12. Class of 2000 and Never

I took in as much of the room as I could without moving my head and neck. We were in an open space at the middle of the library, dominated by the aforementioned table in front of me. The table was cluttered with documents, diagrams, and pieces of equipment both scrutable and otherwise. At its center, mostly blocked from view by piles of books, was a grid dotted with pegs and overlaid with a tangle of glowing lines. It looked like the man and woman currently staring me down had been poring over this just before my intrusion. Beyond them, the room’s other occupants watched me warily, a woman paused in the middle of recording something at a smaller table and a man who had just entered through a side door. If you haven’t already guessed, all of them were tall — not superhumanly so, but taller enough than the Earth average to be noticeable.

“Who else is with you?” asked the man behind the table. All his speech was curt and straight to the point. This may have been a function of the overall atmosphere of stress and intense focus in the room, although looking at him I could easily believe it was his default manner. His posture was scrupulous, his movements precise, his fair angular face clean-cut and equipped with a brow best described as permafurrowed.

“It’s just — ” I was about to say it was just me, but their henchmen in the school had already seen Nik. “Just my friend.”

“What friend?”

“Just another kid, a school friend. Leave him out of this.”

Could he really have gotten here on his own?the woman asked him in their language.

We can answer that later. If he got in, others might.” He turned to the man who’d just come in. “Alert security.”

“Who are you people? Where’s Esther?”

They glanced at each other and must have agreed that there was no harm in answering. “Paiumi Caerd,” said the woman, an imposing figure with strong lines in her nut-brown face and streaks of gray in her hair. While the others in the library all wore variations on a collared, belted tunic that I guessed was their equivalent of business casual, and the men in the school had more practical workman’s outfits, her dress was distinctively pleated and patterned in muted colors. “This is Rakine Roia. And first of all, Esther is safe.”

“Sure. I’ll believe that when I hear it from her.” I hoped defiant words would compensate for the tremor in my voice. I doubt it fooled anyone.

“That isn’t possible right now,” said Roia. The two of them moved around the table to approach me from opposite directions, his brisk stride almost entirely masking a limp. The door I’d entered through slammed again and two pairs of hasty footsteps came toward us from behind. The man by the door had gone over to a boxy wall-mounted apparatus and was speaking into one of the disks built into it. “Tell Orokobu we have an intruder…no, not them, it’s the catalyst’s brother…alone, apparently. They have him contained at Breach Site One.”

“Thank you, Abrien, quick thinking as always,” said Caerd to whomever was holding me. “Give him some space now.” The point of the blade came off my neck and the hand off my shoulder, and I got my first look at my captor. Instead of the ninja-type operative with a big dagger I’d been picturing, there was a flushed, tense-looking woman in a sort of kerchief, with some tubular cases tucked under her arm. She held a fistful of utensils, including a short precision blade with a long pen-like handle.

Did I just get held at X-Acto knifepoint? I felt a little silly, though not particularly relieved — no doubt she could still mess me up with it. We stepped away from each other and I spun around to see if I had a way out. It wasn’t promising. Caerd and Roia were forcing me to back away from them as they advanced, with shelves on either side of me. The new arrivals were blocking my retreat: Overalls and someone I hadn’t seen yet, a bullet-headed blunt instrument of a man with a thin beard and thinner hair, wearing a vest full of tool pockets.

Abrien moved to the end of the table and handed one of her tubes to the man sitting there, who I couldn’t believe had escaped my notice earlier. He was working on something behind a trifold screen not unlike what they used to use in elementary school to keep us from cheating on tests. Even now that I knew he was there, it was difficult to keep him or anything around him in focus. Then again, I had a lot to pay attention to at once.

We’ve had a — oh. You already know,” said Overalls.

There was also another boy who fled the building,” the Tool Man added. “They triggered a security alarm first. I expect the authorities will be there soon — we didn’t come prepared for combat.”

Is the Autua link secure, Ennis?” Roia asked the Tool Man. “You’ve stabilized it?”

Caerd held up a hand to cut him off, then spoke a word I didn’t catch, directed at the others in the room.

Can you understand us?she asked me.

It took barely any effort for me to act bewildered and ignorant, given all the practice I’d been getting lately. “What? What just happened? You can still do English, right?”

“Of course. Sorry, your language is new to me. No linguistic shortcut can override a lifetime of habit.” She seemed convinced, giving me the dubious satisfaction of knowing just how good I was at being clueless.

Up to this point I had understood more of their conversation than my own repertoire of inwords could account for, but no longer. Could words be suppressed? I’d have to chew on that one later.

Go on,she told Roia. “Get your men under control. I’ll deal with him.” She took several more steps toward me; I took several backward. Ennis and Roia circled around me to confer with each other.

“So, uh…what happens now? What are you going to do with me?”

“For the moment, nothing. I mentioned we were otherwise occupied. I am very curious, however: what happened after you and Esther were separated?”

If she wasn’t going to threaten torture or anything, I didn’t see a reason to play along. “That’s my line. What do you pedo cultists want with her? I mean, sneaking around stealing school pictures? Where do you get that kind of obsession?”

