I Dare You

©Molly Looby Shortlisted for the Young Sony Movellist of the Year Competition. NaNoWriMo'12 Winner! . . .
Havengore was the beginning and the end of the entire universe. Yeah, like I could believe that. Havengore is my world surrounded by a single boundary wall. It's been there for generations, but don't ask us why, no one seems to know. There must be something out there though right? There must be a reason for it, I mean, it wouldn't just be there . . . would it? Why? That was what I wanted to know. Just that: why? You’d think I’d be granted that. It was the only question in the universe I needed to be answered, but no. No one knew.

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2. DAY ONE

I awoke the next morning with a weird quivering in my stomach.  What was that?  Was that excitement?  Is that how much of a sick individual I was?  Or did that just come as part of legitimate curiosity, or maybe it was the fact that I was going to beat Lucien Custer?  Right or wrong, I buzzed from the thrill until it was radiating off me.  I couldn’t stand still as I knocked on Maisie’s front door.

“Hello!”

She just looked at me, sadness deep in her eyes.  Her face was pale and she had dark marks under her eyes.  Her hair hadn’t been tended to as it had been every day since I met her, just flattened with her hand.  She just looked so tired, tired of trying anymore – defeated.

“Whoa Maze, what’s up?  Didn’t you sleep?”

“Of course I bloody didn’t!”

“Why not?  I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

“Like that would stop me worrying.”

I wrapped my arm around her shoulder as we walked.  “I don’t know how to thank you, Maze.  You’re the best.”

“I know.  You owe me, big time.”

“Whatever you want.”

“I’ll think about it.”

When we reached Linc’s, he came bounding out of the house with the biggest grin on his face.  “Ready to change history, ladies?”

“I wish you wouldn’t say it like that.”  Maisie sounded as though it had meant to come out with more force, maybe building to a shout, but it was far from it now.

“It’ll be okay, Maze, aren’t you even the tiniest bit excited?”

“Not even one little bit.”

“Lea?”

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited.”

“That’s more like it.”

When we arrived at school, Linc gave Maisie another pep talk as I caught up with Harrison.  “Hey!”  I grinned.  I felt as though I could only show my true love for this adventure to him.  Although I did seem to be up and down with it.

He laughed at me.  “There’s no need to ask if you’re looking forward to it then?”

“Nope.  I’ve got Maisie in and there’s no way Saffron’s in.  I’ve totally beaten him.”

“And what’s a better way to start a Thursday morning?”

“I’m pretty sure the answer is nothing.”

“Don’t you have any worry at all?”

“About what?  We go and explore nothing.  We get bored after maybe an hour.  We go home.  Nobody knows we’ve been.  I get to sit atop my wall with no one asking questions and threatening to tell.  I win and everyone’s happy.”

Harrison looked over my shoulder.  “Well apart from Maisie.”

I made the mistake of looking around.  Maisie was holding back tears and Linc was scooping her up in a hug.

“Oh please don’t.  I feel bad enough as it is.”

“She’ll be alright.”

“Oh great thanks.  That’s so much better.”

“Fine.  Reject my attempt at comfort.”

“It was a pretty poor attempt.”

He shrugged.  “Well it doesn’t really concern me.  I’m more concerned with the plans later.  Are we going in a group?  What’s happening?”

I explained to Harrison – without giving the context behind the plans away in case someone was listening – where the gap in the fence was and to meet me there.  I told him I was going to bring Linc and Maisie, and Lucien would – or not – bring Saffron, already knowing the way.  That was if he showed up at all.  I reminded Harrison we were meeting at five.  When I had the opportunity, I repeated the plan to Linc and Maisie, telling them I’d knock for them at about half past four.

At school we carried on as though it was a normal day.  Harrison finished his work before everyone else but didn’t bother to tell the teacher and just slipped a book behind his work instead.  Linc doodled on the corner of his page until it was almost black whilst the teacher was talking and would only start his work once he was satisfied with the drawing.  I spent too much time staring out of the window and daydreaming.  We all acted natural.  Well, all of us but Maisie.  Maisie didn’t say a word.  She was just there, just like a shadow of our friend, or a ghost.  Her presence was there, but that was about all.  I couldn’t have her bail, not now we were so close.  Just a few more hours, I begged to her, hoping somehow that my telepathic message would get through.

I don’t know how, but it did.  We made it through the day, and soon enough I was knocking at Maisie’s, a hundred times more excited than I had been this morning.

If it were possible, Maisie looked worse when she opened the door.  She sighed as she saw me.  “Do I need anything?”

I shook my head.  “We’ll be back for dinner.”

“I’ll let that thought keep me going.”

“That’s the spirit, Maze.”

She said nothing more as we walked, so I just filled the silence, babbling away to myself about nothing as we knocked for Linc who asked the same question as Maisie.  I noticed then that both Maisie and Linc had called goodbye to their households.  Now why hadn’t I done that?

Linc prattled away as I had until we reached the busy street and I nodded to the alleyway.  “Now I’ll go first, Maisie can follow after maybe a minute or so, or longer, whenever you feel safe.”

“Which will be never.”

“And then Linc, you follow last.  Got it?”  Linc nodded and Maisie gave something of the sort.  I let myself dissolve into the crowd before slipping into the alley and waiting for them out of sight.  Maisie took about five minutes to appear and I was starting to worry if she was going to show up at all, but then there she was, almost shaking.  “That was the hardest part, Maze.”

“Apart from the climbing of the thing.”  She looked like she was ready to vomit at the very idea.

We didn’t have to wait long for Linc who smirked as he caught sight of us.  “What’s your next challenge, Lea?”

I pushed him through the gap in the mesh fence before doing the same to Maisie and ducking under myself.  “It depends how good you are at climbing trees.”

“No problem.  You saw me spying on you.  Trees are so my zone.”

