2.4. Liftoff


Dad was at the office catching up on work, Mom was doing the same from her study, I was outside trying to wring my last hours of vacation dry, and Esther…

Esther was pedaling past Monteverde Park like there was a demon after her.

It was the first I’d seen of her all day, since she had left before I got up. Now she was headed toward home, but not by any of the usual routes. Where had she been that she was coming back via Riland Street? I tried to recall what was even up that way: some horse trails, the Byrne orchard, the latest batch of those old outlier houses the developers wanted to bulldoze…none of her close friends, at any rate. If I followed her home, I might get the chance to–

A basketball bounced off my shoulder. “Earth to Reid!” 

I turned back to my friends on the court. “They just scored, bro,” said Greg. “We’re losing. You still playing or what?”

“Yeah, kinda takes the fun out of beating you if you’re just gonna let me through every time you see a squirrel,” added Mason.

“Guys, I just remembered something I need to check on back home.” Every abnormality was making me paranoid now. Maybe it was nothing, but the last two threads I had pulled on…I didn’t know what they were, but it wasn’t nothing.

“What, you need to check on it right this minute?”


“I mean sure, we can do without your weak sauce defense, but someone’s gonna have to sit out if there’s an odd number.”

I’m not proud of how little persuasion it took them. Esther would still be around to poke for information when I got back, I told myself.

An hour later, she wasn’t. There was no response when I knocked on her door, and a check-in with Mom informed me that she had come in and left again in a rush. Her plans changed on a dime now that she had a cell phone. It was either another last-minute practice or hanging out at one of her friends’ houses. I tried to excuse myself casually, but I couldn’t hide my anxiety. “How come?” Mom asked before I could leave.

“I had something I wanted to ask her.” It wasn’t a lie; I had a whole bucket of things I wanted to ask her. Mom wasn’t satisfied, but she let it go at that.

I’m not going to snoop in her room. I’m not. I’m thirteen, I’m practically a man already, I’m too mature for something as childish as –

I was already opening her bedroom door.

Well, as long as I’m in here…

It was the one place she allowed herself to be a little sloppy, but the glimpses I got of it were usually neater than this. It looked like she had changed in a hurry and ransacked her drawers and closet. Her backpack was missing, and on a hunch I dashed to the garage. When I opened the bin where we’d put away the outdoor gear on Friday, the lid was loose and not all of it was still there.

I felt sicker by the minute. Puzzle pieces were swapping themselves around in my head, but I was still missing too many to fit them together. I didn’t know why she was suddenly in such a hurry, but her behavior ever since Thursday, with the bizarre exception of Amy, suggested that she might be trying to cut ties.

Back to the bedroom, where discretion politely saw itself out the window as I rummaged everywhere for more clues. What else had she taken with her? Nothing I saw gave me any leads until I kicked her discarded shorts out of the way and felt something oddly heavy in one of the pockets. Maybe the faint tingles I got were just nerves, maybe not. Whatever the case, I fished the object out.

It couldn’t have been one of her little private art projects, unless she was concealing some major talent (which wasn’t like the sister I knew at all). It was about twice the size of her phone, its shape roughly cylindrical, if you handed someone a pile of quasi-circular shapes and told him to make a cylinder by mashing them together. It was apparently designed by the same sadist geeks who dreamed up new geometrical perversions of the Rubik’s cube, with segments twisted into an array of curves and tangents that gave me a headache just looking at it. Each of its movable facets was engraved with some simple combination of lines, curves or basic shapes which formed more complex shapes in conjunction with the others. In any configuration, thirteen of them would always click into a straight line at what I assumed was the front of the gizmo. It wasn’t a puzzle or a combination lock. This thing was for encoding messages.

I thought it was plastic at first, but it was denser and had a rougher texture, possibly some kind of red-brown resin. The pieces were hard but had a very slight give to them. I turned it over a few times, then gave one segment a spin with my finger.

That was all it took for the whole thing to start spinning, twisting, and clicking as if under its own power. I didn’t see any sign of a battery slot or other power source. Spooked, I clamped a hand over the moving parts and they stopped with no resistance.

One glance at the front of the device confirmed that it was trying to form a message. But that wasn’t the most unsettling thing about it. The most unsettling thing was that it was comprehensible.

