Andrew stared at the people on the ground in front of him. There were two of them, a girl and a boy, and they stared back at him. He ran an uncertain hand through his unruly orange hair – not something that went unnoticed at school – the supposedly superior kids with whom he attended private school were less than sympathetic toward such an obvious difference from their norm.
This is definitely a daydream (then why is it so real) Andrew thought patiently in an attempt to assign order to his baffled mind, or I’ve fallen asleep at the computer and dreamed I awakened here… everyone has those weird kind of dreams once in a while (don’t they?)….
But why is it so real, his mind persisted, recalling the extraordinary brightness of the sun that had caused his eyes to water, like when someone turns on the light in the middle of the night when you’ve been asleep. And the bushes waving in the wind, birds calling, the sound of his shoes crunching the leaves on the ground….
So it’s a vivid dream, he decided after his mind drew a total blank, and I’m dreaming that I’m on a camping trip with two people I’ve never met. Right. There’s got to be some kind of medical condition for this.
“Nice of you to drop in. Are you lost, too?”
Andrew jumped at the sound of the boy’s voice. I’m not lost, he thought vaguely, I haven’t been here long enough to get lost, though he found himself nodding weakly.
“Never mind, don’t answer that, you look lost. Join the club,” the other boy gestured elaborately around him. “Please, step into my office. My name’s Rick and this is my slave woman, Elise.” Elise threw a small rock at Rick.
Andrew stared at them, taking all of this in. He’d gone mental, he knew it. He longed to get a look at that can of soda he’d drank earlier – it had to have had some questionable ingredients. Someone had slipped him something.
“Pardon me if I don’t get up but as I’m utterly and totally exhausted, I’m currently not planning on moving for at least the rest of my life,” Rick continued his jovial commentary, grinning, and Andrew pulled himself out of his dazed reverie with an effort. Climbing over stones and rocks to where Rick was reclining near the bank of the creek, he stuck his hand out, surprising himself with his initiative. He even felt a little mature.
“Andrew Buchanan.” Andrew nodded at Rick and then at Elise.
Rick shook his hand heartily from his position in the grass, as promised. “So, Andrew. How did you get here? Were you doing something nice and normal, like, say, homework, or watching TV, or eating dinner, basically minding your own business when you got zapped you here for the heck of it?” The boy called Rick paused, seeming to enjoy Andrew’s disbelieving stare. “Of course,” and Rick grinned at Elise, “a tornado might have picked you up in your house and set you down on a wicked witch near a yellow brick road. Or the Starship Enterprise could have sent you down on a diplomatic mission. Are you a one-man away team? Because I could really use a transporter right about now.”
Andrew stared at (Rick) the guy sitting across from him in consternation. How did a total stranger know how he had gotten here before he himself had figured it out? Okay, so he wasn’t doing homework or watching TV or eating, but…
“I see from your face that you have no idea what I’m talking about,” Rick continued on convivially. He pointed a stick at the girl in the pink sweatshirt and, in a newscast announcer voice, informed Andrew, “Elise, here, was hanging out at her friend’s house doing homework when she was beamed aboard. Or off, as the case may be.
“And I,” Rick turned back to Andrew and continued in his announcer’s voice, “was at work about to take my break when I got sick, went temporarily deaf, blind, and insane. And then,” he returned to his own tenor, “I was here.” He waved his stick around at the woods surrounding them. “Actually, the insane part probably wasn’t anything new,” he added as an afterthought. “And you?” Rick pointed his stick at Andrew expectantly.
Andrew found all this very hard to digest, especially for a dream, or a medical condition, or whatever this really was, but he nevertheless chose his words carefully. He half expected this entire – disaster – to be a prank and someone was going to jump out at any minute and point and laugh at his growing sense of apprehension.
“I was – at home. Working on a science project at my computer.”
Feeling foolish, Andrew observed their waiting faces. There’s nothing else to tell, he thought. “That’s it.”
Rick stared at him. Elise’s brow furrowed. Andrew felt himself flushing and cleared his throat.
“But what happened before you got here, wherever here is? Like I got a little nauseous and a head rush and dizzy, and nearly fainted, and then I found myself here…. See what I mean?”
“And I couldn’t see a thing. I thought I was dying or something. All I saw were colors bouncing all over the place, and then I nearly passed out and then I threw up….” Rick explained.
“Anyway, did anything weird like that happen to you?”
Fainted? Threw up? I didn’t get sick or –
A moment lingered quietly. Andrew heard the birds chattering and scolding in the trees and the stream next to them gently trickled by as Elise and Rick awaited his reply.
“No,” he answered. Strength waned abruptly from his legs and he sat down on the grassy bank hard.
“I was at my computer and I stood up for a moment to stretch. I got a head rush from standing up too quick, so I closed my eyes and bent over for a second. And when I opened my eyes again, I was here.” He recalled vividly his astonishment when he’d opened his eyes and found not the plush powder blue carpet he’d been standing on but dirt and grass and dead leaves.
He took in the disbelief on their faces and shrugged in apology – there was nothing to tell.