“Whatever.”

We were the first at the wall so I slumped down against it, wanting to be up the top but deciding I didn’t want Maisie to scurry away at the sight.  After a second of contemplation, Linc came and sat beside me.  Maisie, however, stood still, not coming anywhere near the wall.

“It won’t bite, Maze.”

“Don’t push it,” she whispered.

Linc ran his hand over the stone like I had on my first meeting with it.  “It’s so weird.  This thing has been in my sights my entire life, but touching it is so weird.”

I nodded.  “I know.  Big too isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  I mean, I always knew it was, but it’s something else close up.  Come here, Maisie, you have to try this.”

Maisie crept forward and Linc took her hand, guiding her closer and closer to the stone monster before us.  I could see her resistance, but Linc continued nonetheless.  Maisie squeaked before her hand made contact.  It was like two worlds colliding.  She just stood there, staring at her hand on the wall, like it was stuck there, like she was a fly in a web.  Linc and I exchanged glances.  This really was going to happen.

“Well, well, well.”  The voice of Lucien Custer brought me back to earth as I realised it wasn’t all fun.  “I gotta hand it to you, Ginge, I never thought you’d do it.”

To my utter disappointment, there, standing behind him, looking on a new level of being pissed off, was Saffron bloody Fletcher.  How the hell had he done that?  “Have to say, I never expected you to either.”

He stretched his arms out wide and did an exaggerated bow.  “I’m full of surprises,” he said as he returned to full height, winking at us.  “And so are you apparently.”  His eyes travelled from Linc to me.

I shrugged.  “I didn’t know it was a closed invitation.”

“I didn’t know it was an open invitation.”

“Does it matter?  What I want to know is how you did it?  How on earth did you convince her to come with us?  Come on, share it with the group.”

“I really don’t think that’s necessary.  I like to have some sort of mystery around me.”

I rolled my eyes.  “What a mystery.”

“Can we get this over with?”  Saffron looked a mixture between uncomfortable, afraid, and bored.  I imagined bored was what she was trying to promote.  We all saw through it though.

“Yeah Ginge,” Lucien chuckled.  “Quit stalling.”

“I’m not stalling.  We need to wait for Harrison.”

“Brains is coming too?”

“Why not?  Do you have a problem, Custer?”

“No, no problem at all.  I just didn’t know you wanted to bring your boyfriend.”

“I’m not even going to give you the satisfaction of a reaction.”

“Oh Leanne,” Saffron smirked at me.  “Harrison is it?”  She looked me up and down and tutted.  “You could do much better. But I suppose you go for what you can get, huh?  I mean, he is in your league.”

“Well thanks so much for your opinion and concern.”

“Leanne, don’t deny it.”

“You’re enjoying this way too much.  Don’t you see you’re only making yourself look stupid?”

“Bless, trying to change the subject.  If Harrison’s w–”

“If Harrison’s what?”  Harrison appeared in front of us hauling a bulging rucksack off his back and dropping it onto the floor.

“Nothing.”  Saffron backed off.

“No, you were in the middle of something.”  Lucien grinned at Saffron who went red.  He was the only one who was interested in the rest of Saffron’s sentence, so nobody paid any notice.  It was evident Lucien wanted to humiliate Saffron.  Something was going on there.  They’d broken up, as far as we were aware, but there had to be more.

“Well,” I interrupted.  “I think if anyone wants to know anything, I think it’s why you, Saffron, are with this arsehole.”

Linc and Harrison agreed.

“Well for your information, I’m not with him.”

“Aww,” I looked to Lucien.  “What a loss.”

He walked past me and muttered.  “You’re telling me.”  He surveyed the wall for a moment before turning to face us again.  “Who wants to go first then?”

There was silence.  I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest.  “You know it’s going to be me or you, why did you have to ask?  You can’t expect them to get over without being shown first.”

“Alright.  You go then.  You’re the expert.”

“No problem.”  I took a running jump as always and made my way onto the top of the wall.  It was like a million times before.  I hoped Lucien embarrassed himself, he’d only done it once after all.  “It’s probably not as easy as I made it look.”  I called down to them.  I ignored Lucien’s snort.  “Basically run and jump to reach that branch and pull yourself up from there.  The tree’s easy enough to climb.  Maze, Linc will help you up.  And Saffron, if your ex doesn’t want to help you, I’m sure Linc will if you ask him very nicely.  Everyone clear?”

They all nodded.  Linc took Maisie’s hand and led her over to the tree where he helped her climb onto the branch.  I was there to take her hand as she stepped foot onto the stone.

“What do you think, Maze?”

“But . . .” she blinked a few times.  “There’s nothing out there.”

“Tell me about it.”  I dropped down onto the tree again to grab Harrison’s bag and lug that onto the wall too.  God knows why he brought that and what was in there.  I watched as Lucien made his way up without making a fool out of himself, to my disappointment.  He took less time than I thought to be standing next to me, nothing of the panting wreck he’d been when we’d been here three days earlier.  Who was he trying to impress and what was he trying to prove?

“Piece of cake,” he announced to the others Havengore side, before turning to me.  “So how did you do it?”

I tried not to flick my eyes to Maisie.  If she knew she was part of the dare she would go home in a second and I’d lose.  I’d told her there was a dare, but I didn’t tell her she’d been a condition.  “You didn’t tell me, so I’m not going to tell you.”

“Fair enough I guess.  Why are Linc and Brains here again?”

“They wanted to come.”

Harrison joined us on top of the wall.  “You did that when you were ten?”  He looked at me incredulous.

I nodded.  “Loads of times.”

“How?  Were you freakishly strong or bouncy or something?”

I looked down at Linc reassuring Saffron it was safe and helping her up.  The ground looked as far away as it had when I was ten.  “I have no idea.”  I hopped down to take Saffron’s handbag while she climbed.  Like she needed it, couldn’t she go without it for an hour?  She had a scowl on her face as she joined us and I returned the bag.

