Jayson Hill walked down a path he had traveled a hundred times before. It was the path to the fort he and his friends had built last summer. He knew he was dreaming, but it was unlike any dream he had ever had before. The summer sun was warmer and more real than any normal dream. The trees of the wood surrounding him were hazy, which seemed to be the only normal thing about his dream.
Jayson spun around as a voice filled his ears. It called his name over and over again. The voice seemed to come from everywhere, but there was no one with him. He began running full out, headed for the creek and the little drawbridge he and his friends had made to access their tree house. With each step he took, the voice grew louder and louder. The sun was beginning to grow brighter, and still, the voice called to him. He could barely make out the trees anymore.
He stopped running. There was a flash of white light, and Jayson woke with a start, lying flat on his back as if he had dropped straight through the ceiling. The pull chain on the fan above his bed swayed in time with his still rapid breathing. He rubbed his eyes and took several deep breaths. The haziness that had plagued his dream subsided in the light of another typical Swansdale, Ohio morning. It was daybreak, and the sun had just peeked over the horizon, casting misty patterns of pink, amber and gray tones across the sleepy little housing community. It had rained that night, and the foliage seemed to be alive with thousands of twinkling Christmas lights as the morning sun hit the tiny droplets.
His Jack Russel Terrier, Jesse, quietly snored beside him. Jayson scratched behind the dog’s ears as he turned to face his alarm clock. 7:02 AM.
“Crap!” Jayson flung his blankets off the bed, sending Jesse to the floor. The little dog pranced around his feet as Jayson grabbed for pants here and a shirt there. He wasn’t entirely sure whether his socks matched, and his thick red hair was sticking up every which way. He tried to flatten it as he raced down the hall to the living room skidding to a stop long enough to slip on his shoes.
“Good morning,” said his mother from the kitchen table. She did not sound pleased as her son tore through the house, and looked even less thrilled as she raised an eyebrow at him.
“Good morning! Love you! Bye!” said Jayson slamming the front door on his untied shoelace. He opened the door again to free himself. He smiled sheepishly at his family who sat together eating at the kitchen table. His little sister, Jessica, rolled her eyes at him and stuffed another spoonful of Frosted Flakes in her mouth.
Jayson slammed the door closed behind him and winced. He hadn’t meant to shut it so hard. He leaped down the small set of porch steps in a single jump and took off for his friend, Leo DeHaven’s house. He breezed past a jogger making her way around the block and barked back at the neighbor’s dog as he ran.
He approached Leo’s front door breathless and clutching at a stitch in his side. After a moment, he raised his hand to knock on the door. His knuckles nearly collided with Leo’s pudgy face. Leo whipped back just in time, and his blonde hair fell into his blue eyes.
“Dude! You almost broke my glasses!” Leo cried.
“Sorry,” said Jayson with a sheepish grin as he stepped past Leo and into the living room. “And sorry I’m late.”
“For you, Jayson,” Mr. DeHaven called from the kitchen, “late is right on time.”
Jayson shrugged and ambled into the kitchen. He plunked himself in a chair beside their friend, Jack Mitchel. Jack sat staring into a cup of hot chocolate and coffee, the bags under his eyes more pronounced than usual. A copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet lay on the table beside him. No doubt it was his natural knack for poetry that had Jessica swooning over him. His perfect, wavy brown hair and towering height probably had something to do with it too. Despite Jack’s slightly disheveled appearance that morning, he greeted Jayson with a wide smile that lit up his hazel eyes.
“Egg sandwiches!” sang Mr. DeHaven, and a steaming plate of sloppy egg sandwiches appeared on the table in front of the boys.
“Oh, you really didn’t have to do that,” Jack mumbled. His smile faded, and he looked from the plate of sandwiches to Mr. DeHaven with guilt.
The DeHavens had been rather well to do at one time, but their financial situation was growing ever more dismal by the day, as was the state of their rather bare refrigerator.
“Nonsense! You can’t be gallivanting around those woods on an empty stomach! Eat,” Reagan DeHaven demanded and turned back to the stove.
Quietly the three boys obliged.
“I’m not sure I want to go out there today,” said Leo. Jayson and Jack stopped chewing to stare at him. Jayson’s grip on his sandwich faltered, and a piece of egg slipped from between the soggy bread and landed on his pants. “I just — I had this weird dream, and it kind of freaked me out.”
“Wh-what happened?” Jack asked. He set his own sandwich on his plate and swallowed hard.
“Yeah,” said Jayson. He sat up a little straighter and took another bite of sandwich. “What happened?”
