4. Dear The Monster That Gets Me,

You’ll want to eat what’s in my girly backpack next. Might I suggest starting with the little black canister. Make sure you twist the top first. If you’re still hungry after that, try the pointy metal things and the one that lights up. Make you feel all tingly inside.


Dear Tori,

I have a better near death story than you now, nya nya nyanya nya. I guess its not really a near death story if I actually die but try and top getting eaten by mutant forest monsters. I fought some of them off first so I’m already more badass than you.
OK what really happened was I ran away a bunch and pepper sprayed one of them, but when you and Essie tell my story, give me a machete or a flamethrower or something. Or just have me thrashing on them with my bare fists, that’s cool too.

Take care of yourself, man. Everyone’s got to face down the demons. Youll kick their butt someday soon.


Dear Mom and Dad,

Good news and bad news. Your schedule for next school year just got a lot more relaxed

Bet you never thought following her footsteps instead of Tori would get me killed. So much for

I’m so sorry.

I should have told you. I should have stopped this. Coulda woulda shoulda done most things better. Is it any less of a disappointment that I went out trying to make it right? I miss you, and home, and everyone. Guess this is what it takes to make me appreciate it all. Don’t be mad when you find the missing blender in my room. It’s a long story and I’m pretty sure it’s fixable
You did everything you could, Mom. It’s not your fault.


Dear Esther,

HA, I’ve got your journal now. This is what you get

What was the point of keeping this stupid thing locked up if you weren’t even writing in it

Turn this into one of your stories, why don’t you. Kiara and Doc Get Banished to the Back End of Nowhere and He Dies of Starvation and She Gets

What were you thinking?

You’re supposed to be the smart one. And the everything else one. Why would you do this to us? You used to at least trust me enough to drag me along. This is what happens when I have to drag myself.
Is this what you wanted? I try to do something on my own for once, I try to be the responsible one and this is where it gets me. Did you know about this place? Did you know how messed up this whole place is? Can’t even walk on the ground. It’s so dark now, I havent seen the moon all night and barely any stars. You left me a decent CD but I can’t even get halfway through it without feeling awful.
At least now everyone’s going to see who you really are. You’re impossible You’re stuck up and selfish.
I hope you’re happy I hope you read this. I hope you got away.
I don’t hate you.


Just one voice would be fine. One human voice that isn’t Stephan Jenkins please. Shouldn’t have left me markers. I’m gonna end up drawing faces on these big seed pod thingys before long.


Dear aliens,


TOO QUIET. SOMETHING MIGHT FIND ME IF I KEEP YELLING SO I NEED TO YELL IN HERE. THIS IS STUPID AND UNFAIR AND DUMB AND IF THERES MORE TO THE UNIVERSE WHY DID I HAVE TO FIND IT OUT LIKE THIS AND WHY ARE GIRLS SO DUMB AAAaaaAAAA


[Insert two full pages of assorted expletives]


Is my obituary just going to say Esther’s Brother?


Why is everything too alive?


After an hour of being stuck in a tree with no one to talk to and nothing to do but wait, I had turned to writing. It wasn’t enough to distract me from my thoughts.

At first I had opened Esther’s journal in search of answers, any record of what was going through her head leading up to this mess. It was the kind with a little built-in padlock, which I could have picked, but one more ransacking of the backpack turned up the key. Instead of clues, all I found inside were blank pages. A handful of them had been torn out from the front. “Really? Does everything here have to be a gyp?”

The reason I was stuck in the tree was that I had no plan to protect myself once I was on the ground again. The closest thing I had to a plan was to head west, downhill, on the assumption that the forest had to end at some point, but that would only work if I could walk without getting swallowed. It was hard to tell in the rain and low light if the slime creature was still around. I saw something stir in the understory after I threw some seed pods into it, and chose not to find out in person. By the time the rain cleared up, the sun was setting, and I resigned myself to staying where I was until I could at least see what was coming to kill me.

I was a little cleaner now, and a lot damper. I’d attempted to wash off some of the slime and dirt in the rain, even though it left me shivering with no way to dry off. The stinging patches didn’t feel any better after I cleaned them, but they weren’t getting any worse. I had also refilled the water bottle with runoff from the branches.

I’ll admit it, there were tears that night. Facing down your mortality for the first time is hard enough even when you don’t have to do it alone, bewildered, and in the dark.

The surprising thing is that I got any sleep at all. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I tried to break off some smaller branches to form a perimeter and stop myself from rolling off the crude little platform I’d made. When that failed pathetically, I had the bright idea of looping one of the backpack’s straps over a branch and shoving my arms and upper torso through the other one as an uncomfortable safety harness. I passed out briefly, then sat up for several more hours to watch the forest slowly brighten and come awake. It was a mercifully short night, only eight hours and forty-one minutes, of which I’d managed to sleep for fifty-two.

At least, those were the numbers that felt right when I checked my watch, and I was too frazzled to question why I was so sure of them.

After exhaustive testing (read: chucking lots of seed pods at the ground), it looked like the slime thing had moved on during the night. I still trod as lightly as I could while making my escape. I couldn’t be sure if the dinky little bubble compass built into the survival tool had ever worked, but in any case, it was pointing all over the place now. I’d have to just do my best to walk the opposite way from the rising sun and keep going downhill.

Although nothing attacked me that morning, I got more uncomfortable the more I saw of the forest. I had to admit that most of it was beautiful in a primal, mythic sort of way. And the abundance of wild green after the arid vistas and landscaped yards I was used to reminded me of the thickets behind our old home in Connecticut. But then I would find sections of it that struck me as not just different, but wrong.

A series of meadows, for instance, where there were enough flowers together for me to notice they were all pointing in the same radial direction. Looking closer, I saw the growths on the trees also facing as if toward a common center. Then, farther in, the branches of the trees themselves. I gave up on investigating when I noticed the ground sloping downward, like I was walking into a funnel. There were no animal sounds nearby, only a low hum coming from the ground.

Elsewhere, I found branches from one tree growing into another, and a little farther on I started seeing trunks twisting and merging into each other. Beyond that I could glimpse outlines of stranger shapes melded into the wood, but changed course without daring to find out what they were. The whole thing was beginning to look too much like a maze or cage for my liking.

I skirted areas that smelled mostly of decay, where the trees were losing their needles and the wilted brown undergrowth seemed to be spreading, reaching out to take in more of the surrounding life. The overall impression I was getting was of a biome in conflict with itself.

Each time I went out of my way to avoid something unsettling, I found myself drifting to my left, north according to the sun. Before long I was going that way by default, because it was working. Less of what I saw as the day wore on felt like a “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzle.

Not to say that I felt comfortable or even much safer. Safety didn’t seem to be an option here. Whenever I took a rest, I made sure none of the nearby plants were moving. When I found a river and stopped to refill my bottle, a dark shape near the other bank poked its eyes above the water to stare at me until I left. Some of its eyes, anyway – I saw at least three. And once, I heard a distant commotion of trampled undergrowth and looked just in time to spot something sinuous and segmented, as long as a pickup truck and with too many legs, gallivanting away into the shadows.

My mind was done being blown by unearthly sights for the time being; in fact I was actively avoiding thinking about them and the connotation “unearthly” in particular. I was too busy stressing about how alone I was. I’d never gone this long without someone to talk to, let alone help me stay alive. I went back to ranting at Esther for a while for getting us into this, but that only made me feel worse when I thought about what was probably happening to her.