“Thanks for nothing, Lucien.”

“Come on, Saffy, you’re nothing to do with me now.”

“On my choice too.  But you could’ve helped!”

He pulled a face.  “I don’t think much of you to be honest.”

She huffed.  “Well at least some people have manners and know what it’s like to be a gentleman.”

“Cheers!”  Linc called from the tree Havengore side.

“Careful Saffy, Mouse might nibble your ankles.”

Saffron glared at him whilst Maisie looked taken aback, but blushed nonetheless.

“There’s enough Linc to go around,” Linc chuckled as he joined us.

“Watch it you,” Saffron snapped.

“Alright,” Linc held his hands up in mock surrender.  “Lucien you can have her portion.”

Lucien raised his eyebrows, looking like he couldn’t even begin to answer that, before staring out into the distance like the rest of us.  We were quiet for a good minute.

“Lea,” Harrison’s hands were clenched into fists.  “How . . . how can there be nothing?  No, I mean I get how there can be nothing but . . . there’s a wall.  We’re blocked off from the rest of the world but there’s nothing?”

“Yep.  Continue with that for six years and you’ll be where I am now.”

“So there’s nothing here,” Saffron added.  “And yet we’re not using this land?”

I nodded.  “I know.  It’s totally crazy.”

“Well I feel better,” Linc sighed.  “I mean, I know you said there was nothing and there was no danger, but I’m just so glad to see it with my own eyes.”

“Doesn’t that panic you more?”  Harrison asked.

Linc shook his head.  “I’m happy with Havengore the way it is.  I mean, yeah, it’s unnerving that the wall is pointless but,” he shrugged.  “What you gonna do?”

“Well I’m gonna explore it.”  Lucien said before dropping down to swing to the ground using the mirroring tree to our Havengore one.  He landed in a crouch with his hand out in front of him.  “Coming?”  He looked straight at me as he flung the word out there.  This time I ignored him.  He knew bloody well I was.

Harrison climbed down next, catching his bag as I threw it to him.  “Careful Lea!”

“What the hell do you have in there anyway?”

“Supplies.”

“What the hell for?”

“You never know.  It pays to be prepared.”

Linc followed next and stood at the bottom of the tree waiting for Maisie.  I gave her all the moral support I could as she descended onto the wild side of the wall.  I watched Saffron examine Maisie’s technique – which was slow and steady – with a nervous air.  “It’ll be fine,” I told her, looking down at the others.  “No one’s looking.  Not even him.”

She smiled at me.  Of all the things in the world, our biggest shared attribute was a hatred for Lucien Custer.  We were united in that second and I almost wanted to laugh.  I hadn’t known I’d have anything in common with Saffron Fletcher, but what a thing to share.

It took a very long time but Maisie did get to the lowest branch and cling to Linc’s body as he placed her on the floor.  I repeated my chantings of:  “It’s fine.  You’re doing great.  Almost there.”  To Saffron as she too climbed down into Linc’s awaiting arms.  I reached the ground before Linc was there to offer help, not that I would’ve taken it anyway.

“Well it’s a total wasteland.”  Saffron said.  “What’s that about?”

Linc was picking apart the tall grass that was growing, Harrison was watching him.  Maisie looked like she wanted to cease to exist.  I couldn’t believe she was still here.  I couldn’t believe she’d come over the wall and was now on this side.  She’d surpassed my expectations a hundred times over.

“Ah the mysteries of life.”  Lucien was grinning as though this was his home and he was showing us around.  If it weren’t for me he never would’ve even touched the wall, let alone climbed over to the other side.

Harrison had not relaxed his hands, which were still curled into tight fists.  “There just has to be a reason.”  He squinted as he looked into the distance.  “Are those trees?”

The rest of us looked too.  There was just a smudge of something out there.  “I guess so.”  I shrugged.

“There’s only one way to find out.”  And with that, Lucien began to walk towards the trees – or whatever they were – and away from the wall, away from Havengore, away from everything we’d ever known, loved and hated.  Away from everything.  The rest of us shared a look before following one by one.  Harrison hitched his bag onto his back and began walking away from us, Saffron close behind him.

“Just an hour, Maze, please.  That’s all I ask.”

“There’s no danger, Maze.”  Linc added.  “It’s all good.”

Linc and I took a hand each as we followed on at the back, passing backward and forward some idle chatter to keep Maisie from fainting or something.  Harrison looked as though he was musing, Saffron was muttering about something, but Lucien looked like he thought he was king of the world.  We walked like this for maybe fifteen minutes and the trees never got any bigger.

“Hey, are we even moving?”  I called, aiming it at Harrison.

He turned around.  “I know.  Feels like an illusion doesn’t it?  But look behind you.  The wall’s getting further away.”

I did and he was right.  The wall was the smallest it’d ever been in my entire life.  The wall was the smallest anyone had ever seen it for generations.  Wow, it felt great to see it back there, having to shout louder and louder.  Leanne, I didn’t mean that far!  Leanne, come back!  I would, but on my own terms, in my own time.  It felt like ropes of restraint were being loosened with every step away from the wall, from Havengore, from the rules and conformities of society.  It felt like maybe we were even free.

“This is boring,” Saffron began to moan.  “Let’s turn around and go home.  Please?”

“No one’s stopping you, Saffy,” Lucien said.  “You run along home now.”

She scowled at him.  “Why are you so interested?”

“Look at what we’ve got here.  We’re making history right here, we are history.  How many other people can say that?”

“God Lucien, what’s wrong with you?”

“What about you, Saffy?  What’s wrong with you?  Everyone loves a bit of the forbidden.”