While keeping my eyes on her, I tried to overhear as much as I could of Roia’s huddle with Ennis, who seemed to be in charge of things in the field. “We’ll withdraw temporarily…Let them search all they want…retain control of the breach’s immediate surroundings and move the link there…I won’t waste this much preparation unless absolutely necessary.”

“I know nothing about this is ideal,” said Caerd, “but we don’t expect or require you to understand. Esther is now part of an enterprise that outweighs all personal concerns.”

What about him? Do we detain him or send him back?”

Take him back, then find a place to detain him. It’ll be easier over there.”

My only advantage was that they didn’t know I could understand them. The longer I could keep Caerd talking before they threw me out, the more I could learn from the others. My stalling tactics might not work so well on Mom anymore, but they were worth a try here.

Word about the Earthboy in the room had spread quickly. More people were entering the library and closing in around us. Roia waved them off. “Keep your distance. You can help by blocking all exits except the breach. Make sure he leaves the way he entered.”

I bit back the saltier retorts I felt like throwing at Caerd; hostility wouldn’t help me. “You’ve got no right to yoink people from our world just because you can’t get things done yourselves. Give her back.”

“She’ll be a hero to millions of people.” Again she stepped forward and I stepped back. “Do you have the right to to take that from her?”

“Even if I believed that…what, you think I’m just going to walk away and leave her?”

“That would be the safe option, yes. Think carefully before you say such things.” She was thinking carefully herself now, considering new possibilities, and a more amiable look came over her. “I have to admire attachment like yours. If you’re that set on following her, we could perhaps find something for you to do.”

I couldn’t suppress a twitch. Was I doomed to keep hearing some version of those words no matter how far I went? “Your brother wants to come too. Find something for him to do.” But in the interest of further stalling, I ignored the slight. “Like what?”

You’ve identified the main bond focus?” Roia was asking.

Yes, it’s distributed all over the building. Shouldn’t be more than an inconvenience once the locals are gone.”

Good. You did well to collect the others, but something that extensive should be sufficient on its own.”

“…no guarantee of returning to the life you’ve known. What I can guarantee you is an opportunity. The chance to surpass anything you could have achieved in your own world. To liberate yourself and bring about a historic liberation for others.”

Sounds deluded. “Sounds great. But what do you actually want me to do — like right now?”

“I just told you.”

Whoops.

Caerd’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She was going to see through my ignorance act if I wasn’t more careful. “I said that if you truly want to be reunited with Esther, you’ll start by surrendering that bag and everything else you’re carrying, and submitting to temporary custody.” She wasn’t breaking eye contact — had I let my eyes wander toward the men while I was listening?

Better change the subject. “Yeah, this is the second time I’ve heard that one today. Were those your goons at the Institute, or do you all use the same script?”

“Pardon? The Institute?”

“Yeah…the Institute Holistic? Var?”

“I’m not familiar…It sounds like you’ve been on quite the adventure of your own.” Her curious look intensified. I’d given her a clue without meaning to.

She turned in Roia’s general direction and said casually, “He knows too much. We’ll have to kill him.”

There was only one viable direction to run in. They had me surrounded, but there was a decent-sized gap on either side of Overalls. And he just might be the only person between me and the exit back to school, the one Roia told them not to block.

I’d fake him out, just like cutting around a defender on the court; I did it all the time. I lunged to my right without thinking, but the instinct I was counting on deserted me. Before I knew what was happening, I had overshot, too close to avoid him by reversing direction, and reacted like a complete novice. I ducked, almost lost my balance, and dove sideways straight into Ennis’s arms.

In two seconds he and Overalls had me pinned against the nearest shelf, while most of the others rushed in to surround me. “Calm down, everyone. Calm down,” Caerd laughed, a more pleasant laugh than I thought she had any right to. The only sinister thing about it was that she found any of this amusing. To the others she said more brusquely, “He’s listening. Ennis, get him out of here before you discuss anything further.” Then to me: “If you wanted to see your sister again, trying to deceive us was the wrong way to start.”

They pulled the backpack off and Ennis continued to hold me while the rest stepped back. Not quite sure whether that remark about killing me was only a trick or a legitimate order as well, I thrashed, stamped at his feet, and used my every degree of freedom to try and get in a groin shot.

“Stop that,” he snapped, and twisted both arms painfully behind me as soon as the pack was off.

Better tie him,” Caerd said. She walked away for a moment to get a length of cord from somewhere nearby, then bound my wrists with it. “You’ll be fine, Reid, as long as you give up trespassing and eavesdropping. We’ll continue our talk after all this is over.”

Ennis manhandled me back through the door into my school. He tossed the backpack aside and steered me out into the atrium, then toward the connector to the high school, checking doors as we passed them in search of a place to store me.

“Act wisely and forget you saw any of this, and they might let you go. You were never meant to be involved.” To himself he added, “That’s what we get for working with an outsider.”

