By the time Jesse woke up the next day, the tent was empty, but he found Kevin and Deanna outside, one in sun, one in shade, talking about something. They broke off when Deanna saw Jesse and called a cheerful greeting.
“Good morning! Help yourself to whatever takes your fancy for breakfast. And I do mean anything, and as much of it as you like.”
“Thanks.” He ventured into the trees for a few minutes, first, then came back to wash his hands in the bucket that got filled as needed from a nearby stream.
Afterwards, Kevin checked what Jesse enjoyed, and co-opted Bane's laptop computer, which had a few games on it—basic stuff like Solitaire, and some puzzle-type games, and a handful that Kevin said were strategy and simulations. Relieved to have a way to distract himself from feeling awful, Jesse settled himself in the shade on a blanket, with a bottle of Gatorade, to experiment.
Between one eye-blink and the next, it felt like, he went from partway through a simple puzzle game, with lots of time left, to the game playing a short optimistic tune and flashing a message onto the screen. He stared at it in bewilderment, unable to make sense of the words in front of him, unable even to remember what the point of the game had been. The odd moment passed, and he discovered that it was telling him that he'd run out of time and lost, and would he like to play again? Which meant he'd just lost something like six minutes of his life.
Maybe something really was wrong with him, and he should be trying harder to get home, maybe see about visiting a doctor. Did they have hospitals this far north? They must have something, people must get sick even if they did go camping and eat home-grown food and were nice to their neighbours and probably had a depressingly healthy lifestyle overall.
On the other hand, that would involve an awful lot of effort, and he really didn't think he was going to get very far on his own. It was safe here, food tasted the way food was supposed to, people even had the right scent, Bane and Deanna and Kevin were all friendly... If he was safe, then maybe just another day or two of rest would be enough for him to get over whatever was wrong with him…
He woke up to find that the laptop had turned itself off. Maybe it was a way of saving power.
Sitting with Kevin and Deanna and Bane was a newcomer—in the shade, which actually made sense for once, since he was a very light-skinned redhead. He didn't look at all imposing; he was a bit on the skinny side, and probably not all that tall. He did look comfortable, lounging on the grass in light brown cargo shorts and a white shirt with a mostly-blue short-sleeved cotton shirt open over it.
Kevin saw Jesse sit up, and waved him over. “Come meet Flynn,” he called.
Uncertainly, Jesse left blanket and laptop there and joined the quartet.
“Sorry, I must have fallen asleep. Was I out long?”
Kevin shrugged. “Wasn't watching, sorry, but you were asleep when Flynn got here about half an hour ago. Don't worry about it. Flynn, Jesse. Jesse, Flynn. Good friend of ours, who finally got away to join us.”
Flynn nodded. “My mom broke her ankle,” he explained. “I was helping look after her so she can stay off it as much as possible. But she's doing much better now, and her boyfriend's off work for the next week or so and he's going to stay with her. They might be just as happy to have me out of the house for a couple of days. So, I packed up clothes, food, and entertainment, and here I am. These guys have been telling me how they met you.” He looked Jesse over measuringly. “I bet my clothes would fit you, if you want to get cleaned up. After sleeping that long and then being up for a day, I know how bad I'd want to get into something clean.”
More than a bit startled, Jesse could only nod. He had no idea how long he'd been wearing these clothes even before he woke up by the side of the road, and pretty soon they were going to take on a life of their own. “That would be amazing.”
“Cool. C'mon, I'll show you where the stream is.” Flynn got up, and scooped up a bulging blue-grey canvas backpack; he dumped the last of the water from the pail, and brought it, too. “Back in a bit. Dia, you be good, no sneaking after us.”
“I would never think of it,” Deanna said primly. “Such a thought would never cross my mind. Well, unless it was someone I knew wouldn't mind.” She yelped as Bane ran a fingernail along the bottom of one of her bare feet, and jerked her foot out of reach. “Beast.”
Flynn rolled his eyes, and gave Jesse an expectant look.
The redhead led Jesse into the forest, choosing a route that showed signs of already having been in use, and helping Jesse avoid nasty traps like prickly things slashing at bare skin and tree branches that wanted to behead him.
“They're my best friends in all the world,” Flynn said finally, when they were some distance away, “but they've been living up here in the middle of nowhere their whole lives, and they really don't have much of a concept of life outside of here. We're admittedly a bit isolationist, we try to limit contact with the rest of the world. If you have any questions, I'd be the one to ask—I'm the most likely to be able to translate things into normal terms of reference.”