It was back to my inner thoughts, which was no improvement. The jar of bees, as Dad would call it, that real silence let loose in my head was worse than the growling in my stomach, which for a thirteen-year-old boy is saying a lot.

The rain returned in the afternoon, and I had more success cleaning off some of the grime and sweat this time. I was following a river by then, into which I’d have jumped without hesitation had I been anywhere normal. As it was, I had to psych myself up just to stick my feet in while the rest of me dried off.

My right foot was surprisingly blister-free where the sock was still intact, but the tears were getting bigger. To get an extra layer between me and the ground, I emptied the Ziploc bag, feeling a little uncomfortable, and attempted to tape it over my foot. Just as I finished, I heard something rustle in the pile I’d dumped out and looked over to see a small red creature dragging off a tampon. It looked amphibious, like a salamander with more fins. Sure enough, it scurried a short way through the grass and slipped into one of the little streams that fed into the river.

“Nope, little crime against nature, that’s not a stick. Get back here.” I didn’t know what I’d ever be able to use feminine protection for (I won’t pretend I was smart enough to consider first aid), but it took a lot less than being stranded in a deadly nightmare forest to activate my hoarder instincts. I followed the animal until it disappeared under a tangle of submerged plants where the stream divided. It didn’t re-emerge, but I noticed a few others like it swimming and crawling around nearby, some of them also carrying things in their mouths.

The course of the stream itself caught my attention now that I was looking more closely. It was being split and spread out by a collection of little tussocks or islands, to the point where it essentially became a broad, shallow body of water up ahead. Still farther on, it began to look more like a pattern formed by the water, vegetation, and whatever the salamanders were building. And there were a lot more than just salamanders living in it, like clusters of bugs scooting along the surface and fishlike things wriggling around in places where it got surprisingly deep.

As the pattern grew more pronounced and more regular, I got excited. I didn’t know what nature was capable of out here, but square corners? Those were a people thing. There were staggered rows, almost a lattice, emerging in the arrangement of pools and islands. Looking behind me, if I didn’t know better, I would have said the watercourse was growing outward from here, making its own organic variations on the structure. I couldn’t even keep track of which way it was flowing. The needles and leaves I saw fall into it were being pulled in different directions, following invisible currents here and there.

The whole thing finally converged into a narrow channel, a small round pool, and then a set of intertwining curves that looked something like this,

before branching off in two opposite directions. I collapsed onto a nearby stump, stared at the shape, and tried hard not to get my hopes up.

As rough around the edges as the channels were from erosion and plant growth, I would swear that they’d been dug, however long ago. But after all the weirdness I’d seen that day, could I be sure this wasn’t more of the same? “You still messing with me?” I yelled into the air. “Is this another trap? The salamanders were cute, I’ll give you that. I fell for that. Nice one.”

I hung my head, which forced me to pay attention to the stump I was sitting on, and quickly felt like an idiot. I hadn’t registered that the top of the stump was flat, almost smooth – sawed off.

A quick search turned up another just like it. It didn’t take long to find the trees they belonged to, limbed and lined up like a barrier beside one of the streams. And on the other side, overgrown but unmistakably, gloriously man-made, a path.

And as the good book says, there was much rejoicing. I hope I didn’t traumatize the salamanders too much.

The sun was already setting, and I wasn’t spending another night draped over branches if there was even a fraction of a chance I could make it to humans and shelter. I cranked up the flashlight and bullied my legs into continuing.

Eyes glinted out at me from between the trees every now and then. I recalled the advice I’d heard about hiking in mountain lion territory at twilight. 1) Don’t do it. 2) If you have to do it, make noise to discourage them from stalking you. Maybe that wouldn’t work on whatever night vision hunters they had out here, but what the heck, I felt like making noise. And my singing should be enough to repel anything.

Just when I was ready to give up for the night, looking for another tree to climb, a speck of light way down the trail caught the corner of my eye. Once I switched the flashlight off and let my vision adjust, I could actually see several lights, two of them steady bluish glows that could have been the lures of some gross nocturnal predator. But I only cared about the brightest, a cheerful flickering orange.

Firelight.

The villagers on the outskirts of Brenest were getting ready to turn in when a terrible sound from the surrounding woods shattered their peaceful night. Some feared it was the battle chant of an incoming bandit squad, but they soon realized it was just one person. One young person singing himself hoarse in a tongue unknown to them and a voice that had no business singing anything.

“GREEEEENSLEEVES, THEY NEVER GET DIRTY, THE LONGER YOU WEAR THEM THE GREENER THEY GET. SOOOOOMETIMES, I THINK I SHOULD WASH THEM BUT SOMETHING INSIDE OF ME TELLS ME NOT YET, NOT YET, NOT YET…”

A small crowd with glowsticks (and a few regular sticks just in case) quickly gathered by the path in time to see the young person stumble into view, let his song trail off, and grin at them like an imbecile. One man stepped out in front of the rest to block the path.

“Hi,” I said.

He said something incomprehensible and commanding.

“Can I hug you?”

More un-American gibberish followed, but I was too giddy at the postponement of my death to care. I was ready to collapse where I stood, and more urgently, running out of songs my sleep-deprived brain could remember the words to. This was my new favorite person, just for being a person.

He did not appreciate the hug, for the record.

Next:
5. Pictionary: First Contact Edition

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3. Planet Oregon

3. Planet Oregon

When I woke, it was nothing but trees. Giant ones like evergreens, looming up to fence off the lonely little patch of sky above me. I sat up, feeling sore, in a patch of some prickly but yielding plants.

I picked out a few solid thoughts from the soup of phantasmal impressions dribbling out of my brain: confronting Esther in the valley, something pulling her away from me, the Links, wind and pain, then some gobbledygook visions. I shook myself, got slowly to my feet, and shouted for Esther. For anyone.

There’s no need to go over the next twenty-odd minutes in detail. Maybe I took it all in stride like the jaded modern youth I was. Or there could maybe have been some panic. Who’s to say? Not really crucial to the story. What matters is that I was alone, in a place like nowhere I’d ever been.

My first guess was Oregon.

I’d seen sequoia forests in the Sierras, but this was too damp and overgrown for that – saturated, in a word. It must have been as ancient as any redwood grove. Even the air was old, millennia’s worth of the circle of life distilled into vapor. Every breath smelt and felt like moss would start growing in my lungs if I took too many. The forest floor was a mini jungle of small plants like the one I’d landed on – and plenty of animal life too, judging by the constant humming, squeaking, and clicking in the background – all over a carpet of needles, moss, and damp humus.

Wandering around at random like a puppy with its head in a jar would be pointless, I realized after a while of wandering around like a puppy with its head in a jar, and sat down on a rock to get my thoughts in order. I knew Esther had been taken, even if I couldn’t recall exactly how. The image of her in some alpine meadow was consigned to the gobbledygook visions category pending further evidence. I’d watched enough news to know what happened to young girls who were lured away from home and abducted. The twist was that I’d been taken too, just not to someone’s basement. I considered the possibility that I’d angered the Black SUV Squad (or cartel), who had drugged me and driven me off to the middle of nowhere to be eaten by a bear or a survivalist hermit tripping on the mushrooms grown in his beard. Being drugged would go a long way toward explaining both the things I remembered so vividly and the one thing I couldn’t remember at all, despite an urgent feeling that I ought to. It didn’t explain why they would bother driving me this far north when there were plenty of deserts and the Pacific Ocean to drop me in.

