It had been two days since I’d first attempted to uncover my ability; two days since we established that whatever was coming wasn’t human. Theories once again swirled around The Stray, absurd hypotheses from an autonomous AI with the incentive of world domination to aliens and the twisted rising of the animal kingdom being thrown back and forth, each proposal making my head swirl.
I sat across from Luke whose hand was running through his jet-black hair, a pen grasped in an agitated hand.
“I know you like to keep going through the possibilities… and keep trying to find the most plausible one, but at the end of the day, we have no idea what’s coming,” I said, sighing as I sat back in my seat. “And no amount of post-mortem and dissection of each prior plausibility we’ve already come up with will bring us the answer we’re looking for.”
Luke looked up at me tiresomely, nodding in begrudged agreement. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He’d always assumed that by the time whatever it was that was coming arrived, he’d have an answer, have a solution. But he could see now that that wasn’t likely, and without the direction he thought he’d have, he didn’t know what to do. I watched him carefully, observed his paling features and glossing forehead. I could see the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders growing heavier, see the effect I’d predicted it would have eventually, and sighed pitifully. I reached across the table, holding his hand in mine and forced a reassuring smile even I didn’t believe was convincing.
“You’re not alone,” I said quietly. “We’re all here, we all want to help, you just need to take some responsibility off of yourself and let us.”
Luke nodded again, putting down his pen and pulling his hand away, a gesture I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of, so I pulled my own hand back, letting it fall into my lap.
“They’re expecting guidance. They’re expecting answers.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “They’re expecting reassurance. They’re expecting honesty. While we can’t give them the former, we can give them the latter. Just because we don’t know what’s coming, doesn’t mean we can’t prepare, right?”
“What do you mean?”.
“Assuming whatever’s coming is sinister,” I said, shrugging as I did so. “We train, right? We use our abilities… well, those that have them, as much as we can gain as much control over them as we can, and be ready. While we keep stressing that film and comic series are unreliable sources… look at us… look at all of this. This doesn’t fit into the classification of normality, it doesn’t correlate with anything we’ve been made to believe is possible. So, maybe film is the most reliable source, maybe it is what we have to rely on. And if it is? Then these abilities, these mutations, they’re weapons, they’re power. And how do we hone in on such power? We use it, we familiarise ourselves with it. So that’s our direction. That’s what we tell them.”
Luke smiled a crooked smile, sighing. “Why aren’t you in charge again?”
I laughed, shaking my head. “You’re our leader Luke, I’m just… your adviser.”
Luke chuckled. “I like that”.
After a couple of seconds of silence, Luke cleared his throat as he so often did, gathering his papers together.
“So,” he said, smirking as he did so. “How about we grab everyone and get this… honing under way”.
Each individual was scattered or in small groups, each using their ability, the caution in their actions evident. Nobody wanted to incidentally harm anybody. I stood with Andre, Klaus, Luke and a girl called Anya who seemed to have the ability to project flames from her palms, the volatility of her ability being something Luke wanted to keep a cautious eye on, hence her presence with us right now.
I felt useless, my lack of ability meaning I merely stood, repeating my efforts over and over, becoming more and more deflated with each failed attempt. It was made worse by the effortlessness of each of the others, their astounding abilities visible from every direction. Andre recognised my aggravation and strolled over, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
“You’ll get there,” he said, smiling softly. “You just have to keep trying”.
After a little under two hours, with no success coming from failed attempts but satisfaction from the rest of the group, Luke decided to call a break for lunch. Some of The Strayers went through to the Other London to grab food from a mixture of different markets; from Borough Market and Southbank Centre to the Maltby Street Market also. They took just enough to feed everyone, but not too much that it was noticeable. Klaus believed that the fact taking the food hadn’t changed the routine of those that remained there meant that our actions had no effect; but Luke didn’t want to take the risk.
“What should we do in our break?” Klaus asked, his eyes meeting Alice’s who was digging into a fresh ham sandwich.
