Lucy Calderwood writes books. She loves reading, she loves writing, she loves fiction more than reality. Getting lost in books is what she does best. Though when she's asked to write a novel for her college course, such a thing happens literally. At night, when she goes to sleep, she wakes in the world of her own creation - in the book that she herself is writing, thus resulting in adventures she thought impossible, friendships she thought unreasonable, and an emotional rollercoaster she doesn't know how to deal with.
To survive, she must fight. Fight what the world has become, fight what she has made, fight furious beasts of incredible sizes, alongside Thomas, Keith, and Katherine, all three being her own book characters. And if she's hurt, injured in her book, then it happens in reality. But what if she were to die?
Without a doubt, the most difficult factor of writing a book would be figuring out how on earth to start it. Sure, endings are awful and writers block is just unpleasant, but actually figuring out how to start it is near enough impossible. You can have the whole story planned out, know exactly how it's going to work out in your head, yet as soon as it comes to finding a strong beginning your mind immediately goes blank.
And, inevitably, that is where I was stuck.
I puffed out my cheeks, exhaled, and pushed the floor with my toes, spinning my chair round and round. Frustration clung to me like a leech, sapping my energy and tiring me out, resulting in me knowing I had to write but also making me want to smack myself over the head with my laptop.
Luckily, this urge didn't suffice, and instead I sat, spinning gently in my desk chair, thinking and running over the plot line in my mind. The room span, my eyes locked on my bedroom light as I thought, slowly dizzying me and clouding my thoughts.
I snapped, let out a cry of exasperation. Flinging myself forwards, my head made contact with the hard wooden desk with a loud thud. My eyes squeezed shut, my brows trembling from anguish. I let out an exasperated sigh, stood up, and stretched, my fingertips brushing gently against the thin lampshade on my ceiling, nudging it and causing shadows to distort and dance around the room.
Now, my room was hardly big, but it wasn't too small either. There was about enough room for the essentials - those being a bed, a desk, a bookshelf, and a closet, all pushed against the walls to give me space on the floor. It isn't small, I'm making it sound worse than it was. I had it all colour coded and tidy, else I'd probably have gone out of my mind; the walls were a cream colour, they were bare and devoid of any posters or anything that most people at my age would have scattered around, with my bedsheets white (probably not the best idea for a teenage girl) and the rest of my objects a dark brown; that being my actual bed frame, my closet, my desk, and my bookshelf. Colour coded. It just made the whole room feel a lot cosier, if you ask me. Which you didn't.
There was a window on the wall, lined with soft, white curtains, looking out onto the street below. It was swung open widely on its hinge due to the summer heat during the day; it let in a soft glow from the evening sun, low on the horizon, and a cool breeze that floated slowly and cautiously into the room. I walked over to it and stared at the houses underneath the pink sky, breathing deeply, trying to rid myself of my irritation and release it into the cool, fresh air. If I were to be successful in my task, I needed to calm down.
Deep breath in, deep breath out.
Honestly, I sort of regretted choosing the college course that I did. I loved writing, truly I did, but enjoying it and doing it as a course are two different things. Because taking such a course meant that I was constantly stressed out, and this was only the first assignment. But I had to start it tonight if I were to stay on schedule - we'd been assigned to write a story, a novel, a chapter a week, turned in each Monday for marking. It was Friday now, half six in the evening, my planning had been going on since the previous Monday. And if I wanted to finish it on time with high quality content then I absolutely had to start writing tonight.
It's not like I couldn't write - I've written short stories before, and, as arrogant as this sounds, I'm rather good at it. One of the only thing's I actually am good at. But I always have this problem, always the problem with starting. Once I've started, I can write and write and write, but I haven't been able to start.
I inhaled, filled my lungs with the cold air, felt it spread within my chest, and sighed. And I stood there for a good few minutes, eyes out of focus, calming myself down while simultaneously psyching myself up. Every exhale was filled with a small portion of my tension. I let it all out, breath by breath, until I felt calmer, more focused. My fingers tapped a tune on the windowsill absentmindedly. My mind wandered to my plan, to Thomas and to Keith and Katie, to the plans I had for them. A starting point, I needed a starting point.
The sun felt warm upon my skin, I shut my eyes and thought, racking my brains for an idea. Something, anything, please.
And then it clicked. It clicked as it always did when I focused at my window. My window was my thinking spot, it was where my most intelligent thoughts came to me. Such as what I wanted for breakfast, or what lie to come up with in order to ignore my friends' messages, or how to start a book. I took one last breath of the air outside, turned away from my window, and sat in my desk chair, pulling myself forward so I could reach my laptop comfortably. And just like that, just as it had all clicked in my head, my fingers began to write, started creating a whole new world for me to get lost in.
