It took a moment or two before Quinn Streicher realised that she wasn’t lying in her own bed, or that she wasn’t lying in a bed of any kind, for the matter. The heat pressed against her body, prodding her awake, the air heavy and muggy. Something wet melted her feet, gliding soundlessly over her bare legs. A small red spot of warmth grew rapidly behind her eyelids, stabbing her eyes, pushing her into her new life in warp speed.
With a jolt, Quinn’s eyes shot open, and she began coughing up a storm, heaving for her breath. The air supply was inadequate, insufficient. All the air in the world wouldn’t be enough to fill her lungs. She pushed herself up into a sitting position, still not able to stagger her coughing.
Shadow. Someone was leaning over her now, asking if she was all right, hitting her gently on the back with their hand. It was a boy, and all she could see was his eyes. Eyes the colour of sea-foam. She didn’t know him. That she was certain of. She would have remembered a pair of eyes like that.
As she began taking in her surroundings, a panic so loud, so intense she could hardly bear it, began filling her chest, hollowing her out, her throat falling in on itself, strangling her. She appeared to be at some sort of beach, the sand near-white, waves so blue it hurt, gliding over the sand, her legs.
“Am I dreaming?” asked Quinn, her voice sounding strange, tinny. Stupidly, she pinched her arm. A small yelp tore itself from her throat before she could stop it. Not a dream, then. Or at the very least, a mighty realistic one.
The boy frowned. “We don’t know.” He sounded British. The boy was tall and leanly muscular, his dark hair skimming his shoulders. His face was fine-boned, and not so much handsome as it was pretty.
“There are others, too,” he said. A cold shiver shot up her spine at the mention of “others”. “No one seems to know where we are,” he said, his eyes only thinly masking his uncertainty. He was scared. Just like her. Quinn couldn’t quite decide if she found this comforting or disconcerting. Perhaps both.
She touched her hand gingerly to her face. “God, where am I?”
The boy didn’t reply this time; he probably found her question redundant. Or perhaps he just didn’t know how to answer, what to say to comfort her. The strange boy offered his hand, and rather reluctantly, she took it, and he helped her to her feet. A wave of nausea hit her, blistered with dizziness, but it quickly recoiled. Before her there was just a seemingly endless stretch of ocean, going on and on, until it faded into the horizon.
“Evian Burton,” said the boy without looking at her.
“Quinn Streicher,” she said in response.
As they paced the length of the beach, she felt her worry being whisked away, replaced by an almost overbearing curiosity. She wanted answers. Needed them.
“You mentioned there were others,” she said, struggling to keep up with Evian’s quick strides.
“Yeah. They’re back at the village.”
There was a whirring sound in her ears. “The village?” she said, dubious. She felt left out, but wasn’t sure if this was good or not.
Evian came to a halt, and Quinn noticed that they were about the same height, his face level with hers. Despite herself, she struggled to look away from his eyes. So pale and vivid she couldn’t help but compare them to laser beams. She blinked out of her stupor. “We know hardly anything more than you,” he replied finally, “but you’ll get some answers in a bit. Just be patient.” They began walking again.
After a few minutes, moss and grass replaced the hot sand, the undergrowth cool underfoot. Evian led the way, pushing branches out of their path as they trotted their way through the forest.
Evian had been right. There was a village. That is, if a small horseshoe-shaped formation of brightly coloured wooden huts qualifies as a village. On the other hand, in the center of the horseshoe, there was a larger house, streamlined and grey, all windows. It stood out like a sore thumb, not exactly molding in with its environment.
They stood at the edge of the forest, lingered there for a moment. Quinn glanced up at her companion, not sure what they were waiting for. She was about to say something, but then he began walking again, heading in the direction of the larger house. Quinn felt a pinch in her stomach; that familiar gnawing uncertainty had found its way back to her. It always did.
Her arm brushed lightly against Evian’s as they walked, and she felt him pulling away almost immediately. He didn’t really strike her as shy, but he pulled away nonetheless. Quinn wasn’t sure if she should be offended or not. She tried to convince herself that it wasn’t anything personal, and failed miserably.
