Blast from the Past
A FLASH OF PAIN woke Charlie. He opened his eyes and saw a thick canopy of trees above him. He felt more than one pain: the stabbing pain in his right arm, the throbbing left temporal pain and the pain in his entire body where the cold waves had used him as a hockey puck.
Everything came rushing back: the beast, the phoenix firebird, the river … Richmond!
‘He’s awake,’ he heard Alex say. He watched as she tossed wood into the fire near him. Relief flooded through him when he saw Richmond – wrapped in a blue blanket and eating what looked like black grapes, except they were the size of apples – sitting beside Derkein on a log on the other side of the fire. Looking up at the tree above him, he saw a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt hanging over the fire on a stick supported by two branches. When he tried to move, which was a mistake as any movement was a fuel for pain, he felt something soft enclosed around him.
‘What am I wrapped in?’ he asked in a husky voice. Moving wasn’t the only thing that caused him pain. Every word he spoke made his eyes sting.
‘It’s a blanket,’ Richmond said. ‘It was lying next to you when we got here.’
Charlie let his gaze drift over the dark forest. The trees looked different, the surroundings denser than he remembered. ‘Where is here?’ he asked.
‘Why don’t you tell us?’ Derkein sounded angry. ‘What were you thinking? Do you have any idea how worried we were?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Charlie tried to move but to no success.
‘I’m talking about you running off. It was by some miracle that we found a log lying across the river. It took us two hours to find you. When I saw you lying there, I thought …’ Derkein sighed in frustration.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘You ran off and left us.’
Charlie looked at Alex and Richmond, who both nodded in agreement.
‘If it hadn’t been for the tracks you left behind,’ Derkein said, ‘we probably would never have found you.’
‘I swear,’ Charlie began, but he paused, wriggling like a worm as he tried to sit up. After two failed attempts, Derkein got up and helped him into a sitting position. ‘Look, I don’t know how I got here. The last thing I remember is falling into the river, and then I woke up.’
‘Then how do you explain the fact that we saw you running off?’ Derkein asked.
‘Yeah, or the footprints that led us to you,’ Alex said as she sat on the lower end of the twisted tree stump Charlie was leaning against.
‘And the blankets,’ Richmond interjected.
‘I don’t know …’ Charlie paused. One word came to mind. ‘Candra,’ he breathed.
‘Who?’ Alex asked.
‘My stalker,’ he replied. ‘She must have brought me here.’ He glanced at Derkein and was glad to see his frown had faded. The last thing he wanted was Derkein to start regretting having taken him along. ‘I think she saved my life.’
Derkein rested his head in his hands. After a moment, he looked up and, in a calmer voice, said, ‘This is just too much. Nothing makes sense.’ He started massaging his temples with his fingers. He regarded Charlie with concern. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘I’m okay,’ Charlie lied.
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘You almost died because of me.’
‘How was it your fault?’
‘I brought you to this place.’
‘But you didn’t attack us,’ Richmond said. ‘It was that big ugly thing.’
‘Yeah,’ Charlie agreed. ‘You can’t blame yourself for that. Besides, no one, you know … At least we’re all alive.’ Thanks to the phoenix. He looked up at the line of clothes, and it was then he realised he was naked. ‘Who undressed me?’
Alex looked at him and smiled. ‘I had my eyes closed the whole time.’
Charlie stopped breathing, his eyes wide with panic.
The others laughed.
‘Breathe,’ Alex said. ‘I’m kidding.’
Charlie sighed inwardly. Feeling his body heating up, he averted his gaze from Alex.
‘Guys,’ Derkein said after a short pause, his expression now serious. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about things. We have no idea how near or far we are from Eden. We don’t even know if we’ll be able to find the trail back to the gateway, which begs the question of whether we should continue our search.’ He took a watch out of his pocket, which Charlie identified as his own. ‘It’s coming up to eight, leaving us with just over four days to get back to the gateway. Let’s be realistic. We have a one in a million chance of finding Eden.’
‘Better than no chance,’ Alex said.