Enough. Enough for tonight. My eyes were dreary and my head hurt slightly, but I couldn't help but smile as I read and checked through my work. Perhaps it was only two thousand words, but that was why I paced myself and planned a schedule ahead of time. In two hours, I'd created a starting point for my new world. Nothing too dramatic, nothing too dull, ideal for an opening. And yet I couldn't help but fear my teacher wouldn't like it, that it wasn't what she was looking for. I wanted to do well in this, I wanted to show off what I could do.
If I read through, honestly I'm certain it's the best story I've come up with. And if my best isn't enough?
Fear spread through me. Writing is the one thing I'm good at. But what if I'm not actually good at it?
I was tired, sleep deprived, worn out. I needed to sleep. It was hardly even that late, especially for a Friday evening, yet my eyes stung and my limbs felt sluggish and heavy. I'm willing to bet it was the amount of concentration and effort I put into my writing. My exhaustion caused negative thoughts, feelings, to stir. Sleep. I needed to sleep. Sleep makes everything better, sleep gets rid of misery and fear.
A yawn crept up on me, I stretched my back and arms, then closed my laptop. The room was warm, cosy, the lighting dim, the primal source being a small lamp next to me on my desk. I'd turned the main light off a while earlier, it was too bright and made my head hurt. I needed soft lighting.
Temptation urged me to stay where I was, to fall asleep in my chair, my head leaning on my table. Tiredness pushed me to, common sense pulled me away. After a moment of sitting, staring at nothing, I stood slowly. My back slouched, my eyes half closed, already mentally asleep, I switched my lamp off, and the room dimmed significantly. Though due to the summer night, at quarter to nine, it would be impossible for my room to be pitch black. It was fine, it's more comforting when the room is slightly light, you can see everything. Nothing can lurk within the darkness. I walked to my bed in the same manner a zombie would; I was already in my pyjamas, I like to be comfortable when I write. I pulled the blanket back, crawled into my bed, and pulled the duvet back up to my chin, warmth enveloping me. My head on the soft pillow, the mattress feeling like a cloud, I drifted off into sleep.
A soft breeze brushed against my arms, causing a wave of goosebumps to erupt. My window, I guess I'd left it open. But the mattress was no longer comfortable, instead it felt soggy and crumbly. And where was my pillow? Nothing was comfortable anymore, instead I felt cold and exposed. My eyes opened slowly, glued together with tiredness.
Now, in my sleep deprived state, it took me a moment to fully register where I was. Because, to tell the truth, I didn't actually know. This place was unfamiliar to me, and I doubt that there's any place on this earth that looks like my surroundings did.
First of all, the trees. The trees were huge, towering up into the sky beyond with abnormally thick trunks. And the flowers and bushes, too. Greenery was everywhere, tearing into stone, into dirt, swallowing any space they could. But they didn't seem quite right, they were all slightly off in colour, a gentle blue tint showed slightly in the usual green, while trunks were a much darker shade of brown. Oh, and there were buildings too, some metres away from me; there was a pavement, there were fences and signs and whatnot. But they were all crumbling, roots breaking them down from every angle, nature hungrily taking itself back.
I lifted myself up onto my feet and looked around. The air smelled weird; it was musky and stale, and I could almost feel it upon my tongue. The sun had risen, though it was low in the sky, and the sunrise painted a pallet of pink and orange hues upon the horizon and cast long shadows of giant shrubbery onto the uneven ground. I rubbed my eyes slowly, yawned a little. A dream, I supposed. Though a very odd dream indeed - I was surprised my head could come up with such things. The human brain really is an amazing creation, but I suppose half of my imagination was due to the writing I had done beforehand. After all, this was exactly how I'd pictured my book world, so I guess the idea had clashed with my dream.
I moved my feet, began walking, then realised I had no shoes or socks on. The coldness and dampness of the earth felt awful on my bare feet, such a contrast to the warmth of the air around me.
It must have rained recently, guessing from the wetness of the ground and the puddles on the pavement. I was still too drowsy to care much. My naked feet moved me along the uneven ground, occasionally falling upon a small stone, causing me to wince slightly. I carried myself to the remains of what I can only assume was a small town, hardly caring or thinking it odd when I realised I was still in my pyjamas - a soft pink t-shirt that reached down to my thighs (with the words "anime in the streets, hentai in the sheets" printed on the front) and some blue pyjama shorts; hardly an outfit you'd want to be seen in. But it was fine, no one was around. I was walking through a ghost town.