Evian opened the door, gesturing for her to enter first. She did.
The interior of the house matched the exterior. Minimalistic and modern, no furniture so far. He led her down a narrow corridor, not saying a word. Quinn got the sudden urge to bolt, but ignored it, staying put. As far as she could tell, there was only one door, and it was situated at the end of the hall.
Evian held the door for her again. His almost forced politeness was beginning to seriously piss her off. It seemed fake; an act he put on for the world.
The room was large and open, floor-to-ceiling windows covering two of the walls. In the middle of the room was an orange sofa, three people sitting on it. Two girls and one guy.
“You’re back!” one of the girls said, getting up. She was probably in her late teens, a little older than Quinn. “And you brought someone with you,” she continued. “I’m Rosaline Withers,” she said, reaching her hand out.
Rosaline was tall and ribbon-thin, with a long spill of black hair. Her eyes were green in the way that antifreeze and spring grass is green, a light dusting of freckles across her slightly crooked nose. She had this wicked glint to her eyes, something playing behind the surface. Quinn wasn’t quite sure what it was exactly, but there was something about the girl that seemed off.
She finally accepted her hand, and said, “Quinn Streicher.”
“So glad to meet you,” Rosaline said.
The fact that someone would be glad to meet anyone, be at her or Obama, given the situation they currently were in, seemed a little strange to her, but she didn’t mention it. This didn’t seem like a good time to make enemies. “You, too,” she said, and faked her best smile.
Rosaline pointed to the guy, and said, “This guy right here is Seth, and this,” she continued, pointing to the girl, “is Autumn.” Seth nodded curtly and Autumn gave her a small wave. The girl, Autumn, was small, her body slight and willowy, making Quinn feel like a giant in comparison. Her dark red hair hung limply around her narrow face.
Seth wore an ill-fitting suit, his body pudgy and awkward-looking. He also sported a head of blond dreadlocks. Quinn guessed him to be in his mid-twenties.
They don’t seem too bad, she thought to herself.
“So, do you know anything?” Rosaline said.
Rosaline laughed in response. “Well, we don’t know much either, but I’ll try to get you up-to-date on the current events,” she said, obviously trying to make light of things. “Sit down. Make yourself at home.”
Make myself at home?
Autumn scooted over, making room for Quinn between her and Seth.
After a moment’s hesitation, she followed Rosaline’s order, slumping down on the couch. Even though she’d just woken up, she felt exhausted, like someone had drained all the energy from her body, and sitting down only made her feel all the more sleepy. On top of that, her feet ached from walking through the forest barefoot. Maybe she could find some shoes later, she thought, but quickly dismissed it, thinking that it wouldn’t be necessary; it wasn’t like she was going to stay here.
“So,” Rosaline began, squaring her bony shoulders, “Our theory as of now is that it’s an island, but we don’t really know much else about it. It seems relatively small, though.” It struck Quinn as strange that Rosaline seemed to be the one in charge. Shouldn’t Seth, the only adult here, be doing the talking?
“We don’t know that yet,” said Evian, who was lurking in the corner of the room. Quinn had almost forgotten he was there. “But we’re going to find out.”
Rosaline let go of a sigh. “Yeah, we don’t know for sure, but it’s pretty likely. And anyway, as Evian said, we’re going to find out. All we have to do is pace the shore, right? It can’t be that difficult.”
Autumn spoke up, her voice high-pitched, just as Quinn had imagined, “Not to ruin your guys’ plan or anything, but why should we care if it’s an island or not? The problem isn’t really if it’s an island or if it’s the mainland, but more so why we’re here, and how we can get back home.”
“I see your point,” Rosaline began, “but in order to answer those questions, we have to at least have some idea as to where we are.”
“What if we’re nowhere?” Seth said.
“What do you mean?” Quinn said, glancing over at him, a strange sort of twisting sensation in her stomach.