He shut me up in the first closet we came to, and I pressed an ear against the door waiting for him to leave. Would it really not occur to him that I couldn’t be locked in and could easily work the handle?

There was a click, a whoosh, and a bright orange glow flared up outside. I jumped back as spits of flame began licking through the crack between door and frame, the metal heating up. The handle glowed red, then orange, then yellow, and the air around me grew hot and smoky, forcing me to the floor.

With another click, the flames cut out. Once the metal cooled back to red, Ennis pounded on the door and the lock area, testing his handiwork, then hurried away.

Needless to say, the door was fused shut. The handle wouldn’t budge once I could get an elbow on it without being burned. There was nothing else in the closet but a few electrical conduits, certainly nothing I could use as a tool. I struggled with the cord around my wrists for a while, but Caerd really knew her knot-tying. In the end all I could do was wait, listen, and think about what was going to happen when they let me out.

If they planned to interrogate me, they’d get bored in a hurry once they found out how little I knew about anything. What then? Lock me up somewhere else? Try to recruit me? Use me as a tool, more likely; it hadn’t escaped my notice how that guy referred to Esther as “the catalyst”. Maybe they’d start right in on erasing my ties to the school once they were done with hers. Wouldn’t take anywhere near as long.

Two sounds pulled me out of my thoughts. The first was a police siren, filtering through the building from one of its remaining connections to the outside world. The second was a series of quiet bumps from the closet’s ceiling. Though it was hard to tell in the low light, something was moving one of the tiles.

“Hello?” There was no answer as the bumping and scraping continued. Finally I discerned the outline of a snake thrusting its way through a gap between tiles where a conduit penetrated. “Nik?” I called tentatively. I couldn’t tell which it was, but it had to be one of his, unless Wrigley was back in snake mode.

It drew back and out of sight. “Yeah, go get help, Lassie,” I muttered. But a short time later I heard soft approaching footsteps and Nik’s voice: “There you are!”

“Here I am.”

“Whoa, what? Reid? What are you doing in there?”

“Being tied up! What happened to you?”

“Those guys stopped following me after I ran outside. Red must have slipped out somewhere along the way. No one’s watching the high school, so I lay low there for a bit, snuck back in here to look for you when it was safe, then I saw Red hanging out of the ceiling.”

“Speaking of, do you think you could get in here through the ceiling? The door’s stuck.”

After some fruitless rattling (”Told ya”), he went into the adjoining classroom, where I heard him jumping and swatting at ceiling tiles. Grunting and general upheaval followed until one of the tiles above me was pulled up and his faint partial silhouette appeared in the opening. He hung down and began worming his way in, grabbing my shoulders for support. As soon as his legs came through we both collapsed in a heap on the floor.

I filled him in while he got to work on the cord around my wrists…and kept working on it…and kept working on it, getting increasingly agitated as the cord refused to get any looser. “Hey, uh…how’s it going back there?” I prodded after a few minutes.

“Gimme a second,” he growled. “I’m — uugghhh, these knots! What did they do, superglue them?”

“You did not just put your mouth on me.”

“I thought I could use my teeth! Nothing’s working!”

“We might have to cut it. My — Esther’s backpack should be out in the hall. There’s a scissors in there.”

One stealth retrieval mission and some more ceiling damage later, he was back with the scissors and a severely depleted store of patience. “If this doesn’t work we’re cutting one of your hands off. I’m not doing any more of that. Oh — ha, yes! There we go. Freedom!”

I won’t say who it was who placed a hand wrong while scrambling over the wall and fell, bringing a whole section of the ceiling grid down with him. All I’ll say is that it was dark and it could have happened to anyone. Since there was no way the crash and accompanying yowl went unnoticed, we rounded up the snakes, which Nik had had to leave to their own devices on the classroom floor, and made ourselves scarce.

The high school connector was longer than I felt it needed to be. Ordinarily we would have passed a board at the beginning of the hallway with our faces on it, along with the rest of the Class of 2000. Every year the eighth graders continuing on to Bohr High processed this way after graduation, to be greeted by their new teachers on the other side. My aversion to the place had been growing more or less on pace with my classmates’ anticipation. While acting as excited as any of them, in private I feared another transition like sixth grade: intruding onto Esther’s territory, primed with two years’ worth of expectations she had set, only this time with two more years of her watching over me to look forward to. For now, however, angst about the future could take a back seat to ensuring I would still have one.

The outcry over my escape began almost as soon as the double doors at the far end closed behind us. Once we’d run far enough to satisfy Nik, we stopped in a moonlit stairwell to collect our thoughts.

“So you got into their…their domain? What was it like?” Nik lay on his back with Great Red at the top of the stairs, his head hanging downward to watch Orm exploring the handrail.

“I literally saw one room and some sky out a window. And some scumbags. That’s the main thing I can tell you about it, it contains books and scumbags.”

“Just by walking through a door…I didn’t know it was that simple.”

“Maybe it’s not. It looks like they put a lot of work into this…whatever this is.”

