Chapter 2. Small Town.
I have a theory about places like New Bark Town. You know, the kind of closed-off, out of the way and above all tiny communities that would be rendered completely insignificant to the rest of the world if it weren't for the fact that someone absurdly famous was born there. Such places often become infused with a sense of wonder and mysticism. They can become a source of… anything, really—morality, common sense, and even, strangely enough, reality. I remember shortly after Lyra Soulis took down the Elite Four to become Johto and Kanto's new champion, there were a bunch of articles about her and about New Bark. In its rush to praise the then-tween champion, the Violet Examiner expressed its gratitude that someone from "the real Johto" had beaten the league. I hope it was as big a surprise to Lance as it was to me that Blackthorn City is part of the fictional Johto.
Small towns get a lot of credit for shaping these brilliant men and women—for teaching them values and self-reliance and hard work and a love of the simple life. Big cities, on the other hand, are, as we all known, bubbling cauldrons of indolent sin and decadence that can only instill in their residence a leech-like craving for the blood-toil of others. That's the narrative. And when writers at my own beloved Goldenrod Gazette described New Barkian champion Lyra Soulis as being from "the heart and soul of Johto" (I get it, Mike. Hilarious. Puns are my department.) they weren't just stroking New Bark's small town ego. They were playing into that narrative.
The ironic thing, and something I'm sure you've figured out just from the newspaper names I've tossed around, is that some city folk preach this as gospel with as much fervor as people who actually live in small towns. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps they see places like New Bark town as manageable, safe and quiet after the noise and slog of places like Goldenrod. I often hear people claim that someday they're going to leave the city and retire in a place like that, but I know they'll be back. They won't be able to sleep without the sweet lullaby of car alarms.
As I stared into the scant main street that constituted downtown New Bark, with such thrilling attractions as the corner store and a dentist office, I knew exactly why young people who leave such towns are so determined to be successful. It's so they never have to come back to places like this again.
I had been bored on the bus, but it was the kind of boredom I could deal with. I'd mentally planned out my interview with Professor Elm, played every single car trip game I could remember with Daphne, and complained every half an hour about the fact the reading in moving vehicles gave me a headache. But getting out of the bus was something else. It was as though New Bark Town itself had wrapped me in a cloak of dullness. It was quiet… except for…
It was the windmills! The goddamn windmills! They were all over the place on raised white platforms coated in chipped paint. They filtered the waning light of the day, casting long shadows as they turned and turned. They were probably ear-splitting up at propeller-decapitation distance, but from where I was standing all you could hear was a low thwooph-thwooph-faaa. The sound was endless. Monotonous. Maddening. I glared up at the offensively rural things, tapped my sneakers together and muttered, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." It didn't work. I was still in New Bark Town.
"So," Daphne said, enviably and mysteriously fresh as a daisy as she stepped out of the bus, "what do we do now?'
"Well," I began, deciding not to suggest murder-suicide pacts even as I stared into the swirling blades above, "I've got to get to my interview with Professor Elm. I guess you guys could just hang out at the Pokemon Center while I'm gone."
"There is no Pokemon Center in New Bark," Roy corrected me, huffing only slightly as he hauled our luggage from the top of the bus. "Everyone knows that."
I grimaced. This was one of the few areas I figured Roy would know what he was talking about. "That doesn't make sense," I whined, hoping to argue away the facts. "So many kids come down here to get their starters. What do they do without a center?"
"There's a healing machine at Professor Elm's lab," Roy explained.
"Well, that's great and all, but it doesn't exactly help all those newbie trainers looking for a place to stay," I countered sourly. In my defense I think everything between my knees and my shoulders had gone numb from my tenure on the bus seat. And in all honesty my lodging concerns were less for the newbie trainers and more for the stupid twenty-something writer who had hoped to forego sleeping in the woods for at least one more night.
Roy shrugged. "People don't go on Pokemon journeys to not go camping," he pointed out.
"Fine," I snapped. "Then hang out in the Poke Mart."