Maisie gave something of a dark laugh and it was the first noise I’d heard her make since she touched the ground on this side of the wall.  Linc and I shared a look of concern but no one stopped walking.

I was becoming irritated by the waist length grass.  It was tougher and stronger than our grass, meaning when we moved, it didn’t just submit or break, it poked us back.  By this point I was very aware at the prod of it through my jeans with every step.  It was starting to sting more and more.  I didn’t voice this though as nobody else had, not even Saffron, although she did seem to be exclaiming “Ouch!” more than the rest of us.

We carried on walking and walking and walking.  Time began to merge together as every minute was the same as the last.  All I knew was that Harrison pointed out when the trees and the wall were the same height and we all had a quick look behind us, but nothing more.  It was almost like the further away from Havengore we got, the less we cared.  I couldn’t even say that I cared that much about exploring either.  We’d walked for long enough and come across nothing different to what was at the base of the wall.  As far as Linc and I were concerned, we’d just wasted a lot of our time for no reason.  But we still kept walking.

“Leanne,” Maisie spoke at last.  “Your hour’s up.”

“Oh.”

Harrison turned around.  “I just want to see these trees.”

“Why?”  Linc asked.

“I want to know if they’re the same as ones we have in Havengore.  We’ve come all this way, I just want to have a look.”

“Yeah, me too!  I have to know what’s out there!”  Lucien was powering ahead and had to shout back to us.

“Why does he care?”  I asked.

Harrison and Linc shrugged.

“Ugh!”  Saffron sulked.  “I’m with you, Maisie.  What the hell is all this fuss about?  We have trees at home.  Dammit we climbed two to even get here.  You didn’t care about those!”

“We see them everyday though,” Harrison argued.

“A tree’s a frigging tree!  What’s so special about these trees?”

“Well,” Linc fought back a laugh.  “As our friend Lucien would say ‘they’re forbidden.  And everyone loves a bit of the forbidden’.

Saffron and I laughed aloud and Harrison smirked.

“Hey clown!”  Lucien called.  “The comedy club’s that way!”

We never stopped, we just went on and on and on.  The boys and their trees.  What next?  Saffron grew quiet and began looking up at the sky every few minutes.  I looked up too and saw that heavy grey clouds hung above us.

“Lucien!  Let’s hurry up!  It’s going to tip it down!”

“So?”  He was walking with our group at last.  “What’s wrong with that?”

“Erm, are you stupid?  We’re going to get soaked.  My hair is going to get ruined and my clothes are going to be uncomfortable.”

“Eh,” he shrugged.  “Who cares?”

Linc was chuckling behind him and Harrison looked amused too.  I couldn’t care less, and I’m sure Maisie shared the same outlook, but we hurried forward with Saffron anyway, letting the boys laugh behind us at girls, like they were twelve-years-old again.

“If it rains Lucien Custer is going to pay.”

“I second that.  Any good reason to give him a slap.”

“He needs more than a bloody slap.”  She looked at me and we laughed, I could even hear Maisie joining in too.  It wasn’t all bad.

Time passed quicker from nowhere and it didn’t take long until the trees were growing with each passing minute.  And then we were there, maybe a minute or so away.  I could almost taste the leaves from here.  I wanted to walk faster, run towards them.  I wanted to stand at the edge of this . . . what was it?  A wood?  A forest?  Whatever it was, I wanted to stand there and look back on the wall.  You have no hold on me, little Havengore, I wanted to scream.  Look at where I am!  I don’t have to listen to you.  You’re nothing.

“Wow,” Saffron breathed staring up to the tops of the trees.

“They’re, um, big aren’t they.”  Maisie was staring up too.

They were right.  These trees were giants and we were only tiny insects.  They stretched up to the sky and grabbed for the clouds.  These trees were nothing like the ones we had in Havengore.

Much bigger than the wall,” I chuckled.  Hear that, you’re nothing.

We continued to gaze up at the trees as we walked, until Saffron pierced our ears with a shriek.  Her hands were on top of her head.  “Rain!  Did you feel rain?  I felt rain.  Oh my god!”

The boys were falling to pieces behind us with laughter, stopping just to revel in this moment.  Us girls however, picked up our pace until we were almost jogging.  When another rain drop fell at Saffron’s feet, she was beside herself.

“Come on,” I grabbed her arm and pulled her in the direction of the trees.  Maisie ran beside us as we sprinted towards the shelter.  We retreated to safety and watched as the clouds ripped open all at once and drenched the boys who stopped laughing and ran to meet us.

“Have fun out there boys?”  All three scowled at me.  “That’ll teach you for laughing.”

“Yeah!”  Saffron agreed.

We stopped a moment to listen to the rain hit the leaves way above us.  The tempo and the volume changed, the rain was coming faster and with a much bigger force.

Harrison’s face screwed up as he thought.  “I think it’s–”

“Ouch!”  Maisie looked up, rubbing her head.

“Hailing,” Harrison finished with a chuckle.  The stones were falling all about us, bouncing off the ground, their numbers increasing by the second, the rain turning from splats to thunderous.  “It’ll be a good idea to get the hell out of here!”  Harrison yelled over the crash of the rain.

We didn’t need telling twice and we were running further and further into the . . . I guess forest, although it resembled something else I’d seen in a book Harrison had shown me, but I couldn’t place the word.  When we reached a safe canopy of trees we collapsed, panting, no one having the breath to say anything.  I felt adrenaline shoot around my body as I struggled to pull air into my lungs.  I felt dizzy as it dawned on me that I couldn’t even see the wall anymore.  I pressed my back up against a tree and slid to the floor, happy to sit there for as long as it would take for the rain to pass.  Linc, Harrison and Lucien joined me.  Maisie looked as though she didn’t want to touch anything.

