My eyelids fought desperately in an attempt to stay shut as the transition between sleep and consciousness took place, only to fail as I looked round, my vision too blurred to take anything in. I stifled a yawn that lasted far too long, my arms instinctively lifting into a stretch that was far from elegant before running my hands through my hair, grimacing as I realised it due for a wash.
My head ached as I rubbed my eyes, the faint memory of last nights” dream somehow forcing itself to the centre of my mind. Only this dream didn’t feel like a dream at all, but reality...
My thoughts were interrupted when someone entered my room; a source of worry considering the fact that I lived alone, causing panic to arise. I shuffled myself back towards the headboard I assumed was behind me, only to find that there wasn’t one, and only as I fell backwards to my possible end, did I realise the bed wasn’t in fact my own. My hands landed softly on damp grass that soaked into my jeans, causing my brows to furrow bewilderedly, my mind taking time to comprehend that this wasn’t the dingy carpet I so often fell onto.
I looked around, dread building within me as realisation hit. My eyes met those of the awfully familiar young figure before me, my head dropping as my sigh soon become a groan.
“Not a dream I’m afraid” Klaus said, shuffling over and offering me his hand in a gesture of good will, a hand I took begrudgingly.
“Where are we?” I asked groggily, not able to prevent another yawn as I got to my feet, groaning again as dew soaked through my worn in pumps and into my socks. Great, just great.
“We’ve not exactly given it a proper name yet, but one of the kids started calling it The Stray and that’s kind of stuck for now”
“What does it stand for?”
Klaus laughed. “Nothing. The thing you need to understand about twelve-year-olds such as myself, is that to us, things don’t need to make sense for our minds to perceive them as acceptable,”
I laughed unexpectedly and nodded, his words noticeably too advanced to make his statement fitting to himself. “Fair enough”
“Follow me,” Klaus said exiting what I now realised was a large cream coloured tent. “All the items you see here have been brought from the Other London. When this was found by Luke, he thought it’d be preferable over seeing the unnerving presence of ourselves each day.”
“What do you mean the Other London? Where are we right now?”
I exited the tent and my eyes clamped shut before adjusting to the intense light of the sun that seemed to take up half of the sky.
“Well, this Stray place definitely isn’t in London” I said, squinting as I looked round in confusion.
“You sure about that?” Klaus asked, raising an eyebrow. “Look to your right,”
I did as he said, and my brain strained as my eyes absorbed what they saw. I was looking at the streets of London, but not in the literal present form that I was so used to. There was almost a line where London just stopped and they became this huge, seemingly never-ending expanse of grass and countryside.
Looking to my left, I was met with an utterly breath-taking view to say the least. It was like an infinite expanse of green, contrasting so hugely from the metropolitan concrete city beside it, giving it a purity that words could not begin to describe. As I turned my head, forcing my gaze to witness The Stray in its entirety, my eyes met what appeared to be a large lake, its colour a seemingly unnatural yet utterly magnificent blue. It was like something you’d see on screen, a beauty only intricate CGI or enhancement could produce.
I walked towards the cut off London I’d once called my home, getting a closer look in order to allow my mind to comprehend what yesterday, I would have only believed was merely an illusion. But before I could get too close, Klaus grabbed my arm, pulling me away.
“Only Strayers can go through.” he said cautiously.
“Like me,” Klaus said. “Only some of us can go from here to the Other London,”
“What do you mean some of us? To get here, everyone must have come through,”
“Have you not given the fact that you’ve just woken up a thought?” Klaus asked, smiling patiently as he so often did.
He was right. I had no memory of falling asleep and certainly no memory of entering The Stray.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You passed out. It’s kind of like entering a different world,” Klaus said in the only way he could describe it. “But a world with a difference in air pressure or oxygen density. Only some of us can get through without our bodies momentarily shutting down in a form of defence. Those people are what we call the Strayers. Our job is to go out every day to find newbies like you. We can’t have them walking round losing their minds.”
I walked as close to it as Klaus allowed and found myself completely mesmerised. It reminded me of going from a dark piece of road to a light one where it had been resurfaced, so straight and precise. I looked left and right, and it went as far as I could see.
“It shows the whole city,” Klaus said. “You get used to it pretty fast. The only thing you don’t get used to is seeing yourself. But it truly is stunning, don’t you think?”