Neither of us was used to playing the strategist, and the exhaustion wasn’t helping. Our obvious priority was escaping into the real world at the first opportunity. But with the people behind Esther’s disappearance so close at hand, I couldn’t leave it at that.

“The police are already here,” I said, pacing up and down the stairs with my hands on my head. “They’re probably searching the other school right now. The real one. They don’t find anyone there, they go home. Till then, the tall guys are planning to pull back and go dark. Then I guess they’ll finish what they started.”

“And then they’ll close the door to their place?”

“Probably. You know, if we could just get the cops to that door while it’s still open…They aren’t prepared for a fight, he said.”

“But would the cops be prepared for them? You saw what one guy did to that closet.”

“That’s what they can do on our side of the door. Imagine what a SWAT team could do on their side.”

“If you really want to go there…”

“They kidnapped my sister, Nik. I don’t see the two of us storming that place all by ourselves and getting her back. If we can keep the library open, get the cops’ attention and get them to it, they might have a shot at doing something. And if you just want to get out of here, I understand. There’ll be—”

“No, I’m in,” he said abruptly.

“You sure?” Now that I understood just how safe he’d been playing it his whole life on Earth, I was more than a little surprised.

“Yeah, screw it. We might not get another chance like this. You have any sort of plan?”

“Not really, but I have an idea of how to keep them from closing the door. I know what they’re after.”


Esther’s Spirit Chain project was without a doubt the thing she was most remembered for at the middle school. It was what had first marked her out as Someone to Watch, the reason for her place on the Wall of Leadership. Looking for ways to bring some solidarity to our clique-riddled school other than bashing rival schools, she had originally proposed the challenge as a School Spirit Week activity in place of the usual “come to school in your pajamas” or “wear a silly hat” days.

I don’t remember all the details of how the system worked, since the rules grew pretty Byzantine over the years. At its core, the Spirit Chain was a way of encouraging our insular student groups, teams, and clubs to engage with each other. Each group had its own segment of chain to grew over the course of a semester, but they couldn’t add links to their own segment. Links could only be earned for others, by a range of supportive actions from helping promote their activities to showing up at games or events they put on. Every semester each group was assigned as another’s “patron,” with a different patron supporting them in turn, in what was meant to be a forward-paying loop reaching all the way around Bohr’s social scene.

The initiative had a promising start once the administration was on board, and for two years it really did make the kind of positive connections they hoped for – until Esther graduated and it turned out not to be sustainable. Without her, Trina, and their circle putting in the work to come up with fresh incentives and fun challenges, it lost most of its momentum. Ambitious student council members and idealistic teachers did their best to keep it going, but everyone could tell it wasn’t the same. Those who didn’t care made a joke of it, while those who did ended up making it more of a competition than Esther ever intended.


“Their boss called it, what was it, a bond target — a bond focus. I don’t know what else he could have been talking about. So if they don’t want to call their mission off until they get their sweaty paws on it, what if we got our sweaty paws on it first?”

“Cool plan, except how are we supposed to get them all?”

“Got a theory about that. Try and follow me.” Not for the first or last time, I wished Sem was around to tell me if I was on the right track. “Right now there’s a gazillion pieces all over the place, yeah, but they were made to all be one single chain. That’s their reason — they’re going to get connected at the end of the semester. And the prize we all get depends on the length of the whole chain, not the pieces. So I’m thinking we try and harness that connection.”

“That connection that doesn’t exist yet.”

“No. No. Kind of? It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it. It gave me a headache at first too.”

“At first?”

“Fine, still.” I took the squirming talisman out of my pocket. “All I know is, this thing made a connection to its other half without me even trying. And I pulled you into this whole twilight-halfway-border-zone by making a connection with you. So who’s to say we couldn’t pull in the rest of Esther’s chain starting from just one piece?”

He sprang to his feet. “Well, I’ll keep an eye out for one, but I’ll be looking mostly for an exit or a way to warn the cops. Either way we have to get to a normal room first, so let’s start with that.”

Before we headed back he asked, “Do you get a weird feeling from this place?”

“Dude, I’m going to have to make a chart pretty soon to keep track of all the weird feelings there are. What kind of weird?”

“Not like trouble. I mean, that’s been there the whole time. This one was faint at first. I think it gets stronger when they change things, when they switch us back and forth between the real Bohr and here. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels familiar in a way.”

“Not because we — ”

No, not because we go here. A different kind of familiar.”

“Uh-uh, I’m not getting that.” The transitions only felt out of joint and wrong to me, which in one sense was becoming distressingly familiar.

The atrium was silent when we returned, a silence which was soon broken by a large bird fluttering up to the balcony railing next to us. From the way it stared at us, it had to be Wrigley.

“Thanks for ditching us!” I whispered.

“He’s shy of these people. Can’t blame him for that.”

We peeked around the corner of the main hall to see light coming from two rooms in addition to the library. The hall was in its normal state, and I should have been able to see the prominent chain segment of the yearbook club hanging outside the computer lab where they met. “Susan, they already got it. Of course they’d grab the obvious ones.”

