“You asked for me?” I enquired, entering Luke’s tent tentatively.
“Yes” he nodded, clearing his throat as he stacked some papers. “Sorry about the mess. I like to write down updates on what’s going on and any progressions we’ve made in understanding what exactly it is that’s going on here. Some may call it OCD, but I like to see it as staying organised in a time where organisation is something that is heavily lacking”.
“Makes sense,” I said. “When it’s written down, it’s easier to see patterns. Easier to connect the dots”.
Luke looked up, hesitating slightly as if surprised. “Exactly”.
After a short silence, Luke cleared his throat once more. “Anyway. I asked you here to see how you’re doing. After everything you’ve seen today, it’d be normal for you to be experiencing… adjustment issues”.
“It’s a lot to take in, that’s for sure,” I nodded. “But we’re all in the same boat, and as you said, I wasn’t alone when I arrived. Getting to know everyone and such has been a good distraction, I suppose.”
“Even still. As I’ve said to the others, whatever you need, I’m here. Doesn’t matter how small or how unnecessary it seems, you come to me ok?”
I looked at the man before me, acknowledged the tiredness behind his eyes and the visible weight on his shoulders and felt an unconditional respect for him.
“How about you? How are you doing?” I asked, surprise once more masking his features.
“There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders” I said. “Whether you meant to or not, and are regretting it or embracing it, you’ve made yourself their leader… no, more than that; you’ve made yourself responsible for the lives of 19 individuals. They will look to you for everything, no matter how small, and expect your answer to be the right one. That’s a lot of pressure for one individual to handle”.
Luke didn’t say anything for a while, just kept a steady gaze on me, each breath unconvincingly composed.
“I was terrified when I first blinked out,” he said, uncomfortable vulnerability crossing his eyes. “When I first saw myself, I thought I’d died. I thought my soul had exited my body, and I was left with business I wasn’t aware was unfinished. Instead of trying to figure out what was going on, instead of doing anything at all, I did nothing. I gave up within hours of realising something wasn’t right. I wasn’t arrogant before, but I certainly didn’t perceive myself as weak. So, seeing first-hand how easy it was to fall as low as I did because of all of this, the last thing I wanted was to allow it to happen to anyone else, especially those as young as twelve. Was it my intention to take on this role? No. Do I regret it though? Not in the slightest. If some pressure on my shoulders means a slightly easier ride for the others, how could I regret it?”.
”It’s certainly commendable” I said, sighing heavily. “I’m sure the others would agree that none of us could fill the role quite as well as you have. I’m just afraid that whatever’s coming is larger than any of us could imagine, and when it does, everyone will look to you. I just don’t want you feeling responsible for everyone.”
“We’re all in this together Lexi, leader or no leader. When whatever it is, that’s coming arrives, we’ll be ready. For the time being though, no talk of some evil coming ok? For all we know, what’s coming is far from evil. And even if it is? I’d rather not have the children terrified. Even Klaus. He may be mature beyond his age, but he’s still a child.”
I nodded slowly. I suppose I hadn’t considered the possibility of the source of Eddie’s seizures being anything but abominable. Something that had the power to change how time functioned on the entirety of a planet, blink out a proportion of its population, and somehow give them abilities, in my mind, couldn’t be anything but sinister. But I could be wrong, I sure hoped I was.
“I’ll keep my pessimism to myself then,” I said, smirking wryly.
“In saying that, however,” Luke said, sighing. “We do indeed have to be ready for the more… pessimistic alternative. So, I’d like to meet with you each morning. Go over the possibilities. Go over our preparations”
“Well that’s simple. You’ve been here no more than a day, and you’ve put forward the most plausible explanation for not only Eddie’s seizures, but for all of this. Everyone else has been here for at least two weeks, and has been more concerned with their abilities, how strayers work and what they can steal from their homes without somehow disrupting the lives of… our other selves. We don’t know what changing the routine of them will do to whatever is going on there. While this isn’t a complaint, it’s refreshing to have someone else whose thinking in a direction that mirror’s my own.”
“Happy to help.”
“Onto other matters, it’s likely you’ll be discovering your abilities. While the children found this more exciting than scary, it’s still something you want to be ready for. Some discovered it before even entering The Stray, while others discovered them within the first week. We’ve found that it’s quicker if you try to uncover your ability. So, tomorrow morning, I’d like to help you if that’s ok?”
I nodded. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t given some thought to what mine could be. Flying? The ability to deflect bullets? Camouflage? It was strange how quickly such thoughts seemed normal. Despite defying the laws of physics; despite it being completely and utterly incomprehensible; I was attempting to predict what my new ability would be, as if it were as ordinary as predicting which football team would score first. It was ridiculous. And yet, it was my life now.
“Sure. I guess it’d be easier to know sooner than later. Especially seeing as it appears something is coming after all.”
“Agreed. Well, that’s all I wanted to go over. I’ll take you to one of the adult tents now. Klaus and the other Strayers have brought over a bed for you. Living arrangements may take a while to get used to, but we’ve put curtain rails between beds for when you want some privacy.”
