“See the happy moron, he doesn’t give a damn. I wish I were a moron: my God, perhaps I am.” --R. Fairchild
The trees were what they noticed first. Instead of the junipers and the occasional pinyon giving way to tall ponderosa pine trees, they instead became spruces and oaks and other trees they did not know by sight. The ground beneath their feet changed as well from loose cinders to a dense red-brown dirt. Driven by curiosity they did not stop their play, stopping only occasionally to stage mock battles and put their wooden weapons to the test. There were six of them, armed with wooden swords and spears and axes. The oldest of them was only fourteen, but had the presence of mind to carry a backpack with a few supplies. The youngest of them was ten and had somewhere along the way lost his shirt.
They were an odd assortment of friends, neighbors, and relations. The oldest wore his brown hair long, framing a face still too thin from the illness that had debilitated him. His name was Aiden and it had been only a month since he had learned he was a diabetic—hence the backpack. Nestled at the bottom in his black belt pack lay his “kit.” In it he carried his insulin and needles, glucose monitor and test strips, and glucose tablets. He still looked ill—pale and rail-thin—but his mind was still sharp and his tongue still sharper. He carried a long sharpened stick like a walking stick, and a short wooden sword in his belt.
His brother was blonde and wore his hair short in a sort of flattop. At twelve, he was as tall as his brother and would likely be taller—perhaps taller than all of them. While Jess seemed his brother’s opposite, they were a lot the same. They looked especially dissimilar now, Jess glowing with health, tanned from the summer sun, while his brother walked beside him, all pale and dark-haired. He swung a long wooden sword and hefted a makeshift wooden shield on his other arm.
Cruz was the boys’ cousin. At twelve, he had moved not far from them, in a nearby crater and was constantly chided for his “city-boy” ways. He wore his hair short and at first glance one would have supposed he was Aiden’s brother and not Jess. In truth, he was close enough to be a brother as they were all three nearly inseparable. He carried a bow functional in appearance only and three wooden arrows down the back of his shirt.
The thirteen year old in glasses was Matt. He was loud and boisterous and had appointed himself leader of this game of “medieval warfare” they were currently playing. He was constantly at odds with Aiden over leadership duties, but he could not trump the age card. Instead, he lorded over his own little brother. He carried a large wooden mallet and a small wooden axe at his hip.
His little brother was the youngest at ten. Tom was also loud and had trouble in school with attention deficit disorder. He was not stupid, but he did have difficulty paying attention. He idolized his older brother and did his best to keep up with the older boys. He was armed with a homemade morning star crafted from a tetherball and a length of wood.
Jason was the only one not related to anybody else. He was as old as Aiden but held no sway over the others. As the odd man out, he was Cruz’s neighbor and was only tolerated by the others. He constantly bragged about his being a genius, though none of them saw it. He was a grade ahead of Aiden but took no advanced courses like he and Matt did. His hair was cut short and he wore a grin that was more of a sneer than anything else. Not a usual player of medieval warfare, he had no weapon at all, claiming his wits would keep him safe. Thus far, his wits had done little to save him from a row of busted knuckles from their wooden weapons.
Although the landscape changed around them, curiosity kept them at their pace. They often traveled miles from their homes to play and today was no different. When the forest thickened around them, they stopped in a clearing to address their obvious predicament.
“We’re lost,” Aiden said peering back the way they had come.
“I thought we were heading toward Haywire Crater,” Tom said uneasily.
“We were,” Matt assured him. “The forest turned all weird.” Jess squatted and scooped up a handful of rich red-brown earth. He let it trickle through his fingers.
“This isn’t cinders,” he said matter-of-factly. Cruz looked around worriedly. They had been walking up the valley between Moon and Stewart Craters and he had hoped they could have detoured to go to his house and play Nintendo.
“Let’s go back,” he suggested.
“There is no back,” Aiden said thoughtfully. “Look behind us. We didn’t come through that.” They all looked. There was thick forest as far as the eye could see. They could see what could have been a mountain range in the distance. Jason shook his head.
“There must be some explanation. We must have taken a wrong turn,” he muttered.
“We know the cinder hills,” Matt growled. “We don’t make wrong turns.”