I frowned as I looked down at him. “You don’t speak, nor act like a twelve-year-old. You’re more mature than myself... not that that’s hard” I said, recollecting my endless nights of throwing popcorn at the TV as Elena refused to pick a Salvatore.
“I had to grow up quite fast I suppose” he said, his voice trailing as he spoke.
Sensing I hit a nerve, I hesitated before continuing, “How so?” I asked.
“After my parents died, I was in and out of foster homes. Whether it be the fact that I couldn’t accept that my parents were gone, or they simply didn’t like me, I never had a permanent home. I think it gets to a point, being at such a young age, where it changes you, forcing your vulnerable demeanour to adapt to survive the outside world I guess,”
“When did they err...?”
“When I was six” he said, nodding slowly as he judged my reaction.
“They robbed a bank and were shot as they ran,” he said, smirking at my reaction. “That’s always a good conversation stopper.”
I didn’t smile back but stood and stared, no words seeming to form, ruing my incompetence when it comes to handling remotely touchy situations. I mean, what could I say? Are you OK? I don’t think so. “Sorry” I muttered finally.
“Not as sorry as me,” he said. “We were never good for money. Bills kept rolling in. Money on the other hand did not. We were always late on paying rent and food was never really there. I didn’t make it any easier. My mother lost her job looking after me and my dad... well, he never really had one. They started with petty theft. I was too young to understand what they were doing, so completely and pathetically unaware. Shoplifting came next, and they were very good at not getting caught. They pickpocketed too. Extremely good at that, or at least that’s what I was told. But it wasn’t enough. The bank was a desperate move. We got kicked out of the dingy apartment building we’d called home and were on the streets. They’d hidden me in the toilets of a shopping centre so that I wouldn’t be alone on the streets when they did it. It was two days before a cleaner found me and that was when I realised I would never see them again. Social services took me in and I switched from foster home to foster home.”
“I’m sorry” I said, no other words seeming appropriate considering the circumstances.
“Thanks” he said, forcing a smile. “We all have a past, I suppose,”
“I’m not sure such words frequently come out of the mouth of a twelve-year-old”
Klaus nodded, his eyes meeting my own. “I suppose you’re right. Anyway, now that you’re conscious, I believe it’s time for you to meet Luke”
“I see. How prepared should I be for everything I’m probably about to be told?”
Klaus laughed. “I don’t think any amount of preparation will be enough. But this is our new reality. So, the sooner you understand all there is to learn, the sooner we can all start to figure out what the hell all of it means”
“You must be Alexandra” a man said, mere seconds after I entered what appeared to be another tent.
He was tall, 6’2 or 6’3 I’d assume at first glance, compared to my petite 5’3 frame, intimidating to say the least. Like Klaus, his eyes were blue, but as oppose to the warmth of Klaus’s, Luke’s were harsh and piercing, visibly analysing me as approached.
“Lexi” I corrected, nodding. “You must be Luke”
“Indeed,” he nodded. “There’s a lot we need to discuss, but first off, how are you doing?”
“Not too bad considering, I guess,” I said, shrugging as I did so. “It’s certainly a lot to take in”
“It is,” Luke said flatly. “In the three days I was here alone, I was convinced I’d lose my mind. Then a young boy called Adrian blinked out also, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wouldn’t go as far as saying you’re lucky, but unlike me, you’re don’t have to experience the maddening effects of such isolation,”
I nodded. “That is true, I suppose,”
“Now, what has Klaus told you already? Has he shown you his ability?”
“Not yet” I said, undeniably intrigued but unsure whether I was ready to witness what they had to show me.
“I see. Then you may have a little more to take in than I expected,”
“Klaus” Luke said, and the boy’s body visibly tensed at the mentioning of his name. Despite his current softness, I got the feeling Luke could impose a great amount of authority when he wanted to.
“Go meet the others and relax a little,” Luke said. “We’ll hold a gathering at some point to get Alexandra acquainted with the rest of the group and shed a little light on the abilities that have been discovered so far.” Klaus nodded, swiftly leaving the tent so that only Luke and I were left.
I looked back at Luke whose eyes followed Klaus, his eyes only returning to me once the boy was out of site. His stare lingered, as it did when I first entered, and while uncomfortable, I assumed it was his way of analysing me.