Everything I’d had on me was still there too: Esther’s backpack, half of the broken Links, the same clothes. My watch was still working, but it now told me it was just past midnight on January first. Someone or something had reset it just a minute or two before I woke. But these were all questions to worry about once I got out of the woods.

They might have used an off-road vehicle, but there was always a chance that I was still near a road. If I could only get high enough in one of the trees, I might spot it. I looked around, but didn’t see any low enough branches. There was one tree leaning against two others at a shallow enough angle that I might be able to reach the lower canopy by climbing it, but fallen trees and I weren’t on speaking or climbing terms just yet. I might have to suck it up if I wanted to get out of here, though.

I rubbed my arms; now that I was out of the sun, it was too chilly for basketball shorts and a hand-me-down Offspring t-shirt. Plus, my right foot was all wet now. I’d been too distracted to notice it was in a mud puddle. I wiggled my ankle to give it an idle stir.

The puddle stirred back.

I jumped up with a yelp only to fall backward when the puddle impersonator refused to let go of my sneaker, almost like that cornstarch goop we all made at some point in science class. One hand squelched into more of the same substance up to the mid-forearm, but it wasn’t until the squeezing started that I knew for sure I was in trouble.

A dark green glistening mass was moving its way up my arm, while the same was happening to my foot. With the one hand and foot I had on solid ground, I braced myself and yanked my foot out of the engulfed sneaker. When I tried to extract my arm, the stuff only pulled back harder. I could now see it was much bigger than a couple of puddles, with more of it gathering together and moving in my direction. I looked around wildly for anything to use against it. There was a fallen branch nearby, but it proved to be just out of arm’s reach.

The cold stickiness was up to my elbow now, and beginning to reach my lower body. I pivoted, stretching out with my legs for the branch until I was flat on my back. My feet closed on it just as the creature grasped the back of my head and neck.

I pulled away from it with a spin that would have made any break dancer proud and a screech that would have made any little girl envious. As soon as the branch was in my free hand, I stabbed maniacally at the gelatinous flesh around my arm and felt a shudder. The good news was that its grip loosened. The bad news was that I saw and heard the shudder spread out in a wave across all the nearby forest floor.

My arm slid free with a deeply uncomfortable sucking sensation, stinging from where my stabbing frenzy had scratched it but otherwise unhurt, and I ran in what I thought was the opposite direction from the creature. I only made it a few steps before more squelches dispelled that error. Not only did its dark greens and browns make for ideal camouflage, the dappled light made avoiding it on the run even harder. I was about to just pick a direction and hope that I could trample over it fast enough not to get caught when there was a pulse of motion across the ground up ahead, converging in front of me to thrust up an amorphous appendage more than half my height. Basketball reflexes turned out to be good for something after all as I spun out of its way, only to stumble into a shallower patch on my hands and knees.

I pulled free before I could lose another shoe or sock. The pseudopod lunged and missed me by inches. I ran for the only surface that looked unmistakably slime-free, a big half-rotted log just yards away. A flying leap and a scramble over powdery, crumbling wood, and I was out of harm’s way for the moment.

The Oregon hypothesis was looking shaky.

I knew the Pacific Northwest had some big slugs, but the nature magazines had left out the sentient army-camo booger monsters. I knew about slime molds, but one would think they’d get more Discovery Channel specials if they could get this big and fast. I also had a nasty suspicion that I’d read about them explicitly in connection with rotting logs.

This one at any rate wasn’t making a move to climb up after me. It was still moving plenty, though; more than half the ground was rippling by now. It was thicker in some spots than others. I was lucky that I’d first encountered it at the edge where it was more spread out. From my new vantage point I could see what looked like a steadily shrinking patch of dry ground, leading away from the far end of the log, that might be my only way out.

The creature was pulsating again, bunching up into more pseudopods on either side of the log. When I ran toward the opening, they struck, hitting the sides of the log on their first try but aiming higher on the next. Still reluctant to make contact with the wood, I noted. One big blob was forming further down the log, trying to get ahead of me. I put on an extra burst of speed, put my foot through an extra rotten section, and fell extra hard on my face. A pseudopod passed right over me, drawn to the heavy thud.

It couldn’t see me, but it could at least sense vibrations through the ground. I crawled forward as quietly as I could and looked up. It was holding off on attacking, waiting for more vibrations to track. But my escape route was still shrinking. I didn’t have time to inch my way to freedom.

Was there anything in Esther’s backpack I could use? A cursory search turned up a can of pepper spray and one of our Y2K survival gizmos, a flimsy-looking multitool which might have a dull blade in it somewhere. Both of them would be thoroughly useless against something like this. Fire would probably hold it off, but if there were matches or a lighter in there, I couldn’t find them. That, and I had reservations about starting a forest fire while I was in the forest.

I cautiously pulled up two hefty chunks of wood, got to my feet, and threw them as far from the log as I could. Just as I hoped, they caused a stir right around where they landed. With that brief distraction, I broke into a run again.

The nearby pseudopods immediately turned toward me. Fantastic, it could multitask too.

Something flew past my face and I ducked reflexively. A second projectile hit my left shoulder and arm, a gob of viscous fluid. The thing was spitting at me now. I brushed most of it off, but the skin it touched was already starting to sting.

Does Australia have forests like this?

The biggest pseudopod still loomed ahead. I hung back to avoid its predictive lunge, dashed forward as soon as it retracted, and was knocked off balance by one from the opposite side. I’d been too focused on the big one to see it coming.

Unable to check my momentum, on the verge of falling off the side into the rising slime mold (or whatever it was) below, I pushed off into an awkward, oblique long jump. I landed on a thinner patch of slime, slipped, rolled my way through it and into what remained of the open space. I was back up and sprinting in time to avoid the thigh-high wave that formed just behind me. Another wad of spit grazed the back of my leg.

Just when I thought I was almost in the clear, I saw the tell-tale sheen expanding ahead of me as if from nowhere, blocking my way. It was coming right up through the floor, I realized in horror. Goodness only knew how much more of it there was underground.

Outrunning it might not be an option.

I was close to the leaning fallen tree I’d spotted earlier. If my guess that the creature wouldn’t climb trees was right, up might be the only way out. The direct approach was blocked, however. I made for the nearest standing tree, one of a tight cluster that I might be able to use like stepping stones to get closer. As soon as I jumped onto the exposed roots, webs of pulsating green began creeping over them. I had to make an emergency test of my theory, hugging the trunk with my back to it. To my very tempered relief, the creature tolerated the outlying roots but wouldn’t approach as far as the trunk.

All was quiet for a moment, and I made the mistake of taking a breather. I was covered head to mismatched feet in ick by now, with needles and dirt sticking to me in patches, and the pain from that projectile spit was worsening. I noticed movement around the perimeter of the stand of trees, which when I looked closer turned out to be a very literal perimeter, an encircling wall that the slime thing was steadily raising up. I could only assume that if I didn’t make a move soon, it would start closing in.

The pseudopod forming on the roots at my feet was still growing, but more slowly than normal. It was a safe bet that the roots inhibited it somewhat, and there were roots all over the place here. If I was careful where I stepped, I might make it out before the barrier grew too big to hurdle.

I made a run for it, leaping from root to root wherever I could, furiously stomping slime with every footfall where I couldn’t. The upturned root system of the fallen tree, my last hope, was almost within reach when the barrier bunched up to block me.