“Well, this ain’t the cinder hills,” Jess said dusting off his hands.
“Yeah? Then where is it?” Cruz asked looking around.
“Cleveland?” Aiden suggested. He got a few snickers. He scrambled up a fallen log and pointed toward the large mountains they had been heading toward. “That could almost be the Peaks.”
“Almost, but not quite,” Matt said.
“There’s no forest like this around the Peaks,” said Jess, taking in the surrounding oaks and maples. Tom poked around at the edge of the clearing from where they had come. After a while he came wandering back.
“Our tracks disappear at the tree line,” he said somberly. “It’s like we didn’t come that way.”
“Parallel universe,” Aiden said hopping down from his perch. Jason snorted derisively.
“Don’t be absurd,” he said.
“You explain where we are, then,” he challenged the other boy. Jason opened his mouth and shut it. “Yeah. Shut up if you’ve got no other explanation.”
“A parallel universe would be cool,” Matt grinned. “You think?”
Aiden shook his head and grinned. “Cleveland.” Matt punched his arm.
“What do we do?” Cruz asked them.
“Explore it,” Matt said looking around. Tom nodded but Aiden shook his head.
“We gotta go back, man,” he said. Cruz nodded vigorously.
“And pass a place like this up?”
“I want to explore it, too,” Jess spoke up. “But we have to see if there’s a way back.”
“Bunch of pussies,” Matt sneered. Jess scowled at him and looked to Aiden for support.
“Compromise, man,” he said quietly. “We’ll walk back the way we came for an hour, say. We stopped underneath some junipers an hour ago and we know where that was. If we can’t find our way back, then we go forward. Try to find a road or a house or something. For directions.” He looked up at Matt from where he squatted. “And if we do find a way back we’ll mark it and come back here to explore.” Matt scowled but he knew better than to argue any further. Aiden was not the leader but as the oldest he acted as the voice of reason and usually had the last word. If Matt argued, he would pull rank and hold high the age card over all their heads—and that was difficult to argue with. And as for support, his only guarantee was Tom, whose opinions hardly mattered at all.
“Fine,” he sighed resignedly. He was going to add “pussies,” but decided not to push the issue. There was no sense in making everyone sore at him. Everyone mumbled in agreement and started off the way they came.
One hour actually became two and the forest around them did not change. They marched through the trees, spread out, talking occasionally and quietly to one another. The extra hour had not been discussed, but as they saw nothing familiar they continued on. The sun through the trees above them was sinking lower, into evening and the promise of nightfall worried them somewhat. Not that they were worried about nightfall for themselves—they were as comfortable playing at night as they were in the day—but rather they worried about what their parents might think. They were always home before dark. And if it got dark, Aiden was the only one with a flashlight. They were all nervous by the Tome they reached what they supposed was a road.
They supposed it was a road because it was two track ways going in either direction. The problem was that there were no recognizable tracks. If there were tire tracks, they appeared smooth and treadles. There were lots of horse tracks and some human footprints, again without a tread pattern. Jess stomped his Nike into the dust and frowned at its waffle pattern. The tread showed nicely.
“Somebody in moccasins?” Aiden suggested. He looked up and down the road. “Wonder where it goes.”
“Tracks go both ways,” Jess said studying the road.
“We could use a street sign,” Matt said. He cocked his head. “You guys hear that?” They all stopped to listen. Off to their left something was coming up the road. It sounded like horses and someone yelling at them to go faster. Jess took a few steps off the road and uttered a shrill “Hide!” Immediately they scrambled for the trees—all save Jason.
“What are you doing?” Aiden hissed crouching behind a fallen log. Jason gave him an exasperated look.
“I’m going to ask for directions,” he said mildly. The sounds increased and Aiden swore. Nudging Matt he leaped from his hiding place and grabbed one of Jason’s arms. Matt grabbed the other and they hauled him backwards. “What are you doing?” he shouted at them. “I’m—“
“Shut up,” Aiden growled. Matt put a hand over his mouth and shoved him down behind the log.
“Here it comes,” Tom said in a loud whisper. On the road, the noise came out of a cloud of dust—a wagon being drawn by four horses at a full run. The driver was bent over the reins, beating at them to urge the horses to go faster. Beside him, another man was slumped with what looked like arrows sticking out of his back. The wagon rattled by as quickly as it had come.