Saffron was cringing as she touched her hands to her legs.  I was sure a complaint was coming.  But as I looked, I saw it would be a legitimate complaint.  “Look at the state of my legs!”  Her voice was a screech.  “I’m completely scratched up!  Don’t smirk, Lucien, you moron!  You’re wearing trousers!”  Well, we all were.  All except her.  She was wearing a skirt I hadn’t paid any attention to earlier.  Now that I thought about it, it was a stupid thing to wear when she knew she was going over the wall.  That was if she’d known at all.

If that grass was painful to me in my jeans, I can’t have imagined how Saffron – of all people – had kept her mouth shut about it.  A trickle of blood ran down her leg over already dried scabs and angry red marks clawed at her skin.

“Oh Saffy, why didn’t you say anything?”  Lucien didn’t sound too concerned though.

“If you must know, I was trying to be strong.  I didn’t want you making stupid comments at me.”

“Yeah,” I grinned.  “Like you would’ve done that.”

“Well it’s your own fault for wearing that ridiculous thing.”

“Well I didn’t know we were going trekking did I?  I didn’t sign up for an adventure.”

“What’s wrong with you, this is the best.  We’ve done what no one else has done before.”

“And everyone at home is going to be so totally fine with it.”

“We’ll get back before they even notice.”

“Actually,” Harrison began.  Through my mind I begged him to stop.  Maisie froze where she stood.  “If you think about how long it took us to get here in the first place and the fact that we’ll have to wait for the rain to stop, I’m pretty sure they’ll notice.”

“If you’re all so bothered why don’t we go now?  You’re all obviously useless when it comes to this sort of stuff.  You were all born without a sense of adventure.”

“Are you stupid?”  Harrison shook his head.  “Did you see the size of the hail stones when we ran in here?  There’s no way we’re walking through that, we’d get concussion.”

“Mouse seems fine.”

“It’s turned more severe since then.  I’m not risking it.”

“Alright then, we wait.  We wait and we get our arses kicked when we get home.”

“Well couldn’t you just lie your way out of it?”  I asked him.  “I mean, you are pretty good at that.”

“Very funny.”

“Anyway,” I turned to Maisie.  “We can just say we were hanging out and lost track of time, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Maisie nodded but didn’t look convinced.  Linc offered his arm out to Maisie and she scurried over to fit herself to his shape.  I watched as Harrison wandered about, staring at the trees in a very critical manner.

“What’re you thinking?”  I asked as I joined him.

“I’m thinking . . . why are the trees so different here?”

“Good point.  We’ve never grown anything this tall at home.”

“Exactly.”  His hands curled up.  “It’s like they’re two completely differed worlds.  It’s . . . unnerving to say the least.”

“Yeah.  I agree.”

We all occupied ourselves one way or another, wandering about and talking and whatnot until the crashing rain became a pitter-patter.  Linc pulled himself and Maisie up off the floor and everyone gathered in the centre of the clearing.  I was looking around, trying to find that field through a gap in the trees, when I realised.  Everything looked the same.  A cold feeling seeped into my heart and my mouth dried.  Everyone had the same expression on their face.  For a group of people who’d always known every street in their borough, this feeling didn’t name itself right away.  It felt the same as dread and fear squashed together and concentrated.  I had to take a sharp breath to stop myself from being overwhelmed.  The rest of them conducted similar calming techniques.  No matter how many times I turned around, no matter how hard I looked, every tree looked the same and nothing sparked a memory of a way out.

Linc cleared his throat before speaking.  “So, which way?”

We all looked at one another as though someone had the answer.  Saffron looked as though she was holding back tears.  “Are you trying to tell me,” she swallowed.  “That we don’t know where home is?”

Lucien sighed, like he was just inconvenienced by this.  “Saffy, that’s exactly what we’re trying to say.”

“Well,” I looked around one more time.  “We’re just going to have to walk aren’t we?”

“But in which direction?”  Saffron squealed.  “That way?”  Where she was pointing was not where I would’ve pointed.

“No, not there,” Harrison disagreed.  “Over there.”  Again, not where I would’ve picked.  We were all looking in different places.  I couldn’t believe our sense of direction was that bad.  But I supposed we’d always known where we were going and what direction to turn in the first place.

“Both of you are wrong.”  Lucien marched over to the opposite side of the clearing from where I would’ve led us.  “It’s clearly this way.”

“How come?”  I challenged.

“Trust me, Ginge.”

“I have absolutely no reason to.  I think it’s that way.”  I pointed to my zone.

“Look,” Harrison stood between us.  “We could stand here arguing all day until it gets dark and then have to sleep here, or we could pick a direction and just start walking in it.”

“But what if it’s the wrong direction?”  Saffron asked.

“Well we’ll never get out of here if we don’t move.  If we walk we have a chance.”

“A slim chance,” I muttered.

“But at least we have one.  Come on, that’s just common sense.”

“Alright, who’s in for moving, whatever direction we’re going in?”

Everyone raised their hand except Lucien who crossed his arms.  “I’m all for moving, yeah, but only if we go this way.”

“And if we don’t?”

“I’m going to go that way anyway.”

“Whoa whoa whoa.”  Harrison stepped in again.  “Splitting up is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I don’t care.  I’m not going to walk in any other direction but the way I think is back.”

“Then we’ll sit here forever!  That’s exactly what I’ve been saying you idiot!”  Harrison’s hands were tensed and his knuckles white.

“Harri, I think I can display your point to no brains over there.  Everyone point to where they think home is.”  Everyone pointed in different directions.  “See?”

“Yes, I see.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“There is no problem.  We’re going this way.”

“Why do we have to go your way?”

“Because I’m the one fighting my corner.  Who votes for my way?”  Lucien raised his own hand, and to my surprise, so did Harrison.

“Harrison!”

He shrugged.  “I just want to move, Lea.  I can’t just sit here.”

“Good point,” Linc said raising his hand also.

