“Maybe we should do it on Tuesday,” Susan asks us.
“Can you all come?” We all nod. I turn as the bell rings, telling us to go back to class.
“Can you bring it then, Janie?” Abbie asks,
“Um... yeah,” I say. We all get up from the grass and begin to walk back toward the school. They are talking, but I don’t care, I am not listening. I can’t wait for school to be over, this last day has felt truly long. I get off the bus and walk about a half a block to my house, which looks like all the other boring houses in the neighborhood. It’s small with two stories and about a yard away from the next house on each side. I lift the doormat, finding the key where it always is. As I walk in, I am satisfied which is exceptionally rare. I had passed the school year with straight A’s. I slump on the couch and turn the TV on.
I arrive at North West summer camp a week later. Out the bus window, I can see the big building coming closer as the bus pulls into the big parking lot. My bus isn’t that full, as a result, there isn’t anyone to talk to me. I stretch and put my earbuds in my bag, tired from the four-hour ride. We arrive and stand out in front of the place just like every year. I look around to see what’s different as the counselors talk to the awestruck new kids. The big building in the center of the place is where people like me stay, the kids who will be there all summer long. The ones whose own parents don’t even want them in the house. All around it are smaller places for the kids who stay only a week or two. There are houses and other buildings (I don’t know what for), and just beyond that is the edge of a thick forest. This time they assign me to a dorm in the back of the place. Enter the big front doors with all the other kids, I head to the back and go into my room. I find one window on the far wall looking onto the outer woods parts of the camp. I sit on my bed and look around as a young girl enters the room, “Hey,” she says, as she holds out her hand for me to shake, “I’m Charlie. I’m guessing you're my roommate?”
“Janie,” I say, and shake her hand.
Charlie goes to sit on her own bed across from mine. She has shoulder length straight blond hair and huge gray-blue eyes. The look on her face as she, too, looks around, is different from most new kids. More exhausted. We sit in silence for a long minute before I say, “I’m confused, they usually pair us up with people our age,”
“I’m fifteen I look young for my age,” Charlie laughs.
“Sixteen, I guess you're right,” I acknowledged.
“Do they usually have these many kids here? On the paper, it seemed like there were a lot more.”
“There used to be that many, but they stopped coming after a while. So what’s your story? Why did you decide to come?”
“It wasn’t my choice. If it were, I would be home right now watching TV.” Charlie looks at the ground.
“Exactly the same,” I tell her.
We chat all five hours until lunchtime. I notice as we talk, Charlie’s mood slowly starts to lift.
We walk down to lunch at twelve as they told us when we first got here. As we walk in a big group of kids toward the middle of the building, I see something shining in the wall it looks like metal, but it’s… glowing? I veer off from Charlie to look at it closer. The room is dark and it is glowing exceptionally bright, It almost hurts my eyes. I wait until everyone passes, then go to it. I have a weird abnormal urge to get it, so I pull it out from where it is stuck. One look at it and I know exactly what it is.
It’s a small square piece of metal attached to a tiny rolled up paper with a chain. I have only heard about this object in myths. It’s a Secret Invitation. It chooses a person and it draws them in until they find it. The drawing light it uses can only be seen by the person it needs. The technology it uses is highly advanced most people think it comes from aliens, and this one has chosen me. I look around for anything before opening the scroll. It’s a map drawn out on faded yellowish paper, drawn with a brown pen. It almost looks like a stamp, the detail of the map is simple and the lines are uncommonly thin. No one knows who sends these secret letters, but everyone knows that when you follow it, you never come back. I take one last look at it then shove it in my pocket and walk to lunch.
I lay in bed that night after a long day. I can’t sleep. What should I do with my dumb Secret Invitation? I could turn it in, but that would be unnecessary attention I don’t want. I could ignore it, but could I actually live with the fact that there is somewhere out there where that actually wants me? I roll over and see it’s already 10:00 on my alarm clock. I shift my gaze the slightest from my clock and catch Charlie’s eye across from me she is awake, too. I sit straight up and look at her.
“What?” she asks.
“I need to tell you something,” I eased.
. . .
I got the Secret Invitation from my jeans pocket that I planned to sleep in and hold it out at arm's length for Charlie to see.
“What’s that…” Charlie sits up and squints through the dark room. She leans closer and her big eyes go wide and she takes it from me and flips it over in her hands.
“I found it today,” I tell her. She looks back up at me and puts it back in my hands still wide-eyed.
“What will you do with it?” she murmurs.
“I will follow it,” I take a deep breath, “and I hope you want to, too.”
Charlie springs to her feet. “Do I?! Of course I do! I always knew there was something more meant for me!” She jumps up in the air.
“Shhh!” I laugh.
We spend an hour packing everything we need. I unlock the window to our room and Charlie jumps out onto the grass below. I throw our bags out after her for her to catch, before jumping out myself. The grass is cold and the woods ahead of us is black. I dig out the map from my pocket once again, and carefully unroll the paper. At the top of it, it has a picture of a house, probably representing our building. A dotted line goes from the building out into the woods twisting and turning until it ends at a circle.
“Okay,” I say, and look at Charlie she catches my eye and beams at me she does a quick glance at the tiny paper in my hands. We start into the woods with nothing else said.
We trudge through the woods in a straight line, not either one of us want to be the one to make the other stop. Finally, at one in the morning, we have to stop and rest. We lay our bed sheets down on the ground that we brought from the room and fall asleep fast.
I wake up naturally at 10 in the morning and Charlie wakes up five minutes later.
“What do you think is there?” I ask Charlie.
“Where?” she answers.
“Where we are going.”
“I have no idea,” she looks at me, “do you?”
“Maybe there is an alien spaceship coming to take us away.” We both laugh. We continue in our straight line while eating a granola bar for breakfast. The woods all look the same tall trees with green leaves and bushes. I keep looking at the map, lagging behind while Charlie leads. Randomly, Charlie trips and falls and I stand there confused then boom! A big log hits me hard on the side and I get flung to the ground.
“Ow!” I shriek. I look back confused holding my left arm as the log that hit it wobbles in the air. As I look closer, I realize the log is attached to a wire. It was a trap that Charlie set off.
“What… ” Charlie stutters as she runs over to where I lay on the ground she kneels down next to me and carefully touches my arm. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s fine,” I grimace as I push myself up with one arm. My wrist is starting to turn red. Charlie looks at it with great concern, she runs over and rips a piece of bark off the nearest tree. She takes my wrist and sets it in the piece of bark it holds my hand and the lower part of my arm straight. She pulls her hair tie from her wrist and puts it around the whole thing to keep it on.
“There, a cast” she exclaims.
“Thanks,” I stand up slowly. “It was a trap,” I tell her.
“I wonder who made it.” Charlie points out. My wrist hurts with every step until we get to the “circle” which is a big pond in the shape of an almost perfect circle. I see nothing special about the pond other than the fact. The woods are still deep on all sides of it. I get my map out with my one good hand and hand it to Charlie. She takes it, unrolls it and looks at it carefully. I look over her shoulder at it, too, while cradling my hurt, maybe even broken arm, with my good one. It has two parallel lines coming out from the circle, and next to that is words "4 days" written in fancy letters. As I look closer at the huge pond, I see at the opposite side is a small river coming out from it. Charlie and I look at each other, four days is a long time.
“There’s a little river over there,” I point out. “We should follow it don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I do think,” she announced, “but for four days?” I smile at her and say, “C’mon”
which she does. We walk down by the edge of the pond and follow the little river.
The next four days we walk down the river at day and make fires with the matches we stole from camp before we left, so there is fire while we sleep. We eat mostly granola bars and other stolen food like frozen hamburgers, and fruit cups we got from the freezer. To pass time, Charlie and I talk until we know practically everything about each other. It’s hard work walking all day, but somehow I am happier than most days. I realize I gradually get more cheerful as we go. Plus, I usually hate doing physical work. Every so often I look at the map, at the next part. The river lines on the map come to a jagged line of trees drawn super small. I look out for anything unusual as we walk, which would signify the next part of the clue. I still can’t move my wrist without it hurting.
We walk along the river on the fourth day. We are walking in a more clearer part of the woods when I think I see something out away from the river. I walk toward it slowly.
“What are you doing?” Charlie asks.
“You see that, right?” I answer. As I walk deeper into the woods, Charlie reluctantly follows.
“What are you talking about?” she asks. I don’t take my eyes off of it, maybe I’m afraid it will disappear if I look away. We get into a clearer part of the woods and it’s still there.
“C’mon we’re getting off track,” Charlie insists.
“Y… your right” I look away and turn around.
“I don’t even see anything…” Charlie takes a step toward the direction I was looking. Charlie steps on the big rock surface that is on the ground in front of me and I watch as it crumbles beneath her and she falls into the ground along with all the other rocks that were just there a second ago, making a loud crashing sound as they all fall. We both scream, and I jump out of the way just in time screeching as the pressure gets put on my arm as I fall on the ground. A huge cloud of dust gets kicked up so I scramble to the edge of the now huge hole in the ground. I cough at the dust and urgently search around the rocks with my eyes for any sign of Charlie. I keep looking around but can’t find her, and my eyes start to water.
“Where are you?” I scream.
“Over here,” I hear her faintly and I am filled with relief. I look in the direction where it came from and see her on the ground propped up by her arms stuck there with a huge boulder on her leg. She struggles as she tries to get out, but is stuck.
“Wait, I’m coming,” I say still with urgency in my voice as I quickly look around for a safe way in. For the first time, I notice there is an abnormal glow coming from in the cave, which is why I can make her out. Charlie is looking at me.
“I am pretty sure my leg is broken,” she fears. She looks quickly into the light and her eyes go wide. A person steps out from the lighted room and takes a quick look at each of us. “Welcome to THIS PLACE,” he smiles, “the letters stand for stuff.”
The guy who was first there we learn is named Kevin and we crashed into his science laboratory or something. We made it here, just not as anyone intended us to. We sit on a chair as a doctor holds a big syringe filled with a liquid of some kind. He takes my hurt arm in one hand and gives me the shot with the other. I grimace and feel a weird tingling sensation in it. He lets go so I start to move it slowly twisting my wrist. In a matter of seconds, my arm is healed. He gets another syringe and gives the same shot in Charlie’s leg. He tells us this is a huge underground city they are trying to build. A new society.
“So why do you choose people to come here?” I ask the doctor.
“We choose people we think will love to join and sent them invitations. They always come,” he informs us. “You will love it here, everyone does.” He smiles at us. He sends us on our way on a high-speed elevator down to the heart of the city. We step out of the elevator onto the grass. It is a huge space about two miles high and about ten miles in every direction except down. The top has huge lights designed to mirror the sun’s light. The lights are illuminating the town in front of us. There are huge skyscrapers and flying cars everywhere. It is just like being outside. It is beautiful, it looks like a city of the future, which I guess, in a way, it is. Charlie and I stand there frozen, just like the new kids at camp. I look at Charlie, she has faced the other direction. What if she doesn’t… like it? What if she decides to leave? My eyes start to water of mixed emotion because this is my new home. Charlie notices and looks at me.
“You are staying right?” I am terrified of her answer. I know this place is where I belong.
“Am I?! Of course I am!” she laughs.