He studied their faces. The stream had carried their voices to him from a few yards away, and he’d overheard to enough to know that they faced the same predicament he himself did – he had been enormously grateful, also, that there were other people out there after all. After the first hour of frustrated and bewildered solitude, he’d almost managed to convince himself that he’d never see another human face again, much less four in the next few hours or so. Absorbing the somewhat wary expressions on their faces, he observed how much their reactions mirrored his own from the past few hours.
When he spoke, he was mindful of their quandary. “I’m Derrick Morgan. I heard you from down the stream, so I know you’re from Rockville and that you’re all just as confused about being here as I am. When I was last in Rockville, school had just let out and it was about to storm. So when I got here, I was as confused as you all are.”
Derrick looked around at them again – had he just declared himself an utter idiot? He’d been pretty sure of himself when he’d ascertained the group’s overall state of mind – they were lost and confused and wondering where they were and why they weren’t at home, the same as he was. So what had he said to induce the looks he was getting?
Brushing his backside free of leaves and dirt, one of them rose to his feet and stepped up to Derrick, his other hand out.
“Rick Frank,” he said with a genuine smile.
The rest of them followed suit, taking their cue from Rick. Derrick repeated their names to himself after each introduction, mentally committing them to memory. He had always been bad with names – names and phone numbers. He’d inadvertently stood up a few dates for misplacing their phone numbers…. Noticing the awkward silence developing, he asked,
“Mind if I sit down?” He didn’t much care for the way they were looking at him with such… relief. He wasn’t there to save them. Just because he’d been here longer didn’t make him any more informed than they were.
The girl nearest him – Fiona, he thought as he fumbled for her name – waved him down. He heard a simultaneous, “Sure,” from Rick.
Derrick eased himself onto the ground stiffly and leaned his elbows on his knees, not at all sure he’d be able to stand up again. Ah, that felt good. He’d been walking for four hours, to his best estimate, getting nowhere in the process of trying to get somewhere and his feet were aching with the effort. Thankfully, he was in good physical condition, but this wasn’t like football, where you stopped, played, stopped, played, and worked out as much as you could to look as monumental as possible to the opposing linebacker running toward you.
“So how long have you been out here?” Derrick inquired of the group.
Andrew cleared his throat. “We’ve all been out here anywhere from half an hour to three hours, except Fiona. She’s a recent arrival.”
“Almost a dead-on-arrival,” quipped Rick, lacing his hands together and cracking his knuckles.
“So did you all get here in the same place?” Derrick asked.
“We all met up together,” Rick said, “although Andrew and Fiona’s landing sites were relatively close together. Elise and I had been walking for a while before we ran into each other.”
Derrick pondered this. Basically, then, between the five of them, they’d all been… what? He’d been struggling to come up with a word that properly depicted the process of being in one place at one moment and another the next. So they were all, well, whisked away to this place, this… nature walk, over the space of three hours, give or take. Were there more people coming? Were there more here that no one had come across yet? Were there going – but no. He’d promised himself at least an hour and a half ago that he wasn’t going to ask any more questions; if he did, what was left of his sanity would most assuredly desert him.
“How long did you say you’ve been out here?” queried Andrew curiously.
“About four hours,” Derrick responded. Let’s see, that’s about right. The rest of football practice was canceled because of the approaching storm, so when school let out, I weighed in, worked out in the weight room for a while, and stopped by the drafting room. Derrick hardly needed extra tutoring with his steady A average, but the teacher encouraged his interest in architecture and afforded him a little advanced attention whenever he was able. However, today, both of them had wanted to desert the school grounds before the storm hit.
“Did you get sick?” Andrew wanted to know, sounding much like a doctor taking notes.
Sick? thought Derrick. Appropriate term, if a little understated. Try vomit. A lot of it. “Why, did anyone else get sick?” he asked aloud, grateful for the breeze that cooled the sweat on his forehead.
When Derrick had listened to everyone’s stories, he finally said, “Well, I threw up too, so I’d say it’s safe to assume that getting sick, whatever the intensity, is a synonymous effect of a trip here – like motion sickness of some kind.”
He liked the little group, he decided later, although they persisted in racking their brains, and his, in attempting to find answers which to date, didn’t exist. He got along well with everyone, especially Rick, though occasionally Derrick would glance up to find Elise, the girl with the bright blue eyes, glaring at him. Unsure what to make of it, he ignored it.