“Because my mom and I, until I was about eleven or so, lived in Scarborough. My mom was a very young single mother whose family disowned her because she wouldn't give me up for adoption after she was raped, less than a year after coming to Canada.” He shrugged. “We're here and both very happy with life now, but I do remember. And I don't get offended at all easily.”
“So why do you try to avoid everyone?” Jesse asked cautiously, wondering whether he was going to find out they belonged to some weird cult and were going to try to recruit him.
Flynn glanced back at him. “Look at the rest of the world. War, Famine, Pestilence and Conquest are still here and as destructive as ever—those are the four horsemen from the Christian Book of Revelations. Haven, the village we live in, has been here for a couple of hundred years. We're on protected land right now, it belongs to the township and can't be used for logging or mining or building. There are folks from Haven who work really hard to try to fix things outside of here, but meanwhile, we have a good place to live. It's not Paradise, and it wouldn't suit everyone, but it works for us.”
The Bible reference made Jesse flinch reflexively, but a heartbeat later, the phrasing struck him as odd. Did that mean they didn't consider themselves Christian? And “fix things” could mean just about anything, given that Jesse had met people who thought the only way to “fix things” was to bomb everyone back to the Stone Age and start over, and others equally certain that if everyone just tried to act like happy little 1950s TV families with proper church morals, that would “fix things.” He mulled that over, and figured he'd better ask directly. “Fix things how?”
“Pushing for better environmental laws, better laws to protect animals, more money for education and health care and social services programs, stuff like that,” Flynn said promptly. “There are folks from Haven doing everything from animal rescue and wildlife rehab to environmental impact assessments to more efficient engineering. Ah, here we are.” He held a branch aside for Jesse, and they emerged from the trees onto a narrow strip of flatter green stuff that wasn't grass, running for a few feet along the side of a stream. It was wide enough that he knew he couldn't have jumped across it, and moving surprisingly quickly along a bed of more green stuff, but it looked clean.
“It's perfectly safe for washing, just not for drinking,” Flynn said, and handed Jesse the backpack. “There's clothes, a towel, and soap and all in there. There's nobody else around, take your time. Want me to come back in a bit and show you the way back to the campsite, or can you find your way?”
“I can find it,” Jesse said. He'd learned a long time ago not to tell people how he could always retrace his own steps; they never believed him that someone could follow their own scent trail while it was fresh. “Thanks, it's going to feel good to get clean.”
“No problem.” Flynn dropped to one knee beside the stream to rinse and fill the bucket. “And try to relax, okay? Haven's weird but harmless. No one's going to try to convert, recruit, bully, blackmail, or otherwise make you do anything you don't want to do. We're helping you out very simply because if any of us were in your situation, we'd hope someone helped us.” He grinned at what must have been an extremely startled expression, and headed back the way they'd come.
Not only was there soap and shampoo, but there was an obviously new razor, even, which was good—he tended to have little facial hair, but he preferred none. At the bottom was a small bottle of drinking water, a still-sealed toothbrush, and toothpaste.
Tucked between the lightweight burgundy knit shorts and grey T-shirt was an unopened package of three pairs of grey men's briefs and another of socks. He puzzled over how Flynn had known what he needed, but concluded that someone must have visited while he was asleep, or… if they'd taken him to the doctor, then obviously there were other people around who knew about his presence.
Mystery solved, he got dressed, and used the bottle of laundry soap—neatly labelled, like the rest, in flowing script in black marker—to get his own clothes as clean as he could. Not perfect, but it was an improvement, at least.
Feeling much better, his arms full of wet laundry and the backpack slung on one shoulder, he made his way back to the others, with great care for prickly things and scratchy things and the other discomforts the forest offered.
“Welcome back,” Kevin greeted him. “Hm, let's see what we can do about hanging up that much wet stuff.” He rummaged around in the pile of gear, and produced a length of rope and a small drawstring bag. “Here we go.” Bane got up to help tie the rope tightly between two trees; the bag held clothespins.
All that activity left Jesse feeling exhausted again, though it was certainly worth it. He stayed quiet while he joined the others for lunch, and fell asleep while lying on his stomach nibbling grapes for dessert.
* * *
The second night Flynn was there, Jesse woke from restless dreams to the darkness, and lay still, listening to the others breathing, all quite soundly asleep. His internal clock told him it was very late, past midnight.