At least, partially comprehensible. The sequence hadn’t finished when I stopped it. But the fact that I could tell just how much of the line of ordered symbols meant something made me consider chucking the thing out the window before I got hit with some kind of curse. It was too late, though. I knew it would drive me crazy if I didn’t figure out the whole thing.

After holding out for two whole minutes trying to look at the pattern from different angles, I decided I would rather risk a curse than keep traveling down that particular road to bug-eyed madness, and gave the mechanism another spin.

Still spooky, but it was also mesmerizing to watch. It soon slowed to a stop as the rest of the message resolved itself. The individual symbols still meant nothing to me, but I instantly, intuitively took in the meaning their arrangement carried – and as soon as I did, my stomach dropped.

It was an invitation. Someone was summoning Esther back to the secret valley, probably the same someone who’d told her where to find it in the first place, I realized. Now that someone was promising her freedom if she returned there today.

A bunch

of stuff happened

that we’ve already seen

and I was weaving my way through chaparral bushes, hurdling shorter shrubs and ditches, sprinting in what I hoped was the direction of our campsite and the valley beyond it. The voices of Mom and Deputy Pagao had fallen behind, but it occurred to me that it would be a bad idea to lose them completely. If there was a pervert kidnapper waiting for us, I’d rather the guy with the gun not be too far behind. I looked back to see if they were still following, which it turns out is a great way to trip on the nearest root and tumble down a hollow into a mesquite thicket.

My fears of losing Pagao turned out to be groundless. His build belied his speed, and by the time I was back on my feet he was right behind me. “I don’t want to hurt you!” he called. “Just stop running and we can –”

Something rattled the bushes on our left, and his words ended in a startled shout. I dared to look back long enough to see him topple to the ground and out of view, struggling with something at his feet.

Too disturbing to stick around for and too convenient to question. I kept running.

When I reached the ravine with the fallen tree, the sounds of pursuit had faded again. I paused at the edge, grasping a tree root. Time to man up. Esther was just across that bridge, or so I hoped. But before I could swing myself up, the wind came shoving me in the back, sending creaking vibrations all through the trunk that I could feel through the root in my hand, and all of a sudden the forty or so feet between me and the other side seemed like miles. And there was no Nik around to save me this time.

I half scrambled, half slid down to the ravine’s bottom and began working my way up the other side. Trina had picked out what was probably the fastest route for climbing, but it still took far longer than I wanted. When I finally stood panting at the entrance to the valley, that full-body sensation of dropping an extra step was hitting me so intensely I was briefly disoriented, like I was internally in free fall – not something I wanted to be reminded of in that spot. I didn’t have to think about it for long before I spotted Esther.

She was pacing around by the big tree at the far end like she was either thinking or waiting for someone. Before I could catch my breath, she had walked around the right side of the tree and out of my sight.

I bellowed her name and ran down toward her the way hills were built to be descended: unrestrained, windmilling, terminal velocity. Just as I broke into my run I heard Mom calling me from a distance. I had just enough presence of mind to be impressed. That marathon she had supposedly run in the 70s seemed less mythical now.

“Essie!” She didn’t reappear as I sprinted across the little valley. When I rounded the left side of the tree, there was no one there. I glanced up the slope behind the tree, but no sign of her. As dumb as it sounds, I thought back to past games of tag when one of us would end up pursuing the other around and around an obstacle. I doubled back, ran around counterclockwise, and almost knocked her over.

“Ow! Reid! What the hell?” She sounded as bewildered as I was.

“Okay, no. That’s my line.” I didn’t notice at first that all the ambient noise of the hills had been muted: insects, wind, birdsong, and whatever ruckus the grownups might be making. “You better have a good story ready when Mom catches up to us.”

Her face clenched like she was going to punch me with it. “You brought Mom?

“You think I could stop her?”

The only reason she didn’t clobber or at least verbally shred me was that her attention was divided. The way her eyes moved and occasionally lingered, it was like she was seeing something I couldn’t. It was heavily straining my conviction that she wasn’t on drugs. Or that I wasn’t, for that matter.

“Who told you how to find this place? Essie, can you focus? I found your demented Rubik’s cube thing.” That got her attention for a moment, albeit by reminding her why she was mad at me. We held eye contact long enough for me to realize I didn’t have a plan past this point.