“I guess I should say welcome,” he said, shaking my hand briefly before taking a seat on an armchair brought from the real London. “I wish I could answer the questions that are probably swirling round your brain but I’m afraid, on the most part, my guess is as good as your own. But I’ll tell you what I do know. It somehow appears that the day of November 12th, 2022, seems to be on some form of repeat, quite like that of Groundhog Day but seemingly not quite as fictional. We then have this place, which, as Klaus has informed you, is currently being referred to as The Stray. How does it exist? We don’t know. But we are hoping to figure that out. On top of that, and somehow that strangest part of it all, we are all gradually beginning to develop abilities, something that you too will most probably begin to develop. Any questions so far?”
I merely shook my head, everything so far already explained and yet still seemingly impossible to comprehend.
“Ok. You’ll also know about the fact that every individual who has blinked out happens to be the age of either twelve or twenty-four, the significance of this once again unbeknown to us and something we’re also trying to figure out. There are many theories currently floating around, but I don’t like theories, I like facts, so there’s no point discussing them. Is there anything you know that we should know, or are you just as in the dark as the rest of us?”
“I’d have to go with the latter I’m afraid.”
Luke sighed, nodding expectantly before getting to his feet. “Now that that’s all covered, I reckon it’s time to introduce you to everybody else and give you a little insight on the abilities each of us have been developing.”
“I reckon it is” I nodded, allowing Luke to pass me and guide me out of the tent once more.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. Despite everything that was happening, from blinking out to the laws of physics being demolished, the prospect of meeting new people and preferably fitting in was what I found myself feeling increasingly nervous about. How ironic.
Before I even reached the entrance of the tent, however, a young girl with golden plaits rushed inside, her face panicked as her mouth parted to speak before Luke cut her off.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s Eddie” she spluttered, her breath ragged. “It’s happening again”
Before I could ask what she meant, Luke having evidently missed out on this detail, the pair were gone, and after a couple of seconds of standing bewilderedly, I jogged out after them.
“What’s happening?” I asked as I stopped next to Klaus, gasping pathetically as the distinctive smoker’s cough tickled my throat. Four years without a cigarette can’t undo the damage of my teenage years.
“He has these seizures” Klaus said, his hands visibly shaking as Luke crouched beside a boy convulsing on the floor. “They’re doesn’t seem to be a pattern to the regularity of their occurrences so far, but this is the third time now”
The boy was screaming at a deafening volume, and I found myself subconsciously stepping back, my right-hand clamping over my mouth. I looked round at the people surrounding him and then the ones running over, counting nine adults, ten including myself, and ten kids, the symmetry of equal distribution mirroring the symmetry of the ages. The same image worry induced panic masked the faces of each individual.
“They’re coming” the boy mumbled, his back arching. His eyes, despite being half covered by his wavy red hair, had visibly rolled to back of his head, a familiar wave of nausea consuming me as memories I’d tried to suppress consumed me, something Luke, his eyes briefly lingering on mine before back to the boy, didn’t fail to notice. The boys’ eyes shot open and his muscles seemed to seize as he sat up. “They’re coming” he said grabbing Luke’s arm, his eyes darting in every direction yet neglecting to focus on anything. “They’re coming” he said again, tears in his eyes.
“Calm down” Luke said, the aggravation his lack of control over the situation was causing him, visible. “Who? Who’s coming?”
The young boy repeated the words, his body now racking with sobs, the terror in his eyes causing my body to shudder.
“Hey” Luke shouted lightly grabbing the boys chin to make him face him. “Who are coming, Eddie? Who is it?”
The boy went limp, collapsing into Luke’s arms. Supporting his head, Luke lifted him, the uncertainty in the air almost tangible.
“Take him to the kids’ tent” Luke said quietly passing him to a man called Adam, his dirty blonde hair swept over his forehead. “Don’t leave his side. Klaus, you go with him. He’ll want a friend when he wakes up.”
“I’ll go too” the girl with golden plaits said, chasing after them.
Luke nodded. He stood up and faced me, the worry in his eyes evident despite his attempts to hide it as he walked straight past me, everyone watching as he disappeared into his tent.
I looked over at the adults, all silenced by what they’d witnessed, the kids trying to forget about it already as a game of tag was suggested.
