The weeks following the fight were full of excitement and adventure for Brian and his friends. They would later look back on that time with fondness, thinking those days the best of their youth. For some of them, they would also be remembered as the last days of their youth, and the events that followed would age them in a way time alone never could.
At first Jordan and his friends did not retaliate, preferring to behave as though they’d won the fight, and the rest of the school accepted the lie easily enough, especially since Brian returned to school with stitches across his torn upper lip. Nevertheless, the half friendly – half mean jokes that had always followed Brian around the schoolyard ceased almost entirely, replaced with a kind of silent respect. He wasn’t the school weirdo anymore, he was Crazy. He was Nuts. He just turned around and hit Jordan out of nowhere. You didn’t want to provoke someone who did that.
The teachers enforced a kind of restraining order between the two groups, which was fine with Brian’s friends because they were certain that had Ray been there to help Jordan, the three of them wouldn’t have stood a chance. As the days passed and the tension disappeared, all they seemed to talk about was the fight, slapping each other on the back, recreating the whole thing blow by blow until they were all heroes.
Fortunately for Elyse and Steph, who could only shake their heads and change the subject, there was plenty to distract them. Every Saturday morning they would tell their parents they were going to ‘chill out in the park’, and meet by the cliffs with schoolbags fit to burst with food and supplies.
As Matt suggested, they spent countless hours in the other world building a clubhouse for themselves on the lake shore, chopping the white barked trees and painstakingly shaping them and nailing them together into a hall not unlike a viking longhouse. By the third weekend, they’d spent an accumulative two weeks in the other world, but the house was completed. It was complete with a large fire pit (with a smoke hole open in the ceiling made of leafy branches), a pile of blankets and pillows at the far end, a dartboard on one wall, a wonky table and tree stump chairs, a lopsided pantry for food storage (mostly taken up with bottles of tap water from home), a few candles – although it never seemed to be dark enough to need light anyway – and of course, a substantial stash of chocolate and lollies.
Over the next month, Dale, Brian and Steph bargained, manipulated and cajoled from anyone and everyone an impressive quantity of liquor which was also stored in the clubhouse. Pretty soon the two day benders became three and then four day benders, until eventually they were meeting in the park at ten in the morning and leaving at close to five, covered in sand, salt and mud, clothes torn, exhausted, hungover, and incredibly happy.
Occasionally, spurred on by Brian’s desire to map as much of the area as they could get to, they would stock up on supplies and mount an expedition in one direction or another, hoping to find life, or at least something of interest. Elyse and Dale were reluctant to walk for more than a couple of hours from their shelter, and none of them save Brian was keen to build another house further out from which they could explore, and so after a while, they stopped.
Once, a black beetle the size of Dale’s hand came scuttling at him from some hole under a tree, and he yelled and stomped on it as hard as he could. They stared in horror as the thing squealed and died and oozed streams of a horrendous black substance, accompanied by the smell of liquid garbage.
‘Jesus Christ, Dale,’ Matt said, staring. Dale wiped his shoe in the sand and kept well away as the others crowded around for a better look.
‘It’s huge,’ Steph said, making a face.
‘Why is it that the only life we ever see in this world,’ Elyse said, ‘is alone, really hostile, and terrifying?’
‘Good question,’ Matt said, shuddering. ‘I still have nightmares about that bloody shark thing.’
‘Better question,’ Brian said. ‘How come we have to walk like two hours just to see a beetle?’ No one had an answer to that, but it was true. Bones they found in substantial quantities. Half buried in sand, fossilized in mud or piled in the nests of some unseen beasts. They’d waited and watched such a nest for hours once, waiting to see what came back to it, but nothing did.
Yet the land itself was beautiful – full of hills and deep grass, valleys and mountains, ponds and rivers, and more often than not they were forced to turn back when faced with such obstacles. Beautiful as it all was, the lakeshore was still their favourite place, and after all, the closest to the doorway. In time, the expeditions ceased.
At least, they thought the expeditions ceased.
Even as Brian had nodded enthusiastically with the others all those weeks ago when they had decided on the rule that no one should venture into the world alone, he’d had no real intention to follow it. He went along with it at first – with so much to do and see with them, and so much still unknown, he had no desire to go without them, but while the others grew tired of hiking through endless kilometres of what was essentially a wasteland – if a thriving one – Brian’s curiosity only burned hotter.
The others forgot about the map, but he kept it under the floorboards of the clubhouse and over time, began to expand on it. The heavy gravity made walking here hard, but then the air was thicker, and Brian was fitter than all of them. Without the others holding him back, he could range much farther than they could ever make it as a group, and he could cross rivers and climb cliffs that the others couldn’t possibly have managed.
Yet, for all his adventurousness, he found only more rivers beyond the ones he crossed, only denser forest, only taller mountains. He started going in secret every Wednesday, then every Monday as well, yet he only encountered life one other time, when an enormous bird swooped him in a field and he managed to cut through its neck with his knife before it hit him. It lay bleeding in the red grass, a bony black vulture with red eyes and a beak as sharp as a dagger. It bled the same black blood that Dale’s beetle had.
But that was all. Eventually, even Brian began to despair that there was anything else of interest in this strangely vacant reality, and he wondered whether the others would be willing to close the door for a while and investigate somewhere new.
Then came the day he saw the smoke, and everything changed.