I launched myself off of a big knot at the base of the last tree, up and over the wall of slime. I clipped the top of it, but still landed messily on the other side, rolling over and over until I hit the dead tree. Immediately I was clawing at the dirt-covered roots to pull myself up as the patch of slime I’d landed in tried to drag me back down. Its tendrils had me by the leg, shoulder, and shirt, with one more reaching up for my left foot.

That was the last straw. Whatever happened, this overgrown snot wasn’t getting my other shoe. I roared, pulled with everything I had, kicked at it, and broke free. I tried climbing higher but was stopped short by a tug on the backpack. One tenacious pseudopod was still clinging to it, dragging it off my shoulders to the ominous sound of zippers unzipping.

I slipped one strap off, secured the other strap by hooking my arm around a root, and grabbed at the backside of the pack to keep it from coming open. With some more adrenaline-fueled pulling and a few more kicks, I got it loose – either that or the creature realized it wasn’t food.

I dragged myself halfway up the sloping trunk before accepting that I really wasn’t being followed and collapsing into the fork between two branches. Screw Oregon, screw Australia, screw whatever this place was. “I hope my shoe gives you food poisoning!” I shouted hoarsely at the huge squirming mess below. “Go die in a Kleenex factory!”

Remembering belatedly that it could still spit at me, I hurried the rest of the way up into the branches of the standing tree. Nowhere to go now but up. Unless I fell, of course.

The branches were dense enough to climb quickly and easily. When I reached a comfortable spot, I lay back across two branches and took a rest, though actually relaxing was out of the question after the reception the forest had just given me.

I was banged up from the falls I’d taken, and whatever the slime thing had squirted me with stung worse than a jellyfish now that the pain’s intensity had leveled off. My bare sock was soaked and torn but still intact enough to use. I took it off for now to avoid any further wear. Miraculously enough, the shoe was the only thing I’d lost. The backpack was all intact, so I took a full inventory of its contents.

Esther really had packed this thing in a hurry. It looked haphazard by her standards, with the main compartment full of things clearly intended for a trip, but the front pouch still containing some of her stuff from school.

In total, my wilderness survival kit consisted of a pencil case with writing implements and markers, scissors, a journal, her little Olympus camera, hair ties, tweezers and nail clippers, a Ziploc bag of tampons and a few toiletries, a roll of athletic tape, a water bottle, a small compression stuff sack with a few pieces of extra clothing and undergarments that I didn’t examine too closely, the multitool and pepper spray mentioned earlier, and most exciting of all, three smushed granola bars. A minute and a half later, the bars were gone and the most exciting thing was a mini hand-cranked flashlight radio. Buried at the bottom, whether left there intentionally or not, I found her CD Walkman and headphones.

The radio yielded nothing but static. Not only did this crush my hopes of finding out where I was, it meant that whatever was in the Walkman would be all I had to listen to out here. The odds of finding something good or some of the trash Esther listened to with her friends were about equal. I squeezed my eyes shut and popped it open, begging for anything but Christina Aguilera.

Third Eye Blind. Unexpected, but I’ll take it. Now time to get myself a better view of this place.

The forest canopy was its own little world of life. I passed a few spots where small nest-like gardens had formed in the tangle between branches, sprouting other plants and fungi. In my paranoid state, the first bugs I encountered had me freaking out trying to brush them off before they could sting, burrow, or lay eggs in me, but I soon got used to them. The most common ones I found were something like a cross between a caterpillar and a centipede with stubby little legs, and flocks of flying, spinning critters that looked uncannily leaflike, as if those helicopter seeds that maple trees drop had learned how to flap their wings.

The Walkman still worked, so I plugged the headphones in to try and take my mind off how desperate things were and the implication of all these strange creatures. But the distraction did nothing for my spirits except to drag them further down. I couldn’t remember music ever affecting me so strongly, especially when I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics. After just a couple of songs, I couldn’t take it anymore and turned it off.

As sometimes happened, I forgot to remove the headphones. They did such a great job of blocking out noise that I didn’t hear two pairs of approaching wings and started, nearly losing my footing, when they zipped past my head. Two animals were fluttering around the tree, the size of birds but with mammalian snouts instead of beaks and orange and black fur on their bodies. I couldn’t tell where the fur ended and the feathers on their wings began, if they even were feathers. They ignored me and soon went their own way, but fresh paranoia kept the headphones off afterward. For that, I probably owe them my life.

I was maybe two-thirds of the way up when I heard the branches below rustling and crackling. Swinging its way up toward me at impressive speed was the first large animal I’d seen, almost my size. I was slow to react because it took some time to make any sense of what I was looking at. It was whipping itself through the branches with four long limbs in the form of leathery tendrils, looking up at me with big round eyes mounted far apart on a swiveling head with prominent, sensitive-looking ears. Between its top two tendril arms and its head were two powerful jointed arms it kept folded as it climbed. The claws on the end gave me a good idea of what those were for.

It appeared to be built for two things: swinging through trees and catching any unlucky inhabitants of those trees. In retrospect, it was pretty cool. At the time, it was the bastard offspring of several horror franchises and a jacked sloth coming to decorate the tree with my insides.

I’d last all of half a second trying to use a multitool blade against that. All I could think of was the pepper spray. By the time I dug it out of my pocket and figured out that I had to twist the actuator for it to work, one of the tentacular arms was already curling around my foot and the branch I was standing on, almost poking through my shoe with some kind of retractable spines. I pointed the can downward and sprayed with abandon.

The animal (I would eventually settle on calling it “slothtopus” over “tentacle monkey”) reacted instantly, releasing its grip and backing down with a volley of hoots. It stopped a good distance below after I stopped spraying, its twitching eyes squinted almost shut, then swung around the other side of the tree and went quiet. After a few moments to recover, I heard it resume climbing, attempting a different approach. I jumped to another branch to keep it in sight and fired off another burst.

It recoiled again and swung off out of sight, deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble. I looked at the spray can in awe. It packed a punch for something so small; I didn’t even think I was in range for that second burst. Better use it sparingly. I then screamed every taunt I could think of after the fleeing Slothtopus well after it was out of earshot, sat down to catch my breath, and literally patted myself on the back for my first unequivocal victory. If only I’d saved a granola bar for this moment.

Higher up, the smaller and denser branches slowed my progress, and the more pronounced swaying of the trunk reminded me how far I had to fall. But finally I reached a window in the branches with a view.

Still nothing but treetops.

I couldn’t have told you why I kept climbing after that or what I expected to see. There was more than enough evidence for what you already know. All I can say is that any kind of hope is a powerful motivator, even a false one. That inarticulate hope pushed me as close to the top as I could get.

The view showed me only that the land sloped gradually downward to my right, the direction of the sun, and that rain clouds were moving in. There was nothing else to see, no landmarks, and still no radio signals. I still clung to the swaying pinnacle, squinting in every direction for a sign of anything besides more forest, until the first raindrops forced me back down.

Next:
4. Dear The Monster That Gets Me,

Previous:
2.4. Liftoff

2.4. Liftoff

SUNDAY

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?”

“Well…”

“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.

Next:
3. Planet Oregon

2.3. Exit

SUNDAY

“I don’t know what this thing is or what it just did to me…but it isn’t directions,” said Mom.

Here it comes.

“How do you know how to get there?”

Seeing my hesitancy, she did her best to swallow some of the fierceness fear was putting into her voice. She wasn’t used to being the good cop, but she said as gently as she could manage, “I promise you are not going to get in trouble for helping keep your sister safe.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Can I tell you when we’re not driving? We’re almost there.”