It was twilight now, and a good ten degrees cooler than it had been when he had first stumbled across them. If it’s barely dark now, and it’s this cool, imagine what it’ll be like at the coldest hour of the night, his mind thought forebodingly.
Derrick glanced down at his own cotton gym shirt and work-out shorts. Goosebumps formed on his tanned skin as he watched. None of them were exactly dressed appropriately for an overnight foray into the woods. Andrew wore a T-shirt and jeans, while Rick wore his work pants and a thin dress shirt of which he had recently unrolled the sleeves. And Fiona, from what he understood, had been out in the rain and her cotton shirt and jeans were just starting to dry. Then there was Elise, who was huddled inside her oversized sweatshirt. Derrick wished he had one of those himself right now, as a cool breeze riffled through the grass and chilled his arms. Think warm, he told himself.
So Derrick pictured the roaring fire they tried to create, which induced a small smile. Rick had tried the two-stick method, rubbing two sticks together as vigorously as possible, proving only that none of them were woodsworthy, much less Boy Scouts worthy.
“Well,” Fiona had demanded impatiently after twenty minutes of rubbing, “is it working?”
“They’re warm,” Rick had replied bleakly. Andrew had then tried himself with no more luck….
Derrick suddenly shook himself. He’d been drowsing, actually nodding off! He flicked a glance around surreptitiously to see if anyone had noticed, but instead observed Fiona yawning hugely.
Maybe getting some sleep wasn’t a bad idea, he thought. After all, what good was sitting up all night going to do them, even assuming they were able? They’d played Charades out of boredom and by nightfall, had talked themselves out (which made them thirsty, and no one much liked the idea of drinking stream water) and had decided they’d follow the stream the next day until they got somewhere. Hoping, Derrick added silently, that there was somewhere to get. So there was nothing to do now but get some rest, especially with all the walking they’d have to do tomorrow.
“Well, I guess I’m going to get some sleep,” announced Fiona around another yawn.
Derrick never thought he’d see the day he’d have to sleep outside, at least not involuntarily, not without tents, sleeping bags, music, food, maybe a keg, and a bunch of his friends, a couple girls…. Lost in the nostalgia of prior camping trips, he rubbed his bare arms, attempting to warm them as he lay down among the leaves and grass.
“Me, too,” elected Elise a minute later. She promptly pulled her knees up to her chin, stretched her sweatshirt over her legs and lay down like that, curled in a ball. (Lucky.) Must be nice to be warm, thought Derrick grudgingly.
While the others made themselves comfortable on the ground, Derrick watched Rick start to wad up his green apron for a pillow, stop, consider it thoughtfully, and lean over to catch Fiona’s attention.
“Do you need this? Are your clothes still wet?” Rick asked her lowly.
So, chivalry still exists, mused Derrick as he arranged himself on the ground more comfortably.
Fiona smiled a little and replied,
“No, thanks, I’m nearly dry. But I’m sure he could use it more than I could.” Fiona nodded at Derrick.
Rick glanced over at his bare arms. “You’ve got to be freezing,” he observed in sympathy, tossing his apron at Derrick.
Catching the thin, green material gratefully, he asked, “You don’t mind?”
Rick grinned toothily and told him, “Not at all. Besides, if I didn’t, you’d wake me up chattering your teeth.”
The frogs by the stream croaked their evening song under the stars, and Derrick laid among the leaves, where he drifted off to sleep, grateful for the inadequate green stock apron he was huddled under for warmth, thinking, someday, I am going to laugh at this….
“Wake up,” Elise prodded him gingerly with a well-worn white sneaker as if he were road-kill she was trying to push off the road. I am up, he thought. I’ve been up. He’d shivered with cold throughout most of the night, attempting to find one warm position with little luck. When dawn had finally broken and the warm sun came glittering though the leaves, he’d basked in it drowsily, letting the chirps of the awakening birds in the branches above lull him to sleep. But he’d heard the group stirring and rousing, so he’d expected a prod in the ribs sooner or later. Sighing, he sat up and stretched.
“I’m up,” he yawned. A glance around told him that Rick was the only one not yet on his feet aside from himself.
“Not a morning person?” Derrick ventured.