The words the boy said kept running through my head; “they’re coming”. So simple yet so agonisingly ominous, the endless possibilities Luke had failed to get out of him no doubt the source of his anger.
“Are you alright?” A male voice asked from beside me, causing me to jump, utterly unaware of his presence until now.
I met his eyes, their softness calming my nerves as I let out a long sigh. He was tall, not quite as tall as Luke, maybe 6’1, just under. His tanned olive like complexion and light green eyes gave him a rather striking appearance, but not in an off-putting way. Like Luke’s, his hair was jet black but shorter and thicker.
“I wasn’t quite expecting to err... well see that” I said, clearing my throat. “It wasn’t particularly pleasant.”
The man nodded, his hands being shoved into the pockets of his denim jacket. “He says that the only thing that he can remember from them is the pain” he said solemnly. “When he’s awake, he says he can sense a presence, voices without a particular direction. I can imagine it’s probably terrifying.”
I nodded in agreement, and we stood there silently for a couple of seconds before I spoke. “I’m Lexi, by the way”
“Andre” he said, smiling as I shook his hand awkwardly before laughing, a laugh that was reciprocated.
“Luke seems to be putting a lot of responsibility on his shoulders” I said.
Andre nodded. “Whether it’s because he was the first, or because he has some hero complex, he seems to have been the authority of this mess since I arrived. It’s nice in a way, I suppose. Provides some direction or warped comfort.”
I nodded, not having thought of that until now. It certainly beats the prospect of twenty individuals with no prior affiliations sitting around terrified.
“He’s good with the kids though,” Andre said, looking me in the eyes. “He always knows exactly how to talk them without them feeling patronised yet ensuring they do listen. If you left me with a group of ten kids, I can tell you now I would not be listened to.” he laughed.
“I’ve noticed that” I agreed. “How long have you been here?”
“Just over three weeks. Luke arrived four weeks ago today. Eddie three days after, and me two days after that. Everyone arrived within a two-week period... bar you. You were two weeks after the last person before you.”
“I’d say that seems strange, but a late arrival doesn’t quite compare with everything else. What do you think this is?”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Me neither” I said crudely. “Klaus hopes it’s the Matrix.”
“That would be rather cool,” Andre grinned. “Plus it is one of the less terrifying explanations”
I was relieved to be finally talking to somebody, Luke’s matter-of-fact demeanour in terms of getting straight to the facts, and Klaus’s age having made me feel outcaste from the rest of the group who had evidently had three weeks before I arrived to get to know each other.
Our conversation halted as we watched as Luke was ushered by Adam, the man who had been looking after Eddie, to the boy’s tent. Andre raised his eyebrows hopefully as we made our way towards them. Eddie lay awake, his eyes heavy as he managed a smile that I soon realised was aimed at Luke.
“Hey Eddie” Luke said, crouching down as Eddie tried to sit himself up. “I don’t think so” Luke said, shaking his head and telling him to lie back down. “You need some rest. You gave everyone a real scare today”
“It’s happened twice already. Shouldn’t the shock of it dampened yet? It’s just a seizure” Eddie shrugged, sighing as sat back.
“You spoke again” the girl with golden plaits said, after asking Andre, learning that her name was Alice.
“The same thing?”
Alice nodded, and Eddie’s eyes met those of Luke’s.
“We were hoping that you maybe heard something else. Something new for us to work with. Are you still hearing things now?”
Eddie shook his head. “The whispering tends to go kind of silent with each seizure. It’s a relief, to be honest. Some peace and quiet.”
Luke nodded understandingly. “Ok bud. Well, you just rest up, ok? I want the other kids to stay with you, just in case you have another seizure.”
The boy nodded, apology in his eyes. “Sorry I can’t explain them. Hearing the voices first-hand doesn’t seem to make them any easier to understand.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure things will start to become a little clearer soon. It’s all we can hope for, anyway.”
“Until then” he said, standing and brushing himself off. “We have a newbie who needs to be acquainted”
His eyes found my own, and he nodded me over. “Everybody, this is Lexi. She arrived this morning. I’ve briefly informed on what we know so far, but there are some things you need to witness to understand and each of your abilities comes under such things”. His eyes met my eyes once more. “If you’re ready that is?”
I looked round at unfamiliar faces, my lips curving into a nervous smile. “I’m as ready as I can be a suppose. Show me what you’ve got”.