“Who’s Susan?”

“Oh, that’s one of the new cusses I picked up on Var. Remind me to give you the full list later. Hmm… I bet they missed the one in Mrs. Graham’s room.”

Nik went to check, with Wrigley following him in a catlike form. He crouched below window level when he passed lighted rooms, but at the library he poked his head up just enough to get a look inside despite my vehement shooing gestures. He tried the door of our English classroom and shook his head at me.

A piece of Wrigley split off and appeared to melt, trickling under the door. The handle turned shortly afterward and Nik opened it, beckoning me to hurry. To our perplexity, Wrigley then divided in two, one of which scampered up the wall and disappeared into the ceiling while the other ran off down the hall.

“He really picks and chooses when to be useful, huh?”

“Uh-huh,” said Nik, distracted. “You know that feeling I was talking about? The familiar-weird one? It’s a lot stronger around here.”

“I’m still not getting anything. The only thing I can think of…they were talking about moving some doohickey closer to the library. I bet it’s in one of those rooms with the lights on.”

“Wish I could have a look at whatever it is.”

The creative writing club’s meager length of chain was on a shelf near the windows. No sooner had I retrieved it than I forgot about it, catching sight of two police cars in the front parking lot. “Nik, look!” The officers were returning from their inspection of the school. We had almost missed our chance to get their attention.

We opened a window, but fearful of making noise, I blinked the flashlight at them instead. “Who’s there?” one of them called.

“Shhh!” Nik tried to wave them closer so we could keep the volume down. “Help! We’re being held against our will!”

There was a series of crashes from down the hall, followed by the sound of men rushing to investigate. “Was that Wrigley?” I whispered.

“Who is this? You can’t be here, you’re trespassing and there’s a curfew in effect.”

“My name’s Reid Emberley! We’re trapped in here with the guys who abducted my sister!”

“Show them your face, they put up posters and stuff,” urged Nik.

I turned the beam on my face. “That’s him,” said one, shocked. Their tone shifted as it dawned on them that they might actually be dealing with more than a couple of punk teenagers.

“Sit tight. We’re coming in.” They moved toward the main entrance.

“You can’t get to us that way,” said Nik. “You’ve gotta come in through this room. We — uh — How do we make this plausible?” he asked me under his breath.

“They’re watching all the ground floor entrances,” I ventured. “And you need backup! All the backup you can get. There’s a bunch of them and they’re armed.” Not in the conventional sense, perhaps, but whatever literal firepower Ennis was packing certainly counted.

“How many—”

Everything blacked out yet again.

“NO!”

We were back in an empty room, looking out on an empty parking lot. But something was different this time. Flashes of light from elsewhere were visible through the door, and the tell-tale racket of rooms switching seemed to be coming from all over the building. We felt the subtlest of tremors, like when you can’t quite be sure whether or not a mini-earthquake just passed you by.

Why. Why is nothing ever allowed to be easy.

More hubbub, running, and slamming of doors ensued out in the hall. “They took the link,” I heard Ennis saying breathlessly. “They’re both still here.

Nik ran for the door. “Come on!”

“What are you doing?” But he was already outside, our cover fully blown. Maybe I could have jumped out the window or hid in a corner and hoped no one would look in the room too closely, but I followed his lead before I had time to think it through.

We sprinted into the atrium and descended the stairs in flying leaps, nearly stumbling out of control. It sounded to me like they were on my heels the whole time, but looking back was out of the question. We made for the hallway to the lobby, where the lights were on and I could hear English voices. Two officers were approaching, guns drawn. I put on the brakes and threw my hands up, unsure if they knew we were the wrong people to shoot. “They’re behind us!”

One of them waved us forward and we dodged past them as they continued into the atrium, shouting the usual commands at our pursuers.

Fall back!” I heard from Ennis. “Fall back and get word to security. I’ll find —”

The lights went out, along with the officers’ voices, as the hall and lobby changed around us. Nik only slowed down after swerving into the athletics corridor, putting us back where we had started. “The fresh hell is going on?” he panted.

“I think Wrigley swiped their doohickey. Whatever they’ve been using to mess with this place. It’s out of control now. Is anyone coming for us here?”

“I don’t think so. Not yet.”

“Okay then, time to test this out.” I still had the chain segment from our classroom. “I don’t suppose you remember which groups are paired with creative writing?”

“You’re still on that? I have no idea.”

“I know this can work. Maybe. Just give me some space and let me know if anyone’s coming.”

This wasn’t the Institute Holistic. There was no web of premade mental connections this time for me to tap into. But some sort of connections still existed, I just had to dig deeper to activate them. Who got stuck with the wannabe writer nerds this semester? This is worse than a pop quiz, I shouldn’t even have to know this crap. I could barely be bothered to know which groups were paired with my basketball team.