“What the hell.”  Saffron did the same.

Lucien smirked at me.  “It doesn’t matter now, Ginge, we voted, I win.  Majority rules.”

“Alright drama queen.  We’ll go your way.”

“Of course we will.”  He turned and led us further into the deep forest, as far as I was concerned, leading me further into a bad situation which I was to blame for.

“Think we’re going the wrong way?”  Linc whispered to me as we trudged along.

“Yep.”

“Me too.”

“What’re we going to do?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t have even one single idea.”

“Leanne,” Maisie’s voice had grown so quiet I was frightened she was going to disappear forever.  She was just a shell of the friend I’d had back in Havengore and it’d only been a few hours.  “If we’re really lost and this is really happening and I’m not dreaming and you made me come out here when you said there was no danger and we’re lost and never going to get home again,” she pulled in a huge breath.  “I’m going to kill you.”  The darkness in her eyes made me think that perhaps she wasn’t even joking.

“That shouldn’t be necessary, Maze, we’ll be home soon and then this’ll just be a funny story.”

“Or a story we never tell for the rest of our lives because god knows what’s going to happen to us if someone finds out about this.”

“Maisie,” Harrison joined us.  “You do know we’ve been gone a bit too long now and people are going to worry about us and that means they’re going to want to know where we’ve been.”

“But,” I cut in.  “They don’t have to know.”

“Well, they do if they start searching for us.  Six sixteen-year-olds all disappear on the same night?  That’s news, Lea, even you have to admit we’re in serious shit now.”

“Excellent.”  Tears swam in Maisie’s eyes.  “Our lives are over.”

“They are not over,” I argued.  “It’ll all blow over, trust me.”

Nobody looked won over.  Linc began chatting about nothing in particular to stop us from freaking out.  I don’t know how long we were walking for.  I can’t even begin to work out how long ago it was we were climbing the wall.  Maybe two hours?  Maybe less?  Maybe more?  It really was impossible to tell.  But it was still light, so everything was fine.  We needed to at least be able to see the wall by the time it got dark.  I didn’t even want to imagine what we’d be like if we couldn’t.  But we were going in the wrong direction; I was a-hundred percent certain we were.  We should’ve been in sight of the wall a long time ago.  I didn’t voice this.  God no.  I was sure everyone else was thinking it, but saying it out loud would make it real.

We were lost.

I watched Saffron and Lucien for a while, listening to their voices grow louder and louder and hearing the snap and hiss of their words.  I shook my head and wanted to laugh.  “Hey,” I nudged Harrison.  “What do you think of Mr and Mrs Custer over there?”

“Well,” he laughed.  “I’ve never seen such a lovely couple.”

Linc joined in.  “That was exactly what I was thinking.  They’ll be so happy together, don’t you think?”

“Without a doubt,” I nodded.

We continued with this image until it turned into a game.  What would Lucien do if Saffron did this?  And what would Saffron say if Lucien did this?  It became a very effective method of passing the time.

“Err, Brains?”  Lucien asked, stopping, Saffron almost walking straight into him.  “What the hell is that?”

We walked up to where they were standing to find a clearing that was without a doubt twenty times bigger than the first one we came to.  That wasn’t what the fuss was about though.  What we were all staring at was a massive rock jutting out of the ground and reaching up to kiss the clouds.  I thought the trees had been big.  Damn, I’d thought the wall had been big.  This thing – whatever the word for it was – was gigantic.  I knew that somewhere in my brain was the term for this thing.  I could even imagine the book it was in, could remember Harrison showing me not that long ago.  It was one of those natural things that the world had but Havengore did not.  Havengore didn’t have anything but flat land and buildings.

Harrison located the word before I could.  “Mountain.”

“Mountain?”  Lucien asked.

Harrison nodded, dropping his bag to the floor and huffing.  “Yeah.”

“What does it do?”  Linc asked.

“Is it safe?”  Maisie poked her head out from behind Linc.

“It doesn’t do anything.  It’s just a big rock.”  Harrison confirmed.  “It’s nothing.”

“Well it’s not nothing,” Lucien began walking towards the mountain.  “It’s in our way, that’s what it is.”

“Well we’re clearly going the wrong way, Lucien,” Saffron snapped.  “You can’t see this . . .”

“Mountain,” Harrison supplied.

Mountain in Havengore,” Saffron finished.

“I could’ve sworn this was the right way.”

“Yeah,” I crossed my arms over my chest.  “We got that impression.”

“Are you sure it’s safe?”  Maisie whispered to Harrison.

He nodded.  “Yeah, it just sits there. Well, unless it’s a volcano.”

“Stop using these words we don’t understand!”  Saffron squeaked.  “Use English!”

“I am, that’s what another thing that looks like this is called.  Volcano.”

“Well if it’s a mountain or a vol–whatever, it’s still not getting us any closer to home!”

“Volcano.  And no, definitely not.”

“Care to tell us what it is?”  I asked.  “We’re just dying to know.”

“Well, a volcano is the same, but it has a hole in the top with burning hot lava in it.”

“What?”  Saffron, Lucien, Linc and I all asked the question at the same time.

“Yeah, sometimes they erupt, spewing it from the top, destroying everything in its path.”

“Well that’s good to know, we all feel so much better now Harri, well done.”

“This one’s not going to do that is it?”  Saffron asked, retreating.

“You should learn to listen, Saffy, this one’s a mountain.  They don’t do that.”  And we were filled with confidence because of course Lucien was an expert in mountains and volcanoes having only known what they were for several minutes.

I watched Harrison creep closer to inspect the mountain as they continued to argue once again.

“Does it even matter?”  Saffron threw her arms out wide.

“Do you want to be burned alive?”

“No.  But I don’t want to starve to death either.”

