By the time they saw them leave school grounds, Jimmy was practically shivering with energy. There was a deep, persistent burn just behind his eyes, but it focussed his mind instead of fogged it, made him sharper and more alert. He and Ray kept their distance until the five of them were almost out of sight down the road, and then they started out, slowly.
‘Fuck it, let’s just do it now,’ Ray said, practically jumping with excitement. Jimmy shook his head, though he understood Ray’s eagerness. He could practically smell the weakness on all of them. Dale was pale and thin on his first day out of hospital and Matt’s finger still hadn’t healed properly – he wouldn’t be punching with that hand.
‘We gotta wait till they’re isolated. They’ll cut through the park, so we’ll do it in there. Maybe at the cliffs again.’
They followed them into Westlake, just as Jimmy predicted, and stalked them through the long grass at a distance like lions stalking a group of zebra. They circled around the lake and entered the thick forest area on the other side, and as soon as they were in the trees Ray was nagging him again. ‘Hey, let’s do it now, Jimmy, we’re in the trees.’ A jogger passed them by, and a few minutes later a woman with a dog, and Jimmy wondered uneasily if they’d chosen a bad time of day. ‘Give it a bit, okay?’
All of a sudden, the group turned sharply off the path and headed straight into the thickest, most isolated part of the forest. Ray cast a sideways grin at Jimmy, who nodded, smiling back. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Now.’
They moved in quicker now, taking care not to step on too many twigs and leaves, splitting up as they got closer, so they could come from two sides at once. Jimmy saw them through the densely packed pines, all gathered around a hollow in a tree, and he was on the point of charging when the strangeness of what he was seeing struck him and he stopped, only half obscured by a tall bush.
One by one, Brian and his friends were ducking their heads and stepping inside the hollow. There was no way – no possible way that they could all fit inside the tree, yet they were. Dale was the last to step into the hole, casting furtive glances left and right, and Ray reached the tree in time to catch the thick flap of bark before it snapped closed over the opening. He stared into the darkness and then back over his shoulder at Jimmy as he came up beside him, looking as dumbfounded as Jimmy felt.
‘Hey. Hey, what the hell, man?’
‘I dunno. They must have dug some, like, secret tunnel under the tree. Can you hear anything?’
They listened for a few minutes, but the only sounds were the rustle of leaves and the creak of branches in the wind high above.
‘You first,’ Ray said, stepping aside. Jimmy leaned in and stuck his head over the threshold. Evidently, he saw something, because he moved forward and disappeared within just as suddenly as the others. Ray waited for him to come out, but there was no sign of him a minute later and he started to feel very alone.
‘What the fuck is this?’ he whispered. ‘Jimmy? Hey, Jimmy?’ There was no answer. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other for a few minutes, glanced around the forest as if looking for someone who might help. Finally, he let out a hiss of frustration and hopped into the darkness, letting the flap of bark swing shut behind him.
By that time, Jimmy had already made it all the way to the cave’s opening and was standing just inside the shadows, staring out at an alien landscape with his jaw hanging open. He’d been there for what felt like a very long time before Ray came stumbling out of the dark behind him. ‘Jimmy, man, what the f…’
He trailed off into silence and took it all in. Jimmy saw his face and knew he was feeling the same thing. Shock, but not necessarily surprise. This world was foreign, yet somehow, it felt like coming home.
‘What is this place?’ Ray said.
‘Fuck if I know.’
‘Jimmy, look at the sky, man!’
‘You think Jordan knows about this?’
‘No way. This is why they spend so much time out in the park. They’ve been coming here the whole time. Hey!’ He nudged Ray almost hard enough to knock him over the edge and pointed down onto the plains at the bottom of the mountain. ‘That’s them.’
‘How’d they get so far away already?’
‘We should have brought knives,’ Jimmy said.
‘Fuck that, man. What are we waiting for? Let’s go get ‘em.’ With that, Ray dropped onto a lower ledge. Jimmy took another long look over the strange land, feeling for the first time like things were getting out of hand. Had he lost his mind? Ray was too bloodthirsty to think straight. This was too big for them. A whole world? What could that mean?
‘Hey, come on, man! They’ll get away!’ Ray shouted up at him, already far below.
‘Get away where?’ Jimmy muttered, but a few seconds later he was on his way down.
The more he moved into the world, the more comfortable Jimmy felt. Even the dense heat that had them drenched in sweat within minutes, the way the atmosphere crushed them from above, compressing their joints with every movement – these things were almost a relief. Just being here was like walking in out of the cold into a house with a roaring fire and the smell of hot stew wafting in along with the sounds of familiar voices in the next room. Nostalgia.
Ray started out at a full sprint once they got down into the boulders, but Jimmy caught up with him and pulled him back by his collar. ‘Hey, what the fuck, man!’ he rounded on him, furious.
‘Chill. Let’s go round through the forest.’
‘Why? They’re right there!’
‘Yeah, what do you think they’re doing here? It’s a whole other world, but did they look surprised to be here? They’re doing something. They got something hidden here, or they’re up to something. I want to know what it is.’