In the ensuing stillness, Andrew mulled over all he’d just heard. So. Everyone here had gotten physically sick somehow, except him. Nothing new, he thought darkly, I’m always an exception anyway. Between his (orange) red hair and his proclivity for excelling in school, particularly in science and math, he’d never quite been allowed to fade in gratefully with the crowd. So different wasn’t a problem for him anymore, merely a given.
Rick broke the silence. “By the way, you were at home, right? Would home happen to be Rockville, North Carolina, by any chance?”
Andrew started. In surprise, he replied weakly, “Yes,” and after observing the two of them exchange a knowing glance, he added with a little irritation, “and I take it you are, too.”
Elise nodded while Rick replied genially, “Yep.”
Andrew decided then that the vast amount of knowledge that he obtained in the last fifteen years had suddenly diminished to a distressing degree. Reality as he had known it had just taken a turn for the indecipherable and certainly unanticipated.
He had been in his stuffy upstairs bedroom taking ten from a science project for Chemistry that wasn’t due for another three months and all he had done was close his eyes for a second and he had found himself standing in a forest with the breeze blowing through his hair. If he had known changing scenes like that was so easy, he would have been in Rome or Tahiti while his classmates were creating pitiful representations of objets d’art in Art or pathetically managing to botch even the simplest equation or parabola in Trig. If, Andrew reflected sourly, he could have transported himself anywhere at any time, he would probably have absented himself from about ninety percent of his mandatory life.
“So how do you think we got here, Mr. Know It All?” Elise’s light voice cut into his thoughts and but she was expecting the answer from Rick.
Rick appeared completely baffled as he held up the palms of his hands in surrender.
“Don’t look at me. I’m the one who thought I was dying, remember?”
Andrew wished he had a few more answers. I think I’ve answered enough of their questions, now it’s my turn.
“How long have you guys been here?” he ventured.
The two of them glanced at each other and then began talking in unison. Andrew held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa!”
They stopped and grinned a little. Andrew gestured to Rick to start.
“I think she’s been here longer than me,” he began, nodding at Elise.
“I met him in the woods,” Elise replied.
“But how long have you been here?” Andrew repeated. “An hour? A day? A week?”
Again, they looked at one another.
“Three hours, about,” offered Elise.
“Two hours, then, I guess,” Rick said.
Andrew heard all of this but he was also thinking, this must be more than just coincidence. It has to be. We’re all from the same place, we’re all about the same age, we all got sick to varying degrees. He resolved to voice his opinion, which actually surprised him; normally he kept as much to himself as the people around him would allow.
Aloud Andrew began, “Doesn’t that seem sort of strange to you?”
Elise sniffed irritably. “Is there anything about this whole thing that doesn’t seem strange?”
He elected to ignore that outburst and continued.
“I mean, we all have so many things in common. We’re all from Rockville, we’re all around the same age… how old are you?” he asked Elise.
“Sixteen,” volunteered Rick, taking the bait.
“And I was fifteen back in January,” Andrew continued. “On top of all that, we each felt some kind of… physical discomfort, before we got here….” He trailed off purposely, wondering if he was just blowing off steam or if someone would make the same connection, that he was.
“And we both lost our watches,” Rick finished slowly. They fell quiet again, no doubt straining to find the answers to the questions that their observations posed. Andrew took the opportunity to study the two people he’d apparently joined forces with. Elise, the pretty girl in the sweatshirt, looked her age, he decided. Probably if she’d grow that short hair out, she’d lose that naïve, little-girl appearance. But then, who was he to say… he didn’t like short hair on a girl anyway. Not that he paid much heed to the opposite gender. Girls weren’t lining up for Andrew’s company on Friday nights, so neither did he seek out theirs.
And Rick… well, Rick was… an interesting individual. Outgoing. Attentive. But, perhaps a little too impetuous, mused Andrew, listening to the musical babbling of the stream.
“So. How do you think we got here?” Elise asked, interrupting the flow of Andrew’s thoughts.
He recalled vaguely that she’d posed this question once before but that he and Rick both had evaded it. Much as he hated to admit it, Andrew himself had no idea.
“I mean, are we dead?” she asked, concern coloring her words.
Rick had relaxed again enough to chuckle. “I don’t know about either of you, but this sure isn’t my idea of the Afterlife,” he quipped, not unkindly.
“I’m serious,” Elise shaded her eyes against the shimmer of the sun through the trees as she glared up at Rick, who shrugged.
“A good question, but we can’t answer it,” Andrew reassured her grimly. And it was. How did you explain something like this, especially when keeping in mind the side effects the three of them had encountered?
“Excuse me.” A timid new voice added itself to their conversation. Andrew looked up in surprise to behold (another?) a young girl with dripping hair and wet clothes standing in the bushes just behind Rick. She drew in breath to speak as she approached them, but as she stepped forward, squinting, drops of water rolling down her forearms, she swayed on her feet.
“Hey, are you okay?” Alarmed, Andrew jumped up, but the girl had already lurched forward. Her wet hair sent an arc of droplets free to glimmer in the sun as she pitched over while Rick scrambled wildly to catch her.