“You’re scaring us. Please, let’s get out of here.” I took her hand and tugged her back clockwise around the tree. She followed for a few steps, then hung back.

“Are you sure you only came after me because you were scared?” Her tone had changed, less angry but still deadly earnest. “You wanted to come here the first time, just as much as I did. You were the one yelling about freedom, weren’t you?”

Leave it to her to turn my words back on me.

“Tell me you’re not a little curious.”

Of course I was desperately curious. Now that I knew she wasn’t being menaced by some child predator, my fear was receding a little and yes, there was excitement under all that adrenaline. If this place and the feeling that permeated it were scary, they were scary like a high ropes course or surfing your first big wave. We were standing on the edge of something unknown and immeasurable. But Esther was the one who’d been summoned to it, not me. If I lost her here, I might never catch up, and that didn’t bear thinking.

We were in view of the valley’s entrance now, and we must have been standing there for longer than I thought because, to my surprise, Mom emerged in the gap. She spotted us just as Deputy Pagao doubled the surprise by clambering into view beside her. “Reid!” she wheezed as loudly as she could manage. Esther stiffened and snapped her head around upon hearing her voice, and I let go of her to wave to them. “I found her!”

When I turned back, the first thing I noticed was Esther staring at her own wrist. The second thing I noticed was a hand wrapped around that wrist, and coming in at third was the arm, torso, and entire body of a man attached to it. To this day, that’s how I describe it. Not that a man appeared and seized my sister, but that I noticed him by the act of his seizing my sister.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I crossed the fence at night. It was the aftermath of some fundraising function for one of Esther’s teams that had run late – the stage at which all the kids want to do is go home and all the parents want to do is find somebody new to talk to. Everyone else was still inside and I was kicking my heels by the car, when I decided I had time to hop the fence, never mind my good clothes, and climb the adjacent hill by what little moonlight there was. After landing on the other side, I picked my way through the prickly pears and sage clumps toward the top of the hill, tripping occasionally in the dark.

A hawk screamed, unseen but terrifyingly close, and I froze. I listened for the beat of wings, looking in every direction to see if anything was stooping at me talons first. Nothing. I didn’t wait to see if it would happen again, but backtracked meekly and hastily down the hill and back over the fence. I had heard hawks many times before, even seen them fairly close up. This one hadn’t acted extra menacing or anything. I had simply learned all of a sudden what it is to be alone in the dark with a wild animal.

I bring this up because I learned something similar the day Esther was taken. The man who was holding  her didn’t look especially mean or intimidating. Though his outfit was a far cry from 90s Earth fashion, there was nothing too weird about it. Boots were boots, pants were pants, and a collarless shirt was a shirt. I didn’t see any weapons, just a few pouches hanging from rugged fabric belts. But he didn’t have to do anything threatening. I learned in a second what I’d learned from the hawk: first, that I was in his territory; second, that I wasn’t welcome; and third, that there was a very real possibility of my getting hurt if I stayed.

I should also mention that he gave me the most intense deja vu I’d ever had – not just a feeling, but a full-blown argument my mind was having with itself. One half insisted that I had no memories of him, the other knew that I’d seen him before, and recently.

His eyes looked like they saw right through me, the hills, and the big ball of magma we were all riding on, to the stars on the other side.

Esther tried to pull away from him as he drew her back. I charged the stranger, if that’s what he was, taking a swing at him with one hand and grabbing for Esther with the other. He dodged my fist easily, but I got a hand on her arm. Not for long. The few school-alleyway scraps I’d taken part in did not prepare me for leg sweeps. The man still hadn’t said a word, single-minded and efficient. As he kicked my legs out from under me I lost my hold on Esther’s arm and scrabbled at her backpack.

The wind had shifted again. We were now at the center of a mini-cyclone, with dust and leaf detritus caught up in a spiral in the background.

I clutched one backpack strap on the way down, and as she was pulled away from me the straps came off her shoulders. All she was able to hold on to was one end of the knickknack she wore on the outside of the bag, the loop of decorated leather medallions that we called the Links of Legendaryness.