Roy raised his eyebrows at me. "Do you think a town without a Pokemon Center really has a Poke Mart?"
It's possible I deserved that.
"Then go to the corner store and buy some fruit snacks or something," I suggested, getting a little frustrated. I couldn't stop staring at twin windmills that stood in the distance. From my vantage point they looked like two swirling eyes bent on hypnotizing me into a senseless, sleepy trance.
"We already have all the food we can fit into our bags," Daphne pointed out, struggling to lift her overstocked backpack.
"Then just… I don't know, check out the windmills or something!" I said, waving a dramatic hand in the direction of the spinning blades.
"What are we supposed to do with windmills?" Roy asked flatly, as though disappointed that I hadn't laid out a tourist schedule for him and Daph for the periods in which I would be busy doing book-related things.
I said nothing for a moment, trying not to think of razor sharp edges and Roy's neck and the things he could do with windmills. Finally I suggested with a dark little chuckle, "If you brought a sword than you could tilt at them."
"…Why would I tilt at windmills?" Roy repeated, in a tone that suggested that he was certain I was losing my mind and was readying himself to tackle me should I make any sudden or violent moves.
"Never mind," I said, feeling the sense of depression that falls when someone doesn't understand my jokes. An idea occurred to me and I brightened slightly.
"Our illustrious champion Lyra's family home has got to be around here somewhere," I said, turning to Daphne. "Maybe you could check it out? Get a picture or something?"
Daphne found this much more agreeable than picking a fight with seemingly innocent windmills and Roy couldn't find a reason to disagree, so I let them scoot off carrying all of the gear beyond the carry-on bag I'd brought on the bus.
I didn't even bother to get out the assortment of maps I'd gathered in preparation for the task ahead. New Bark was small, and Elm's lab had to be the biggest building around. I didn't imagine it would be hard to find.
Perhaps it was the talk of fighting windmills that made humming the main theme from the musical version of Donphan Quixote irresistible. I stuck my chin out in the direction I thought I'd find the lab, finding renewed determination in the song.
"My destiny calls and I go," I sang quietly to myself as I struck out in the direction of a large (by New Bark standards) building with an impressive array of antennae on the roof.
My first look at the interior of the Elm Laboratory reminded me of home more than I'd expected. Oh, of course, my home is not strewn with smoking vials of chemicals, or surgical kits or pens of napping Pokemon. But my office space is lousy with loose books, old snack wrappers, notebooks of scratchy handwriting and every bit of wall space is layered in post-it notes. In those aspects, Elm Lab was similar. I've frequently tried to justify my messy surroundings at home by saying it's appropriate to a literary-minded person such as myself. I'd always thought of science-types as being neater, more organized. But as Professor Elm himself stepped forward to greet me, his pockets jammed with notes to the point that some spilled out onto the floor as he walked, I knew I was in for a different type of science guy.
"Oh, Miss Gleason," he said with a smile as he stepped over a pile of books on move inheritance. He snapped off the gloves he'd been wearing before offering his hand for me to shake, so as to not smear me with Girafarig embryos or whatever it was he'd been working with. "I've been expecting you. Sorry for the mess," he added sheepishly. "I'd say I'm in the middle of something, but I always am."
As I drew back from the handshake I got a good look at him for the first time in person. Of course, I'd seen him on TV, but of course everyone looks weird on TV. At least, that's what I told myself the last time I appeared on the Morning in Johto show—because my forehead cannot possibly look that big in real life.
In any case, my first instinct is to say that Professor Elm was young… which isn't quite accurate. He's certainly young if your idea of what a Professor should be looks like Professor Oak, but other than that… not really. I get the feeling that, despite that, he gets called "kid" at professorial conferences. If he wants to avoid that kind of commentary, he should probably shave off the bare beginnings of a goatee. But then again, that might be there to counteract the only slightly premature receding hairline. Or perhaps Professor Elm simply keeps himself too busy to bother shaving.