Leo rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, there was this weird voice that said my name. And a funky light thing.”
“A light?” Jayson asked, his mouth now full of egg sandwich.
“What did the voice say?” Jack asked.
“M-my name. That was it.”
“It could be someone trying to send you a message,” said Mr. DeHaven over his shoulder. He turned, his eyes wide with mystery and a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“A message?” Jayson frowned. “Well, does that mean we should go to the fort or not?”
They sat chewing their sandwiches in silence for a long time. Eventually, each had turned to stare at Mr. DeHaven’s back. When he turned from the stove, the man threw his arms up in surrender.
“Don’t look at me!” he laughed. “This is your adventure.”
As one, Jayson, Jack and Leo scrambled out of their chairs and headed for the door.
“Sandwiches!” Mr. DeHaven called after them. They ran back to the kitchen, grabbed their half-eaten egg sandwiches and bolted out the door.
They trudged toward the wood behind their subdivision in silence. They were anxious and nervous, and Mr. DeHaven’s egg sandwiches sat heavy on their stomachs. When they reached the path to their fort, they all hesitated. It was the same path from Jayson’s dream, and he suspected it was the same for Leo too. But there was no voice and no bright light. It was the same stretch of trees, game trails and dirt hills that had always been there.
“I guess it was just a dream then,” Leo shrugged.
Jayson grabbed a rope slung over a tree limb and lowered their make-shift drawbridge. They crossed the little creek and sat on the dilapidated furniture inside the fort.
They had spent all the previous summer building the two-story tree house. Jack had supplied the old, shabby furniture from a dump near his father’s work. They had arranged an overstuffed armchair and a futon beneath the large oak tree. In the boughs of the tree was their storage area, complete with a floor and ceiling, and tarps and shower curtains for walls.
Jayson climbed to the second level and tossed down three sticks to his friends.
“I call King!” he said, shaking off the unease that had plagued his walk to the fort.
“You’re always King,” Leo protested. He caught the stick Jayson had thrown to him and rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, and you’re always the wizard. You’re the only one with powers, so I don’t see you complaining,” Jayson snapped back.
“Well, I want to do something different this time,” said Jack. “I’m always the knight. I have to take all my orders from you, and I don’t even have any powers to fight.”
“But you get the damsel at the end. Remember, pretty boy?” Jayson made a kissy face at Jack and laughed.
“What if we started a new game,” suggested Leo, “Three wizard kings —”
“No, I like this game.” Jayson folded his arms before him.
“Yeah, because you get to boss us around. I don’t think I want to do this today, guys.” Jack turned and headed for the drawbridge.
“Come on, Jack!” called Leo, “Don’t go!”
“He’s just upset because he heard his crush from, like, forever, started dating Tanner Fulton, and he knows Claudia Benedict will never be his girlfriend.” Jayson jumped from the second level. He landed with a loud thud and nearly lost his balance.
“I am not!” Jack shouted.
“Dude. Harsh,” Leo said, glaring at Jayson.
“Don’t you think we’re getting a little old for this?” Jack asked.
“No. And now you sound like those jerks from school.” Jayson shoved his stick into his belt so hard he nearly stabbed himself in the leg. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”
“No, I just —” Jack struggled for the right words. “It’d be different if this were real, or something, you know? I’m just tired of pretending to be something I’m not. I know that sounds so bunk, but — maybe it’s time to grow up.” Jack stabbed his stick into the ground, his face flush. “Time to stop believing in stupid dreams!”
He turned quickly and headed back across the drawbridge. He half expected Leo to chase after him, but he could hear him arguing with Jayson back at the tree house. He was glad. He just wanted to be alone anyway. Jayson’s reminder that he didn’t stand a chance at ever being Claudia Benedict’s boyfriend hurt, but not nearly as much as discovering his dream hadn’t come true.
Jack’s eyes shot open. He had had the dream again. It was the same dream Leo had described the day before. But this time it was interspersed with screaming, breaking glass and a crying baby. His dresser was still pushed in front of his bedroom door. He pushed it aside and peeked into the hall. A broken beer bottle his father had thrown against the now cracked mirror littered the floor. He stepped over the broken shards and grabbed a trash bag from the bathroom. When he had finished, he picked his sleeping sister from the floor of his closet and set her in her crib in the next room.
Downstairs, his mother had fallen asleep on the couch. A melted ice pack had fallen to the floor beside her, and the cordless phone lay on the pillow. Jack picked up the phone and walked into the kitchen.
“Aunt Kiera?” Jack whispered and pulled the peanut butter and bread from the cupboard.