Derkein’s expression was calm but otherwise unreadable. ‘I don’t want you to get your hopes up. It’s going to be hard. It could get more difficult, and you may even get hurt.’ Panic was clear in his voice. His anxious eyes flicked between the three of them, measuring their expressions. ‘If anyone wants to go back, we’ll turn around right now. I will not get upset.’
‘You can’t go back like this,’ Charlie argued. ‘You age too quickly in our world.’
‘I know. That’s why I won’t be going back.’
Charlie glanced at Alex and Richmond, who both stared at Derkein in shock.
‘At least, not just yet,’ Derkein added.
‘Well, then, neither am I,’ Charlie said.
Derkein leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, his fingers intertwined. ‘You’ve all seen how dangerous this world is. There is no guarantee we’ll make it out safely.’
‘We might as well just keep going,’ Alex said. ‘You said yourself that we might not find our way back to the gateway, so why waste all that time? We won’t know if we’ll find the garden if we don’t try.’
‘Alex is right,’ Richmond agreed. ‘Let’s just try.’
Derkein sighed and lowered his head in his hands, running his fingers back and forth through his hair. He looked back at the trio and shook his head. ‘It’s too dangerous. I can’t take that chance.’
‘If you don’t let us come,’ Charlie threatened, ‘we’ll just follow you.’ He looked at Richmond and Alex, who both nodded in agreement, and then looked back at Derkein.
‘Guys, please,’ Derkein pleaded, ‘think about this. You have a life, people who care about you –’
‘So do you,’ Alex interrupted him. ‘So what if we’re gone a few more days? It will be worth it.’
Derkein stood up and turned his back to them as he stared up into the dense canopy. ‘You have to think about the risks,’ he said in a low voice. He turned back around. ‘We might not be so lucky next time.’
There was silence as they all thought long and hard about the decision they had to make. They had travelled a long way in only half a day. Sure, when Charlie thought about it, it seemed almost foolish to continue on the journey, not knowing if they were heading in the right direction. Then again, considering he had no recollection of how he ended up so far from the river when he had been unconscious, it made him wonder if perhaps Candra was leading them to their destination. It wasn’t hard to believe after all. It seemed as though she had been helping them along the way.
Charlie would like to blame Alex for putting doubts in his head about Candra, but if he was being truthful, he would admit he had questioned Candra’s intentions since the moment she entered his life. What did she want from him? Why was she helping him? Why hadn’t she shown her face since they’d entered Arcadia? He wanted answers.
‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ Derkein asked.
The trio looked at one another. Smiles broke out on their faces.
Charlie answered, ‘We’re sure.’
‘All right.’ Derkein handed Charlie three grapes before sitting back down on the log.
‘These are massive. Where’d you get them?’
‘There are grapevines all around us. It’s quite a good spot you chose.’ Charlie scowled at Derkein. ‘I mean your lady friend,’ Derkein corrected himself. ‘It’s too dark to continue, so we’ll camp here for the night.’
Glancing down at Derkein’s feet, Charlie saw three wooden spears sharpened at both ends. ‘What are those?’
Derkein followed his gaze. ‘Weapons. We need to be armed.’
‘I thought it was only copper and steel that could kill them.’
Derkein picked up one of the spears and ran a thumb over the sharp tip. ‘Yes, but I’m sure these can do some damage. I just hope it doesn’t come to that.’
‘Do you think we’ll all get a wish if we find the tree?’ Richmond asked.
‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t,’ Derkein said. ‘The story goes that whoever finds the tree gets their heart’s desire. If twenty people find it, twenty people get lucky, or so I presume.’
Richmond’s eyes lit up. From the concentrated look on his face, Charlie assumed he was going through his wish list.
‘That is, of course, if the story is true,’ Derkein continued.
‘It better be true,’ Alex said. ‘I’m going to need a miracle to convince my parents to let me out of the house again.’
Charlie’s eyes shifted to Derkein, whose expression turned solemn. ‘I can’t begin to imagine what they’re going through,’ Derkein said. ‘What am I going to tell them? How do I explain where their daughter’s been?’
‘We could say we were abducted by aliens,’ Richmond suggested.
The others looked at him, deliberating.