And so I walked, not sure where I was going. But dreams always take you where you need to go, so I prefer to just follow them instead of wasting my time wondering where the hell I was or what the hell I was doing. I took in my surroundings now that I was a little more awake (or asleep, I wasn't really sure what the right word is to use when you're dreaming), gazing around and humming softly under my breath. It was so, so incredibly surreal, so odd, supernatural, even. Pretty, though. Oddly, inexplicably pretty.
I dawdle, I ponder, I dream when I walk. I think to myself, I take in my surroundings, I sing and I think and I walk. And so I supposed that was what I was doing at that point in time. I'd not taken any thought into where I was going, I'd just been walking. But I had seen something that made me stop in my tracks, and my eyes widen considerably. My heart dropped, my breath hitched in my throat, and the note I was humming stopped sharply.
I'd turned a corner. Corners, I supposed, are slightly sinister, if you think about it. Of course, I hadn't thought of them in such a way until that moment. But in moments of danger, suddenly anything becomes sinister. Corners are such because you have no idea what's around them until you actually turn and look, and usually you expect nothing out of the ordinary. So corners, in usual situations, are not sinister, and I most likely sound rather ridiculous saying such a thing. However, you must understand something here.
This was most certainly not a usual situation.
Because, in my sleep deprived state, I had stopped paying attention, I had ignored where I was going, what I was walking into. But here's a thought: if the plants here, in this odd dream, had grown to overwhelming and ridiculous sizes, then why not animals? And maybe it was a dream - I knew it was a dream, and usually I wouldn't get scared when dreaming. Pinch yourself and you'll wake up. It's hardly anything worth worrying about. Oh, but not this.
So what was it? What was so inexplicably terrifying?
A spider. A huge, huge spider, around a hundred metres away from where I found myself. I couldn't have come across a rabbit or anything. No, it was a spider. A spider as big as the average car, sitting in a glistening white web, thick and strong thread, spun over houses and tree trunks and flowers, filled with huge and oversized flies. Or rather, the shells of flies. It was rather morbid, to tell the truth. Its legs were spread out all over the place, hairy, long, and thick. Eight black, beady eyes focused on me, stared at me; pincers clicked in anticipation. My heart dropped in my chest, almost faltering. I was frozen, I couldn't move, my limbs refused to let me turn back and return to behind the corner, where the creature, the monster, would have had no idea what was on the other side of it, no idea that I was there. I had been safe behind the corner, but now I was out in the open, exposed and vulnerable, and absolutely petrified.
I hated spiders.
But you know what I did like? Horror films. As long as they were good. But more often than not, they aren't. You go on a search for good ones, and they never come up, and you watch one that's so incredibly awful and stupid and infuriating that you want to scream. I have a point here. In horror films, in these awful abominations that we call horror films, the most annoying, infuriating thing that can possibly occur, is when something terrifying happens, something absolutely awful and horror-striking, and the character just stands there, frozen, not moving as death looks them in the face. And you sit and you scream at them to move, but obviously they don't, they can't hear you.
More often than not, I sit and do that, too. I yell at the characters to stop being so stupid and to move. Because it's annoying and it's stupid.
Yet there I was, in the exact state that angered me so much, watching as it began to crawl towards me, hairy limb after hairy limb, picking up speed, and I was frozen. And I did nothing. I stood and stared, eyes locked with its hungry ones, not breathing, just waiting for death. Horrible, hairy death. In my head, I was screaming at my limbs to move, to get out of there, begging and pleading, just like in horror films. Of course, they didn't, and soon the arachnid was within a few metres of me, distance decreasing every moment. I didn't even close my eyes, I just waited, staring. At this point, I had been so overcome with terror that I'd forgotten it was a dream, that it wasn't real. And if I had, then I would've pinched myself and woken up. Because that's what dreams allow you to do; they allow you to escape. And I felt I couldn't.
Finally, at the last second, I'd shut my eyes. I couldn't bare to look at it anymore. I heard it stop in front of me, I heard its pincers clicking and clacking furiously, I could smell its awful, metallic breath on my face, feel it, even. It felt so realistic, uncomfortably warm upon my skin. But right when I felt it was the end, something wrapped around my left wrist.
It wasn't hairy, it was warm and comforting and soft. It was a hand, a human hand, wrapped tightly around my wrist, and as soon as I'd come to this realisation, it pulled. It pulled hard, yanked me away from the spider's clutches.
"The hell do you think you're doing, idiot?! Run!"
The voice was strained, though laced with a soft accent that I found difficult to pinpoint.