Basketball. One memory triggered another and I flashed back to a conversation I’d overheard from the girls’ basketball team. It was them, they were creative writing’s patron group. And just as they had earned most of the loops of stapled ribbon I was holding, others had done the same for them. For all my past eye-rolling at the concept, now that I was under pressure to look at it from Esther’s viewpoint, I could see a degree of beauty in it. I held on to that viewpoint as we made for the suite of athletics offices, concentrating on the balance of giving and receiving that gave those flimsy loops their meaning.

Inside the offices, I scanned all around with the flashlight. A lot of teams kept their chains in here, but which office was Coach Fournier’s again?

“Either find it quick or come back for it,” said Nik. “We can’t stay here long.”

“Just a minute, it’s gotta be somewhere.” What did I get wrong?

“Let’s go. This way.” He was making for a little-used exit at the back of the suite.

“Wait — Yesss! I knew it!” My first hasty pass had missed the only decoration in the place: a peg in an inconspicuous corner with a sloppily-made length of chain hanging from it. “What did I tell you? Who’s the connection master?”

Reid!

The main door banged open and Ennis’s flashlight beam hit me right in the eyes. I backed away blindly, remembering too late to hide the two chains behind my back.

“I see. You really were paying attention.” He wasn’t attacking, just advancing steadily and speaking in a level voice. “The girl casts quite a shadow, doesn’t she?”

Something about his tone made me retreat more slowly than I should have. Was that sympathy or just pity?

“What if you didn’t have to keep living in it?”

I hated that I was listening to this bastard talking down to me. What galled me the most was that he had a point. As long as I was “the brother,” I could never really graduate from that shadow. It would live on long after we walked down the high school connector.

“You can go home right now and be free of all this. I’m not afraid of Roia, I’ll come up with some story for him. Just give back the box you took, take my advice, and let us do our job.”

I made a break for the back door that Nik was holding for me, which led to the maze known as the Student Resource Center. The twists and turns got us far enough ahead of Ennis to hide in a corner of Nik’s choosing, from which we doubled back to the athletics offices after he’d passed.

We heard heavy footsteps from above the ceiling, along with muffled voices and other incoherent sounds as the building continued its existential spasms. “I think that’s the cops upstairs,” said Nik. “Come on. If they find the library, we’ve gotta let them know what they’re getting into.”

“I’ll catch up. Just give me a minute here.”

He swallowed his exasperation, conceding that he didn’t have time to argue with me, and left for the nearest emergency stairwell.

I found an out-of-the-way corner in case anyone else came in and sat down to think. As exhilarated as I was by my success, trying to retrieve the chain piecemeal like this was no good. Even if we had the time, I couldn’t possibly remember all the individual connections. I’d have to summon the entire thing at once. Enough pieces of it would show up here that I could easily verify if it worked.

Something touched my arm. I jumped and swatted wildly, sending Wrigley tumbling across the floor. It bounced right back and tugged at my pant leg.

“Oh, look who decided to show up again. Not now, weirdo, I need to concentrate.” I crossed my legs like meditating people were supposed to do, held the chains in both hands, and tried to clear my mind.

I don’t care what you want her stupid legacy for, you can’t have it. Don’t act like you know me. I get enough of that here already.

I recalled every detail of Esther’s project I could, weeding out all the memories of snide and jaded reactions to it, trying to get at the essence of the thing. But disparate details and emotions weren’t getting me anywhere.

Come on, think like Essie. She’d see the big picture. Make yourself useful for once.

Goodness knows I’d listened to enough of her talking about her vision. I forced myself into what I imagined was her mindset, picturing her goal, her desire to make it real. Make it real! After a few minutes of this, I got up and searched the offices, checking everywhere I’d seen chain segments in the past.

Nothing.

Voices escalated somewhere in the distance, things were shattered and fell heavily to the floor. Evidently the police had found Ennis. And were those more sirens on the way?

If everyone would just shut up and hold still for two minutes…If I wasn’t so tired…

No. It wouldn’t matter. You could never pull this off. Don’t get your hopes up because you got lucky one time with one little piece.

It wasn’t fair to expect the same of him. He can’t help it he’s not like his sister. You should hear the horror stories about their eldest…”

I punched the wall, crushing loops of ribbon in my fist. This was pointless.

Wrigley prodded me again. “What?” I snarled.

Its back split open and an oblong shape emerged. It pushed the object further out until it dropped to the floor: a rectangular case of some transparent material.

“Is that the thing? What am I supposed to do with this?” I picked it up and examined it by flashlight. There was something inside the case that I couldn’t focus on, but the inscription on the outside quickly commandeered my attention anyway. Written in unknown characters, it was all legible except for one word. It signified a link, an overlap, between ––––– and a bounded space, presumably the one I was in right now. No wonder they were so concerned for it. If I was reading it right, this thing was the key to what was happening to the school. I wouldn’t have to think like Esther to hamper their bizarre operation if I could use this to knock it all down, cut it off at the source.

The excitement was enough to shake me out of my funk, reminding me that I should catch up to Nik. I ran into him at the top of the emergency stairs, on his way back to rejoin me and more aggravated than before. “The other library’s still there, but I can’t tell where anyone is. Everything’s changing randomly again and…” He trailed off when he saw the box. “What is that?”