Rick grunted in reply. Derrick grinned – the composed, self-assured Rick looked pretty comical, his tousled brown hair sported leaves in it, his eyes half open, staring in a sleepy stupor at nothing. Derrick pulled himself into a standing position somewhat self-consciously as he listened to his stiff muscles crack. Elise was splashing her face with water from the stream while Fiona stood striving to make some sense of her tangled, strawberry-blonde hair and Andrew brushed himself clean of leaves and grass.
After everyone had relieved themselves and finished their make-shift morning rituals – no one really relished the thought of bathing in a shallow stream – Derrick decided it was time to get started. After all, he thought, not wanting another restless night like last night, he didn’t savor being out there any longer than necessary.
He longed for a camera. Surveying his ragged group found Fiona much the same as yesterday; she stood quietly sweeping dirt and grass from her clothes with her hands but seemed rested and anxious to leave. Andrew looked as though he’d spent better nights – his rust colored hair was tangled and the dark circles beneath his eyes suggested nights more comfortably spent elsewhere. Rick wasn’t much more impressive with his white dress-shirt wrinkled and grass-stained. Derrick expected the previous night had left its mark on him as well, since rubbing the back of his hand across his chin found a fair growth of stubble.
He watched Elise cup her hands in the cool stream water and slick back her black curls. Shaking the excess water free, she wiped her wet hands unashamedly on her sweatshirt to dry them as she stood up again. Like Fiona, her overnight outdoor excursion didn’t leave her worse for the wear. How girls managed to look just as good when they woke up as when they went to sleep, he’d never know.
Feeling the morning sun warm his shoulders, Derrick stretched.
“Well? Are we ready?”
“Which way are we going?” Elise asked. Oddly, he wondered if some kind of hostile emotion was underlying her words, or if it was just him.
“Upstream. That way,” he added, responding to a blank look that crossed her face. Why, he wondered vaguely, as he turned north and set out, did girls never have a sense of direction?
As they made their way upstream, he worried about what his parents thought about his disappearance overnight without a word. Inevitably, they were quite angry about it – his little brother was probably eating up this opportunity to get him in trouble. The little shrimp had probably cooked up some scheme for Dad, something along the lines of having heard Derrick making plans to go to an all-night keg party somewhere, or something equally disastrous, though he didn’t usually go to parties on Thursdays. Well, that just might work against Kirk for once and buy Derrick some time, since he knew his parents would never believe he’d been at school one second and in the middle of a tree-surrounded meadow the next, vomiting every morsel in his stomach. He could just tell Mom and Dad that he’d… what could he say?
He hated lying to them, but they’d never believe what had really happened – they’d admit him to Rockville Shores for sure, that institution down by the water where crazy people stayed. Derrick stepped over a bush in his way as he pondered some possibilities. Well, he contemplated, he could just say that he’d decided to stay at a friend’s house for the night to study for a test and forgotten to call them. They knew his memory for little details was deplorable. But what was going to happen when he didn’t get home today from school? What a mess, he sighed. And Derrick disliked the idea that he might not ever get back to explain – he refused to indulge in thoughts like that.
Finally, after a few quiet miles of trudging through the leaves, Rick coughed experimentally and asked, “Is anyone hungry or is it maybe just me?”
Derrick rolled his eyes. Did he have to mention food?
“I’m starving,” complained Fiona.
“Me, too,” Andrew agreed.
Wincing, Derrick waited until his own stomach, which had demonstrated little tact in loudly expressing its discontent, subsided before he faced his four companions.
“I think that until we get wherever we’re going, we’re just going to have to make the best of it.”
“But do we even know where we’re going?” asked Elise emphatically.
Gathering patience for what he sensed was going to be some sort of confrontation, Derrick met her gaze squarely.
“I can honestly say that I don’t know where I, or we, are or how to get back home. But –”
“Then why should we listen to you?” she interrupted bitingly. Her eyes seemed to snap blue sparks up at him.
“Have you got a better idea? Do you know where we are any more than I do?” Derrick retorted. He found he was clinging to his temper by greased shreds. Something about her seemed to have brought the worst out in him – it must just be the sleepless night he’d spent, he decided.
“We could go downstream,” she countered, tossing her dark hair.