I stumbled, before forcing my eyes open, turning away from the monster and sprinting, sprinting away with this stranger who'd come out of nowhere.
And I ran. Ran through the trees and the collapsing buildings, not sure where we were going. His hand never left my wrist, and once again I was startled by how real something felt, real in the depths of my dreams.
The spider pursued behind us, though it was losing ground as we sprinted for our lives. My heart thrummed hard against my chest, incredibly uncomfortable. Occasionally, I looked back, to see those same black eyes, those same hairy legs, and those pincers, the ones that had almost cost me my life. Or, I suppose, my dream.
We ran, on and on and on, for a good five minutes before the thing gave up. My chest was burning, my throat sore from dehydration, when the sounds of our pursuer suspiciously stopped and came to an end. Unknown Guy and I had sprinted around a corner, we'd hidden behind a tree, thick bark poking into my skin, before stopping and poking our heads round it.
It had gone, we saw it slowly retreat back to god-knows-where. Relief like I'd never felt it flooded through me, I collapsed against the trunk, breath heavy and uneven, gasping and spluttering.
"We need to get a move on, come on," he said after a pause.
I'd forgotten he was there, whoever 'he' was. I looked up, into his face. His eyes were a warm but dark shade of brown, his hair scruffy and black, his eyebrows furrowed into a frown. He had a soft hint of cheekbones on his face, nothing too intimidating, and a sharp jaw. I blinked.
Honestly, I was kind of amazed at how at ease he looked, at how he wasn't exhausted in the slightest. Sure, maybe his breaths were slightly fast, but compared to me, collapsed on the floor, that was nothing.
"We have to go, else more could come, and who even knows what'll happen then."
I stared, the uneasy thought popping into my head that yes, he was right, he had a point. Who even knows what else could come along? Badgers, cats, snakes. I shuddered, nodded. And he held out a hand; I took it, noticed how large it was compared to my own as he pulled me up.
He smiled at me and let go, and we began walking. My legs felt weak and almost unresponsive, as if they'd collapse at any minute. The silence we walked in was hardly uncomfortable, we just allowed each other to dwell in our thoughts.
Who even was this guy? He was taller than me, around six foot at a guess, and he walked with confidence, not hesitant in what he was doing. He held a good posture, while he wore a simple grey, short sleeved shirt and black trousers. Unlike me, his feet weren't bare, but instead wore originally white trainers, mucky and worn.
And here I was, in nothing but a shirt and some pyjama shorts. Brilliant.
"Where are we going?" I found myself asking, wondering where on earth he was taking me. Surely it didn't matter where we were, houses were all broken down by plants, so we'd end up being out in the open no matter what.
At that, he grinned, flashing white teeth as he glanced in my direction.
"You'll see. I need you to meet the others, discuss what we're going to do with a Stray like you."
The others? A stray? His tone was playful, made me warm up to the guy. But a stray? What was a stray?
"A Stray?" The words left my lips before I could even think about stopping them. What did he mean? I had so many questions, so many that needed answering.
"Yeah, a Stray." He didn't elaborate, so I assumed I'd find out soon. Either way, it was frustrating. I didn't even know this guy. I knew nothing.
"What's your name? Who are you?" He asked me, before I could ask him the same thing. Perhaps he read my mind.
"Lucy. I'm Lucy," I paused, looked up at him. "But who are you?"
He didn't even look at me as he answered, I guess there was no need to. He stared around at the foliage, mouthing silent words to himself, presumably directions. "I'm Thomas. Thomas Antony." It was a simple answer, his accent was still difficult to pinpoint, though something in it stirred my thoughts.
Thomas Antony. I knew that name. Why did I know that name? Who was-?
And then it clicked. Everything clicked. It clicked just as my thoughts did at my window. I knew him. I knew what accent it was. I knew he was slightly Irish, I knew he'd moved to England a few years beforehand. I knew who Thomas Antony was.
Thomas Antony wasn't anyone from my life. No, I hardly had any friends, especially male ones. But I knew Thomas.
Thomas Antony was from my book.
I didn't say anything after that. Dream or not, it just seemed so bizarre to be meeting your own fictional character, to have him walking there next to me, that I didn't really know what to say or think. He didn't say anything either; introductions were done, instead we walked together in silence to wherever he was taking me.
Was I dreaming what I'd written earlier then? I remembered it: Thomas had gone up to check what was infesting the remains of the town, he'd run into a spider, been chased just as we had. I remembered everything. I remembered why the plants were so huge, why the animals were so terrifying. I remembered what had caused it all, and the repercussions of such a thing, and I remembered the state that humanity had been forced into.