"I won't stay too long," I assured him. "I know it's close to dinner, so I'll keep my questions to the point." Admittedly this wasn't entirely for his benefit. The squished sandwich I'd had on the bus lo those many hours ago hadn't hit the spot for long.
He adjusted his glasses so the light from the ceiling flashed off of them for a second. "Oh, it's no trouble. I'm sure you can imagine. what with getting wrapped up in one project or another. that I'm used to having meals at irregular times."
"…But is your family used to it?" I asked uncertainly.
He gave a little laugh. "Well, they don't complain too much anymore," he answered.
…Which didn't necessarily mean they were okay with it. I couldn't help but notice that Professor Elm's aqua dress shirt bore no marks of being ironed, so perhaps Mrs. Elm has her own quiet revenge for the lack of order in their lives.
"Well, anyway," Professor Elm said, clapping his hands together, "should we get started? I hope you don't mind conducting our interview here in the lab."
"It's alright with me," I answered as he hefted some stacks of paper off of two folding chairs. "So… working on anything interesting lately?" I asked as I sat down in the newly cleared chair across from him
It had been more of a polite question then anything. I don't know exactly what I expected him to say in response. Maybe something like, "Oh, you know—science stuff!" and then he'd move on to the questions I'd really come there to ask. But no, he brightened at the question, and I realized with a dull sense of dread that he was going to give me a real answer—and not a brief one at that.
"Oh, it's a fascinating area of research," he enthused, taking the seat opposite me. "I'm working in conjunction with the Pewter Museum of Science on a subject that crosses over both my field of expertise and theirs." He paused. "You're familiar with mechanics of breeding, right?"
"Not as frequently as I'd like to be," I answered. It was a sad, weak little joke, but he didn't even seem to recognize it as one.
"Well then, you at least know that all breedable Pokemon that have been categorized thus far all reproduce in more or less the same way," he went forward. "Oh, there are individual rituals based on species and not all species can breed with all other species. But what I'm getting at is that all the Pokemon whose breeding patterns we've studied reproduce through egg-laying."
"Now, humans on the other hand, as I'm sure you're aware, give birth to live young," he added. "What's always struck us as rather odd, among scientists who specialize in Pokemon breeding, is that there is such uniformity to Pokemon reproduction, even among those who bare more biological similarities to human beings in some ways than to other Pokemon species."
"Take Miltank for example," he continued, waving a hand expressively in the air. "It's a classic example of a mammalian Pokemon. It's warm-blooded, has a four-chambered heart, has hair and, of course, the smoking gun here is the eponymous mammary glands."
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, catching a toe on some scattered notes on the floor as I did. It struck me as strange that this conversation had turned into a more scientific and verbose version of the time I'd gone on a tour of Moo Moo Farm and overheard a thirteen-year-old boy snicker to his friend something along the lines of "Miltank has titties."
"Now, I know we all enjoy Moo Moo Milk," Professor Elm added with a small smile as he casually wrote off the Moo Moo Milk-intolerant segment of the population. "But the actual intent of the milk is to nurse the Pokemon's young, just as humans nurse their offspring. Such an ability is largely obsolete in an oviparous creature whose young derive their nutrients from the yolk. Miltank's ability to lactate has largely become a means to acquire a beverage instead of a vital strategy for passing on sustenance and immunity to its offspring."
I felt we were straying somewhat from the point, so I opened my mouth to recalibrate the conversation. He spoke again, though, before I could get a word out.
"Now, why, you ask, would Miltank possess this feature more associated with live birth than egg-laying?" Elm continued, though, for the record, I did not ask. "Well, that's where the researchers and paleontologists at the Pewter Museum come in. We've theorized that perhaps at one point in history there was a split among Pokemon between those who gave birth to live young and those who would lay eggs, but that over time natural selection favored egg-laying and the more mammalian Pokemon that we have today are examples of creatures whose ancestors were placental mammals, but who adapted to become egg-laying ones."