He stared down at her, his mouth falling agape. “And backtrack, losing time? Going back over ground that we know no one lives nearby? There’s a grand idea.” He couldn’t stifle the sarcasm from tingeing his voice. Taking a deep breath, Derrick forced himself to calm down. Was it him or had he done nothing to deserve this outburst from her? He glanced at the others, who looked as dazed as he felt.
“Exactly what’s the problem here?” inquired Fiona as she placed a foot between them.
Derrick held up his hands, backing off. “Don’t ask me.”
“Why are we doing what he says? He doesn’t even know where he’s going –”
Derrick bristled at this. No one knew where they were going – they didn’t even know where they were coming from!
Rick leaned over and inquired behind his hand to Derrick, “Did you tick her off in another life or something?”
Derrick shook his head and shrugged. “Must’ve.”
“ – just because he’s a football player and junior class president –”
What? What did she say? Did she mention junior class president? How did she know that? What was her problem? And what did school have to do with any of this? He hadn’t done a thing to her, he’d never even seen Elise before yesterday. In an effort at humor, Derrick caught Rick’s eye.
“It’s a girl thing,” he gibed lowly to Rick.
Rick grinned in reply.
“No, it’s your ego!” Elise shrilled at him.
Oops, she heard me. Abandoning the attempt to laugh it off, Derrick sighed. Just before he spoke, he again reminded himself that he had, after all, done absolutely nothing to deserve her sudden outburst of temper.
“Look,” he began placatingly, “I don’t know what I ever did to insult you or make you mad. But just yelling at me isn’t going to do any of us any good.” He paused, watching her response; she sullenly allowed him to finish, rather like a cat waiting for a mouse to emerge from its mouse hole. The image was less than encouraging.
“So,” Derrick continued, “if it’s my idea of going north that you’re objecting to, I thought north was the only other alternative, since I came from the west on the other side of the stream and the rest of you came from different regions in the east and south and none of us have found any civilization. I just figured north was logical.”
He cleared his throat and regarded all of them directly, but they each bore passive countenances, except for Elise’s rebellious one.
“Does anyone have any better ideas?” Derrick finished, his eyes resting on Elise.
No one spoke.
“Any… objections? Suggestions? This is a group effort,” he encouraged them with a weak grin.
Andrew bent to tie a shoelace. When he stood back up, he said quietly but clearly, “I’ll go north with you.”
Andrew’s statement set off a chain reaction of agreements; everyone agreed to go north but Elise, who contributed nothing, her features stormy. Derrick fervently hoped she would consent to go upstream – he couldn’t afford to lose anyone going off on their own, not even Elise.
He insisted on waiting for her answer, matching glare for glare. Her arms crossed on her chest, she leaned against a tree, her penetrating azure gaze drilling speculatively though him somehow. Finally, Elise stepped forward from the shade and, with heavy sarcasm dripping from her voice, said acidly, “Carry on, O Fearless Leader.”
Derrick frowned at the sarcasm but chose to let it go and deemed her answer a yes. Relieved, he turned around and spied a long, only slightly crooked, thick branch that had fallen recently from a nearby tree. A charred end exposing fresh wood behind it when he brushed away the curled, burnt bits revealed that the limb had been severed during a storm. He hefted it experimentally and stripped the few extraneous branches that remained. It would serve as a sufficient walking stick, he thought, even if he looked ridiculous. He grinned winningly.
“Let’s get going.”
They’d been walking all day, since early morning. They’d taken periodic breaks for water, and for the more necessary breaks, or recycling, as Rick had coined them whenever he disappeared into the forest. Even though they’d been walking all day, into what Derrick estimated was late afternoon, the sun showed no signs at all of setting, and in fact looked to be barely past noon.
Fiona and Andrew, each fair skinned, sported hearty sunburns, while Rick’s darker skin evinced a pink cast to it as well. From the healthy glow of her skin, Derrick determined that Elise spent a good deal of time outdoors, as Derrick did, but even he saw the effect of sun taking its toll through both of their tans. The four of them – his group, as he’d bemusedly caught himself referring to them lately – had finally emerged from the dense tree cover into a meadow of hip-high, green grasses waving in the warm breeze, much like the sun-kissed meadow he’d arrived in this world in. Only, he mused, to enter, after a few more miles, a denser, wilder forest than they’d trudged through before.