This was my book.
What an odd thought. Do other authors dream of their worlds? Because this was something else. This was so amazing, so utterly realistic that it was genuinely difficult to believe it was a dream. Usually, with dreams, you can tell they aren't real, you can sort of feel that you're still asleep.
That notion wasn't there. I kept forgetting it was fictional, and if it weren't for the surrealism of my surroundings then I don't think I would have realised.
I glanced up at Thomas. He was exactly, exactly how I imagined him. A few moles dotted his skin; he was pale, he was tall, and he was there. A few inches away from me, walking by my side.
The others he'd said. We were going to meet the others. My other characters, my Keith and my Katie. I shuddered slightly at the thought. What if they didn't like me? My own characters not liking me. The thought was almost painful. Yet it was exciting at the same time: I'd get to see them, hear them, see the way they acted, hear the way they talked. Thomas was already slightly blowing my mind; I hadn't ever been able to actually imagine how his voice would sound or how charming his grin was, or even what he'd physically look like and how he'd hold himself. His voice was amazing, perfect, it suited him brilliantly, exactly how I had planned his character. I had yet to see the grin, though I was sure it'd be as sparkling as I had pictured it.
And soon, I would be able to see the others. Hear them, talk with them. But I began to panic, I almost wanted to turn back due to anxiety and fear, while at the same time I wanted to know, see them just like I'd seen Thomas.
Too late to change my mind at that point - we were already there. I think I'd known where we were headed without really realising I knew. We were no longer in the wreckage of the town, but instead the foliage had gradually increased until it surrounded us, created a thick forest, hiding us from any predators.
Or, perhaps, hiding them.
The back of my neck prickled at the thought. I turned around and looked everywhere my eyes could reach, though nothing was there, nothing was seen. The entire place was still. Not even the leaves could rustle, the wind wasn't strong enough to move such huge things. Once again, I felt the familiar flood of relief that only came when I was in safety. However, it was as brief as it was strong, washed away almost immediately by worry towards meeting new people, no matter how fictional.
I looked in front of myself. The tree that was rooted in front of me was shorter than the others, only reaching around three quarters of the other's heights, its green-blue leaves tinting the light that fell upon us. It had an incredibly large stone leaning against it, and I wondered curiously why it was there. Embedded in the trunk was a ladder. It had been carved into it, and, by the looks of it, roughly and quickly. Time had clearly not been spent on making it look pretty. None of the steps were exactly parallel, nor were any of them the same thickness. Thomas seemed to read my thoughts, he looked at the shabby steps sheepishly.
"It's hardly neat, but it does its job. Drives Katie mad though," he smiled softly, almost dreamily as he spoke, running his fingers gently over the bark next to it. Of course, I wasn't supposed to know who Katie was yet, so I simply tried to ignore the last remark. He turned and looked at me, grinning, flashing his extraordinarily white teeth at me.
"This is where we spend our time. 'We' being Keith, Katie and I," he looked up, up to the very top of the ladder, where an arch-shaped hole could be seen carved deep into the trunk. You couldn't tell from this angle, but if you went through that hole, you would find yourself inside a room, a circular room that served as their home, as a camp for them. Of course, they didn't live-
"Of course, we don't live here," he said, beginning to climb, "it's just our base. Our headquarters, if you'd like. It's where we plan and think and basically just enjoy ourselves. Something that's rather difficult to do nowadays." He paused, looked down at me. "What are you waiting for, a sign from the gods?" I hadn't moved while he'd been speaking, I'd simply been admiring where we were, what I was about to do, what I was about to enter. I looked up into his face. "Because I can assure you," he continued talking and started climbing again, "you won't get one. They aren't real. Come on."
I followed his instructions, anxiety getting to me, making my legs shake. I hated heights. Why on earth couldn't I have written a safe way up? A bit of hair to let down or something, like Rapunzel. I could pretend to be Prince Charming every time I climbed up. That would have been far more fun than this, the constant fear of falling gnawing at the back of my mind. My fingers dug into the wood, always, always afraid of losing my grip. The steps were carved in deep, there was undoubtedly enough room for my feet to rest comfortably on them, but that didn't prevent my panic. I trembled as I climbed, not daring to look up nor down, as either would throw me off. Instead I kept focused on each outcrop, focused on keeping my hands wrapped around the wood, focused on keeping my bare feet planted firmly on the planks. I could feel small splinters digging into my fingers and the balls of my feet; I ignored them, kept moving. Slowly, slowly, I made progress, moving up and up and up, until finally, Thomas was no longer on the ladder. Instead, I heard him hoisting himself into the opening, and I knew that in a moment, I would be doing the same.