“Jack?” said a sleepy voice on the other end.
“Hi, mom’s sleeping now,” he said, “I’m going over to Leo’s house, so, is it okay if you stay on the line for when Dad comes home?”
“Of course, sweetie. I’ll let your mom know, too. Are you alright?” Aunt Kiera asked.
“I’m fine. Amanda is still upstairs sleeping too. Thanks, Aunt Kiera.” He set the phone back down beside his mother’s head. He covered his mother with the afghan lying on the chair and looked at the bruise rising around her eye and cheek. When his father had refused counseling after this third relapse, it had been his Aunt Kiera had encouraged his mother to leave. Mrs. Mitchel had refused. Jack swallowed hard, putting a few peanut butter sandwiches in the pocket of his jacket. He kissed his mother on her forehead and headed out the door.
Jack was halfway up Leo’s front lawn when he noticed a strange white Cadillac in the driveway. He looked up and saw Jayson and Leo sitting on the porch steps. Jayson looked up from his bowl of cereal and waved.
“Our glorious knight returns!” he cried, his mouth full. A line of milk dribbled down his chin. Jack smiled. Leo looked up from his copy of Popular Mechanics, frowning. His tangled mess of blonde hair was more untidy than usual.
“So, you didn’t abandon us after all,” snapped Leo.
“I’m sorry,” said Jack, sticking his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. “I— it was a long night. I know it’s not an excuse anymore, but…”
Leo sighed and went back to his magazine. “It’s okay,” he mumbled.
Jayson set his cereal bowl on the step and finally wiped his chin.
“What are you guys doing out here?” Jack asked. He sat in the grass and moved Jayson’s bowl before it he knocked it over.
“Well,” said Jayson, “Some weird guy showed up and needed to talk to Mr. DeHaven. They said something about ‘the project’ and started pulling out all these boxes.”
“It’s the documentation from my dad’s NASA project,” said Leo. He put his magazine in the mailbox and sat back down. “It’s the one that got canceled before we moved out here. It’s why mom moved to France and all that.” Leo looked at his feet and pulled on the collar of his shirt.
“You can have my mom,” said Jayson punching Leo in the arm, laughing. “She likes smart kids the best.”
“Shut up, man.” Leo glared at Jayson. “She’s coming back. She’s just – busy.”
“So, why are we out here?” Jack asked, breaking the tension that had risen between them.
“Totally kicked out,” said Jayson. “As if we know anything about what they’re talking about.”
“The project was super top secret,” Leo said defensively.
“But it got canceled,” Jayson countered.
Leo shrugged. “Whatever.”
“You guys wanna go to the fort?” Jack shrugged.
“Sure,” said Jayson, leaping to his feet, and still almost upsetting the bowl on the ground. Jack nodded and handed Leo one of the peanut butter sandwiches he had stuffed in his pocket. He held it out like a peace offering but still wouldn’t look at Leo.
Leo took the sandwich and punched Jack in the arm. “Thanks,” he said, and followed after Jayson.
Jayson’s sugary cereal had begun to kick in by the time they reached the tree fort. He lowered the bridge and skipped across the little creek. Jack and Leo followed at a walk and watched as Jayson stumbled. They stifled laughs together, their anger forgotten.
Jack flopped across the armchair. “Hey, guys, I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“Uh, oh,” said Leo with a grin. “That could be dangerous.”
“Hey, it’s not like I’m Jayson,” Jack teased. His wide smile had returned.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Jayson jumped down from the second level of their tree fort. His arms flailed to keep balance, and he smacked himself in the head with his stick-sword.
“Well, I was wondering if you guys might like to try and study martial arts or something. They have the Mortal Combat movies on a marathon this month, and I’ve been watching them, like, non-stop at night. You can practically teach yourself how to do this stuff.” Jack jumped up and executed a mock kick and punch. “We could really take our game fighting to the next level.”
Leo and Jayson glanced at each other. Finally, Leo spoke. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with your dad, would it?”
“My dad?” Jack took a step back.
“You’re not gunna try to fight him, are you?” Jayson asked.
“Why would I do that?” Jack scowled at his friends and crossed his arms. He hadn’t talked to anyone about his dad in years. He shifted side to side. How could they have known?
“Jack, we’re your friends. We know what’s going on,” said Leo.
“And yesterday you were talking about being something you’re not.” Jayson blushed beneath his freckles. “We care, dude.”
