Return to the Jungle Chapter 1: “Prologue”

After becoming entangled with the mystery of StrangerVille, coming to terms with the untimely demise of Aileen, and having his beloved cow plant project terminated, Ned felt at odds with himself. He’d sold his home in Willow Creek for a tidy profit before his sabbatical to StrangerVille and was still living in his RV. He had no desire to return to Willow Creek for everywhere he turned, he was reminded of Aileen. He had no desire, either, to remain in the RV park in StrangerVille.

Ned even found himself disinterested in work. He’d parked his old pickup and the RV at the park near Future Sims Labs, but the constant conspiracy theorists camping out there were no longer humorous. He had no desire to attend the parties on Sixam, no interest in socializing with his coworkers, and his love of botany had wilted.

Ned was stagnant. Months passed. He punched in and punched out of work. One evening an old friend from the Willow Creek Home for Foundlings, where Ned was raised, texted.

“Hey, it’s guy’s night at the bar. Join me for a drink—it’s on me. James.”

“Ned!” James greeted him warmly. “How’s the ‘Hero of StrangerVille’ doing?” Ned shrugged. He didn’t consider himself a hero and felt slightly embarrassed about the attention he received in that town. James was looking good–fit, tanned, and with that mischievous grin that Ned remembered from their childhood days.

“Life’s boring now, isn’t it,” James smiled. “I totally get that. It’s hard to get back into humdrum life after the thrill of an adventure.”

Ned took a drink. Yeah, that’s probably what was going on. Letdown after excitement.

“Well, if you’re interested in a career change, what with your pet project canceled, and the whole exobotany program shut down, you might be interested in an opportunity.”

“The program is still operational,” Ned began, “and how the llama do you know about my work!”, but James changed the subject and the rest of the evening was spent reminiscing.

The next day upon arriving at Future Sims Labs, the new receptionist handed a pink envelope. “Mr. Whalen? I was told by the new director to give this to you.”

Ned opened it: “We regret to inform you that due recent events, our funding has been cut. Unfortunately, the exobotany and UFOlogy programs have been canceled. As a valued member of our scientific team, you are eligible for a severance package of §15,000 and career counseling.”

Furious, Ned stuffed the envelope in his pocket, saying, “Well, it looks as though my years of research and hard work are over.”

The receptionist was shocked. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “All I’ve been doing is handing out these envelopes this morning. I wish you the best, Mr. Whalen, I’m sure an even better opportunity awaits you.”

Ned went into the locker room. After changing out of his lab clothes, he texted James.

“Whatever you know, however you know it, I don’t care at this point. I am interested in a new opportunity.”

A short while later, Ned had sold his trailer to a conspiracy theorist for § 500, thrown his clothes and a few other personal belongings into the back of the pickup truck, and was headed down the open highway to the address James had texted.

“Life is a highway,” Ned belted out, “and I’m wanna something, something night long.”


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