“Did you see—?“ Matt began, standing up.
“Down,” Cruz hissed at him as four riders thundered by, swords drawn. Matt dove behind the log and they sat where they were until the sounds faded in the distance. After a while they stood and knocked the dust off their clothes.
“Did you see that?” Matt tried again.
“A wagon!” Jess said.
“Those riders had swords,” Cruz uttered.
“Did you see that dead guy?” Tom added. They all nodded and stared down the road. Jason scowled at them.
“I was going to ask for directions,” he said irritably.
“Those guys weren’t going to stop,” Aiden told him. “They’d have run you down.”
“But they could have—“
“They weren’t going to stop,” he growled. “The guy in the wagon was running away from those other guys. And those guys were hot on his trail.”
“You never see stuff like that at home,” Tom said, still wide-eyed. “They had swords!”
“We’re obviously not in Kansas anymore,” Aiden said.
“And no way home,” Jess reminded him.
“Should we follow this road?” Matt asked. “Those guys were headed somewhere. And somewhere is where we want to be.” He looked at Aiden, who nodded.
“Yeah. But let’s be ready to hide if anybody else comes. Stick to the forest, but follow the road.”
“How are we going to get directions by hiding?” Jason asked angrily.
“I’m not concerned with directions. We got one. That way.” He pointed.
“I’m not stopping anybody with a sword,” Jess told him.
“Same here,” Cruz said. “If we’re somewhere… different… maybe we should avoid other people.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Matt said. “Shall we?” They walked on, Jason grumbling all the way.
They found a place to camp as it grew dark—a clearing of trees near a small creek. The road topped a rise above them and continued on its way. They had seen no one else on the road. Behind an outcropping of rocks they managed to build a small fire, not so much for warmth as the night was warm, but it cheered them immensely. For food, Aiden doled out graham crackers from his backpack and they ate them slowly to make them last. There was plenty of water from the creek and they refilled Aiden's canteen. They sat around the fire telling jokes and stories and discussing what they were going to do tomorrow. Getting not much further than just continuing down the road, they decided to get some sleep.
They decided that somebody should stand watch—watching for what, they didn’t know, only that it was better to be on the safe side. They would each watch for an hour and a half, then wake whoever was next. Aiden opted for the first watch and set the alarm on his wristwatch. He seated himself between the camp and the road under cover of darkness and listened to the others settling into sleep.
An hour into his watch, he yawned sleepily and shifted his position to better watch the road. As he settled down he caught a glimpse of something moving near the road. He took a breath and held it—did he just imagine it? He moved his eyes ahead of where he first saw it and was rewarded with another glimpse of something in the shadowy moonlight, moving toward him. He gripped his wooden spear tightly, wishing the wooden sword at his feet were real. The shape moved nearer, the size and shape of what appeared to be a human being.
He glanced behind him and cursed silently. He could still see the coals of the fire glowing in the night, and the still forms of his companions lying around the clearing. The person was heading toward the fire. He stood perfectly still as the person neared, almost close enough to touch. He considered blinding them with the flashlight and knocking them over the head in the confusion, but his spear was not heavy enough to cause any real damage. Instead, he let the person take a step beyond him before he reached out and tapped them on the shoulder with his spear.
It let out a startled gasp and whirled on him, something gleaming in its hand. The gleaming thing came up and his spear fell away in two pieces. A sword! Whoever it was still did not know where he was and he used it to his advantage. Using the end of the spear he still held, he brought it down on the arm holding the sword. He was rewarded with a cry of pain and the sword fell away into the darkness. As the figure turned to run, he leaped.
He caught the person around the middle and drew them to the ground beneath him. He was clearly larger than the other person as they squirmed beneath him. Whoever it was brought up their knee to strike at his inner thigh and he rolled away. He lost the figure in the darkness for a moment.
“Leave me alone!” the person yelled—a decidedly feminine voice. His eyes searched the darkness and he opened his mouth to say something. He never got the chance as something swung out of the darkness and slammed into the side of his head. The darkness gave way to another darkness inside his head.