At least Elise had loosened up – she had been so hot in her sweatshirt by midday that she’d finally shed her shoes and socks and, to the group’s amazement, walked defiantly into the stream, which had now flown into a creek some miles back. The cool water washed away both her discomfort and her morose mood almost immediately. Watching her swim happily in the water had been too exigent an endeavor for the rest of them, himself included, so they had parted ways with caution and immersed themselves in the stream in emulation of Elise’s bold archetype.
As for Elise, a little water had endowed upon her a burst of cheerful energy that she utilized by being far more companionable, teasing Rick, splashing Andrew, laughing, sunning herself among the turtles on the rocks…. A considerable change from the sulky, recalcitrant girl who’d refused to cooperate with him and announced her skepticism at every turn. She was actually quite striking, Derrick mused as he watched her, with that glossy black hair and bright blue eyes. Watching her shake her wet curls free of water and wrench the water from her sweatshirt, Derrick decided she wasn’t so bad after all, although she’d maintained her aloofness toward him.
After they’d resumed their trek, the day seemed to grow longer and longer. Derrick felt as if they’d been walking for days – weeks even. He craved a shower, and a huge, hot meal, and a long nap in a real bed, and not necessarily in that order. Hunger was irrefutably the worst of it. He might be able to forget about it if his stomach would cease its growling. It’d been – over twenty-four hours since he’d last eaten, not including when he’d so unceremoniously emptied its contents upon his arrival. And it didn’t help that to keep from constantly dwelling on how long this – trip – was taking, his mind stubbornly insisted on occupying itself by conjuring up images of what he’d love to see most on a plate right now. His stomach rumbled again pointedly in disapproval.
“Is anyone as famished as I am?” Fiona conjectured aloud.
“Don’t, please don’t bring up food,” begged Elise.
“Because my stomach’s been growling since I woke up this morning,” finished Fiona.
Leaning tiredly on the walking stick he’d acquired for himself – now glad of it – Derrick told them, “I know everyone’s hungry, but it’s not going to help talking about it. I’m hungry, too, but there’s nothing we can do.” Boy, did that sound inadequate. His stomach rumbled again in protest. He parted the bushes in front of him and ducked beneath the branches, actions that were now second nature. It seemed you either walked through a forest or in a forest, and it was, he had discovered, easier to walk in it, by avoiding the branches and bushes, rather than trampling them, for it took far less energy out of you.
“Uh, guys, I don’t know about you, but I really need a break,” announced Rick, sinking heartily onto the ground with a tired ummmphhh.
Fiona looked around at everyone and asked Derrick, “Why don’t we take a break for a few –”
“Hush,” Derrick held a hand up suddenly. Had he heard a noise up ahead? Like someone – or something – walking through the leaves? They’d been lucky so far and avoided any encounters with dangerous wild animals, only a snake or two and a beaver of some sort…. He strained his ears, knowing everyone else was listening, too.
“Sounds like people,” Andrew opined with hope in his voice. Derrick waved him quiet.
Andrew was right, Derrick observed as the noise got louder, it did sound like people, two people walking slowly through the dry, crackling leaves.
But what if it was a wild animal wandering aimlessly, his mind hammered warningly at him. The more he listened, the more it sounded like an animal instead. They could try to climb the trees, or run in opposite directions. Expecting to hear the roar of a panther or some equally such dangerous animal, Derrick’s eyes searched frantically for potential routes of escape.
And then the object of his panic appeared through the trees ahead – rode up, for it was a (horse?) horse with a rider. A very strange horse, only actually horse-like, he observed, and not equine at all. Not a donkey, not a camel, not even a llama…. And the rider….
Tall and statuesque, she stopped her… horse, several feet before them, an inquisitive and slightly amused expression on her serene face, studying them.
A breeze rustled the branches above them… as well as her long, red hair, the color of new copper, glinting in the sun.
She spoke then, as her mount stamped its feet impatiently and snorted. Derrick sensed that she had asked a question from the rise in her melodious voice when she stopped speaking, but he had never heard the language that escaped the woman’s lips.
He exhaled a breath that had earlier been arrested at the sight of her. Remembering then the group behind him, he threw a lightning quick glance over his shoulder and recognized even in the swiftness of his glance that they too, were staring speechlessly at the woman in wonder.
Nervously clearing his throat, Derrick sucked in a deep breath, stepped forward, and asked,
“Excuse me, can you help us? We seem to be lost.”