We had reached the northern edge of town, closing in on the wide-shouldered bend in the road where it drew closest to the fence, when I spotted what I was looking for in the weeds alongside the remnant of the old railroad pathway. “There! Pull over!”

Here?” She had to be imagining every combination of illegal and depraved dealings that could go down in an isolated spot like this. I jumped out and ran up to the fence to get a closer look. Sure enough, there was a handlebar poking out from beneath a collection of garbage. “Look, she left her bike!”

Mom ran up behind me. “Oh no…”

“It must have taken her a while to bike all the way out here. She’ll be tired, we might be able to catch her.”

“Catch her before what? Answers now, Reid!”

“I’m not sure. Before someone else does?”

At that, she would probably have postponed the interrogation and vaulted the fence like Esther herself, but the short, sharp whoop of a siren behind us interrupted.

A sheriff’s car pulled up behind Mom’s and out stepped a deputy. “Afternoon, ma’am. Can I ask what brings the two of you out here?”

“I’m looking for my daughter. She’s 5 foot 5, black hair down to here, brown eyes…”

“We got a report the other day of a trespassing incident in this area. Are you aware that’s private property?”

“All I’m aware of right now, Officer…Pagao, is that my daughter may be in danger on that property. Are you going to help me or not?”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being Esther’s brother, it’s how to take advantage of the spotlight being on her. While Mom and the officer were going back and forth and wasting time, I was still standing by the fence, looking through it sidelong and working out my best route. Deputy Pagao looked on the heavier side, not quite fat, but not the type I’d expect to clear a fence in a hurry. I’d have a decent head start.

I didn’t make any sudden moves, just casually put a hand and foot up on the fence links. I’d gotten several steps up before I heard Pagao bark “Hey!”

I called on every gymnastics gene I might have co-inherited to scramble the rest of the way up, fling myself over the top, and hit the ground running.

SATURDAY

“I said I’m not coming today.”

“You’re serious? You never miss practice!”

“It’s an optional meeting,” Esther retorted. “I have other plans.”

“I mean, technically, but…we were all counting on you to bring the topic prompts.”

“Sorry, Cody, I didn’t make any promises. You guys’ll be fine without me.”

I, listening to this exchange from the other side of a planter, asked myself for the fifth or sixth time what the hell I was doing.

The more worried I got about Esther, the faster my scruples about eavesdropping were evaporating. So there I was at Newcastle Plaza, where the Niels Bohr High School speech and debate team was meeting for their “optional” practice session ahead of next week’s event. Since not even the nerds wanted to be anywhere near “Bohrdom” right now, their coach had suggested a more casual meetup at the trendy shopping center. I stooped to tagging along when Mom dropped Esther off, after convincing a few friends to meet there later so I had a pretext. Shadowing her, I wasn’t all that surprised when she went off in the opposite direction of the tables where the team was meeting. However, she hadn’t counted on running into two teammates, Cody Luong and Chelsea Phillips, who were now trying to convince her to stick around. I could already tell she wasn’t going to budge.

She’d been dropping hints about wanting to quit debate even before things got weird. I couldn’t personally understand why she would rather take up drama; I saw no downsides to an event that was basically professional arguing with an audience. ”Keyword professional,” she told me, “not creatively dissing each other for twenty minutes. It’s not as much fun as you think.” Still, if she did end up quitting, I couldn’t wait to sign up next year. It was one of the few exceptions to my steadily mounting dread regarding high school.


The conversation was getting more heated. Finally Esther broke it off and walked briskly out of sight around the back of the nearest building. The other two conferred with each other for a minute, then went after her.

I followed them into the soon-to-be fenced off and condemned section of the old plaza. They were looking down an empty alleyway between buildings, with no one else in sight.

“Oh hey,” said Chelsea as I approached. “You’re Esther’s brother, right? Uh…Keith?”

“Sure, why not.” Maybe it was time to stop caring whether anyone got my name right if they were always going to identify me as “Esther’s brother” regardless. We looked enough alike to regularly get the twins question when we were little. The same straight black hair, similarly round faces with features that led to similar annoyance at being thought younger than we were (though mine was the only one that ever got called “impish” for some reason). I’d probably never be able to hide it without plastic surgery.

“Did you see where she went?” I asked.

“No. I didn’t know she was that fast!”

Cody frowned, concern winning out over his annoyance. “If she doesn’t want to join us that badly, fine. We’ll have to change our plans now anyway. I just hope she’s okay.”

“Mh-hm,” said Chelsea, chewing her lip pensively. “I don’t know what her deal is, but she needs someone to talk to.”

That someone wasn’t going to be me, but I kept going anyway after they turned back. I arrived at a dead end, an empty courtyard with shuttered storefronts. The only other exit was walled off with plywood, not that she would have hesitated to vault it. I took a glance back down the alley for thoroughness’ sake. There was an unmarked maintenance door in the middle of the wall, the kind you can tell is always locked even without a STAFF ONLY sign, but this one looked like it might be hanging open just a crack. A closer inspection confirmed it.

I cautiously opened the door into a pitch black space full of cluttered shelves. A swarm of tiny bugs scurried down the inside of the door and dispersed into the open.

“Eeugh.” Adding another tally to my what-the-hell-am-I-doing count, I called Esther’s name and stepped through. I felt a momentary resistance to walking inside that had nothing to do with trepidation – it put me in mind of struggling to move forward in a dream.

I wasn’t supposed to be here. Maybe no one was. Even the property manager probably didn’t remember why this room existed. It smelled like neglect, mildew, industrial solvent, and impending child murder, and of course there was no obvious light switch. I kept going forward and called for Esther again, but there was no sound except my own fumbling. Sufficiently creeped out, I was about to leave when the wind came tearing down the alley and slammed the door shut.

I blundered with outstretched arms toward where I remembered the door being, but it was eluding me. Being in the dark had messed with my sense of space before, but now it was outright stripping me of it. It wasn’t even like being lost, because when you’re lost you can at least be sure that you’re somewhere. It was intolerable. I would certainly have found Esther if she was hiding in there, because I either banged into or stepped on every object in the room, including about fifty of what felt like those caltrop tire spikes.

Finally I made contact with a door handle, pushed through the same resistance as before, and limped out into the sunlight, rubbing a bruised shin and swiping more of the little bugs off my legs.

“Hey man, read the sign. It’s employees only.” I started and looked up to see a young man behind the counter of a smoothie stand regarding me a little wearily. “Security notices that stuff, just sayin’…Are you okay?”

I was not. I was standing in front of a clearly marked employee door, in between two busy shops, in a courtyard full of people with a tiled fountain in the middle, and my mouth was probably hanging open.

Were we anywhere near this part of the mall before?

I walked away from the smoothie guy without a word, rationalizing furiously. I had gotten turned around and stumbled through some disused passageway. The disorientation was just the chemical fumes. A little extra brain damage, nothing to worry about.

And besides, I’d found Esther.

She was across the courtyard chatting with another girl and hadn’t spotted me yet. I slipped over to an inconspicuous seat behind the fountain to keep watching, and with the kind of shock I was getting numb to I recognized the other girl, a classmate of hers named Amy. It was no surprise to see her here; the surprise was seeing her not only talking to, but relaxed and laughing with, my sister.

They hadn’t spoken since February, and from what I could glean, their friendship was stone dead. Everyone knew about Esther cutting ties with her abruptly, callously, and seemingly without cause, and the resulting backlash against her for acting so out of character. I should be glad that rift was apparently mended, but right now it was just one more anti-clue, making the mystery worse.