"Fascinating," I said in a brittle voice—and in a way it was—it just wasn't terrifically relevant to the mental list of questions I wanted to ask. "But I wondered—"
"Oh, we've yet to make our case completely," Elm said, as though this answered the question I'd yet to ask. "But the fossil record does show a tremendous lack of fossilized eggs among the ancestors of mammalian Pokemon, and that certainly suggests we're on the right track. If it does turn out a shift happened, then I have to wonder what prompted the shift. My current theory is that the uniformity of the breeding system allows for more cross-breeding between species of Pokemon, which in turn gives them all a better chance of reproductive success." He beamed at me, his face slightly shiny with the sweat of a discovery yet to be made. "After all, to have the kind of breeding compatibility that can allow such disparate creatures as a Skitty and a Wailord to breed is something quite spectacular."
"Yeah…" I said, finally getting to cut in as he took a breath. "My real question about that is how they found out those two could breed in the first place. I mean… who tried to get them to do it and how drunk were they?"
He looked slightly taken aback by this. "It's all just in the spirit of inquiry, I can assure you," he said, futzing with his white jacket in an attempt to shake out the wrinkles.
Ah, the good old spirit of inquiry. It makes for a great excuse in my field as well as his because it makes the asking of questions a right …as in "the public has a right to know." When you boil the phrase down it basically becomes "I want to know because I am nosy" but nosiness sometimes gets a bad rep. Humans are curious creatures by nature.
…And it is that curiosity that sometimes pushes us to the point of putting two drastically different sized animals in a cage to try to make them breed. Hmmm.
In that moment I couldn't say what exactly had led to Pokemon changing their breeding patterns to egg-laying (if Elm's theory is correct), but I knew that even if humans hadn't started it, they'd reinforced it. You can be a trainer without having at least a second-hand brush with the world of breeding, and many of the best trainers get downright obsessed with it. It's all to pick the best potential parents to create the best potential offspring. Species can be bred with other species to pass down moves that a Pokemon might normally not be able to learn. Immunity, strength, speed, talent and temperament… the keys to these lie in genetics. Natural selection has been replaced with very unnatural selection.
Of course, all this breeding a better Pokemon business has consequences. Pokemon are asked to breed more frequently than they would in the wild in pursuit of that perfect combination. Eggs are abandoned or destroyed if they do not fit the standard the trainer or breeder is pursuing. There are some that see this as a necessary process; something that's merely being done on a larger scale than nature could manage on its own—and that it has yielded incredible results. The Pokemon of today are not like the Pokemon of yesteryear.
But there are still others who balk at the process. Goldenrod Mayor Andrea Rawlings has referred to the activities of the highly lucrative breeding centers that take residence in the city as "nothing short of Poke-Eugenics." I get her point, but I rather think she's defanging her own argument with that term. Eugenics is far too serious and frightening a word to stick a "Poke" in front of.
I shook my head. The politics of breeding and eugenics. And to think, I'd just wanted to have a pleasant little chat about starters.
Starters. I blinked and saw my way in.
"So… under your theory," I began, "would any of the Johto starters have had ancestors that gave birth to live young?"
He looked somewhat crestfallen, as though I'd blundered into some very inconvenient examples. "Uh… well, no," he admitted. "Totodile, Chikorita and Cyndaquil all have traceable ancestors that we have egg-fossils of. As a matter of fact," he added, brow furrowing slightly, as though hitting upon a troubling fact, "Cyndaquil sort of puts a wrench in the whole thing. It's one of the precious few Pokemon with mammalian traits that we've found eggs for from its ancient counterparts. There are those who say that this discredits the entire theory, but I and my colleagues believe that Cyndaquil's monotreme ancestors are the exception and not the rule."
"I see," I said, making a big show of fidgeting in my chair and looking around the lab. "You wouldn't happen to have any starters here, would you? I'd love to get a look at them."
He brightened after this brush with inconvenient facts and I knew the subject had been successfully changed. "Back here," he said, standing up and gesturing toward a white-painted wire pen on the floor of the lab next to a desk with a computer monitor.