“I’m just saying, it all seems too strange. Everyone here seems to have no recollection of anything strange happening—we were simply going about our ordinary, mundane life, and suddenly we’re in some place that, quite frankly, looks like the goddamned Caribbeans. This could all just be a very realistic dream.”
“But I wasn’t asleep when I seemed to have blacked out,” said Evian.
“Me neither,” said Rosaline.
Silence on Seth’s part.
Quinn felt as if everything was spinning out of control, and she desperately wanted to clamour onto something familiar, something steady and unyielding in her mind. Her search fell short, and she had to force back tears. This she did successfully; she was practically an expert to begin with. She knew every trick in the trade of Forcing Back Tears. She failed to shake the lump in her throat, though, and kept silent, waiting for it to disappear.
“We’ve searched all the huts. They’re all empty—except for a bed and a nightstand in each. As if it’s all set up for us. As if it’s all been planned out,” Evian said, not really looking at anyone in particular.
A memory lingered at the edge of Quinn’s consciousness, a memory she couldn’t seem to reach, a memory that sent cold-hot shivers through her body. But she didn’t mention this to anyone. She wasn’t even sure what it meant herself, or even if it meant anything it all.
A strange sort of silence had settled over the room; everyone seemed to be deep in thought.
Rosaline, unsurprisingly, was the first to break the silence. “I think we should explore this place. We haven’t found any source of water yet, and I don’t know about you, but I’m parched.” She said all this in a light, optimistic tone, and Quinn had to give her some credit for being able to stay positive—she knew she couldn’t.
What if there was no source of water?
This question went through her mind on a constant loop as they began their search. Luckily, Quinn thought, no one had found it appropriate to split up the group yet—one only had to look at any scary movie in the history of scary movies to know that nothing good ever came out of that.
They walked for what had to be hours, ploughing through the thick undergrowth. Quinn felt her desperation growing with alarming intensity, settling in her mind. She distracted herself by forcing positive thoughts to take its place and by letting herself fall in love with the beauty of their surroundings.
It was nothing like Mississippi, that’s for sure.
But it was an epidemic—the desperation, the fear, the negativity.
It’s all falling apart. We’re going to starve. We’re going to die here. We’re going to rot.
Evian walked beside her the whole time, his expression stoic, not letting the world in on his thoughts. Nevertheless, she could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. Quinn imagined that he was trying to figure the whole thing out, solve the mystery of this place and what the hell they were all doing here. Of course, Quinn couldn’t know for sure that this was what he was doing, but for some unknown reason, this thought comforted her, lessened her panic, so she decided to cling onto it with every fiber of her being.
Suddenly, Evian—without looking at her—broke the silence, and said, “Are you scared?” Despite the lack of eye contact, Quinn concluded that the question was directed at her. His voice didn’t seem concerned for her, nor did it seem comforting or consoling in any way, shape, or form; it was almost an observation.
Quinn struggled to keep her annoyance at bay. Her dislike for Evian had just started to melt away, but now it was back, stronger than before. Nevertheless, she replied as honestly as she possibly could, and said, “Not scared so much as a bit panicked and concerned.” Her voice rung awfully cold in her ears, and she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
She cut Evian a reproachful glance as she accepted that it didn’t seem as though he was planning on continuing the conversation any time soon.
“Hey, guys! Guess what we just found!” Rosaline came running towards them, her face flustered and shiny with sweat. Quinn hadn’t noticed until now just how far they’d fallen behind the others.
“What?” Evian said, tensely.
“You—well, you just have to come see for yourselves. You won’t believe it till you see it,” she said, and then—without any sort of warning—grabbed their hands, dragging Evian and Quinn along with her.
Quinn, being quite clumsy, nearly tripped over a rock in their path, but Evian steadied her. She offered him a small smile which he promptly returned with a confused look.
Rosaline was right. They probably wouldn’t have believed her until they saw it for themselves.
Before them stood something she never in a million years could have envisioned to be in the depths of these woods—a goddamned bell-tower. Massive and concrete and very much here. Undeniably so.
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