What on earth was he doing here still? He was much less tired now, and the weird flashes in his head were getting easier to deal with. He didn't belong here. There was going to be a price on all this, and it was bound to be something he wouldn't want to pay. Tomorrow they were planning on packing up the tent and going home, and houses were harder to get out of than a tent was. There was no way anyone was seriously going to be willing to drive a hundred miles each way just to take him home.
He had to get back to the city, back to Shaine, back to where he had some control instead of being forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. Trust was a stupid risk to take and the consequences of losing the gamble were just too high. He'd learned that lesson well, too many times—even the people you should be able to trust, like foster parents, might be nice ones who treated you well, or might be… just the opposite. And even the ones who treated you well and seemed to care… they could leave, go away and leave you behind without a second thought, just when it seemed safe to relax.
A hundred miles was a long way, and it was going to be easier to do with a little extra money.
Sorry, guys. I do appreciate the generosity, like you'll ever believe that. But I can only count on me, and this has gone too far already.
Stealthily, he got up, picked up his shoes and his leather jacket. He slipped out of the tent silently, zipped it closed again behind him. He had some idea by now where to look for money; he found about seventy dollars. He hesitated briefly, then grabbed Flynn's canvas backpack and tossed in a mixture of Gatorade and granola bars.
There was supposed to be a village, that way. It had to be on a highway or at least have a road linking to it. He could get oriented from there, and it couldn't be a big trick to keep the bright moon in always the same place.
Nor was it. It was simplicity itself.
So why was he suddenly back at the clearing?
No big deal, he'd just gotten off-track somehow. He found a distinctive star-pattern—there were so many stars, out here in the country!—and oriented himself by that.
He was back at the clearing again, in short order.
Three more times he tried, with the same results.
He stared at the tent a moment. Had he been imagining the shimmering, as if the nylon had its own light, that he'd caught just out of the corner of his eye? When he looked straight at it, there was nothing special, but his peripheral vision always got that eerie glow. This was getting spooky.
Belatedly, he noticed a similar glow, gold and white and the red of sunset, on the ground around the clearing's edge.
He shivered. Real spooky. This would be a frighteningly easy time to start believing in a lot of things. Like God and Satan and people who seemed like angels...
Trying to quell rising panic, he tried different directions, away from the moon, angles to either side. No direction worked any better. He was completely trapped.
He wanted to scream, to have something solid that he could actually fight, instead of this unreasoning, unreasonable whatever-it-was confining him. Something he could hit back at. This was too bizarre, he was trapped inside a clearing in the middle of nowhere by something he couldn't even see...
The sky was beginning to grey, the quartet still sleeping in the tent could wake at any time—Kevin especially, since he was always up with the sun. If they found him up already, red-handed even, there was going to be trouble. Some small, still rational part of his mind counselled him to go back to bed and think about it later. Relieved to have some course of action, he decided to take it.
He returned everything to its place, and dug himself back in under his blankets.
Sleep took a long time to come, and he dreamed of invisible fences that kept him away from something he wanted more than anything.
* * *
Kevin smiled to himself, listening to Jesse's breathing slow as he attempted to get back to sleep. Thank Brigid he'd set those wards to work from either direction at night, and that he'd had enough warning from Jesse's thoughts to make sure Bane slept through it all. Deanna, beside him, had never moved, deep in normal dryad sleep, her breathing so slow that someone uninformed might have been alarmed. Flynn was probably awake, though Kevin didn't bother checking; Flynn tended to know a lot of things he kept to himself, so it didn't really matter.
It was so sad, though, the screamingly-strong surface thoughts he'd been picking up from Jesse just now. No one deserved to be so alone or so terrified of trusting anyone. The nightmares Jesse had had while unconscious, that Kevin had caught glimpses of while trying to soothe them away, they were just as depressing—psychic damage triggered nightmares but didn't provide the content. Haven was hardly paradise, but some of what he'd seen would never have been able to occur here; someone would have noticed and intervened. If only there were some way to help...
Maybe there was. It wasn't going to be easy, Haven had so many secrets, the one thing they all agreed on was that the outer world never know some things. He wasn't at all sure his entire coven would feel the same, either. Still... he remembered Rebecca, remembered the hurt and despair she could bring. He remembered, too, feeling alone and desperate, certain that there was no way out and that no one was going to help him escape the hole he'd dug for himself. But even at the worst moments, he'd had the absolute certainty that Deanna was there and always would be, no matter what. He knew that Deanna would back him up completely, even if he told no one what he'd seen in Jesse's nightmares—she'd trust him to have a reason. He had a feeling that Flynn would as well, for reasons of his own.
He wasn't at all sure he'd be able to help. But he was certainly going to try.