“I dunno, but they want it and we’ve got it, and I know what to do with it. Are you okay?”

He appeared transfixed, staring with an odd expression halfway between eagerness and apprehension. “Yeah… This is where it’s coming from.”

“Your other feeling?” He nodded. “Is that good or bad?” He shrugged.

“Alrighty then. Here goes.” I lifted it over my head.

“Wait,” he said unsteadily, as if he didn’t know he was going to say it until the word was coming out of his mouth.

Wrigley was waiting expectantly near my feet, mostly amorphous except for a few limbs. As I dashed the box to the ground, it lunged beneath it, cushioning the impact. It reformed itself and stretched upward, extending the box back toward me. Clearly the direct approach wasn’t what it had in mind.

“You didn’t tell me your big plan was to smash it!”

“Why wouldn’t I? But if we’re not supposed to, Wrigley, there’s something else I could try.”

I closed my eyes. Forside was right: since arriving back here, I hadn’t been able to break ideas down like he’d taught me. But the whole purpose of this box and whatever it contained was to serve as a link to somewhere else. That just might make all the difference I needed.

It took more effort than before and I could only manage it for moments at a time, but it was possible. I shoved away all the thoughts of how I’d failed to connect the Spirit Chain and would fail equally here. This was a much simpler act in theory: the words of the inscription gave me a clear concept of the link itself; now I just needed a clear concept of what I was unlinking it from.

Even if I couldn’t see it the way Esther did, I knew this school. The hallways and common areas where friendships were solidified through goofing off and last-minute homework completion, the gym and locker room where I bonded with teammates, the classrooms where I had to grudgingly admit I’d learned some pretty cool things. I captured the chaotic whole that comprised them all. And for a moment I saw clearly, unobscured by any thoughts of shadows or siblings or expectations, that I was going to miss it.

I struggled to break the connection, to separate the two by pure willpower, until finally I went with what felt natural, stretched out my hand with the box in it, and suited the action to the thought, letting it go.

Again Wrigley scooted underneath it as it fell, this time to engulf it completely.

I knew it had worked before I opened my eyes. There were no more dramatic noises, no flashes of light or dark, only a scattering of ordinary fluorescent lights coming on. The overwhelming sensation was of release — that the school had been under tension this entire time and it had suddenly relaxed. Everything was back. We were back.

Wrigley churned, sprouted several more limbs, and ran off without ceremony, leaving the box on the floor. I finally noticed what was inside it: a squat, octagonal rod divided into eight interlocked segments in progressively darkening shades of blue.

Nik picked it up and said in a low voice, “It’s gone.”

The two of us shared a profound moment of relief, of quiet triumph, of reflection, of —

Ohcrapthedoor!

We raced to the library. The daylight of some other sun was still shining from it, but it was fainter now, and faltering. It wasn’t much of a jump to the conclusion that the experiment was being shut down.

From the sound of it, the police had returned to the first floor after what must have been a sanity-straining runaround of their own. “Up here! They’re getting away!” I shouted, and tugged at the door handle. I thought it was locked at first, but a second, harder pull opened it a fraction. I was fighting more than just the air pressure gradient this time.

Nik joined me, pulling on the door’s other leaf. If Roia and Caerd had called the thing off and all their people were back safely, there might not be anything we could do to keep the connection open, but that wouldn’t stop us from trying. Come to think of it, were we sure that all their people had made it back safely?

My answer was a click and a familiar whoosh from behind me. “Step away from there.”

Ennis approached us like a riding lawn mower approaches an especially obdurate weed patch. Though he looked physically unscathed from his run-in with Morrow Glen’s finest, his composure was thoroughly scathed. The small gadget he held, which I guessed was the equivalent of a lighter, was spitting out a growing flame that swirled around his hand.

Directly over his head, a ceiling tile was pulled aside and three tentacles shot down from the opening, one encircling each of his arms, one his neck. His flames released as his arm was jerked upward, sending them arcing past us in a jet that ignited a portion of a nearby bulletin board.

He fought back furiously, straining until a portion of the ceiling buckled, but Wrigley was anchored fast and steadily wrapping more of itself around him. He tore off the end of one tentacle, only for it to crawl back up his arm and rejoin the body elsewhere.

The fire alarm and emergency sprinklers went off. My shoes lost their traction as the floor flooded, causing my side of the door to slam shut. I got a grip on the jamb with one hand and dragged it back open with the other. The wind had died out but some other force was still at work, causing the metal around us to creak and the surface of the pooling water to vibrate, a resonant pattern converging on the threshold. Nik and I maneuvered ourselves in between the two leaves and braced against each other to prop them.

The library on the other side looked like we were seeing it through a telescope. The scene warped and flickered, giving me momentary glimpses of a room like a laboratory, then a wall of solid rock, then a range of wooded hills seen from high in the air, then more impenetrable blackness like I’d seen in the basement. I stared into it, fearful that if I looked away or even blinked, the connection would be lost and we’d be left sitting in a puddle outside our own library like a couple of chumps.