“Hi, this is Amy, who’s calling?”

“It’s Reid Emberley.”

“I’m sorry, who?”

Sigh. “Esther’s brother.”

“Oh…Well, hi, what’s up?”

It was after dinner that night, and I had tracked down Amy’s home number from one of Mom’s contact lists. I’d been vacillating all afternoon about whether or not to call her. I barely knew her, and it could very well come back to bite me. Esther was shut up in her room, and the snippets of phone conversations with friends that I heard through the door in passing were sounding increasingly contentious. That got me wondering hard enough about the one positive interaction I’d seen all day to man up and make the call.

“Okay, weird question, and I know it’s kinda personal, but I promise I have a reason. Is everything cool now with you and Esther?”

“Cool now? How do you mean?”

“Did she start acting different?”

“Not that I know of?” She didn’t sound offended that I was asking, just baffled. Then came the line that floored me.

“I’m not really the best one to ask. I haven’t known her very long.”

“…”

“Hello? Reese?”

“What are you talking about?” I blurted. Something was very wrong. “You’ve known her for years. This is Amy, right? Amy Vandenberg?”

“Yyyes…” Confusion turned to suspicion.

“You two had this big falling out like two months ago.”

“Excuse me?”

“I know it’s not my business, but – ”

“You’re right, this is weird, and you’re being creepy. Are you really her brother? I’m not positive she even has a brother. Did someone from school put you up to this?” By the time my brain stopped spinning long enough to respond, she had hung up.

I almost cracked after that. I almost confronted Esther point blank about everything. I was certain that she’d only shut me down again, but looking back, I can’t help but wonder if things would have gone differently. The trouble was, at that point I was starting to question my own sanity.

Even so, I considered going to Dad with everything on my mind. He was the best listener in the house, great for venting to if you needed cheap therapy and a word of comfort, but we’d learned not to expect much from him in the way of concrete advice. More to the point, I knew he would take Esther’s side. Mom was never an option. She’d likely believe me, but if I provoked a standoff between her and Esther, everyone would feel the fallout, and Esther wouldn’t forgive me. But all of this seems too petty now for me to keep writing about, compared to what came next.

On to the last day.

Tomorrow:
2.4. Liftoff

2.2. Dead Weight

SUNDAY

As I sped down the trail, I kept looking from side to side for any sign that Esther might have turned off it somewhere. I almost collided with the green Explorer that squealed to a stop in the middle of the first street crossing. The one my mother drove, specifically.

She jumped out to confront me up close. “Reid. Not so fast. Where are you going?”

I was so tired of making things up. A big, increasingly vocal part of me just wanted to tell her and get it over with.

“Is this about Esther?”

“What makes you say that?” I asked lamely.

“She hasn’t been herself this week, she’s even more stressed than usual, and you know something about it.” Of course she and Dad would have noticed. The only reason they weren’t on high alert was the context they were missing. Now that she knew I wasn’t telling her something, it was game over.

“Now you barge in, ask me where she went, and barge right out without another word?”

If I came clean, she could drive after Esther and we might catch up. But I’d have to explain how I knew where Esther was going, and she wouldn’t rest until she’d extracted the whole truth. I suspected we were in trouble no matter what happened.

“Reid?”

I just had to decide what kind of trouble I wanted.

“Tell me this isn’t anything to do with those Transcenders Fellowship people. They’ve got their hooks in enough kids already, I warned her about them after Jess got involved–”

“It’s not them,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I think – I think… she might be running away.” If I was wrong, I would take the consequences and be grateful.

“And you think you know where.” I nodded. Instead of whatever outburst I might have expected, she became frighteningly calm and focused. That’s when I remembered she had been through this before, six years ago.

“Get in.”

We peeled out, leaving my bike lying beside the trail, and that was the last time I ever saw it.

While Mom was occupied with calling Dad’s office, I slipped the object I’d found in Esther’s room out of my pocket. I tweaked it a little to see if it would react again, but no luck. I thought I was being stealthy, but nothing was getting past the mom-vision today. As soon as she’d left her urgent voicemail, she asked, “What’s that?”

There was no point in delaying the inevitable. I handed it over. “I think she left this behind on accident.”

She reset the segment I had just moved, and from the way her eyes widened, I could tell it affected her the same way it had me.

“Mom, the road!” She swerved back over the yellow line just in time to avoid a honking minivan. When she spoke again, her voice was shaken but had a new edge to it.

“What am I looking at?”

FRIDAY

“Hey, where are you off to?” I slipped through the opening in our back fence and caught up to Esther a short way down the rail trail. “I’m almost done, but I don’t know where the last of the camping stuff goes.”

“Tent’s all cleaned and packed?”

“Yeah. Who was that?”

“Don’t worry about it. Miscellaneous gear goes in that big bin under the shelves on the left. Make sure the tent’s put away neatly; you know Dad’ll notice.”

Not only were our parents due back within the hour, we were supposed to be at the Espositos’ house down the block in ten minutes for the start of their move. Which is why my heart sank when, as we were walking back, Esther asked, “Did you get the dolly and the straps down?”

“No…I thought you said you were going to take care of it.”

She stopped and closed her eyes. “We said we were going to take care of it.”

“I thought – ” But she was already running for the garage.

Just before Mom and Dad left, our family (sans Tori) had finalized plans to help our neighbors move out of Morrow Glen, with a barbecue to follow at their new house. It was Esther’s and my job to dig up our own moving equipment which had become lost to time in the attic and lend it to them, since Dad wouldn’t be back in time to do it. And Esther was right, we had both volunteered for the task. I just assumed she would take charge of it as always, and yell for me when and if she needed my help.

She was even more distracted than I thought if she’d forgotten a promise to the Espositos. They were the only neighborhood family any of us were close with, but I knew how much they meant to her in particular.

“It never occurred to you to just get started on this yourself if I wasn’t around?” she said as she pulled down the attic ladder. She wasn’t seething or sarcastic – those I could handle, but this was worse. It was the same blank resignation she’d had with Tori yesterday: no expectation, no disappointment.

She got more worked up the longer the search took us, furiously shifting boxes and pawing through piled junk on our hands and knees. “This is why we don’t leave things till the last minute,” she fretted. “We’re going to make – ack! – make them late returning their U-Haul. Pthth, pthoo – die, cobwebs.”

She apologized repeatedly to Mr. Esposito when we finally arrived twenty minutes late, having dragged out all the moving gear and squared away the camping gear. He took it all in stride, thanking us and assuring her that they had alternative means of getting the job done. A gentle soul, he had gotten used to dealing with her brand of intensity over the years since she’d befriended his family.

Despite everything working out, her mood seemed permanently out of joint in an otherwise cheerful and lively gathering. With other friends and relatives on hand to pitch in, the work was progressing faster than expected. But her normal whirlwind of helpful activity was nowhere in sight. The next time I saw her was when I rounded a corner too quickly with an open box and almost knocked her over where she stood in the hallway, contemplating something in her hand. When I looked back after a curt apology, she was stooped over as if looking for something on the floor.

Mrs. Esposito directed me where to stow the box in the van. “Thank you, Reid. Oh, and your parents just called. They’ll be here in a few minutes with the food.”

Good, we were ready for them. As long as we kept our story straight, I was confident that we had sufficiently covered our tracks from the campout. If Nik or Trina’s parents asked too many questions, the worst case scenario would be confessing to holding a sleepover with no supervision but Tori (meaning no supervision). Reprisals would be swift, but it wouldn’t be as bad as the full truth.