‘Screw it, man. We can ask questions later.’
‘Don’t you remember Brian? Think about it, Ray. Look at yourself, you’re not on anything, but you’re wired. Jordan’s lost it, and we’re losing it too. Don’t you feel it? You’re drooling, for fuck’s sake.’
Ray wiped his mouth and ran a hand through sweat greased hair. ‘Okay, what’s your point?’
‘It’s to do with this place. So let’s go round through the forest, and just watch. I want to figure out what’s going on. Don’t worry, buddy,’ Jimmy grinned at his friend. ‘They’re not going anywhere without us.’
‘Yeah, yeah, okay. Not if we don’t get moving.’
So they moved. Their route was longer, but they were faster, and after they hit the tree line it was easy to weave in and out of the paper white trunks and watch their prey, walking in a close knit group silhouetted against the sparkling lake. It wasn’t long before they caught sight of the clubhouse, a wooden shack leaning on the shore up ahead. They sped up, dug into a sand bank in the shade behind the house, and waited for the others to get there. By now, even Ray had become more curious than eager, and he waited patiently enough with Jimmy. When the others reached the clubhouse and went inside, Jimmy crawled forward over the sand and settled under the small makeshift window in the side of the building, and Ray followed. From there, they could easily hear everything going on inside.
‘Me and Dale will take care of the booze and chips, you guys handle the rest,’ someone – it sounded like Matt – was saying. There was some laughter.
‘I hate you!’ A girl’s voice.
‘Hey, we should have a party with everything before we go. Come on. One last one, guys, on the beach.’ That was unmistakeably Brian. He was standing by the window, and Jimmy smiled at the thought of reaching up and pulling him out by the neck. They could mess him up pretty good before the others had any idea.
‘Come on, Bri,’ another girl’s voice, a bit more subdued than the others. ‘It’s not a game anymore.’
‘Yeah. You’re right, I guess. But once it’s all closed up. We should have a party. Plenty to celebrate, right? We’re all still alive, had a bit of an adventure. And hey, Dale’s awake!’
‘He’s right,’ Dale said. ‘That is reason to celebrate.’ There were a few chuckles at that, and then no one said much of anything for a while, but there were the sounds of movement and activity from inside. Shelves being scraped clean, plastic rustling, bags being filled.
‘They’re clearing the place out,’ Jimmy whispered.
‘So? That doesn’t tell us anything.’
They waited, but Ray’s growing impatience seemed justified. Their talking told them nothing (‘hey Matt, your parents know you’re here?’ ‘Dale man, don’t look so sad, plenty of other worlds out there.’ ‘I’m gonna miss this place.’). Eventually, when Jimmy was considering dumping the spy bullshit and just jumping them, they left the house, backpacks now full to bursting on their backs, and started off down the beach, talking in low voices.
‘Alright, now what?’ Ray said, practically grinding his teeth.
‘Just relax, okay? Let’s check the place out.’
When their voices were lost to the gentle wind, Jimmy and Ray stood up and hopped through the little window. There was no lock on the door, of course, but they didn’t want to be seen in case the kids legged it and got away.
The clubhouse was mostly, but not entirely empty. Along with the long dead fire and stumpy table, they found a makeshift cupboard packed with about six litre bottles of water, a few bags of stale marshmallows, and half a bottle of some sickly looking blue liqueur.
‘Well, are ya happy? Cos I’m not. I don’t see anything here, man. It’s a dump.’
Jimmy didn’t say anything for a few more minutes, rooting around the place for something, any sign of what they’d been doing here. It had to be something, didn’t it? The things that were happening back on Earth were just too strange for there to be just… nothing.
Jimmy looked up, a curse on the tip of his tongue, but then he saw Ray’s face, upturned to the ceiling. At the same time he heard the crackling of fire coming from the ceiling, he realised how smoky the place was despite the fire pit being cold and dead.
‘Oh, shit, they lit the roof before they left!’
The words were no sooner out of his mouth when the mountain of burning branches and ferns that made up the ceiling came crashing down on his head.
He went to his knees under the weight of it, and for a few minutes he could only kneel under the wreckage, burning. Strangely, beneath the veneer of scorching pain he felt a sharp sense of satisfaction. Ray plunged into the chaos of ashes and flames after him, and the two of them were laughing as he pulled Jimmy free and out through the open door. The whole house was burning now, and, screaming with pain and joy, they ran down to the lake and threw themselves into the warm water.
A few seconds later they dragged themselves back onto shore. Jimmy looked at Ray and saw that he shared the same relaxed, exhilarated smile on his face. Of course, he thought, looking down at the blisters raising under the singed hair on his forearms. It’s all about pain. Pain is the cure for it.
‘Man,’ Ray said, letting out a sigh as he watched the back of the clubhouse collapse in a shower of sparks and fire. ‘That was kinda fun, huh?’
‘Yeah. But I’m not full yet. You know what would be really fun?’
Ray grinned, and they turned as one to look down the shore, where their prey was only now reaching the first of the boulders and long grass.
Jimmy’s smile faltered, and he squinted through the drifting smoke. ‘Are they running?’