I face-planted, heard Esther shriek my name, and felt the whirlwind converge and pass over me. My ears popped for a moment. There was one final pull on the backpack, stretching my arm to its limit. I looked up just in time to get two eyefuls of flying leaves and dust, and the subtle taste of dust all down my nose and throat. But even the sensory overload seemed ephemeral, like the wind and choking cloud were barely there. I only had to blink my eyes a couple of times to look past it all and see…nothing. No Esther, no strong silent special ops guy, no sound of Mom calling to us.

One thing that was still there was the broken loop of Links, or at least half of it. One end remained clipped to the backpack while the free end stood out straight and taut in midair like it was still attached to something. I gripped it tightly in one hand, unclipped it, and got to my feet, my eyes riveted to it. The whirlwind died down, replaced by the regular Santa Ana wind, but everything hadn’t quite returned to normal. None of it seemed substantial yet except for the Links, tugging at my hand as they continued to ignore gravity.

We need to pause here and discuss the artifact in question, which has its mythic origin in the depths of this one summer camp our parents sent Tori to for a week before realizing what a fraud the place was. It was supposedly a replica of some authentic Native American decoration, a series of stamped leather squares strung together to tell a story in pictures. The original story on the panels looked incoherent, sappy, and not remotely California Indian – we guessed it was a lazy ripoff of something from Hans Andersen. Hardly Tori’s style, but he was missing Esther’s birthday because of that camp, and by the whole Navajo pantheon he was going to bring her back a present. So in between challenging the archery counselors to duels and sunburning profanities onto himself using peanut butter, he cobbled out the Links of Legendaryness for her in the craft shack.

The whole thing was strung together with mismatched colors of PVC gimp because they ran out of strip leather, and no one had any idea how it was meant to be displayed (or worn?) Esther could barely even pretend to like it at first, but the spirit of the gift was enough to attach her to it. Soon she started painting over the bland illustrations, modifying them to tell a warped, silly story of her own. Tori and I joined in and we all had far too much fun finishing the thing off. She attached it to her backpack after that, easily the dorkiest thing she’d let herself be seen in public with other than parents, but she got away with it because she was Esther. Before long it was just one of her trademarks.

Now the tension was going out of one of the plastic threads. Somewhere, it was unraveling, but for another few seconds it was still the realest thing around. I’d gotten so used to it that I never stopped to consider how much it still meant to Esther – or to me. The bizarre story we’d told on its panels was kind of about us, now that I recalled. And I could tell she was still on the other end. Could she really leave me behind that easily?

Not if I could help it. I braced myself, and the only way I can describe what happened next is that I pulled hard on her stupid backpack ornament and turned the landscape inside out.

The little valley shifted, dissolved, inverted into a rounded, grassy mountaintop, the highest thing around for miles. Esther was standing on it below me, holding onto the other end of the chain and staring bewildered at it. I don’t know that she saw me, or that I was even seeing her in the usual sense, because all usual senses had gone missing, even the ones we tend not to notice like that of my heartbeat, my squishy organs, or my joints and muscles telling me everything’s relative position. The sense that replaced them was – should I call it pure extension? Openness? Exposure? I had broken out on some scale that I never knew was possible. It would have given me chills if my spinal cord was still working.

I wanted to reach out to Esther, but the lack of arms was proving a challenge. Could I connect my mind to hers somehow? Think brotherly thoughts. Think brotherly thoughts

Strong Silent reached out and did something, I couldn’t comprehend what, but all those brotherly thoughts were drowned out for an instant by some foreign presence, then that too was violently cut off. The last thread of gimp unraveled, the chain broke, and Esther, Strong Silent, and the mountain all infinitely zoomed out to a point in existence. Other scenes zoomed in for a moment each:

– a ring of machinery, partially buried in the ground, whose exposed portion looked roughly the size of the Pentagon –

– a dying blue star with four smaller stars in a complex orbit around it, and beyond them all a vast, curved, transparent surface that looked suspiciously like the inside of a light bulb –

– a busy stockroom where people were wheeling around carts piled with rubbery yellow sacks –

– a narrow, high-ceilinged stone chapel with dim wavering light trickling in through the stained glass. I think I saw the shadow of a big fish swimming past its rose window before my mind overloaded completely.

The last thing I remember thinking is how much sooner I would have gotten to her if only I’d taken the bridge.

3. Planet Oregon

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