She shrugged, finishing her mouthful before speaking. “There’s not exactly that far to go or much we can realistically do,” she said. “Got anything in mind?”
Klaus paused for a moment. “Not really. I just thought we could all do something fun for a bit. Lighten the mood, you know? It’s all been a little intense with all the… training.”
Alice nodded in agreement. “Tell me about it. I feel like we’re a group of X-Men wannabe’s from those films my parents were obsessed with.”
Klaus laughed. “That’s actually a pretty realistic comparison.”
Upon overhearing, Luke diverted his attention to the pair. “If I remember correctly, you used to do competitive trampolining, right Alice?”
Alice nodded, finishing her sandwich before taking a bite into her apple. “Yeah. For four years now”.
“How about all the kids trampoline for a bit then? You can show them what you’ve got?”
“I think it’ll take more people than the few Strayers we have to bring a trampoline into The Stray,” Klaus said, furrowing his brow. “Plus, I’m pretty sure a missing trampoline would be noticeable…”.
“We don’t need to bring a trampoline over.” Luke replied, a wry smirk forming.
“I don’t understand” Alice said, shaking her head confused.
Klaus, however, as perceptive as always, began to grin, seemingly understanding what Luke was getting at.
“He’s going to make one” Klaus said, excitement evident in his words.
Unsure myself at what exactly Klaus meant, I watched as Luke stood, meeting his eyes as he smirked back at me. He walked about fifteen feet from the group, crouching down and placing his hands flat against the surface of the earth, closing his eyes as he did so. I didn’t notice anything at first, unlike those closest to him who began to get to their feet also, a wave of anticipation falling over the youngsters. Then I saw it. About a hundred feet of grass seemed to bob ever so slightly, minute rises and falls becoming more and more visible.
“No way!” Alice beamed, sprinting towards it when Luke gave her the nod.
Just before reaching the area Alice stopped, stepping onto it cautiously before squealing in excitement. “No way!” she said again, ushering Klaus over as she athletically dived onto the unstable ground.
She performed all sorts of tricks, soon reverting however to the untrained actions of those around her as youthful excitement took over. Luke walked back over, sitting directly in front of myself and Andre and smiled.
“I wasn’t sure that would work to be entirely honest,” he said, smirking as he did so. “I suppose there’s still a lot to uncover here.”
“I’ll say” I said with a chuckle, lying back as I let the warmth of the sun relax any tension left in my muscles, the warming of my skin pleasant to say the least.
“Give it some time” he said warmly. “You’ll get there soon enough.”
“How soon is soon enough?” Andre asked, not really looking for or wanting an answer, the silence that followed unmistakably uncertain.
“It’s good what you did for the kids” I said after a minute or so, the bliss period of thoughtless relaxation something I wished to return. “All of this isn’t exactly easy on them, so returning them to snippets of what their youth should be should help in remaining some element of calm within them.”
Luke nodded appreciatively, holding my gaze. “They’re children at the end of the day. With the exception of Klaus, I envy their likely lack of scrutiny of all of this; their lack of dissection. Their theories are fun and light-hearted, and apart from when Eddie has his seizures, part of them seems almost excited; the anticipation almost a game. While I could take a harsher approach and make them take everything a little more seriously, I don’t want fear consuming their optimism. In some ways, they help us stay hopeful; stop us from expecting the worst”.
Andre and I nodded in agreement, sighing together. “They’re as much as a help to us as we are to them” Andre said.
“That could be one theory as to the two ages… we keep each other sane” Luke nodded.
“I’m thankful for that if nothing else” I smiled, my heart warming as I watched the kids revert to their envied immaturity, part of me wanting nothing more than to join them.
“Then why don’t we?” Luke said, almost laughing as he did so.
“So you can read thoughts now, huh?” I grinned.
“You’re pretty expressive” Andre asked, plus I can’t deny that some childish part of myself is thinking the same thing.
“We need to allow ourselves to revert to a state of undistracted obliviousness” Luke shrugged, already standing as he did so. “We’ll go insane otherwise.”
