some navy blue leggings without any shorts and some clean, white sneakers. But what stood out to the woman the most was the hair; tidied up and combed with golden barrettes holding it down.
“So, uh…” the teen chuckled nervously. “What do you think?”
Camila’s lips quivered for a moment, before she once again gave “Luz” a big, motherly hug, this time lifting her a couple feet into the air. “¡Mi bebé está creciendo tan rápido!”
“You like it?” said the girl, excitedly.
“Of course!” said the mother, letting the girl down to help contain herself before staring at her on eye level. “You know I think you’re lovely no matter what, but you really do look so beautiful and mature right now.”
“Gracias, mamá,” Vee considered herself quite lucky she was able to pick up a little Spanish from a small course at camp.
“Now, how about we get a nice meal,” Camilia promptly offered, motioning the girl down the stairs, “And you can tell me all about what you did at camp.”
“I-I’d love that,” said the disguised basilisk modestly.
As Camila walked herself down and back out the front door, Vee took a moment to breathe, take in everything, and look at her new outfit in the nearest mirror. This felt so right. No longer did she feel like a doppelganger of a girl she hardly knew, now she was her own person with a loving mother and a bright future. Not wanting to keep anyone (or her stomach) waiting, she followed Cam... her mother once more outside the welcoming abode.
It had been less than a day since Vee discovered Luz was still trying to keep in contact with her mother, and only 2 hours since everything revealed itself in front of Camila’s eyes. The moment she discovered the existence of the Boiling Isles… that her precious daughter voluntarily trapped herself there… and, most unnerving of all… the fact that who she thought was Luz all this time at camp was actually a supposedly-mythical, predatory being.
Vee was fixated on the veterinarian from the nearby banisters, who stared out the window facing her front yard, with only a small family room light and outside lamps illuminating the environment.
It was storming hard, with rain loudly pattering against the walls, but it was hard to tell if more drops were coming out of her eyes or the clouds.
Vee quietly shifted to her Luz disguise, in the same cleaned-up outfit she last wore in that form, and quickly went down the remainder of the stairs and approached the person who had just saved her from danger.
The closer she got, the more she was able to tell that the specific spot Camila was gazing at was the very spot where her headlights shone at that fateful moment. Where the two could almost touch Luz as she stood between dimensions.
The young creature paused for a few seconds before taking a breath and letting out in her natural, more soft-spoken voice, “...Camila?”
The woman could see in the glass that behind her was the doppelganger she unknowingly took in. Camila didn’t make eye contact, instead leaning her head down.
“...Are you okay?” Vee then asked.
Camila remained silent before letting out a deep sigh, still turned to the window. “No, Vee… I’m-I’m not.”
Vee walked further to stand directly to the right of the sitting Camila.
“You said Luz was coming back here… right?”
“Yes, Vee… she did,” Camila nodded, before again hanging her head low.. “But I just can’t believe she would just… run away like that, and even willingly trap herself there. She said it was never me that turned her away, but… why would she just lie to me like that?”
Hearing this made Vee shake before she took another breath. “Maybe Luz just found herself there in the moment and didn’t want you to worry to death about her.”
“What makes you guess that?” said a skeptical Camila.
“...Because that’s why I’ve lied to you. I could tell just from our car ride to camp how much Luz meant to you, so I just… kept it going. I did it for you.”
Camila finally turned her head to face the all too familiar visage that, for the longest time, she associated with her Luz. The sight made her start to tear up once more.
“I’m sorry, do you… not want me to turn into Luz anymore? Because I totally can-”
“No no, don’t worry, it’s probably for the best,” Camila interrupted, “I just can’t believe all this time, my daughter was gone from my life and I now have an interdimensional stranger in her place.”
Vee started to feel uncomfortable. “Look… now that you know who I am, you really don’t need to take me in. I can find somewhere else to hide, some other roof to live under, some other disguise to take... “
Camila firmly put her hands on Vee’s shoulders. “No, Vee. I specifically said you have a home here as long as you need. That does not change when Luz comes back. I am happy to take care of you in any case.”
“But… why? After I pretended to be your daughter for so long...?”
