The days passed, and the police made no further progress. They ‘questioned possible suspects’ and ‘pursued several possible leads’, and while they had yet to openly admit it, anyone with half a brain could see what their conclusion was eventually going to be. Finding no real suspects among the general population, they would eventually decide that some passing vagrants or drug addicts had done the deed and fled in the aftermath. Which, as far as anyone else could tell, was entirely likely, despite the fact that vagrants and drug addicts were pretty few and far between in Westlake at midnight, let alone four in the afternoon.
If Jordan had done anything, he showed no signs. He just stalked around his school with his friends and cut classes as usual. No smug glances or taunts thrown their way. Matt and Brian talked briefly about doing something, cornering him one day and getting revenge, but in the end they doubted their own convictions too much to be serious, and they settled into a state of depression with the others, meeting and talking in the club house, occasionally drinking to Dale and reminiscing about him, but parties and jokes seemed to be things of the past. Now there was only waiting, and waiting, and buckling under the weight of the fate of their friend and as if that weren’t enough, the end of year exams that loomed just over the horizon.
These exams were like nothing any of them had had before: these would decide whether they could go on to study year eleven and twelve, or so the teachers told them. Those that failed would most likely go on to apprenticeships or diplomas and never see the last two levels of high school. Matt dismissed the idea, making a show of skipping classes and never studying, claiming the teachers were just trying to manipulate them to work harder. He was the only one, and Elyse suspected even he was studying hard when no one was looking. Soon, the four of them barely saw each other except on their visits to Dale once or twice a week, and she herself studied from the moment she got home until midnight.
Until Brian called her one night with an idea. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘You want to come out to the world with me?’
‘Brian, I’m studying.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. To study.’
It was seven at night and she’d just finished dinner and begun her nightly five hours. Tonight’s topic was Accounting. Riveting. She already felt like passing out. ‘I would, Brian, but I’ve got so much work to do, I’m not sure I’m up for going all the way to Westlake just to study when I could be in a warm house.’
‘Yeah, true. Except, if you study with me out in the world, we can put in five or six hours every day after dinner – with long breaks in between – and come home and still get like a ten or eleven hour sleep afterwards.’ She sat up, staring at her reflection in her bedroom window. Of course. The time difference. The exams were in two months, but that didn’t mean they only had two months to study. They had all the time in the world.
‘Brian! You’re a genius! How did we not think of this?’
‘I know I am. So that’s a yes?’
‘Yeah, I’ll call the others.’
‘Uh, nah, don’t worry about that. They don’t have to come.’ Her heart skipped a beat and her smile faltered. ‘What do you mean? I thought we made a pact to never go into the world unless we were all together.’
‘Well, yeah. But that was back when we didn’t know how empty and harmless it was, right? And Matt doesn’t want to come and study, I asked him, so does that mean we shouldn’t?’
‘Empty and harmless? What about those things you saw?’
‘How many times do I have to tell you? They were in a totally different area. It was two tribes having some war, and I happened to see the end of it because I had walked more than ten hours from the lake and crossed a bunch of mountains. Okay, they’re out there, but you still swim at the beach even though you know there’s sharks, right? Why, because as long as you don’t go super deep, the chances are you’ll be fine.’
‘Come on, it’ll be cool. Geography’s killing me, I need your help.’
‘Yeah. Okay. I’ll pack some stuff and meet you at the door, yeah?’
‘Nah, I’ll come to your house. Ever since Dale… Best if none of us go alone.’
‘You still think it was Jordan, don’t you?’
‘Doesn’t matter who it was, they could still be around. Hey, no need to pack too heavy, there’s tons of supplies in the club house and we’re only gonna be there a few hours, right?’
‘Yeah. See you soon.’
The world looked emptier than ever if that were possible, not so much as a gust of wind to disturb the trees or a cloud scudding across the sky. No birds in the bright sky. Elyse felt safe with Brian, and as the hours passed they got a surprising amount of work done. They also got a lot of marshmallows toasted, hot chocolate drunk, and aimless talking done, mostly about Dale, the Book of Worlds and their future.
It was fun and the first time Elyse had relaxed at all since Dale’s beating. When it was time to go she realised she very badly didn’t want to. There was something else, too: Brian was different. He’d always been shy around her in the past, but all of a sudden he was laughing, making cheeky jokes, occasionally putting an arm around her and pulling her close. Sometimes she caught him with a dark, involved expression on his face while he was studying, but she got a feeling it had nothing to do with Geography.
‘Do you think he’ll ever wake up?’ She asked him as they made their way back to the door. They were simultaneously relaxed and exhausted, ready for a good, long sleep. It wouldn’t even be nine o clock when they returned.
‘Who?’ Brain said. He’d been staring at his feet as they walked with that dark look again.
He shook himself out of it, looked guilty for a second, and then gave her a sad smile. ‘Yeah, I think so,’ he said. ‘I mean, the doctors said it was impossible to tell, but remember that one guy at the hospital? Doctor Reynolds or whatever his name was?’
‘I don’t think I was there.’
‘Oh, well he told us that he’d treated a similar case before and the guy – who was way older than Dale – woke up after a couple of months and he was totally fine. And remember they said Dale didn’t have any brain damage, that provided he woke up soon enough he’d be totally okay? It’s… it’s just a matter of time, really.’
She saw through his false optimism, but nodded anyway. ‘Thanks, Brian.’
‘We should do this again sometime, huh? Like, soon.’
She smiled. ‘Uh, hell yeah. Screw using up my precious Earth time for studying.’
‘I know, right?’
They passed through the door and didn’t say much until they were at Elyse’s house. Then Brian turned to her, a serious look on his face, and took her shoulders. ‘Hey listen, it’s all going to be fine, alright? Dale’s gonna wake up in time to help us ace the exams, he’ll tell the cops exactly who did that to him, and then Jordan’ll go to jail, yeah? So cheer up.’
Before she could say anything, he leaned in and pecked her on the cheek, then winked and headed down the street for home. ‘Catch you next time, alright.’
She stared after, him, simultaneously thrilled and worried at the same time. It was weird. He wasn’t like himself at all. There was a fierce energy that burned in him, a light she hadn’t seen in his eyes before. She knew Brian as a cheerful, but mostly peaceful and shy boy, immature at times. Now there was a barely restrained aggression, a smile with a hint of meanness; even his walk was different, tense and purposeful, like he was hunting something. No, it wasn’t like Brian at all.
Still, she thought idly as she drifted off to sleep, remembering the peck on the cheek and the mischievous wink. She wasn’t really complaining.