Jesse opened his eyes, and saw only green. After a moment of confusion, he identified it as the curve of a green nylon tent over him, which was followed by recognition of blankets under him and ground below that, and a lightweight blanket over him. He was dressed, though he wasn't wearing his shoes or his jacket.
What had happened, and why did he feel so awful—tired and achy and disoriented? Had he been in a fight? But he couldn't remember one.
Cautiously, he rolled onto his side to look around, pushing himself up with one arm, surprised at how difficult that simple task was.
On another set of blankets nearby, he had company: probably not much older than him, probably taller, with vividly golden-blonde hair falling loose to jaw-length and amazingly white skin. Hadn't he seen someone who looked something like that, with those high slanted cheekbones and slightly large, slightly tilted eyes? Someone associated with something bad? Or was it with something good? He reached for the memories, but they wouldn't come into focus, and he couldn't even decide whether they were recent memories or not.
The blonde guy looked up from the book he was reading, and gave him a friendly smile. “Good morning. Welcome back to the land of the living. I would guess that you feel pretty horrible, hm?”
Jesse shrugged, not inclined to give away information without knowing the situation.
“I'm not surprised. I'm Kevin. I already know you're Jesse, you told me that earlier.”
“Do I know you?” I remember the party, I remember leaving, I remember waking up, and somehow I found out that I'm like a hundred miles from home but I don't remember who told me that. It can't be another blackout like the last one, otherwise I'd be too far north for anything but an igloo. So what's going on and where the hell am I?
Kevin shrugged amiably. “No, not really. My friends and I found you walking along the edge of what passes for a highway around here. You didn't look so good, so we got the local doctor to take a look at you. She says you're okay, so we talked you into staying with us. You fell asleep and you've been out for about, oh, a couple of days now. We were getting worried. Does that pretty much cover it?”
“Yeah, I think so. Thanks for helping me.” What they were going to want in return remained to be seen, but at least right now he wasn't just alone in the forest he recalled seeing—and walking along a so-called highway through.
“No problem. You timed waking up rather nicely; it's about lunch-time. And you have to be starving. I know I would be after sleeping that long.”
At the mere thought, his stomach growled. He flushed; Kevin just grinned, sat up, and pushed Jesse's running shoes closer to him.
“Think you can get up?”
Jesse pulled on his shoes, then tried, carefully, and made it to his feet. Kevin rose in one smooth motion and unzipped the door of the tent.
Outside the tent was wild forest all around a circular clearing. The tent and what he assumed was assorted camping gear were close to one side, though not actually under the enormous tree that was nearest. In the shade lounged two other people.
The male of the pair was tanned dark and brown-haired, physically rather imposing under a tattered faded brown tank-top and cut-off denim shorts, even though all he was doing was leaning against a tree and working on a puzzle or something in a magazine braced against his raised knees. Even the lines of his face were strong—Jesse knew girls, well, mostly girls, who would have just drooled over him. He glanced up briefly, gave Jesse a nod that might have been a greeting, and went back to what he was doing.
The woman looked up from the book she was reading and smiled, and Jesse wished he knew how to do that, for charming people, just that way. Clearly tall and strongly built, long thick dark auburn hair pulled up and clipped off the back of her neck. She was wearing comfortable-looking loose lightweight shorts over wide hips and a halter that supported very full breasts, all dark green; out of nowhere he wondered what she'd look like dressed like a fairy-tale princess.
No, she wouldn't be some helpless air-headed princess. She'd be more likely to save the hero's ass a few times, and maybe get rid of a dragon or two on the side.
And even though she was every inch the opposite of what the self-starved bleached-blonde heavily-made-up girls he knew aimed for, no one would ever have noticed them with her in the room.
“Hi! I'm Deanna, in case you don't remember from before, but my friends all call me Dia. This is Bane. How are you feeling?”
Jesse shrugged again. “Confused.”
“I would be, too.”
“And hungry,” Kevin said. “What do we have for Jesse to eat? I wouldn't mind a snack m'self.”
“There's lots,” Deanna said, and grinned at Jesse. “You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Kev eats as much as Bane and I put together. When he's around, we always bring enough food for an army. Potato salad, cold meat sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, fresh veggies, fruit… hm, I think that's most of the selection, anyway. Does anything sound appealing?”
“Anything would be great,” Jesse said.
“So come look.” Deanna flipped her book over and got up, striding barefoot over to the trio of rather large coolers near the tent. “We don't exactly have bathroom facilities out here. If you need to do anything before you eat, well, basically you just step into the trees. There's toilet paper there,” she nodded to one side, to a pile of assorted stuff Jesse couldn't quickly identify, but with a basic white roll in easy reach, “but in that case, we generally try to bury it. Just to keep things cleaner.”
Made sense. Right now, it was enough of a reminder to reach through the mental fogginess and make him realize that he really needed to empty his bladder. He excused himself and headed into the forest at the nearest point.
Somehow, when he came back, Jesse found himself with a dinner plate of sturdy red plastic, bearing a generous helping of what Deanna assured him was potato salad made by her grandmother's recipe and a large fresh roll stuffed liberally with tomato and real cheddar and thinly-sliced roast beef, and a bottle of orange Gatorade. Kevin took more or less the same. Bane barely glanced up, only shook his head when Deanna asked if he wanted anything; she fished an apple out of another cooler and joined Jesse and Kevin.
Jesse noticed that while she sat in the shade, near its edge, Kevin sat in full sunlight close to her. That seemed odd; given the colouration, he would have expected the opposite, or at least both in the shade. He decided on the sun himself, hoping it would help bake out some of the achiness.