Until Saffron had brought this to the front of my attention, I hadn’t thought about food at all.  Anticipation, excitement, dread, frustration and adrenaline had fuelled me so far.  Not anymore.  My stomach grumbled in response and I wrapped my arms around myself.

“Oh great now I’m starving!”  Linc complained.  “Cheers Saffron.”

“Oh I’m sorry, have I made this an uncomfortable experience for you?”

“Hey,” I interrupted.  “Cut it out.  That’s not helping.  No one mention food again.”

“What do you suppose we do?  We have to eat, Leanne.”  I don’t know why Saffron was asking me, as though I had all the answers.  In fact, I had none.

“Yes alright, we’ll look for something.  It won’t kill us to miss one meal.”

“It might if you keep mentioning it.”  Linc was clutching his stomach and groaning.

“Grow up you drama queen.”  I grinned, having to try something to make myself feel a little better.

“This still isn’t helping!  Let’s keep going!”  Saffron’s pitch was rising.

“Saffy, calm down.  Why don’t we rest for a bit?”

“Rest!  It’s going to be dark soon!”

From the corner of my eye I saw Harrison retreating from the mountain, a sudden pale on his face.  “Volcano,” he mouthed at me as he made his way to my side.

I drew in a huge breath, but did not panic.  No one noticed, thank god.  “Do we run?”  I whispered to him, refusing to take my eyes off the volcano, like it would erupt as soon as I did.

“I don’t know.  I don’t know how often they erupt.”

“Could it be often?”

“Possibly, I don’t even know if this one’s live.”

“What do you mean?”

“Some are active, some dormant, and some dead.”

“Well let’s hope this one’s dead.”

“God yes.”

“So shall we get out of here?  Like right now?”

“Yeah.  If it erupts we’re all dead.”

“What?”  Maisie squeaked.  She was being so damn quiet I hadn’t noticed her at all.

They all turned to look at us.  Their expressions said that Harrison and I should be guilty, like we were children caught with sugar on our lips.

“It’s probably nothing,” Lucien smirked.  “Just Ginge and her boyfriend.”  Nobody was listening to Lucien.  The rest of them could see that this was serious.

“Harrison,” Maisie hissed, eyes darting about everywhere.

“Um . . .” Harrison tried to begin.  “Well . . .  the thing is that I think that the erm, mountain . . . is a . . . well I think it’s a volcano.”

No one moved.  No sound was made.  No one breathed.  It was the moment a dog spots a cat.  It was the split second the teacher realises you’re on your phone.  It was the instant that your blood runs cold and you want to bolt.

“Run!”  I shrieked.  They didn’t need telling twice.  We took off in the direction we came, sprinting as fast as our tired bodies would allow, trying not to fall over roots and bump into trees or each other.  I hadn’t realised how spent I was.  I didn’t even know what I was running off.  I suppose just the thought that the volcano could erupt any minute and we could be in danger.  It didn’t dawn on me until we skidded to a halt by a river that I’d just caused everyone to run, blind to direction, getting us further into the unknown.  I was just as much to blame as Lucien.  God knows where we were now.

We all dropped to the floor or rested our hands on our knees, taking a good few minutes before anyone opened their mouth.  I don’t think this little dare between Lucien and I could’ve got any worse.  We were hungry, tired, thirsty and exhausted.  At least there was a river here though, that solved one of those problems.  Now that I looked, the river was beautiful.  We only had one in Havengore and it was man-made, not so beautiful.  This one was smaller but faster.  The early evening sunlight tricked my eyes into seeing a flicker of fish below the surface.  I couldn’t help myself.  I sunk to my knees and began scooping as much water as I could into my mouth from my cupped hands.  Lucien, Saffron, Linc, and Maisie took no prompting to follow.

“Hey!”  Harrison yelled, tugging at my arm.  I ignored him.  “It might not be safe!  You know nothing about this water!”

“Yes I do,” Lucien answered.  “It’s the best water I’ve ever tasted!”

Mumbled agreement came from all parties.  Well he was right.  It did taste better than anything found in Havengore.  This water was fresh and cold and refreshing and a total lifesaver.  You didn’t get much better than that.

“Come on, Harri.  It’s not dirty, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“Alright,” he sighed.  “I give into peer pressure.  But if I die, I’m blaming you.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll tell people you didn’t try hard enough to resist the temptation.”

“Well Lea, I think if I’m dead from the water, you’d be dead too.”

“Oh well, it’s worth it.”

We all sat there enjoying the water, united in something for once, until – when we all had the breath to speak – Lucien was on my arse again.  “What the hell is wrong with you, Ginge?  Do you see an erupting volcano?  How anticlimactic.  It didn’t bloody do anything!  Brains isn’t always right you know!”

“I’m not an expert!  How was I supposed to know nothing was going to happen?”

“You didn’t have to react as harsh as that.  Now look where we are.  Nowhere, that’s where.”

“Oh, because we were doing just fine following you?”

“Hey, at least I had direction, we just ran anywhere.”

“You had the wrong direction.  Tomorrow it’s my turn.”

“Fine, if you think you can do better, that’s fine.  I found a frigging mountain.”

“Volcano!  And I will do better, I’ll get us home.”

“You better,” Saffron growled.

“Hey, it’s not my fault you’re out here!”

“Yes it is!  You and your bet with Lucien!”

“That’s the reason me and my friends are out here, but not you!  If you want to blame anyone, blame Custer over there!”

“Hey!  If we had gone that night none of us would be here, Ginge.  You were the one who wanted to go in the day.”

“Yeah exactly, it was your idea to bring others.”

“No.  It was my idea to bring Mouse.  You brought Saffy into this.”

“But you actually dragged her here!”

“I never would’ve done that if you hadn’t made it part of the deal!  I want to explore, you want sunlight, I want Mouse, you want Saffy.  Remember?”

“What?”  Maisie’s eyes were huge and I could hear a crack in her voice.