“Because…” Camila said, wiping the tears from her eyes as she cracked a smile. “You really do remind me so much of her. You’re both cheerful, enthusiastic, incredibly brave…” She stood up from her chair and took slow but confident steps toward the nearby chest drawer. She opened it to reveal the many letters Vee had sent her while at camp. “...And you cared so much about me.”
She delicately took the stack out of the drawer, and took a seat on her couch. She once again looked at Vee, and patted the seat next to her to encourage Vee to join, an offer she took up with a modest smile.
Holding the letters in front of her, Camila slowly made her way through the stack, giving them time to read through each one. Some of them were about Vee hanging out with her friends, others were simply about what she happened to learn that week. But no matter what the content, the memories came pouring in, and the two leaned into each other with fondness. As Camila absorbed each word with this new context, Vee remembered what it was like writing them. To have a real motherly figure who was unconditionally looking forward to hearing back from her, and to take in all that she has learned and experienced as a human girl. It was just as satisfying to write them out as it was to re-experience them. Even the way she initially misspelled Luz’s name, she couldn’t help but laugh at.
By the time they finished, Camila put her right arm around Vee’s body and tenderly pushed her closer, keeping her embrace as she spoke. “I always looked forward to reading every single one of these, and looking at them again with what I know now, how you sent these with love to someone you hardly even knew... I think I appreciate them even more.”
Vee blushed, appreciating the compliment.
“You really are such a thoughtful girl, Vee, and… I don’t know what I would’ve done if you weren’t around.” She choked again, thinking about her stranded daughter.
Vee put a hand on Camila’s shoulder. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if you weren’t around. Before we met, all there was to my life was being a parasite. It was just me and four other basilisks…”. She dropped her head down, barely mustering out her next word. “...Enslaved.”
Camila gasped. Her fear of being unloved made so much sense now.
Vee perked up as she resumed. “But you gave me the chance of a real life, and sent me to a camp where I was able to make friends and learn all these human activities. When I first redressed myself upon coming here, I… felt like my own person for the first time. I really didn’t deserve your care-”
Camila squeezed the girl to her side. “Yes you did, Vee. Yes you did. I knew it from the moment I saw your true face in that nutcase’s room, how innocent and traumatized you looked. You were never going to replace mija… but your heart is just as powerful.”
Vee returned the gesture by putting her own arms around the veterinarian. Then a sudden thought crossed her mind, as she pushed herself back and again glanced at Camila’s face. “You don’t think Luz would mind having me around after she comes back… do you?”
Camila chuckled. “Knowing her, she would love your company.”
Yet another blush came.
“And you know what,” she went on, “after talking with you, I’m not feeling so sad anymore. Luz will come back someday, and she promised she’ll stay. I just know we’re all going to be happy together once that day comes.”
Vee hesitated a bit, thinking about how much danger Luz could easily encounter in her efforts, not to mention Emperor Belos. But once Camila resumed her squeezing, she continued the embrace. She could feel Camila caressing her back, so she returned the gesture herself. Neither of them spoke any further. At that moment, their weight and trauma seemed to melt away, and for a full minute, all they had was each other with the storm persisting outside.
Finally, Camila released her grasp and said with authority, “Now Vee, it’s quite late. I think it’s time we get to bed.”
She couldn’t agree more.
Camila slowly creaked open the door of Luz/Vee’s bedroom, leading in its current occupant. It was all dark, except for when you could see lightning flash through the window. And Vee, back in her regular basilisk form, happily laid herself onto the bottom bunk of Luz’s bed, underneath the sheets and blankets.
Camila delicately sat on the edge of the bed, and couldn’t help but smile. Even as a little reptilian creature, she was such a precious being. So, with her maternal instincts kicking in, she slowly lowered her head and gave Vee a loving peck on the cheek. Followed by her saying in her most soothing voice:
“Sweet dreams, my little demon. I love you.”
And as she slowly carried herself out, and was able to pass the doorway, Vee let out on impulse something she didn’t think she’d get to say again.
“I love you too, mamá.”
Camila paused for a second, giving one last glance as her eyes began to water once more. But this time, they were tears of joy. She didn’t say a word, instead closing the door shut behind her.
And no sooner was she gone that Vee went soundly and happily to sleep. More than ever, she knew that, despite everything that had happened, she had found a mother who would never let anyone take her away, a place where she could truly belong as an individual no matter what, and most of all… a real home.