“Sounds good” I smiled, standing up and shoving my hands in the pockets of my jacket.
The bite in the air and darkened sky alerted me to how late it had gotten, the battery and flame powered lamps in Luke’s tent deceiving me.
“This is yours” he smiled as we arrived at a smaller yet still relatively large tent. “You’ll be with four others; Andre, Adam, Katerina and Caroline. I’m aware you’ve spoken to Andre a few times, but you’ll be unfamiliar with the others”.
I nodded, inhaling nervously, and Luke laughed softly. “Of all things, introductions are what are making you nervous right now, huh?”
I shrugged, smirking slightly. “Silly, right?”
“I don’t know. It’s comforting in some ways. Makes things feel a bit more… normal, I suppose. The minor things still making people nervous. It’s good. It’s what would be expected in any other scenario.”
I smiled amusedly. “I suppose you’re right. I’ll see you in the morning, Luke.”
“See you soon Lexi” he said, striding away back to his own tent.
“What did you do? How did you figure out you were Mr Muscle 2.0?” I smirked, pulling on my pumps as I did so.
Andre laughed, pulling on his faded sweater. “It didn’t happen under the most exciting circumstances” he said admittedly. “I was err… well… when I was young, I used to get night terrors. They subsided around the age of fifteen or so, but nightmares still persisted, not as regularly, but they were there. With all that’s been going on, particularly at the beginning, it triggered them. As you’re aware, we’ve been using unused hospital beds to avoid using anything that’d disrupt the routines of those that remain in the Other London. I woke up on my third morning of being here and well…” he removed the blanket that covered a metal bar on the left size of the bed, revealing the indentations of a hand-print. “It appears I gripped the bar while I was sleeping and well… you can’t exactly do that with the strength of a normal human, can you?”
I stared at the indentations, not able to withhold a laugh at the insanity of the situation. “Yep. That sure is one way to find out”.
“Are you nervous? You know, to see what ability you’ve contrived from this freakish mutation we’ve all developed?”
I laughed again, shaking my head. “How could I not be? Seeing others use their abilities is one thing, but having them myself? I mean… what does it feel like?”
“It’s hard to describe,” Andre shrugged. “I mean, it feels strangely natural; as if you’ve always had it. There’s little effort involved, you just… think, and it happens. Don’t get me wrong, while your body just seems to accept it as if it’s always been there, your mind is racing, trying hard but not quite able to keep up. But… the more you use it, the more familiar you become with it, the less crazy it seems. The less crazy it all seems”.
I nodded. “Well. Abilities making things less crazy wasn’t exactly what I was expecting to hear, but that’s something, at least I suppose…”.
“Want us to come with you?” Caroline, who I wasn’t still aware was here, asked, tucking her hair behind her ear.
“I suppose that’d be nice,” I smiled, recalling that she had the ability to manipulate the weather. “Although,” I continued, smiling wryly. “If anyone gets hurt because I lose control or misdirect whatever ability I uncover, just remember your presence was your idea.”
Caroline laughed. “Let’s hope I don’t regret it.”
Caroline was a tall, slender woman, light blonde hair falling in waves over her pale green eyes. She was more than just pretty; she was angelic. There was pain however behind her light eyes, a fresh pain that no amount of distraction could numb. Caroline was the mother of two twin toddlers, their first birthday having only just passed before she blinked out. We may have lived the last day of our previous lives on repeat for twelve years, but our prior obliviousness to such meant our memories were as fresh as they would have been if such repetition had not occurred. Thus, I couldn’t help but respect her strength. Being here wasn’t easy for anyone, beyond the unnerving ambiguity of our near futures, the real pain stemming from the lives we left behind.
I was one of the few lucky ones that didn’t have much to leave behind in the first place, the same of which could not be said for many here. Despite exciting abilities and the seeming parallel world that was The Stray proving a strong distraction for their easily malleable minds, the children, whatever our near futures had to offer, would be forced to grow up quicker than any child should be expected to, the absence of their families undoubtedly terrifying. And yet, despite the pain, despite the same fear felt by every individual here, we kept on moving. The necessity for human beings to keep ongoing, to cover the fragility of their problems with layer after layer of deception in an attempt to convince themselves that they’re ok, that they’re safe and that all will be alright, is forcing each individual here to keep ongoing, to look forward and not dare look back. Because looking back… looking back is what will cause such problems to take over, and in a time of such uncertainty, staying ahead of such problems is essential.
So, with Andre and Caroline beside me, I set off towards Luke’s tent; set off to experience the breaking of the laws of physics for myself. What an insane life we now led.
“Ok then,” Luke said, rubbing his palms together. “Seeing as myself and Klaus appear to have the greatest control over our abilities, I’ve brought him along. Nice to see you both also,” he said, nodding at Andre and Caroline.
He’d brought us near to the magnificently blue lake, this being way away from the others and strangely comforting.
“Where do we begin?” I asked, not entirely sure if I should be warming up and almost laughing to myself for just thinking that.
“Well,” Klaus shrugged. “Just try to do something.”
This, I did laugh at. “Just like that?”.
“There’s not really an easy way to describe how to do it.” Luke smirked.
“Well, can you try?”
Luke sighed amusedly. “Ok. Well… there’s not much thinking involved, so I’m not sure how useful telling you to clear your mind is going to be, but that’s usually how it works in the films, right? So how about we follow suit and start there?”.
The others chuckled quietly.
“You just have to envision something… anything happening. Once your ability has been established, you merely think of that. So for me an example, I, as you know, have the ability to manipulate the earth. So, all I have to do is think of how exactly I want to manipulate it…”.
With that, he looked around, scanning the floor for something, walking a couple of feet before grabbing a decent-sized stone. He chucked and caught it a couple of times as he made his way back to us, meeting my eye to ensure I was watching. “Whatever I want it to do, whatever I want it to become, I simply have to picture it… and it obeys”.
Luke dropped the stone, and it fell straight through the prior solid ground, its surface rippling as a consequence. Moments later, the ground visibly stiffened once more, returning to its original solidity.
“Just like that” he said, the corners of his mouth pulling into a satisfied smile.
“You make it look so easy” I sighed, shaking my head as a smile of my own formed.
“That’s because it is” Klaus shrugged, looking at the area the stone had fallen through, moments later it shooting up and into his hand. “If you relax, and don’t overthink it, it’s as easy as breathing”.
I nodded slowly, inhaling slowly before exhaling.
“Now it’s your turn” Andre smirked, and Caroline crossed her arms, smiling expectantly.
I turned away from them, under Luke’s instructions, taking a deep breath as I prepared myself for what was about to happen. I closed my eyes momentarily, trying to clear my head and focus on… well, I’m not entirely sure what. Upon opening my eyes, I tried to will something to happen, unconsciously raising my arms and feeling like an idiot for doing so. After half a minute at least, I dropped my arms to my sides, sighing as I looked back at the group, their faces sharing the same amused expressions.
“Hey! You’re not supposed to laugh at me!” I said, unable to contain a laugh myself. “I feel ridiculous! When you guys do it, something at least happens. I look like a bloody fool!”.
All four of them were laughing, and despite great effort, I was unable to produce an agitated frown.
“Not helping” I said, my head falling into my hands as I shook my head.
“Ok, ok,” Luke said, still recovering from his laughing fit. “We’ll be serious. You need to relax, don’t overthink it. Just try again.”
I closed my eyes, turning away once more, picturing some nameless change to occur, for some event that breaks the boundaries of what was thought be humanly possible to just… happen with no logical explanation. But it didn’t. I opened my eyes, deflated, turning again to face the others.
“You just have to keep on trying,” Caroline said. “It took me quite a few attempts to figure out what mine ones, but it happened eventually.”
I nodded, turning once more. But before I could try, I heard Caroline gasp behind me and I followed her gaze. I watched as Eddie collapsed to the floor about two hundred feet from us, and without hesitation we all broke out into a sprint towards him, Luke shooting effortlessly past, grabbing the boy to lessen his convulsions.
“They’re coming” he muttered, blood-curdling screams exiting his mouth as he repeated the words over and over.
“What do we do?” I asked, feeling guilty that my words were directed to Luke alone.
“Eddie” he said, trying his best to hold the boy as still as possible. “Eddie try to focus on what you’re saying”.
Confusion masked the boys pained face, and Luke was pleasantly taken aback as it appeared Eddie had seemed to hear him.
“try to explain what you’re saying,” he continued. “Can you see anything?”.
Between convulsions, Eddie shook his head, and I forced myself to keep on watching despite his agonising screams.
“It’s dark” he cried, tears falling down his face.
“You’re doing great,” Luke said, the boys’ ability to speak a huge breakthrough. “Tell us as much as you can. What’s coming? When? What are the voices saying?”
“I… I… I don’t know” Eddie cried, tears still streaming down his face. “They’re… they’re… I don’t know… they’re just coming!” he screamed.
Luke looked up at me, his jaw clenching before he looked back at the boy. “Try Eddie. Please”
Eddie’s face was screwed up, his efforts through the pain evident. “They’re not like us. They’re…” his words were interrupted by another scream, and nausea waved over me. “They’re not human”.
Luke nodded, holding the boy tight and sighing. It was clear he was done asking questions, and now it was just a waiting game until the seizure ran its course.
“It’s progress” he said through gritted teeth, his eyes meeting my own. “It’s progress”.
The guilt in Luke’s eyes was evident. Seeking answers for the new world we’d been thrown into from a twelve-year-old boy writhing in agony was seemingly preposterous, and yet the only choice we had. He sat there, stiff as he held the boy to his chest, and upon looking at each of the others that had arrived throughout Eddie’s episode, their guilt was evident also; but it was guilt of a different kind, a kind I too was feeling. Our guilt stemmed from relief… relief that we weren’t the one holding that boy… relief that we weren’t the ones that had to fight words out of his pained mouth, and once again, I found myself feeling a wave of respect for this man. But more than that, I felt pity. I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes, and I felt ashamed that, above all, I felt relief that I wouldn’t have to be