“Oh, and you didn’t even tell her, Ginge?  Nice.”

“Maze,” I walked towards her and tried to take her hand but she snatched it away.  “Maisie.”

“I cannot believe you’ve done this, Leanne.”

“I–”

“Save it.  Nothing you can say will be good enough.”

“Come on, Maze,” Linc touched her arm.

“No!  She’s practically forced me out here using emotional blackmail when it was the thing I wanted to do least in the world and now we’re utterly lost and are never going to get home again.  I think I’m allowed to be pissed off.”

“Maze,” I tried again.

“Just leave me alone,” she hissed.

I backed away, leaving her to sit against a tree, head in her lap.

“Well done, Ginge.”

I couldn’t help myself.  It was too much.  He was right there at my shoulder.  I spun round and punched him in the face, waiting for that connection with my skin on his.  However, the contact didn’t come.  Harrison and Linc grabbed me and dragged me away from him.  I screamed, clawing to get out.

“Leave it, Lea!”  Harrison stood in front of my view of staring flamethrowers and Lucien Custer.  “He’s not worth it.”

“Well this is just excellent.”  Saffron started up again as though nothing had happened at all since she stopped speaking.  “We’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea of how to get home.”

“Well Saffy, I bet your direction was wrong too.”

“But what if I was right?  You led us to more nowhere.”

“Okay Saffy, whatever you want.  But don’t come crying to me when your sense of direction leads you into a ditch or worse, the bloody volcano again.  I’ve had enough drama for one day thanks.”

“What do you mean ‘for one day’?  You’re not seriously thinking about sleeping here are you?”

“Of course we are.”  Harrison was shaking his head.  “We don’t have a choice.  It’ll be dark soon.  We can’t travel in the dark.  It’s best just to stay here.”

“What!”

“Saffron,” I spat.  “If you want to A: stay alive, and B: not get anymore lost than we already are, you better bloody listen to Harrison.”

She blinked at me and looked to Lucien for some sort of support that he didn’t give her.  “Fine,” she lifted her nose up.  “I guess I have no choice.”  She stomped off to a tree and sat down, glaring at me.

“Brains, what now?  Fire?”

Harrison shook his head.  “It’ll only attract wild animals.”

“What wild animals?  We haven’t seen any.”

“It doesn’t mean they’re not here somewhere.”

Linc looked from us to Maisie, sighing, before he went to sit with her by her tree.

“Well won’t we freeze if we don’t keep warm?”

“Not likely.  It’s not winter.  And do you even know how to make a fire?”

“Well I expected you to know to be honest.”

“I know the theory, but I’ve never actually tried.”

“Well why don’t we make one?”

“Have you not been listening?”

I blocked out their bickering and went to sit by the river, staring out into the distance.  What the hell had I done here?

 

A failed fire sat in the middle of us.  It hadn’t worked.  Harrison had known it wouldn’t, but at least something had kept Lucien occupied so he didn’t irritate the rest of us.  It was full dark now.  Maisie had fallen asleep in Linc’s arms and now they were lying close to the fire remains, Maisie tucked tight into Linc’s body.  Linc was resting on his side, head leant against his hand as he stared up at the sky.  I was sitting next to him, knees up to my chin to keep the cold away.  Harrison was asleep beside me, Lucien a little way away from him.  Saffron had fallen asleep by her tree but had crawled to join us when she awoke and she was again fast asleep.  Everyone was, except me and Linc.  I watched Linc for a while.  He didn't look as worried as I felt inside.  I was just trying to not think about it.  If I started worrying that we were lost I'd have some sort of panic attack or something.  Not good.  But Linc looked fine.  He looked up at the sky, into the distance, into Maisie's face.  From what I could see, she was the perfect image of peace right there.  I knew as soon as she woke up that the expression would disappear until she shut her eyes again.  Even when happy, Maisie was never at perfect peace.  She was too worried by the earth.

"Will she ever forgive me?"

Linc looked up after sweeping hair that had fallen into her eyes behind her ear.  "Of course she will."

"How can you know that?"

"Because she's Maisie."

"But come on, Linc, what I did was unforgivable."

"No it wasn't.  Once we get home it'll be forgotten."

I tried to ignore the word 'home'.  "But what about while we're here?"

He shrugged.  "I can't answer that."

"I deserve it though.  I'm a horrible friend.  To you as well."

"What?  No way.  Lea, cut it out."

"No I am.  I forced this on you too."

"You fought hard, yes.  But you didn't force me.  We all have a little thing called 'freewill'."

"Yeah but . . ."

"Nope.  It's not your fault.  It was my decision to come here today.  And Maisie's."

"But neither of you would be here if it wasn't for me."

"True.  But I'm glad I am here."

"How come?"

"Otherwise I'd go to school in the morning with Maisie and wonder where you were.  You don't have your phone do you?"

"No."

"So I'd be freaked because you always text me when you don't come in.  So I'd go to yours after school and your parents would tell me that you just never came home.  Lea, I couldn't stand that.  It would kill me there and then."

"But–"

"Nah.  None of that.  I'm much happier here knowing what's going on."

"But what if we can't get home?"

"Well at least we have each other."

"But–"

"Shut up, Lea."  He chuckled.  "Stop being a Maisie.  I'm fine as long as you and Maisie are fine."

"Maisie's not fine."

"Yeah she is.  She's alive and healthy and she'll return to herself soon enough."

"Bit delusional."

He shrugged.  "Whatever."

We both looked up at the sky.  I sighed.  "We're in the shit aren't we?"

"Well you could certainly put it that way."

"At last, something we agree on."

"Yeah," he smiled.  "Goodnight Lea.  Tomorrow will be better."

"Yes.  Tomorrow will be better."

"Yeah?  Why?"

"Because tomorrow I'm in charge."

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