I scurried over to take a peek. I have to tell you, dear readers, that after the dense science talk about Pokemon breeding in antiquity and after my not so lovely thoughts about selective breeding, I needed a pick-me-up. The no-holds-barred injection of pure, unadulterated cuteness from that pen did the trick.
I immediately took out my Silph-Phone and snapped a picture of the little things—so much younger and smaller than the starters I usually see kids leading through Goldenrod. Totodile and Cyndaquil were napping in the corner, with Totodile curled around Cyndaquil leeching the fire-type's warmth to heat its cold, reptilian blood. Chikorita trotted up to the edge of the pen as soon as I got there, as though it had learned to expect treats from approaching humans. I quickly sent the photograph to Daphne, texting an "awww!" message consisting of more w's than someone with my literary training really should include. I'm not ashamed of the extra w's. I am, however, slightly ashamed of the multiple exclamation points.
"Cute, aren't they?" Elm asked, walking over to the cage with his hands in his pockets. "I'm expecting some kids from eastern Cherrygrove to be bused down this weekend. So I won't get to enjoy this trio's company in my lab for much longer."
"Kids?" I repeated, having satisfied myself enough with virtual cooing so as to not need to coo out loud. "How many?" I asked.
"Two as of now," Elm answered, leaning against the sturdy pen. "But a third might sign on before the week is over."
"Huh," I said to myself. "How do they decide who gets to pick first? Is it based on when you sign up?"
"That's what it defaults to," Professor Elm answered, pulling an only slightly linty treat from his pocket and fitting it through the wire cage to the waiting mouth of Chikorita, who chowed down on it greedily. "But only if the new trainers can't work out the order among themselves."
For some reason I'd never thought of the choice of three being changed to a choice of two or even no choice at all depending on how many trainers showed up. In movies and television shows about trainers it always seems to be about that epic choice between the three.
"It'd suck to wind up not getting your first choice just because someone else signed up before you," I said, half to myself.
"Well, some trainers aren't quite sure what they want and are happy to let others narrow it down for them," Professor Elm pointed out.
"Yeah, I guess so," I answered, as a thought suddenly occurred to me. "Plus I bet if they go second that they can just pick the Pokemon that their friend's is weak against."
"…That actually happens more often than you'd think," Professor Elm admitted, scratching at his cheek somewhat nervously.
"Kind of a dick move," I couldn't help but observe.
"Well… there are some who'd describe it more as good strategy," Elm said, voice heightening slightly.
"I suppose so," I admitted, feeling a sudden instinct for controversy rise within me. "So," I asked him slyly, "strategically speaking… which one's the best?"
"The best?" Elm repeated, slightly taken aback by the directness of the question.
"Yeah," I replied. "Even Professor Oak defers to you on the subject of Pokemon abilities and you've been passing out Johto starters to trainers for more than a decade. In your expert opinion, which Pokemon is the best pick?"
Chikorita seemed to be paying quite a lot of attention to Elm at this point. Even Totodile cracked an eye open and Cyndaquil lifted its head to hear the answer.
Elm waved a hand of surrender at me. "Oh, I can't make that decision," he said. "They're all wonderful Pokemon and each could do very well under the care of the right trainer. I don't think there's one right choice. It's all about which Pokemon is best for which trainer." As an afterthought, he added, "…and which trainer is best for which Pokemon."
"I see," I asked, slightly disappointed that I couldn't goad him into taking a hard line, but not at all surprised by that fact. "You know… come to think of it, wouldn't it be easier to find the right Pokemon for the right trainer and vice versa if you offered more types as starters?"