“So,” Deanna said. “Not that we want to give you the third degree or anything, but is there someone who's wondering where you are right now who might be worried? We can go back into town and find a phone, or give you a ride somewhere.”
Who would worry? Jesse found he had to stop and actually think about that. No family. There was Shaine, of course, who was probably fearing the worst by now. No one else would care, and only a few would even notice.
On the other hand, he had no intention of giving away any information like that.
“No one's expecting me anywhere right away,” he said. “I was with a friend and we had a… a fight...” He closed his eyes, feeling faintly nauseous, as odd things happened in his head. Déjà vu so strong it was almost overwhelming, but with it a sense of apprehension, warning...
“Jesse?” Deanna sounded worried. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He blinked, forced himself to concentrate on here and now. “Just got dizzy for a sec there. I came up this way with someone I thought was a good friend. We had an argument and he got mad at me...” The déjà vu threatened again, so he just shrugged and took a bite of his sandwich and left them to fill in their own details. The sandwich was delicious, somehow all the tastes were stronger—it tasted right somehow in a way he couldn't pinpoint.
“Well, it's not like we have a regular bus service way up here,” Kevin said. “Why don't you hang around for a few days until you're feeling more like yourself and then we'll grab the van and give you a ride wherever? There's no hurry. The tent's big enough for one more person easily. We were planning to pack up in a couple of days, school's coming up soon, but we and our friend Cynthia have our own house.”
Jesse didn't answer for a moment. This was just too weird. These people admitted they didn't know him and owed him nothing, so why were they being so nice?
On the other hand, given how incredibly exhausted he felt right now, just from the minimal exertion, he really didn't think he was likely to get very far if he decided to leave. Even if he did accept the offered ride, he wasn't about to direct anyone right to the apartment he shared with Shaine—and for that matter, right now he felt so confused that he wasn't sure he could even find the apartment. It wasn't looking like he had a lot of choice in the matter.
“Yeah, for a couple of days that'd be great, thanks.” Had there ever actually been an explanation for why he was feeling like this? Kevin and Deanna were acting as if there had been, but he couldn't remember what it was.
“Not a problem. Hang around, make yourself at home. Unfortunately, it might get boring, unless you like either doing various sorts of logic and word puzzles, or reading some of the stuff we brought—mostly non-fiction and fantasy and science fiction.”
“I'm not sure I could concentrate anyway. That's okay.” Even just to lie in the sun and rest and try to let his head clear would be enough for right now. Once he could think again, then maybe he could get his life back under his control.
* * *
The disorientation lingered, and with it the odd flashes of things in his head—images and associations he couldn't identify as hallucination or dream or recent past or from his remote missing past before the foster homes.
Bane reminded him strongly of someone, or maybe multiple someones, but no one he could consciously bring to mind; whoever it was, he got an inexplicable sense of security when he was nearby. That wasn't often; he was far less outgoing than his friends, and once just wandered off into the woods by himself for quite a long time. When he was around, he either did puzzles or read, generally while lying in the shade; when he did speak up, he was friendly enough, so there was nothing Jesse could really complain about even to himself.
Deanna, well… it was hard to feel anything except welcome in Deanna's presence. He noticed when she leaned past him to get a drink that she even smelled good, somehow, even though there were hardly shower facilities out here. Sort of like cut grass and summer rain. She was probably the single least threatening person he'd ever met.
Kevin also reminded him of someone, and whoever that was, there was something unpleasant associated with it, but he was certain that it wasn't Kevin himself. Still, when had he ever met anyone else who looked quite so exotic? But Kevin always seemed to be around—always in full sun without the faintest sign of that white skin tanning or burning, to Jesse's fascination.
That evening, Bane suggested that they have burgers for supper. There was an area already pulled clean of vegetation and ringed with stones; Deanna brought an armload of dry wood of widely varied sizes, and Kevin knelt beside the circle of stones.
“Jesse?” Deanna said. “Could you give me a hand?”
While he was helping Deanna get out the burgers and tomatoes and cheese and what she said was homemade barbecue sauce, he missed how Kevin started the fire; next time he looked, the blonde was calmly feeding mid-sized sticks into the beginning of a decent-sized fire. Bane balanced an iron grate on top of a trio of large rocks around it.
“It'll burn down a bit pretty quickly,” Deanna said. “Then we can put the burgers on.”
Jesse gazed at the fire, wondering why it made him intensely uneasy. Something about pain… what was it? Why would something so simple make him so uncomfortable? It was just a campfire, no more than a couple of feet across, and Kevin was keeping a close eye on it.
He couldn't figure it out, and soon gave up on the puzzle. Especially when Bane actually put the burgers on to cook; he didn't think he'd ever smelled anything so mouthwateringly delicious.
Bane glanced at him, and grinned. “Local free-range beef. No chemicals, no additives. Just pure lean meat. With a bit of the best barbecue sauce ever invented and a slice of local cheddar on top.”
The taste of the burgers was beyond anything he'd really expected from such a basic kind of food. Something somewhere in his mind sighed contentedly that this was how food should taste, not the heavily-processed junk he was used to.
He ate two, Bane three, and Kevin a rather astonishing four, but Deanna had only one along with a tossed salad she threw together for herself that had an impressive number of vegetables in it.
Jesse, still wondering at moments why he didn't like the idea of sitting here with three other people, saw Kevin's expression go rather distant as he gazed into what remained of the fire.
Later, as it grew darker, Kevin went to bed and Bane wandered off somewhere, but Deanna added more wood to the coals and showed Jesse how to toast marshmallows, which was fun in a silly kind of way. When they decided to go to bed, he helped Deanna bury the fire thoroughly with dirt to make sure it was completely dead. Somehow, that was a relief—but he still had no idea why.