He spoke to the people already in the room, his words hard to make out, muffled by the wood. But I could hear his voice, and occasionally I understood a word or two of what he was saying, only enough to get a rough draft of his speech; an explanation of what had happened. The others remained silent, my arms shook slightly as I waited, just begging to get off the ladder and into safety. I'd think about the possible consequences of such actions after I'd actually gone through with them. Almost anything was better than just waiting, waiting at the very top of a tree trunk, with the threat of plummeting to my death hanging thickly in the air.
The image of that monstrosity of a spider popped into my head, and goosebumps prickled all over my skin despite the warmth of the air and the lack of a breeze. Almost anything was better. Almost.
Just as I began to worry that my hands wouldn't hold any longer, that my feet were too slicked with sweat to stay put, Thomas popped his head out and grinned down at me, his hair losing any original shape and flopping towards me loosely.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, sweetheart. We're ready, get up here."
I did as I was told, hardly having any choice in the matter. In all honesty, though it may be surprising, I'd rather go indoors than have to climb down that godforsaken ladder and face whatever was down on the ground. And so I clambered up the last few steps, my limbs aching from all the exertion, until I reached the opening. Thomas held out his hand, I grasped it, embarrassed at how clammy my own was. He then hoisted me up, up into the room beyond.
My attention was met by two people sat on the far side of the room, right in my line of vision. Thomas let go of my hand and made an over exaggerated bow, dipping his head low and stretching his arms towards me. I would have laughed, if it weren't for the thick sense of unfamiliarity that hung in the air.
"Ladles and gentlespoons, allow me to introduce you to Lucy."
I fidgeted, unsure of what to do. There was Keith, there was Katie. There they were. They were both smiling at me, both in different manners, both with different attitudes. Both doing the same thing, both doing it oh so very differently.
Keith was tall, guessing around six foot, sat with one leg bent up to his chest and the other laying straight upon the floor. His hair was scruffy and a soft brown, drooping and flopping all over the top and the back of his head. Freckles dotted his skin, which was a gentle tanned colour, and thin rimmed glasses stood in front of soft, green eyes. The smile he gave to me wasn't genuine, and only lasted for a split second, but knowing him I was fairly sure he wasn't displeased to see me. No, it was simply due to the fact that Keith didn't like to smile if it didn't come naturally, so I wasn't taken aback by an action that had such cold implications. Actually, I was oddly happy that he'd even given me that small flash of one.
Now Katherine, sat next to Keith, was a different story; her expression beamed radiance and happiness, her smile so wide I was worried her face would split. She had dark skin, a contrast to her shining white teeth, and frizzy, long, incredibly dark brown hair that flowed down her back. Like Keith, she also had freckles, though hers were all in a strip across her nose and cheeks. Her shirt had short sleeves, it was a pastel green colour, and it was coupled with a short, drifty, thin skirt, light pink and decorated with flowers. Everything about her screamed sunshine. She sat childishly, her legs were crossed and her hands were in her lap, and she smiled like her life depended on it. If anything, it was more intimidating than Keith's not really bothered attitude. I was honestly shocked at her enthusiasm.
So, all in all, Keith and Katie looked exactly how they were supposed to. Keith was untidy yet somehow made it look neat, in his blue jeans and black shirt. Katie was bubbly and pretty, energy radiating from every inch of her being. Both their personalities were perfect, suited them so well, and they hadn't even said anything yet. But I suddenly became incredibly self-aware, as the realisation hit me that while they both looked practically stunning, there I was in my pyjamas and messy hair, covered in dirt from the morning's adventures. I hadn't even shaved; my legs felt prickly and unclean. I felt my cheeks flush in embarrassment, and gave them an awkward smile back.
The one chance I would get at meeting my characters, and I looked this awful. How brilliant. How incredibly spectacular.
"Well don't all talk at once," Thomas broke the silence with a sarcastic comment. He hadn't moved from his bowed down pose, which I had to admit was kind of impressive. It couldn't exactly be comfortable, his legs must really be starting to hurt.
"I-" I cut myself off, not sure where to start, what to say. Katie's smile changed, from welcoming to reassuring, less radiant and more warm. The gesture was greatly appreciated, I felt a lot of my tension gush out of my body, and I smiled back.
"Hello," I mumbled quietly, my voice only audible due to the silence, "I'm Lucy."
Perhaps my introduction was short and awkward, I knew it was as soon as the words left my lips, but it was as good as we'd get. Keith gave a nod of acknowledgement. Katie looked as though she was ready to burst.