Just as I was heading back into the house, the day’s weirdness commenced in earnest. There was a crash from the van, and I turned back to see several stacks of boxes toppled over. As we were re-stacking them, Mrs. Esposito frowned and said, “My memory must be going. I thought the upstairs bathroom box was already packed in here.”

“It is, I just brought it.” But she was right. Though I could have sworn up and down I had just situated that box neatly in its stack, it wasn’t in the van.

I retraced my steps until I came across Esther again, kneeling alone in one of the upstairs rooms with a box labeled UPST. BATH in front of her. Though she had just slipped the box cutter out of sight, the tape was halfway slit.

“What!”

“What?”

“I just took that box out to the van is what.”

“Apparently not.” She gestured from the box to the room we were in.

“Uh, apparently yeah! I’m not crazy. I know what I just carried.”

“You know they can put the same label on multiple things.”

I squatted next to her. “More to the point, what are you doing with it?”

“I can’t find my cell phone. I think I might have dropped it in one of these boxes before it got taped.”

A stocky, sprightly girl around Esther’s age swung around the door frame. “Hey Reid, my mom wanted to know if you – oh cool, you found it. Mind if I just grab that?”

She was already scooping the box up before Esther could finish saying, “Oh thanks, Becca, we got it.” But Becca, who never missed a chance to do Esther a favor, wouldn’t hear of it. We had no choice but to follow her down the hall toward the stairs while she took out her moving day jitters in chattering to us.

“I’m going to miss walking to school with you guys, I mean of course I’ll miss all kinds of stuff here, but hey, we won’t be that far away, we can visit any time we want to…”

“Right…” Esther said tentatively.

Esther’s decision to reach out and start walking to school with Becca before we knew anyone in the neighborhood had kicked off our whole relationship with her family. Before long she had gotten to know the rest of the household just as Mr. Esposito’s illness and the attendant financial troubles were approaching their worst. Her pushing us to support our struggling neighbors with occasional acts of kindness eventually led to one of the strongest family friendships we had made in this town. It wasn’t like her to be so lukewarm toward them now.

“You guys ended up giving away a lot of your stuff, right?” I ventured.

“Yeah, honestly it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The hard part for me was trying to find things I really wanted to keep, things we thought were in storage, and finding out we had just lost them over the years. Although, giving away all those other things beforehand made it easier, I think.”

She was halfway down the stairs when I saw the box’s weight shift in her arms out of nowhere. She lost her grip and nearly tumbled after it trying to recover it. The tape split open on the first bounce and dumped out half the contents, most of which fell through the railing and pelted the well-built, balding and graying man who had just arrived and was already bustling past with an open box of his own.

“Ow! Whoa, easy up there. You guys all right?”

“Hi Dad. Yeah, we’re good.”

In the flurry that followed, between picking up Becca and the things she dropped and giving our father more appropriate filial greetings, Esther slipped off with the box. When I caught up to her again, she was going through it on the pretext of repacking it. Her perplexity told me she was still coming up empty. But my attention was diverted by the compact black case she had put off to the side. I popped it open to reveal a small stethoscope kit, complete with blood pressure cuff and a couple of those unsettling little flashlights nurses like to shine in every available face hole.

I stared Esther down. “Before you say whatever BS you’re about to say…I know for a fact this wasn’t in there before.”

“It’s gone,” she muttered to herself. “I didn’t see it on the stairs either…”

“Hang on, is this Becca’s?” I remembered now, she’d been talking about becoming a doctor ever since taking care of her father when he was bedridden. It had to be hers. “How in the…”

“Excuse me, you two,” said someone behind us, not in the polite way. One of the men I didn’t know, an uncle or something, had popped up and was eyeing us suspiciously. “The idea here is to pack everything and leave it packed.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. She lost her cell phone.”

Esther snapped her fingers. “That box Dad was carrying. That’s gotta be it. Excuse me sir, I’ll be back.”

The Nokia ringtone blared from her pocket as she dashed off, and the uncle and I both reacted with “Wait a minute…”

Left on my own with him glaring at me, I said the first thing I thought of – “Jinx” – and went after her.

Dad was in his element when we found him in the kitchen, his broad genial face lit up as he greeted new people, holding the box with one arm while giving out his vaunted handshakes with the other. “It was good for us, simplifying like that,” Mr. Esposito was saying to him. “Makes you step back and think about what’s really worth holding on to.” Dad nodded as he looked thoughtfully at the items in their donation bin by the door.

I racked my brain for a diversion, by now almost as eager as Esther to find whatever she was looking for. Seeing a coffee table nearby that was obviously a two-man lift, I picked it up awkwardly and staggered into the kitchen with it, narrowly avoiding both knocking a girl over and taking a chunk out of the door frame. As intended, Dad set down his box to assist, chiding me about common sense, and I quickly agreed to let him handle the table and take the box off his hands instead.

He hefted it from the counter where he’d left it. “Oof, I didn’t realize how heavy this was. Esther, give him a hand.”

“I can take it,” I muttered, but she was already grabbing the other end and pulling me back upstairs. As we went, I heard Becca calling ecstatically from across the house, “Dad! My stethoscope kit! It wasn’t gone, someone found it!”

I began to feel like I was dreaming. I kept waiting for the floor to open up or my shirt to start singing to me. What we found when we got the box open did nothing to allay that feeling.

We could only stare at each other as Esther held up a familiar, colorful wooden spoon whose other end was a maraca.

Esther…” I said slowly under my breath, “what is the good china doing here?

“I don’t know!”

I snatched the spoon and pointed it at her with an accusatory rattle. “Confess. You know something.”

“I know we need to get this stuff back home right now.” Her confusion seemed genuine. “Help me find an extra box.”

“Good china” was our affectionate misnomer for the collection of novelty, garish, or otherwise unique items that we used for entertaining on certain special occasions. It started with a few gifts made by us kids, but at some point Mom established it as an unofficial tradition for new friends invited to our New Year’s party to bring a small addition of their own. The tradition then became a contest to see who could contribute the strangest piece of silverware, serveware, or drinkware, whether homemade or unearthed on eBay. The size and tackiness of the collection was a sort of metric for how many people we had brought together over the years.

Such were the priceless family heirlooms that now confronted us from inside someone else’s overstuffed moving box.

Even after we had pulled them all out, Esther kept rifling through the remaining contents. Just then we heard Mom coming up the stairs and calling our names.

“I’ll stall her, you get these out of sight. Try that desk,” Esther whispered. Whatever her reason for not wanting Mom to see her precious eyesores, I was bewildered enough to play along. I certainly wouldn’t be able to give an explanation if she saw them here.

There was an old-school writing desk in the room, the kind whose writing surface is a flap that folds up to close it. I shoveled keepsakes into it while listening to Mom and Esther catch up out in the hallway. My ears pricked up when I heard Mom ask, “Oh, and did you finish the MYL application essay?”

“I haven’t had the time yet,” Esther said. “I was going to write that tonight.”

When she came back into the room, I asked, “What gives? Didn’t you already do that essay? You were writing it the other night in the tent, I remember.”

“No…that was different. A school thing.” To change the subject, she turned her attention back to the box, which was no longer there. “Oh come on!” Another overeager helper had made off with it while we were distracted. “Too many freaking cooks,” she fumed, and rushed off again.

