I bolted out the side door of the garage and into the back yard. Esther and her bike were both gone, and from what I had just found in her room, I had a sickeningly strong notion as to where.
She must have arranged our camping trip as a test of some kind, a trial run. Of course she had another motive. I should have known it was too good to be true.
I’d never known her to be gullible or reckless. She had made her first visit to the valley with a group, for a degree of safety. Now it looked like she was confident enough to go back on her own.
I held out hope until the last second that I wouldn’t see them, but there they were: bicycle tracks running through the gap in the back fence and turning west onto the rail trail behind it.
After our first year in California, Mom insisted on finding a more earthquake-safe house. Every topographical and geological resource she and Dad could get their hands on led us to a tract on the north edge of town, to a one-story house with no power lines or tall trees nearby, practically right up against open scrubland. The location wasn’t as convenient as before, but one bonus was the old railroad right-of-way turned walking trail that ran past our backyard. We’d been running and biking on it ever since, using it as a shortcut or a setting for whatever quest, car or horseback chase, or dramatic showdown Esther dreamed up for us to play.
Today it was her getaway route.
I was racing after her on my own bike in two minutes. With her head start I only stood a sliver of a chance of catching up, but I had to try something.
“Check it out, guys,” said Trina. “This totally used to be a path. You can see how straight it is.” Sure enough, from where she was standing we could see the weedy but perfectly level strip of ground we were on running back toward the town in a straight line until we could no longer make it out. “I bet this turns into the rail trail.”
“So this is where that trail goes,” said Nik. “Just off into nowhere.”
“Well, all trails go somewhere, right?” said Trina.
“Maybe not. Maybe they never finished it and it just stops at some point.”
“It was supposed to be a railroad. They at least built it with some destination in mind.”
We had hiked back to the bend in the road where we hopped the fence yesterday evening. Tori was our ride home, and since my big grownup brother had evolved beyond such bourgeois norms as punctuality, it was anyone’s guess how long we’d be waiting. Although Esther and Nik were back to normal on the surface since leaving the hidden valley, she still hadn’t said a word to me. So I searched around for anything to distract from the tension, lest we end up doing something desperate like talking about it. Finding and then following the disused pathway was the first distraction to hand.
Esther had clearly missed the point of this little expedition, because she dropped out of Trina and Nik’s argument and fell behind them to walk alongside me. “Look, I’m sorry about what happened back there. I was freaking out, I was really afraid for you, that’s why I sounded so mad.”
Even I couldn’t think of a way to argue with that. “Mh-hm.”
“I need to stop and think from now on before I try anything dangerous like that in front of you guys.”
“‘In front of us guys’? Are you serious?” How could I explain that that wasn’t the problem? That she hadn’t even looked back for me until it was too late? That all she seemed to care about was staying ahead, never mind whether I sank or swam or plummeted to my death/paraplegia?
“Yeah. I wasn’t thinking about what could happen if you tried to follow me.”
I lost it. “Stop talking about me like that. We’re almost the same age!”
“Then how come I always have to be the mature one?” The frustration she’d barely been keeping in check reared right back up.
“No, you just always have to be right!”
“One of us has to care enough to be right, Acton.” She spun around and stormed back toward the road. Trina groaned under her breath and hastened after her, while Nik and I watched them go. Then, of course, we kept right on walking, because no irrational women were going to ruin our nature hike.
As if I needed any more proof that she was taking out some unexplained stress, Esther had used my despised first name. It only came out when she was feeling especially nasty – or especially hurt.
“Sorry for dragging you along on this washout,” I told Nik.
“Dragging me? As if. I thought this was a good idea.”
“Pff. I thought so too.”
“Hey, part of it was fun. We should just pick a different spot next time. And – ” he pointed over his shoulder – “maybe no girls next time, huh?”
“Well, I mean, feel free to bring Jess.”
He just snorted. He couldn’t or wouldn’t see, as I did, that his big sister was the very incarnation of female beauty and charm. Somehow he found as much to complain about in Jess as I did in Esther, which slander I put up with only because it gave us something to commiserate over.
Tori arrived less than half an hour late this time, applauding us dramatically as he pulled up alongside the fence in his decrepit Mazda Familia. “I’m so proud of you guys,” he said, sniffing and wiping away imaginary tears. “Already staking claim to this land for the people. You’re growing up so fast.”
He always lifted our spirits, at least in small doses: fluent and charismatic in a manner that I liked to imagine we had in common, just spastic enough to be amusing but not off-putting, edgy enough to make me feel more grown up around him. Sure, a little more reliability would have been nice, but I had Esther for that.
She for her part spent most of the ride back home staring silently out the window, but eventually reverted back to business mode. “Any calls?” she asked Tori.
“One from Dad, one from Mrs. Orellana, fielded like the Rembrandt of con artists by yours truly. Your cover is secure.”
“And you are also the Rembrandt of lifesavers.”
“What else was I gonna do?” he laughed. “Even Reid couldn’t get away with it if they found out about a stunt like this.”
“I don’t get away with much of anything anymore,” I said ruefully. “They’ve really started cracking down this year.”
“Since the start of eighth grade?” He winced. “Yeah, that might have a little something to do with me. Tough break, buddy.”
While your typical eldest sibling might help the younger ones by setting an example for them, Tori instead served Esther and me in a more experimental capacity, a pioneer making all the questionable life decisions so we wouldn’t have to. Trouble was, we could still catch ripple effects of his consequences.
He pressed us for details about our adventure, but Esther, still looking out the window, interrupted partway through my recounting. “Tori, what’s your final answer about tomorrow? You going to join us or not?”
“Oh, right…with the Espositos. Sorry Essie, Julie has a thing tomorrow afternoon and I already told everyone I’d be there. Give ‘em my best wishes for the move though, okay?”
“Okay,” she said flatly, like she wasn’t even disappointed because she expected no different.
“I’m still dropping you off at gymnastics practice, right? Is this where we turn?”
“Actually, can we stop at home real quick first? I need to get my gym clothes.”
“Is there enough time for that? You didn’t tell me you had practice right after,” said Trina.
“Relax, I can still make it. I’ll be quick.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Tori. “I’ll get you there, no worries. The cops don’t usually watch this road. Now everyone hang on to something.”
I assumed she would have budgeted time for his tardiness and packed what she needed specifically to avoid showing up to practice late. It was like she hadn’t planned for this at all, which was unlike her, especially with Trina around to keep her mindful of all the details. But it wasn’t enough yet to make me worry.
When she came home late and exhausted, I was ready to do some prodding and find out if she was willing to share anything yet. Tori was out who knows where and we were alone in the darkened house, lit only by yesterday’s Kings game on the TiVo.
Before she could walk past me on the couch and head to her room, I asked, “What do you think that animal was that we saw out there?”
I could see her tense up even in the half-light, though she kept it out of her voice admirably. “What animal?”
“Come on, I know you saw it. The one that was chilling by the – on the edge of that little valley you discovered.”
“Oh, that. Probably some kind of lizard, wasn’t it?”
“Get real. We don’t have lizards that big around here.”
“Then I don’t know, maybe someone’s exotic pet got loose, like that psycho couple with the panthers last year. You should ask Nik about that sort of thing.” She continued down the hall before I could ask anything else. Her tone was clear: This topic is closed.
I would find myself wishing I could talk to Nik more than once over the following weekend, not for his animal knowledge but because he felt like the logical person to talk to about things that weren’t quite logical. But his family was out of town by then, and he was hard to reach outside of school at the best of times. For now, I was effectively alone in my suspicions. There was nothing I could do.