"Thank you for stating the obvious, I've already said that." Thomas stood up and stretched. Keith snorted, I felt my face flush with embarrassment.
"Well what else did you want me to say?" I shot back at him, surprised to see a grin on his face. Not a smirk; a grin, a friendly one.
"I don't know," he said simply, before walking across the room to his friends and squeezing between them, into a space that he had to make.
"Oi! D'you mind?" Keith yelped as he was forced to the side, falling on his hand and frowning. Thomas grinned, Katie politely scooted over to make room for him, frowning as she did so. Once Keith had recovered his composure, Thomas threw his arms around both their shoulders, much to the other boy's distaste. Katie simply started beaming again. It was kind of odd, actually. I didn't think I'd ever seen anyone look so immensely happy even after having someone's behind shoved involuntarily into their face.
"These are my two friends," he told me, not knowing how unnecessary such an introduction was, "the legendary Keith and Kate. Good luck guessing who's who." He grinned, more to himself than at me.
I stood there awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of what to do. I didn't think I'd ever felt more out of place in my entire life. There they were, three friends, so close they might as well be family, and there I was, looking a scruffy mess and intruding on their lives, intruding on their home that they'd built together. The room was rather big, due to the tree's size, and it was obviously round. But even I, the author, honestly didn't have a clue as to how on earth they'd managed to hollow out that section of the tree. It was incredibly impressive.
The main source of light was the sun beaming in through gaps in the trunk, which had been cut out as windows, and the walls were covered with paintings that they had done; paintings of fire and the moon and animals and whatnot. A table was in the middle of the room, one they'd built themselves up in the trunk, it was covered in a dark cloth decorated with constellations. On top of it, they had a lantern, there for when the sun went down and the room had to be illuminated by other means. Other than that, a bin, a few beanbags, and a chest pushed against one side of the wall, the room was rather bare.
"You can sit down, you know."
I started at the unfamiliar voice; Katherine had not yet said a word in my presence. You could feel the happy, pleasant tone even in her voice, despite the softness of it. It was an oddly sweet sound, as though I wasn't entirely worthy of hearing it. I blinked at her. She smiled again, gestured to a purple beanbag.
"We always keep spares in case of company."
Cautiously, I edged over to the cushion, and allowed myself to fall into it. It was soft and comfortable, melding with my form so that there was no part of my body that felt as though it wasn't meant to be there. The contrast between the cosiness of this place compared to all I had been through earlier was blissful; I never wanted to leave. All I wanted was to stay here with my fictional characters, away from the raging beasts outside or the stress of real life. Fiction was wonderful.
"Why did you bring me here?" I posed the question after a pause, it had been pestering my mind ever since we'd reached the ladder. Why me? If they took in anyone they found in this mess of a world, then surely this place would have had to be a whole lot larger than it was, and there would be a lot more people than just the three of them.
Thomas frowned. "I mean, you were wandering around that town without any armour or weapons or anything. You were unprotected. Never seen anyone do that before in my life." He shrugged. "Figured you must either be an idiot or a stray, maybe both. So, I brought you back here to try and learn what the hell you were doing out there."
His accent seemed thicker than before, while his mood seemed more serious. Keith, while Thomas had been talking, had slowly pulled himself out from under Thomas's arm, and had scooted a good few inches away from him. He looked at him blankly.
"Thomas, you were out there without protection."
"Never said I wasn't an idiot."
A pause. No one really knew how to respond. In truth, we all knew Thomas was an idiot. It wasn't uncommon knowledge.
"What's a stray?" I found myself asking. The word 'stray' had popped up again, fueling my curiosity. Even if I had written this book, this scene, this environment and situation, the word 'stray' had not once occurred in my dictionary, and thus I had no clue what it meant. Apparently, even though they were my characters in my book, they had thoughts and ideas of their own.
Perhaps Thomas had been frowning before I'd asked that question, but that was nothing compared to the expression he wore after he had heard it. He looked confused, almost concerned. Even Katie's smile had dropped, a look of surprise passed over her face. Keith, who had been picking at his nails, glanced up at me, his face devoid of expression but his eyes holding curiosity. Evidently, I had said something wrong.
"What?" I was confused, lost. It was my own world, yet they appeared to know more than I did. I was in my element, yet out of it at the same time. I cannot even begin to describe how odd that was; to know everything while knowing almost nothing.
"Where are you from?" Thomas responded, not answering my question.
I blinked. Where was I from? Most certainly not here.
"I don't understand..." My head swam with thoughts, questions, all shrouded with a thick fog of confusion. "Where are we?"