‘That might actually work,’ Alex said. ‘People talk about alien abductions all the time. We don’t even need proof. We can just say we have amnesia.’ She glanced at Derkein. ‘What do you think?’
‘Would your parents buy it?’ Derkein asked.
‘Yeah. Mum’s a big E.T. fan. I’ll just tell them I saw a bright light.’
‘And little green aliens,’ Richmond said. ‘There has to be aliens.’
‘I’m kinda planning on sticking with the amnesia thing after that,’ Alex said. ‘I don’t want to be in therapy the rest of my life. The alien idea is a little more far-fetched than what I usually come up with, but they tend to believe what I tell them. We have a treaty in our house where we have complete trust in each other.’
‘Your parents sound reasonable,’ Derkein commented. ‘I would have given anything for my father to have had that much faith in me. Then again, I didn’t always give him reasons to, so can’t say I blame him.’
‘Why aren’t you and your dad close?’ Charlie asked.
Derkein drew in a deep breath. ‘Let’s just say my father is a man who sticks to things, and I’m, well, the opposite. I wasn’t enthusiastic when it came to my career. I lost many jobs, which he didn’t take too well. He was always reminding me how lucky I was to be born into wealth when he had to sweat to get where he is. He wanted me to be some big shot lawyer. I wanted to have fun, and he couldn’t … He wouldn’t accept that. He thought I was wasting my years.’
‘What about your mum? What did she think?’ Alex asked. For a moment, there was silence. ‘Sorry. If you don’t want to talk about her –’
‘It’s not that. It’s … It’s been a long time since someone asked me about her. My mother was a painter who believed in free will. She always told me that I shouldn’t do something just because I could, but that I should do it because I wanted to. She said that a person should make their own tracks instead of following someone else’s.’
‘What did you want to do?’ Charlie asked.
‘I wanted to do many things, but that wasn’t even the problem. What made my father disappointed was that I never stuck to anything. It wasn’t until my mother died that I realised there was something I was always passionate about … Photography.’
‘My dad’s a photographer,’ Alex interjected.
‘A common interest,’ Derkein said. ‘Perhaps that will break the ice when I tell your parents about our abduction theory.’ Derkein smiled to himself, and his mind seemed to wander. ‘Mum loved to take pictures – said they gave her inspiration. She gave me my first camera when I was five.’ He snorted. ‘I remember the day I told my father I wanted to be a photographer. I’ll never forget the look he gave me. I was twenty-two and a Harvard Law School dropout …’ Derkein paused and looked away, as if thinking about something.
‘What did he say?’ Charlie asked.
Derkein looked at Charlie, and even though his expression was unreadable, there was a touch of resentment in his voice when he spoke. ‘I wouldn’t say he shared the same enthusiasm about it as he did about law. He thought I had no ambition. He was a determined man, and I suppose he wanted me to be the same. Problem is we were too different, always have been.’
Derkein was silent for a moment. Then, flashing them a smile, he said, ‘But if there was ever anything he taught me, it was that everything happened for a reason. However terrible things may seem, I know that if this hadn’t happened to me, I would never have met you guys.’
The trio smiled.
Despite the pain leaving Charlie, the numbness in his body was a constant distress as he tried to get dressed. He leaned against the tree stump, his sharp eyes scanning the forest. ‘Where’s my coat?’
‘You must have lost it in the river,’ he heard Derkein say from the other side of the tree.
‘Lost mine too,’ Richmond said.
‘What are we going to use for markers?’ Charlie asked.
‘With the weather being so perfect,’ Derkein said, ‘I doubt you’ll need the blankets, so we can use those.’
Charlie finished dressing and grabbed the blanket and wooden spear that was propped against the tree stump.
‘Charlie!’ Alex exclaimed. ‘Almost didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’
Derkein and Richmond snickered.
Charlie chuckled. ‘You should be a comedian – oh wait, you’d have to be funny.’
Richmond pointed at Alex. ‘He got you,’ he teased. Alex tossed a grape at him, which hit him on the back when he tried to dodge it. ‘That hurt!’
As Derkein tried to settle the dispute between them, Charlie heard a sound that made him look ahead. He shrieked when he saw a figure in the distance. Candra? The figure walked off in the opposite direction. He started to go after her but Derkein stopped him.
‘What are you doing?’ Derkein asked.
Charlie pointed, but the figure had vanished. ‘She was right there.’ Why does she keep doing that? He looked back at the others. Even though it was eight thirty in the evening, it was still light enough to make out their facial expressions. Oh great, they’re giving me that look again. Thanks a lot, Candra. ‘I think she wants us to follow her.’
‘No, that’s not a good idea,’ Derkein said. ‘It will soon be too dark for us to see anything. This is not the time to go wandering the woods.’
Charlie looked down at the fire, and a thought came to him.
‘Why do I feel as though we’re chasing a ghost?’ said Derkein, who was carrying Richmond on his back. ‘Are you certain we’re going the right way?’
Charlie, who was holding a wooden stick torch, glanced at him. ‘I’m sure,’ he replied. I think.
‘You know, if she really wants to help,’ said Alex, who was also holding a burning torch, ‘she could sort us out with a pizza or something.’ The others regarded her. ‘I’m just saying.’
The gang had been walking for ten minutes, and Charlie still saw no sign of Candra. He was starting to wonder if it had been a mistake going after her – if it had been her – when they came to a slope and spotted a shallow stream below.
A profound sense of déjà vu stirred inside Charlie, and an image of a high stone wall flashed across his mind, lasting only seconds.
Charlie blinked hard. ‘There’s a wall,’ he muttered under his breath. He glanced around him, but all he saw were trees and moss-covered boulders. He took off down the slope.
‘Charlie, wait,’ Derkein called after him.
‘There’s a wall around here,’ Charlie said.
‘How would you know that?’
‘I just saw it –’ Another image flashed across Charlie’s mind, and he stopped. It was the same stone wall with a twin-arched doorway, three steps leading up to it. The image vanished, and his head swivelled to the left, as if someone had called him. ‘I saw a doorway …’ He took off, and the others pursued him.
A few short steps later, they came across the doorway – or rather the ruins, and the only part of the wall still standing, just about. What was once a twin-arched doorway was now a single arch, enclosed by shrubs, vines and trees.
‘You just saw this in your head?’ Derkein asked.
Derkein’s face displayed a mixture of shock, disbelief and confusion. ‘Just now? Since we started walking?’
Charlie nodded again. He couldn’t tell whether or not Derkein believed him, but he was starting to feel as though he had no control over his own mind.
‘It could just be me,’ Alex said, ‘but you seem to have gone up on the weird scale since we entered Arcadia.’
‘Look, maybe we should go back to the campsite,’ Derkein suggested.
Charlie wasn’t paying attention to the others. As he stared at the remnants of the past, the strangest thing started to happen: the world came alive.
The twin-arched doorway materialised before him, the stone wall on either side. Charlie’s jaw dropped. Climbing the steps, he walked through the doorway, the view expanding before him, and his heart fluttered.
The rich floral smell was more than welcoming; it was mouth-watering. He saw flowers, large mushrooms, trees, peacocks, tigers, buildings … people. Everywhere he looked, he saw merry folks dressed in elegant gowns and robes.
He knew right away that the people weren’t human, but it still surprised him when he saw a young boy sprinting so fast he couldn’t keep his eyes on him, a girl travelling thirty feet in one leap and an eagle transforming into a man.
He had no idea what paradise looked like, but he was willing to bet every penny he had that this was it.
Heading up a set of stone steps, he came to a raised circular pavilion bordered by vine-covered pillars with a fountain in the centre. Beyond the fountain were more steps, which led to ancient Greek architecture surrounded by columns that supported pyramid roofs. Charlie turned around to admire the view below.
A voice behind him said, ‘Your Majesty.’ It was a woman’s voice, soft and familiar. Whirling around, he saw a woman in a long russet gown, her auburn hair tied back, descending the steps.
Your Majesty? Charlie pondered. The woman smiled at him and bowed. All it took was one look at her alluring green eyes for him to realise it was Candra. His breath caught in his throat as he gazed at her scar-less face. She looked so different, so happy. He returned the smile without realising what he was doing. His eyes followed her as she continued down to the garden. He was about to go after her when a splashing noise behind him made him stop and turn around.
The water from the fountain swirled upwards like a whirlpool and transformed into a woman. Charlie stared in awe at the woman who had just climbed out of the fountain, her gown dry. She bowed to him.
There was a note of frustration in his voice when he asked, ‘What’s with the bowing?’ The woman just smiled and walked away. He turned back to the fountain and walked over to it.
When he looked in the water, he saw the white-haired man he had seen in the creek.
‘What do you want from me?’ Charlie asked. He paused when he noticed the man mimicking him. He found it even stranger when the man wrinkled his brow, for he felt as confused as the man looked. It was then, as he stared into the man’s grey eyes, that he realised something. At the same time, the wrinkles on the man’s forehead vanished, and he looked shocked –
The image vanished, and Charlie found himself staring at Derkein, who was standing in front of him, gripping his shoulders. ‘Charlie, can you hear me?’ Derkein asked.
Charlie blinked hard. He looked through the single-arched doorway behind Derkein, but all he saw was the forest.
‘Hey,’ Derkein said, ‘talk to me.’
‘There used to be a palace here,’ Charlie said.
‘Doesn’t look like a palace now,’ Richmond observed.
Derkein let go of Charlie, his expression anxious. ‘All right, I think it’s time we head back to the campsite.’
They started to head off when Charlie suddenly stopped.
‘What is it?’ Alex asked.
Charlie’s eyes swept the forest. ‘I heard something.’ He expected Candra to pop out of her hiding place. Instead, he saw the red-haired boy he had seen earlier that day, watching him from behind a tree. ‘Hey. Where’s my bag?’
The boy’s eyes widened in shock, and he took off.
‘Hey.’ Charlie chased after him.
‘Charlie,’ Derkein called. ‘Charlie, get back here.’
Charlie didn’t stop. With the burning torch still in his hand, he raced through the forest after the boy. ‘Stop!’ he yelled. ‘I just want my bag.’ The boy was a good thirty feet ahead of him. What do they feed this kid?
‘Charlie,’ he heard Derkein call. It wasn’t until a loud cry reached him that he stopped.
It was Alex.
He turned around but saw no sign of the others. Panicked, he looked back at the boy, who had also stopped, and then he turned and ran back the way he had come.
It didn’t take him long to spot Derkein. When he got closer, he saw Richmond, who was now on his feet, Alex’s burning torch slowly fading on the ground beside him. But where was Alex?
Seeing Derkein and Richmond glancing up into a tree, he followed their gazes and spotted Alex trapped in a rope net.
‘It could be worse,’ Richmond said. Charlie and Derkein glanced at him. ‘What? It could be.’
Derkein’s gaze shifted to Charlie, and the lines on his forehead smoothed out, his expression stern. ‘Didn’t we just have a conversation about you running off?’
‘I know,’ Charlie said, ‘but I was trying to get my bag back.’
Derkein looked confused. ‘It’s not just going to fall out of the sky.’
‘What? No, that kid –’
‘Ah, hello,’ Alex said hotly. ‘Girl in a rope here. I don’t know about you guys but I’m thinking whoever set this trap might come back.’
Charlie looked up at her, her body bent in an awkward position with her legs reaching high above her head, and a faint smile crept onto his face. ‘Hang in there, Alex,’ he called up to her.
‘You just wait till I get down, Charlie Theodore Blake,’ she threatened.
Richmond snickered. ‘Your middle name’s Theodore?’
Charlie looked at him, his smile fading. ‘Shut up.’
Derkein cleared his throat to refocus their attention. ‘How are we going to get her down, boys?’ he asked.
Charlie glanced back up at the tree. The distance between Alex and the ground was at least twelve feet, twice Derkein’s height. To get her down, Derkein would have to hoist Charlie onto his shoulders and then some.
As Derkein pondered a strategy, Charlie’s focus shifted to the thudding sound he heard coming towards them. Before he even had time to panic, the sound died almost as soon as it had begun.
He turned around and froze, the sound of his heartbeat in his ears as he stared at the line of people armed with shiny blades and arrows pointed at his head.