With that, he held his hand out, and I took it, surrounded by shrieking, jumping children before I knew it. Luke’s eyes bore into mine, his smile broader and more sincere than id ever seen it as he began to jump, the absurdity of what we were doing written on each of our faces as we laughed hysterically.
“The world has been turned upside-down and we revert to childhood pleasures,” I laughed, shaking my head in amusement.
“We’re only human” Luke said, such words having never sounded as accurate as they did now.
Every adult had joined now, our worries nowhere to be seen, the impossibility of our new reality clouded by something as simple as a trampoline. I laughed internally at the irony of that thought; the composition of the Earth had changed impossibly and instead of trying to sought an explanation, we merely accepted it for what it was and acted as we would if it were normal. But there was no better alternative to acceptance, at least not one that would result in a scenario such as this; we’d shut out what was coming, let our guard down for the first time and somehow, amidst all of this, we found ourselves feeling happy… feeling calm.
Like all good things, however, things had to come to an end, and I was the first to recognise a shift. I couldn’t explain it; there was nothing to see or hear, nothing there to provide any tangible evidence, but I could feel it, and, for me at least, joy was replaced with the familiar feeling of uncertainty. My body stiffened, my jumps coming to an unceremonious end.
It didn’t take long for Luke to notice my abrupt change in mood, and as soon as he stopped bouncing also, I could see the recognition within himself; he felt it too. Grabbing my hand, he pulled me away from the still shrieking kids and laughing adults, his expression stern.
“They’re coming now…” he whispered, questioning seeping through as if he was asking me.
“I think they’re here” I whispered back, nodding as I did so.
As if on queue, we heard yelps coming from the group, and as we darted our attention to their direction, we saw the group had halted, surrounded by a seizing Eddie. Placing his palms on the ground, Luke returned the Earth to its prior composition, hastily making his way to the twelve-year-old boy who was now screaming in agony, tears now pricking the eyes of the children.
I was angry at what was coming. I was angry that they’d decided to strike the first time we’d let our guard down. They’d been watching us; they had to have been. I looked around, waiting, anticipating their presence, the rest of the group attending to a boy, at this moment in time, I couldn’t bear to see.
“Show yourself” I muttered, my fists bunched, my anger causing me to neglect my knowing vulnerability; I didn’t have an ability and yet here I was, demanding their presence, demanding them to show themselves to what? The undeniably weakest here?
Whether they were distracted by Eddie, or still on a high from Luke’s treat for them, with the exception of himself and I, the others didn’t appear to acknowledge the feeling of their impeding arrival. From here I could hear Eddie’s words; they’re coming… they’re coming… I’d expected different words. I’d expected they’re here, and if it weren’t for Luke’s recognition of the shift also, I would have put it down to paranoia. So, I continued to stand, demanding their reveal, my eyes darting about, unable to predict a possible entry point. But soon enough, my eyes settled on the impossibly blue lake, the water now glowing, ripples across its surface and violent bubbles rising to its surface, and my question was answered.
I found myself walking towards it, my legs not listening to my mind which screamed for me to stay put, begged me to call Luke’s name. The lake now looked unstable, the water crashing over its sides, the splashed unquestionably audible by that of the group.
“Lexi!” I heard Andre shout, the young man undeniably closing the gap between himself and I, his newfound strength making each step a bound.
He grabbed my arm, stopping me in my step before beginning to pull me back. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he snapped as we neared the group once more.
“I just wanted to-”
“Wanted to what?” It was Luke who spoke this time, his eyed stern as they took mine hostage with an intensity I hadn’t seen in a while. “You don’t have an ability, Lexi. You are the most at risk here”.
I stayed quiet, looking back at the lake.
“Oh my god…” I mumbled, each I individual subconsciously stepping back, I met Luke’s wide eyes, Andre’s grip on my arm tightening to an almost painful extent.
There was little doubt in my mind as I looked at the growing number of… things that emerged from the lake that I would have been dead in seconds if Andre hadn’t dragged be back.
“This is it…” Klaus said, his young voice hoarse. “They’re here”.
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