"We're in Britain, love. Near London." Katie's reply was almost like she was talking to an elderly person who had just woken up in a hospital and was suffering from memory loss. I nodded. Yes, of course, near London. That was where I had set this all. I had forgotten almost everything in my subtle distress. Keith and Thomas exchanged subdued, concerned glances.
I looked from face to confused face, into green eyes, dark eyes, chocolatey eyes. All of them looked as disorientated as I felt.
"So you don't..." Keith coughed, looked into my eyes again, "you don't know what a stray is?"
"Should I?" Honestly, completely seriously, was it really necessary to know? Why was it so bad, so odd that I was unfamiliar with it?
"Lucy, strays are serious business. Do you not know how everything is at the moment?" Thomas said it almost as a joke, because of course, of course I knew what everything was like. But the thought seemed so daunting, so terrifying, I had to hear him say it to be certain I was right. Dream or no dream, I was petrified, I dreaded the answer. And I don't know why I did it, responded in the way I did - perhaps it was to hear, to have the confirmation, that I was right, that I had created such a horrendous world, fiction or not - but I shook my head. I regretted the lie immediately, of course. The look on all of their faces was awful. They all appeared to stop breathing, staring at me with so much astonishment it almost seemed fearful. But I had to know if I was right or not, if it was really as bad as I thought.
"But surely- I mean, you can't not know," Keith was so shocked it was close to unbearable, his green eyes open wide. I shook my head once again. Thomas took a deep breath. Katie couldn't even smile, she just stared dauntingly at me, looking almost concerned.
Thomas stood up, walked towards me. I shrunk back in the beanbag, intimidated by his height and body language.
"Where are you from?" He repeated the question; any sign of a joke from his voice was lost, drowned in confusion, worry, maybe even hope that all of the world wasn't stuck in such an awful state. I opened my mouth, my throat was dry, I couldn't talk.
"Thomas," Katie's voice was weak, quiet, almost afraid. I felt a pang of sadness towards her.
"Haven't you noticed how there's no one else around? No one wandering outside?" Thomas was no longer the playful boy I had met before, instead he was concerned, worried, serious. I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this, how to act around someone so humourless. I nodded.
"Um, I mean, it's kind of difficult not to notice." Finally, I could get some words out, something, at least.
Thomas nodded back, slowly, hesitantly.
"Well, there's a reason for that. The buildings crumbing, the lack of people, the reason we camp out up here. All of it is for a reason, and you experienced that reason first hand earlier." He took a deep breath, and spoke slowly, as if in an attempt to avoid overwhelming me with information, to try and let what he was saying sink in.
"Truth is, we're having a catastrophe here. Well, not just here, everywhere. There were... I mean, there were scientists. They messed up. Population overload, something like that, details aren't important right now. It's all guesswork. It was a private project, no one knows... No one really knows anything in particular. But an experiment went wrong, caused a global catastrophe." He paused, perhaps for effect, before continuing, his voice slightly shaky. "It made animals different; they changed, mutated. They're angry now, as if their size wasn't enough. It did something to their hormones, altered their brains. Plants mutated too - any exposed to the open air, well..." He trailed off, gestured to the room we were in, literally embedded into the oversized tree.
"Farms are underground now. We've had to create virtual sunlight for them, else we'd have died out long ago. The air now," he shook his head, "it's not right. It makes plants poisonous to anything other than the animals that have mutated. Why humans haven't changed, we aren't certain, but we think that the scientists made it so that the bacteria didn't effect mankind. But that's the sum of it. We live underground because of all the creatures that have taken over up here." He looked me dead in the eye, as if daring me to laugh. I swallowed, tried to make it as subtle as I could. "It's like we've been kicked off our own planet. We're barely living. Everything on this godforsaken earth now is for the animals, not for us. It's not habitable for us. It's all too dangerous."
The room fell silent. Not even the sound of birds could be heard here. The tension his explanation had created hung thick in the air. No one really knew what to say. Keith leant against the wall to the left of Katherine, holding one of her hands and tracing patterns on the back of it. Thomas let out a sigh, walked back over to the wall, to the other side of Katie, and slid down against it, breathing heavily. The girl smiled sadly, stretched her legs out so that they were straight in front of her and poked his arm with her free hand. Wordlessly, he lay down, resting his head on her lap, and she began combing her right hand through his thick, dark hair, scratching and rubbing. He closed his eyes, eyebrows creased in anguish, as she played with his hair in an attempt to soothe him. The words he spoke next were so quiet compared to the volume he had used before that it was almost impossible to hear them, but they were most certainly there.
"I'd rather be dead than have to fight in this awful war."