I was stowing the last of the china when I heard an unpleasant “Hey!” The uncle from before was still playing detective and had returned to thwart the thieving neighbor kids. I instinctively slammed the desk flap shut, but that still left me looking like I’d been caught in the act of stealing silverware, albeit a fistful of forks shaped like Grover Cleveland.

Uncle Nancy Drew folded his arms. “All right, what’s in the desk?”

“I know what this looks like, but these actually belong to us. They’re…borrowed. Look, this one has my name on it.” I poked around in the desk and pulled out a lumpy ceramic mug emblazoned with TO DAD LOVE REID.

“Let me see what else is in there.”

“You got it.”

“There you are, Reid.”

“MOM! Uh – hey, welcome back!” I shut the desk again and tried to shield the mug from view, which made for an awkward reunion hug. Uncle Nancy must have had a premonition that it would be a bad time if he accused me of stealing in front of Mom, because he stepped out uncomfortably. As soon as she started looking around the room to see what still needed doing, I slipped the Cleveland forks in my pocket and picked up the mug to find better concealment for it. But it was too late. She glanced from my hand to my face with a quizzical look that let me know I was dealing with the real detective now.

I left the room as casually as I could, knowing she would be right behind me in a few seconds. I spotted Esther down on the first floor, where she’d caught up with the guy who had made off with the box and was about to make her move. But I had to focus on selling the mug situation to Mom, otherwise she’d keep investigating. All she needed to believe was that she was dealing with one of my dumb impulses rather than anything devious.

My eye fell on a bucket of cleaning rags in what I hoped was mostly water. Time to do something dumb and impulsive.

You owe me for this, Esther.

“Is that what I think it is?” Mom asked when she came into the hall.

“Oh, this?” I turned around with the full mug in plain view. “It’s a warm day, I knew we’d need to stay hydrated.” I tried to ignore what was floating in the water, took a noisy sip, and suppressed my gag reflex long enough to add, “And, you know, all their cups are packed up – cough – I just grabbed this on the way out.”

“For goodness’ sake, Reid, we have plastic cups for the cookout. Why would you…” She gave up and shook her head at my inscrutable life choices. Down below, Esther looked up from whatever switcheroo she had just pulled, box in hand, and gave me a thumbs up.

Nailed it. Now as soon as Mom leaves…

“Want to give me a hand with that desk in there?”

We’re doomed.

I was gritting my teeth all the way down the stairs with the desk, waiting for the inevitable clattering or maraca noise from inside to give us away, but all was miraculously silent. After the furniture-shaped time bomb was buried in the van underneath the last of the Espositos’ worldly goods, Esther reappeared, jogging back from our house and tucking something I couldn’t make out into her pocket.

“Where were you? They’re closing the van up soon. If I run interference, do you think you could snag everything from the desk?”

“I already took care of it.”

“You did no such thing. It was only out of my sight for two minutes tops. Unless you’re adding sleight of hand to that college resume –”

“Don’t believe me then! See how much more chaos you can make trying to fix it yourself, but don’t expect any backup.”

I reluctantly let the matter drop. If she wanted to take responsibility, she could always have it.

The others were drifting off to get in their cars, leaving the two of us to ponder the open van. “Wow,” I said quietly. “No wonder it went so fast. Is this really all they’re taking with them?”

“They’re smart. You heard what Mr. E said to Dad. You want to make a fresh start, you need to figure out what’s important and leave the dead weight behind.”

“’Don’t let your possessions possess you,’ sort of thing,” I said sagely. “I get that.”

“Oh right, you get that,” she smirked. “Have you ever voluntarily let any of your stuff go?”

“Sure, there was…I mean, that one time that…hmm. Give me a minute.”

“You think you could ever leave behind, let’s say your paperweight collection?”

“A, number one, they’re not just paperweights. B, number two, inconceivable.”

“Yes. They’re literal dead weights.”

A thought struck me. “Is that what all that was about just now? Tell me it wasn’t one of your schemes.”

“What? No!”

“Tell me you weren’t trying to teach us a lesson about materialism or something, giving our stuff away.”

“Of course not! What do you mean, my schemes?”

“Then what, Essie? What the heck just happened?”

“Let it go, dude.”

I must have pushed her too far, because she didn’t give me the chance to talk to her alone for the rest of the day. After we all drove one town over and went through the whole process in reverse at the new house, when everyone was relaxing out back, she kept herself busy in the kitchen or helping Dad at the grill. I realized it wasn’t just me who felt a little snubbed when Mrs. Esposito came up to me for a hug and a chat.

“Thank you so much…I hope you know what a blessing you’ve been…I hope Esther knows too. I guess she doesn’t feel like talking to us now.”

“You know how she gets when she feels like she’s let someone down.”

“Nobody’s let down, silly. Doesn’t she know we’re just happy to see her?”

“Ah, we had some snarl-ups earlier. It put her on edge.”

“I understand. She wanted everything today to go perfectly.” She gave my hand a wistful squeeze. “Always taking care of someone. She’s a special girl, your sister.”

“I know.” I mentally pulled the ears off a baby bunny, as I did every time I had to hear that sentence. I could make a mental fur coat by now from all the tiny ears I’d collected.

I had snuck a peek inside the writing desk the first chance I got, and true to Esther’s word, it was empty. But just before we left, I saw her slip something into one of its drawers. She rejoined us looking, if not at peace, at least like there was a weight off her shoulders.

When I checked our dining room cabinet that night, the good china was all there, and my mind was just about ready to call it quits.

Mom and Esther were in the other room going over her leadership essay thing, which to my surprise she really had spent the last few hours writing as if from scratch. Although eavesdropping was beneath me, it wasn’t my fault if I overheard some things while I was nearby…keeping perfectly silent…standing just out of their sight around the nearest corner.

“You’re so tense, starlight. Is something bothering you?”

“Oh, just the usual jar of bees. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“It just seems like your heart’s not really in it this round the same way it was for the prelim application.”

“What if it wasn’t, hypothetically? What if I was okay with not moving on to the next round? What if I stopped caring what MYL thinks?”

“Well,” Mom said carefully, “that would be your choice, but you’d hypothetically be throwing away a lot of hard work and a valuable opportunity that you deserve.”

“There’s more than one kind of opportunity.”

Mom sighed. “Your brother used to say something like that.”

There was a long pause, then a sullen “Tori’s not wrong about everything.”

It was no more surprising than anything else that day to hear Tori defended by the same girl who had once threatened me with ending up like him if I didn’t get my act together.

As I went to bed, I made a list of everything else so far that didn’t add up.

  • She lied about whatever she was writing on our campout. Not a huge deal.
  • She knew more about the secret valley than she was letting on and didn’t want to talk about the six-legged whatsit we saw. Troubling.
  • She was getting forgetful and avoiding people she loved, which as of this afternoon included me. Red flag.

And one more thing came to me as I was drifting off.

It was one of those thoughts that obnoxiously elude the conscious mind, but can be caught right on the verge of sleep. When Esther had wandered off to the rail trail that morning, between when I tracked her down and when we ran back, I realized dimly that there was a gap in my memory. I could remember where we were, what we said to each other, but there was something else, something I was missing.

This thought itself was gone the next morning. It wouldn’t return until it was far too late.

Tomorrow:
2.3. Exit

2.1. Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid

SUNDAY

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.

THURSDAY

“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.

1. Over the Fence and Far Away

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.

“ESSIEEE!”

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.

COUNTDOWN START

Next:
2.1. Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid