You used to talk about finding your own path and following your heart and all that once-upon-a-time sort of positivity, and I wanted to believe it even if you no longer did.
The first time we ever camped out beyond the fence, with the Santa Ana winds shaking our tent and dismembering trees off in the distance, when the end of the world had been postponed but spring break was trickling through our fingers, I realized that my sister was hiding more from me than usual.
Thinking back to our old hometown, the fences are one of the first things that come to mind. Morrow Glen was undeniably beautiful once we got used to the extra brown in its color palette, with rolling hills and open sky as far as the eye could see – just not as far as the foot could walk. Yes, there were hiking trails hugging the edges of town, but my mind always went out to the tantalizing open space beyond them. What was over that big ridge we could see from our house? How far back did the rows of hills and canyons go before they merged into the mountains? How far up into them could you follow the Arroyo? When Dad finally agreed to do some off-trail exploring with us and find out, it took us all of four minutes to run up against a fence. We tried to go explore the hills at another spot – more fences.
We became aware of them everywhere we went, running alongside every road we drove on, an endless barrier that you only noticed if you already knew it was there, and I came to suspect that the barrier encircled all of Morrow Glen in a loop broken only by roads. It was Esther who first gave voice to what I was wondering: were the fences really there to keep us out of someone’s property – clearly there was no one using the empty land – or were they just there to keep us in?
No longer. The stars had aligned, our parents had a two-night getaway planned, and Esther had surprised me by reviving out of the blue an idea I’d first proposed years ago. So it was that late one evening, after weeks of scheming, we succeeded in tramping off into the forbidden hills with two friends, a tent, sleeping bags, what we thought was enough water and food, and a few of the cheap survival gadgets we’d gotten “just in case” for Y2K and now needed to justify owning.
I had no intention of getting up early the next morning, but the bottle of Dr. Pepper I polished off that night had other plans. I shambled out of the tent just before sunrise in search of a bush to water, which is how I spotted Esther climbing up the eastern side of the little gulch where we’d set up camp. She perched on a rock at the top, either not noticing me below her or not caring, facing away from us and toward the brightening horizon. When I looked again before going back to bed, she was still there, doing what no one ever saw her do anymore: nothing.
It was a rare enough sight to get me wondering, semi-conscious though I was. She’d been her normal self last night, pulling out some extracurricular work she felt compelled to bring along just as the rest of us were crawling into our sleeping bags. Despite Trina’s pleas that it could wait till later, the last thing I saw before falling asleep was her in the little pool of light from her flashlight, scribbling away at the essay she was writing for some national leadership competition. Now here she was just sitting, just being, presumably thinking hard about something.
“Up, slackers. Come on, up and out.”
The next thing I remember is what felt like a tiny insect or spider skittering off my face, followed immediately by Trina’s impatient hand shaking my sleeping bag while she did the same for Nik’s beside me. “I’m done waiting for you two, I’ve gotta get ready – no, Reid, nope – ” she dragged my head out when I tried to turtle back into the bag. “You wanted this. You wanted to be out here exploring, you don’t get to sleep through half the day.” Nik and I barely had time to lay hold of each other’s shoes, shove our feet into them without socks, and stumble outside with the most vigorous half-lucid protests we could muster.
She shooed us into a colder and dewier morning than should have been legal in a Southern California spring. The gulch we were in kept us out of the worst wind, but also kept us mostly in the shadows. We scurried over to the big rock that was the only spot the sun had warmed so far. The birds and insects were already chirping and buzzing so hard I wondered how I’d been able to sleep.
“Did she get bossier when we weren’t looking?” Nik yawned, sprawling out carefully atop the boulder in the least pointy position he could find to sun himself.
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I felt like Trina and my sister could have changed in any number of ways since the last time we’d done something like this as a group. I could still hardly believe that the trip was Esther’s initiative, considering how coolly she’d received the idea back when I first came up with it, but I was too excited that it was finally happening to question her change of heart.
“Essie’s probably just rubbing off on her,” I said.
“Rub this off,” came a voice from behind us, accompanied by a swift acorn to each of our heads. Esther had reappeared, walking back down the canyon from wherever she’d been, nonchalant but full of energy.
“Breakfast’s ready,” she added. Because of course she could only contemplate the sunrise for so long before getting up and busy. A chipmunk had broken into the food and pillaged our trail mix, but we still had a full complement of nutritious Pop-Tarts and beef jerky, which she had diligently portioned out among the four of us.
I looked mournfully at the reduced rations and remembered why camping wasn’t really our family’s thing. This outing had already racked up plenty of reminders. We’d chosen a time of year when the wind traditionally went ballistic, pulling up our tent stakes until we piled rocks on them and flipping people’s full dinner plates to the ground. We’d attempted a fire in the gulch’s most sheltered corner, but the way the sparks blew everywhere triggered just enough of our common sense to nix that idea.
But I had to remind myself that it was all worth it. We were out of bounds. We’d colonized the other side of the fence, and it was an exhilarating thought for all of us, even for Nik who had been apprehensive last night. Everything was more intense that morning: the scent of flowering shrubs and all the dust and pollen kicked up by the Santa Anas was stronger, the punch of the winds themselves rougher and more liable to sweep us all away, the daylight more welcome as it warmed our campsite inch by inch.
“Where did you disappear off to?” Trina emerged from the tent, having completed whatever arcane girl rituals constituted “getting ready”.
“Just upgrading my cactus collection,” Esther said lightly.
“No, for real, tell us what you found,” said Nik.
“I was, uh, checking out the canyon above this one. There are some cool views up that way. I say we go explore there as soon as you guys are done eating.”
As good as Esther’s poker face was, I could usually tell when she was avoiding something, but there was no reason to pry as yet. “If Oreo doesn’t hurry up and eat her stuff, I can’t be responsible for its safety,” I said with my eyes locked on Trina’s portion.
A lesser man would have cowered under the look Trina gave me when I used her old nickname. So she thought she was above that kind of silliness now? I should have known. She’d been slowly morphing over the last few years from a cool older girl who was both Esther’s and my friend, to another one of Esther’s giggle buddies who tolerated my presence.
But I wasn’t ready to give up on her just yet. “Pardon me,” I amended. “Trinidad. Madame Orellana. Breakfast is served, Madame.” I lapsed into what I thought was a caricature of a snooty French accent and made a flourish at her food.
Nik caught right on and we commenced the kind of back-and-forth in obnoxious fake accents that we’d been doing ever since that one time it cracked up our classroom months ago. Trina rolled her eyes, but struggled not to smile the more we prodded her.
“Guhhhh, learn when to retire a bit already, dipswitch,” groaned Esther, incidentally the only one of us who’d ever taken French.
We finally got a laugh out of Trina, some good-humored French swears out of Esther, and that was all it took. For just a little while longer, our little group was the way it used to be.
There was a stretch of several years when the four of us were inseparable. Now Nik and I were closer than ever, but the distance between Esther and me, already apparent before she entered high school, had grown steadily ever since. Every year, she pulled a little further ahead.
Case in point: by the time the rest of us were ready to set out for wherever it was she wanted to lead us, she was already gone.
“Honestly!” I grumbled. “Where did she go now?”
“Back that way,” said Trina, pointing up the canyon. “I guess we took too long.” She sounded miffed, but took off after her no less promptly. Although she was older than Esther, like all the rest of her class, she’d grown used to following her lead.
Nik shrugged. “If she wants to do everything on her own, fine. I bet there’s just as many birds and things to find around here as wherever she’s going.”
“Birds and things,” I retorted like it was the most dismissive phrase in the language, and strode off after Trina. “She doesn’t get to leave us behind like this.”
We made our way up out of the canyon and into the open, where we could take in the full spread of the sky and hills unobstructed. I spread my arms and yelled, “FREEEEDOOMMMMMM!” in my worst Braveheart voice.
At this, Esther, who was waiting at the top of the hill in front of us, glanced about her as if to make sure I hadn’t been heard, and I did the same. I knew we were both thinking of the Black SUV Squad.
The second time the two of us had ventured past the fences, we’d gotten a nasty shock which deterred us from returning for a while. We were wandering down a rough dirt vehicle trail when she tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward a hilltop half a mile off, where a black SUV was sitting in full view of us. There was no movement, no people showed themselves, but there was no doubt that we were being watched. Needless to say, we backtracked as quickly as two kids could without running. We never saw anything of the kind again, but the Black SUV Squad loomed large in our imaginations ever afterward. Esther built a whole mythos around them, a shadow organization who hovered over Morrow Glen and its environs, just out of sight beyond the fence, with a hand in every halfway sketchy thing we saw around town. It was some of her best storytelling in my opinion, but Trina eventually ruined it by pointing out that we’d probably just seen some drug dealers that day. Still, imagining that we’d crossed paths with some huge evil cartel didn’t make for a bad story either.
Seeing that we were still unobserved, Esther put on a smile and waved to us. “Hey, there they are! Thought you weren’t coming for a minute.”
“You’re welcome. These two wanted to just let you go,” I said. “They were like, ‘Let’s wait till she falls off a cliff and the eagles came to carry off her body, bag one, bring Tori back some endangered eagle meat like he’s always wanted.’ I told them we’d be like second degree cannibals if the bird already ate your face or something, but they – ”
“Great. Thanks. Let me show you the way across, we’re almost there.”
“Fine, but you owe us all eagle drumsticks.”
“It’s a little tricky to get there,” she said once we caught up to her. “I already went across once to make sure it’s safe, but if any of you guys don’t want to follow once you’ve seen it, I totally understand. You’ll be able to find a longer way round.”
This was an unspoken challenge. We could look for a safer route and feel like wimps, or we could attempt her riskier approach.
“Longer way to where? Where are we going” asked Nik.
“You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”
We stopped at the edge of another narrow canyon, whose opposite side rose up to a ridge beyond which we couldn’t see. A dead pine tree, stripped of more than half its bare branches, had fallen across the canyon so that its roots were just below us and its top rested in a smaller tree opposite us, forming a natural bridge.
“It’s right through that gap,” Esther said, pointing out a small pass just above the end of the tree bridge. “This is the quickest way.”
I had to admit she was right: looking at the walls, it would be a pain to climb down from where we were and back up to the gap she had indicated. There looked to be some easier routes further down the canyon, but it would mean wading through brush and brambles and we were still picking those out of our socks from yesterday.
She vaulted over the pine’s roots to land in a crouch on its trunk. “Anyone else for the skyway?”
“I’m good,” said Nik, unsurprisingly. You couldn’t get him to rise to a challenge that easily if he didn’t feel like it. I knew from long experience that he had no problem turning down even outright dares that he thought were a waste of time.
Trina was narrowing her eyes at the sketchier sections of the tree as if to X-ray it for dry rot. “I mean, if it already held her weight…” she said under her breath. But after a closer look at the walls of the ravine, she called out with audible relief, “You know, I think I actually see a good way to climb up from the bottom.”
“See you over there then,” Esther called back, already halfway across. She glanced over her shoulder straight at me.
I was tempted to follow Trina and Nik just to spite her. I didn’t have to prove myself to any showoff sister. We couldn’t all be state gymnastics finalists. Let her have her sense of superiority. The rest of us would rise above such pettiness…
…from beneath her.
Before she looked away and kept walking, I saw the tiniest, most innocent smile. It was the kind of quarter-ounce-pull rage trigger that every kid with siblings has, and good luck convincing us they aren’t nudging it on purpose.
You know what? No. Not this time. It was bad enough that I could never close that brief age gap, that she’d jumped an extra year ahead of me in school, that she couldn’t ever relax her obsession with being the best. I was plenty athletic myself; I could follow her no problem.
The first half of the trunk had plenty of knots and branches for handholds, but the final stretch was a smooth section with no branches on the topside. To Esther it was just another balance beam, only with more wind. With the bridge shaking and swaying every time one of us moved, I waited to step out onto the smooth stretch until she had scampered across and safely grasped a branch of the standing tree.
I’d believe you if you told me that something messes with gravity when you’re in a high place, because if that log had been just a foot off the ground, the crossing would have been hopscotch. The wind wasn’t making it any easier. I might have crawled on all fours had I gone first, but that wasn’t an option after Esther’s performance, so I stood up straight, having to brace myself against the gusts coming at me from up the canyon on my left. I was almost across when Esther breathed an incredulous “Whaaat?”
She wasn’t even watching me, but was focused on something up ahead of us. I turned unwisely to follow her eyes before I’d finished crossing, and saw two things. The first was our destination, and it was clear why she wanted it to be a surprise. Just over the ridge in front of us, invisible from where Nik and Trina were, was a secluded little valley surrounded by steepish hills on four sides. It had scattered shady trees, an imposing outcropping of rocks that might even contain a cave or two, and some grassy flatland in the middle that looked more inviting than it would probably turn out to be up close. In other words, a potential site for the best secret hideout ever.
This was not what Esther was reacting to.
There was an animal watching us, a short way past the dip in the ridge that gave us such an enticing view. It was hard to see at first because of its mottled brown coloration, but it was moving slightly. Too big to be a lizard, the wrong shape to be a jackrabbit, and not furry enough for a coyote or bobcat. And although I only got a brief look at it, I was eighty percent sure it had one too many pairs of legs to be any of the above.
“Do you see that?” Esther asked just above a whisper. But the thing saw that we had noticed it, jumped sideways, and disappeared from view. Thus distracted, I was caught off guard when the wind abruptly slowed to a stop and, as if someone had flipped a switch, reversed direction to come at me from behind and to the right. Already bracing with my right foot, I fumbled for a good grip with my left, hit a smooth barkless patch with my sneaker, and began flailing for balance.
I was too panicked in the moment to even raise my voice. “Whoa – uh – Essie,” was all I could gasp out. Whether she heard me or not, she swung herself around to a different branch, leaning outward to try and catch another glimpse of the mystery critter. I teetered for a gut-twisting second, but stayed upright. Now to find a better footing…
It was just as I lifted my left foot that Esther stepped off the trunk.
The recoil made me lose my footing completely, and all I could do was pitch forward enough to wrap my arms over the top of the trunk before the world spun around me, giving me one last look at Esther turning away from me. Then I was on the wrong side of the bridge, dangling and flailing underneath like a drunk spider that had finally found its outdoor voice.
Boy, was there a whole lot of nothing on top of that trunk to get a fingerhold in. I had to try and hug my torso closer to it by squeezing with my arms, which were steadily slipping and scraping over what was left of the bark. If I could just get a leg up everything would be fine, but that might mean losing whatever tenuous traction my arms had. I had entered full panic mode, scrabbling uselessly and almost hyperventilating. It was my death rather than my life that flashed through my mind: Local Knucklehead Breaks Spine Trying to Impress His Friends and Also Trespassing.
Then, a hand around my wrist. Esther. Thank God, finally.
But it was Nik’s voice that said, “Come on, get a grip with your legs! I got your arms. Don’t just hang there.” I didn’t have time to wonder how he’d gotten there so fast. He was lying flat above me, while Trina was picking her way toward us through the lower branches and vocally losing her mind. When Esther got to us at last, she was too late to be much help, gripping me by the shoulder when I was already maneuvering my upper body on top of the log. Even with my new, nerve-shredding awareness of how easily she might fall, I was tempted to shake her off.
We all made it across with dignity in tatters and skin rubbed raw and stinging, and when I say “we” I mostly mean me. Esther kept herself from losing it till we were all on solid ground.
“Don’t follow me if you can’t do it!”
“Stop talking down to me! I almost had it!”
“Almost had yourself in a casket or permanent wheelchair, sure!”
“No thanks to you I didn’t. Nice to know you even care.”
“How dare you…” At this point she choked on her words and had to take them out in glares before rushing away up the ridge. I hadn’t infuriated her to the point of literal speechlessness in forever. She stopped twice as if to turn back and say something, but thought better of it and disappeared through the gap. I was too upset to do anything but sit against the tree and wash off my bigger scrapes while my heart settled down. The wind had returned to normal.
Nik sat next to me and lent some of his water to the first aid effort. He had only gotten mildly scratched himself, which I realized was the closest I’d ever seen him come to bleeding.
“You, sir, were something else up there,” I said. “‘You have saved my life, I am eternally grateful,’ ‘at your service and all your descendants’, all that stuff. For real.”
“Sure,” he said faintly, “no sweat.” I spotted a slight tremor as he poured the water, the first sign that he was at all rattled.
“I don’t get you,” I said bluntly.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I was going to say you were brave, but… how is it you can be so fearless about something like this and then other times, no offense, act like such a wuss? Over nothing?”
He frowned. “I’m not a wuss. I’m not fearless. I get just as scared as anyone else. It’s just people are usually scared of the wrong things.”
“Okay, got it, you’re smarter than everyone else.”
I could tell there was more he wanted to say, but he just said “Forget it,” and looked away, which was fine by me. I stood up, muttering “Try to show a guy some gratitude…”
Nik. His full name, Domnik Sleat, was like everything else about him: just shy of normal. Normal circumstances didn’t apply around him, something I knew better than most, since as I was reminded every now and then, the two of us would never normally have become friends. I had just been in the right place at the right time to realize ahead of the curve that the inscrutable new kid just might secretly be the most interesting person in our grade.
As well as I had gotten to know him since then, there was an entire layer to the guy that I had yet to crack. And today wouldn’t be the day.
“I vote no more tree climbing,” Trina spoke up when she saw I was mostly defused. “We should go find Esther though.” This was the last thing I felt like doing, but I wanted to check out the valley slightly more than I wanted never to see my sister again.
I scanned the ridge as we were crossing over it, and before we descended I asked, “Hey guys? Did you see anything weird up here just before I fell?”
They shook their heads, and instead of pursuing that line of thought any further we all half-ran down the hillside, calling breathlessly for Esther once we were at the bottom. With no sign of her, Trina and I agreed to split up and search while Nik hung back, evidently in no hurry to explore the place.
Without meaning to, our paths converged on a tree toward the north end of the valley. It was a convenient landmark to head for, but the closer I got to it, the more everything felt off. If the sensation of finding one more step than you expect at the bottom of a dark staircase could be sustained continuously, it might feel something like that. I guessed Trina was picking up on it too from the look of unease on her face, but she didn’t mention it when our eyes met. She only called Esther’s name one more time.
“Hey,” said Esther, stepping out from behind the tree.
“Did you not hear us yelling for you?”
“What took you guys so long? It wasn’t that bad of a climb.” No acknowledgment of Trina’s question. It was like she’d just woken up, out of focus and agitated over something the rest of us couldn’t see.
“Relax! Sheesh. It’s only been a few minutes. Are you all right?”
“Oh… Of course, sure, I’m all right.” She was calming down, putting on a smile again. The way she was acting, if I didn’t know for certain that she’d rather eat week-old roadkill iguana than do drugs, I would have had strong suspicions. What threw me the most was how relieved she sounded to see us after ditching us for at least the third time that day. I wanted to stay angry at her, but the extra-step feeling was making it hard to focus.
“Guys, we need to go,” Nik broke in, sounding as nervous as I’d ever heard him. He’d stopped even pretending to search and was sitting obstinately on a rock a ways behind us.
“We just got here though,” I protested more on principle than anything. In truth, I was getting creeped out myself.
“No, I mean we should pack up and leave. It’s not safe here.”
“What are you talking about?” Trina asked.
“I don’t know what we were thinking, setting up camp at the bottom of a canyon. There could be flash floods.”
“Dude, look up. There isn’t a cloud around for…anywhere.”
“Doesn’t matter. You can get flash floods even when it’s sunny. I heard the rain falls up in the mountains and flows down all at once or something.”
There he went again, picking the oddest times and places to get worried. The evening before, when we’d set up camp and had some time on our hands to wander, he had been the first to vote against it. He didn’t give any explanation, but we humored him because we were tired. Whatever was spooking him now, I didn’t believe for a second that it was flash floods, but I was done arguing. Both he and Esther were keeping secrets from me, and it was putting enough of a damper on the day that I was ready to call the whole thing off. We all gave in before long and went back to strike camp.
Even Esther took the long route across the canyon this time.