“Just because you have a perfect little family doesn’t mean I have to try to act like I do!” Jack cried. His hands clenched into fists, and his face burned red. “So, what if I want to do something change my life?” He jabbed his finger at Leo and Jayson. “You don’t have any idea what I have to go through!” Tears filled his eyes. He tried to fight them off. His father’s voice echoed in his mind. “Only babies cry.”
“No, I don’t know what you go through because you won’t talk to anyone!” Jayson yelled back. He threw his stick on the ground. “I’ve got my own stuff going on too, Jack! Why are you so special, huh?”
“Whoa, hold the phone,” said Leo. He rushed between Jack and Jayson, forcing them apart. “Let’s just take a chill pill. There’s a time and place for everything. My mom used to say that.”
“And how do you know this isn’t it?” Jack shoved his finger into Leo’s chest, then turned pointed at himself. “I make my own fate, Leo! I’ll decide my destiny!”
The silence that fell was deafening. Not a bird sang, not a leaf shifted. Jack looked at the creek behind them. It had stopped in mid-wave. He turned to his friends again. Their forms were becoming hazy and distorted. The sunlight was increasing and was close to blinding. He saw Jayson shaking his head in disbelief, the anger and rage turning to fear. The world went white, and Jack knew no more.
Leo was the first to wake. He blinked in the bright sunlight and pushed away the dizziness that lingered. He got to his knees and saw Jayson and Jack close by. They were still unconscious. He crawled to them and gave each a gentle shake.
Jayson shook his head and sat up.
“God, what happened?” he asked.
“We must’ve…blacked out… or something,” Leo said uncertain.
“Yeah, but, where are we?” asked Jack as his eyes came into focus.
Where they sat was not their fort or any place in the woods they recognized. There was no wood, only a sloping plane of craggy rocks before them, and a towering gray mountain behind them. The sun was shining, but the sky was a dreary, overcast gray.
“Do you think someone at school is trying to bunk us?” Jayson asked.
“More likely we were kidnapped,” said Leo with a nod.
“Then why aren’t we tied up?” Jayson raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms before him.
Leo shrugged. He opened his mouth, intending to give a scientific hypothesis, but was cut off.
“Hey look.” Jack pointed to a line of smoke rising into the air in the distance.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Leo with a grin. He always looked exactly like his father whenever he did so.
“And where there’s fire, there’s probably people,” Jack finished.
“Maybe they know where we are!” Jayson jumped to his feet and nearly twisted his ankle.
“And how to get home,” Leo added, taking no notice of Jayson.
The boys ran up the sloping hill, tripping occasionally on a loose stone from the boulders that littered the way. They stopped when they reached the top of the hill, panting and surveying the scene before them.
Below was a tiny village nestled between the hill they stood upon and another identical hill at least a mile away. The homes were small huts with thatched roofs. Dirt roadways wound between wooden structures that appeared to be bakeries, smithies, and stables.
Jack fell to the ground in disbelief. Jayson plopped down next to him.
“Come on, man!” he cried and pulled on his red hair. “No electricity? I figured a campground would have electricity.”
“I don’t think that’s a campground, Jay,” Leo whispered.
“It’s gotta be! What else could it be? Like some stupid renn faire thing?”
“What’s the last thing you all remember?” Jack asked them.
“Well,” Leo folded his arms and grabbed his chin as he thought. “It was like I went deaf.”
“Yeah, and everything just kind of stopped. It looked like the creek stopped in mid-wave,” said Jayson.
“And the light,” Jack added quietly. “Like from my dream.”
“Mine too,” Leo whispered.
The boys fell silent, not daring to look at one another.
“Maybe this is one of those government tests, and they messed it all up,” Jayson broke the silence. Jack and Leo looked at him but did not speak. “Maybe they’re working on a way to control a person’s mind, to make them see things. Like… a controlled and forced hallucination. Or…” Jayson paused, his eyes widening. “Maybe they were doing something with time and accidentally sent us back in time.”
“Are you for real, man?” Jack interrupted. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head.
“What?” Jayson asked with a shrug.
Jack rolled his eyes and sighed. “Why us? Why Swansdale? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It sort of does,” Leo said. He sat down between Jack and Jayson. “No one would believe us if we tried to tell someone. We’re kids. And Swansdale’s a no-name little town. No one would ever look there for signs of government testing. And, if we tried to go public with it, well, everyone would think we were trippin! No one would believe us. It’s not a bad hypothesis.”
Jayson’s stomach grumbled, making them all turn and look.
“Well, wherever we are, I hope they have something to eat.” Jayson rose to his feet and headed toward the little village.
“Jayson, where are you going?” cried Leo, “We don’t know where we are — Jayson! Come back! What if you’re kidnapped?”