He gripped the top bar of the cage and sighed. "It's been a suggestion for years, actually. In fact, there's a group of Connoisseurs up in Unova that's quite emphatic about it. And there's certainly some merit to the idea that not everyone's ideal Pokemon is one of these three." He took off his glasses and cleaned them against his white jacket. "But you've got to appreciate the simplicity of the system we have here—the kind of simplicity that works well. The three-starter system allows us to provide a balanced and rather self-contained choice. There's a network at work here. Fire is weak against water, water against grass and grass against fire. Even young trainers who haven't learned the more complicated terms of type match-ups can understand how these three work together, and, from that springboard, they can go forward to learning about the other types."
"Not to mention that we already have a sophisticated breeding system for supplying these three Pokemon. Expanding the system would require a lot of thought and work. The thinking is that if a trainer does not wish to have any of these starters, that they could catch a Pokemon of their own, or buy one," Elm explained.
He leveled a calculating look at me. "I take it your first Pokemon wasn't a starter, Miss Gleason?"
"Me?" I asked, tearing my gaze away from the creatures in the cage. "No… uh… actually mine was a Bellsprout," I confessed.
"Ah, so you're a grass-type fan, then?" Professor Elm asked pleasantly.
"Chika!" the Chikorita in the cage called cheerily.
"Uh… not really," I said, wincing. "I don't have the Bellsprout anymore."
At this comment, the Chikorita in the cage lost all of its budding affection for me and went to skulk in the back of its cage by the water bowl.
The local corner store at the very least had a microwave and a frozen food section, so an unevenly cooked assortment of hot pockets made up our last meal before we hit Route 29. There were no tables or chairs around, so we simply sat on the sidewalk outside the store, bathed in fluorescent light and listening to the mostly muffled sound of the cashier's radio on the other side of the shop door.
As Daphne reached over to wipe a bit of stray marinara sauce from Roy's cheek, I looked for about the sixth time at the photograph Daphne had furnished me with.
It seemed like such a normal house. Blue pointed roof, polished wooden door, red mailbox, trash at the end of the driveway… there was no halo of greatness about it that said it was the house of a champion. Of course, perhaps that was because it was really the former house of a champion. Yes, Lyra maintains her address there, but the fact is that she's been living in Saffron for the better part of a year now. Who can blame her for not spending too much time around here? Anyway, I understand it that she's currently dating Fintan Gallagher, lead singer of the Saffron-based, fire-type themed boy-band The Charming Manders . I tell you this not because I enjoy celebrity gossip or even because I think it will still be true by the time this book is published—I don't—but because I'd like to consider this a little time capsule of information.
Celebrity teen romances, I tell ya.
Small towns do not always have small people. There are people like our champion Lyra who have immense talent in a game that we seem to have decided as a society is of the utmost importance and value. And there are people like Professor Elm who can wonder deep and occasionally incomprehensible things about the essence of life itself—thoughts which probably result in something lasting and life-changing enough to justify skipping a few dinners. Lyra left. Elm stayed.
When Daphne had handed me the photograph of Lyra's disappointingly ordinary childhood home, she told me that she and Roy were not the only ones visiting the site. Several through-hikers from Blackthorn City were crowded around the house. They'd passed Daphne their camera to take a group picture in front of the place, after clearly sensing there was an expert in their midst. They'd been wandering about uncertainly, she said. It was like they wanted to play tourist at the house of the champion, but there was nothing to tour.
It wasn't surprising to hear that people wanted to see the place—for trainers to pay homage to the current talent-to-beat. New Bark could've capitalized on it. They could've had guided tours, historical sites, they could've set up an infrastructure including hotels and restaurants to encourage people to book their vacations down here. They could've built a friggin' rollercoaster.
But they didn't. Making the place interesting would've been sort of a betrayal of the simplicity they claimed. Charming, quaint and salt-of-the-earth… these qualities start to lose their authenticity when polished with a veneer of tourism. It becomes boxed up, pre-packed, fake.
I knew in that moment that I would've taken fake any day over what New Bark had to offer me. I also knew for a fact that, in the coming days as we would strike out onto the hiking roads and spend our nights in tents eating meals cooked over a wisp of flames and a pile of sticks, that I would soon long for the creature comforts and high society of even New Bark town.