The cops were calling something to us from the stairs. “Over here!” Nik yelled. “Help! Child molester!”

Ennis choked out a “Hey!”

An officer appeared at the end of the hall, and at the same moment Wrigley let go of Ennis and retracted into the ceiling like a released stretch toy.

“Get on the ground!”

Ennis had already fallen to the ground, rubbing his throat, but he had no intention of staying there. He rolled to his feet and charged us, gathering another ball of flame in spite of the sprinklers.

Nik grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me to the floor an instant before the fire blast passed over us. No longer braced, the door swept us across its threshold, the world twisted around us for an instant, and we felt a final snap that was more than physical as it closed, leaving us on the wrong side.

Next:
13. Labyrinth

Previous:
11. Full Bohr

11. Full Bohr

After a good five minutes, we hadn’t seen any movement inside the building. We were crouching in the shadow of the NIELS BOHR MIDDLE SCHOOL sign out front, watching the upper hall of the math and science wing. We’d scouted the perimeter of the campus, which comprised both the middle school and Bohr High looming next door, and this was the only section that was lit. Nik was resisting all my proposals for going inside, claiming the place gave him a vague sense of trouble. I was less inclined to listen to him now that I could get a better look inside. The nearest classroom had enough light leaking into it from the hall that I could make out posters, file cabinets, and the digits of pi circling the top of the wall. We had a possible connection back to normal Morrow Glen.

“There! Listen,” Nik whispered. I heard it too: someone had just opened and closed a door.

“What if it’s just Mr. Geraghty working overtime?”

“I wouldn’t get this feeling from him.”

I had to concede this. While one could have said our custodian looked like a grave robber from an old horror flick if one was feeling unkind, we all knew he was harmless. “What are you getting it from then?”

“That’s not how it works, I’m not psychic. All I know is there’s something dangerous in there.”

“The feeling’s not full blast though, right? Are there levels? How dangerous would it be to just sneak in for a minute and get a closer look?”

“Or we could keep going and try to find that third light.”

“But it was sooo far! I bet we can’t even see it from here. And think about it: if the power’s on here, maybe the water fountains work too. Would it hurt to at least get closer so we can hear better?”

I left the shelter of the sign, still keeping to the shadows and unconsciously crouching as I crossed the lawn. The stark fluorescence falling on it in patches from the windows, unmitigated by any friendlier light, gave a hostile aspect to the backdrop we took for granted every weekday. Hence why I may have jumped harder than necessary when I drew near a tree and something rustled its upper branches.

At this point, my conditioned response to things in trees was to reach for my pepper spray, which of course was languishing under a smashed bookshelf somewhere in the great beyond. I backed off as the rustler swiftly climbed down into view.

Nik walked past me in my retreat, staring at the creature in pure fascination and ignoring me when I said, “Careful.” It perched on the lowest branch with a set of spindly legs that looked like they’d been stuck on hastily, generously, and without much concern for symmetry. The trunk of its body split into three flexible branches, each with a large convex bulge that glinted in the light like an array of lenses. One was pointed steadily at the building, one at us, and the third roved, scanning the area.

“It’s okay,” Nik said. “Is this your buddy from earlier?”

“Maybe?” I cautiously approached the tree again. “Uh, hi? Have we met before?”

Its eyestalk focused on Great Red, who was stretching himself out from Nik’s arm toward the tree. The surface of its body began to flex and tremble, then its whole outline blurred and broke apart into a swarming mass of tiny particles. Like a big gob of hot glue congealing as it dripped, the swarm coalesced below the branch, reforming itself into a narrow, flexible tube. One tapered end wrapped around the branch while the other widened out into a head — roughly the shape of a snake.

Nik’s round eyes grew rounder. “Have you seen this before?”

“…This one’s new.”

The shape continued to refine itself, the head growing a mouth and sharpening to a snout, a skin forming that approximated Red’s scales, though its color remained uniformly dark.

“I guess it could be the same one that led me to your neighborhood. Maybe there’s others. How would I know when it can Ditto itself into anything like that?”

The pseudo-snake regarded us coolly with a fresh pair of eyespots, then let go of the branch. Its form was already dilating and blurring on the way down, and on landing it burst apart, making me jump back. It was tricky to see in the poor light, but fragments of all sizes were scurrying around independently until they joined up and began making a new shape. We might be dealing not with one creature but many.

Once it had four serviceable legs on a torso, it trotted toward the entrance. I took a few steps after it, then looked back at Nik. “You coming?”

“I don’t know…”

“This thing — things? — or something like it led me to you in the first place. It may not be smart enough to talk, but it knows stuff. You stay out here if you want, I’m taking the chance.”

The door, as I’d come to expect, was unlocked. I opened it in time to save the My Little Hellspawn the trouble of fully dissociating to trickle through the gap at the bottom. “You’re welcome,” I whispered as it scurried past my feet and into the lobby.

After easing the door silently shut, I crept closer to the nearest hallway, staying close to the wall. I held my breath in the dark and listened for any sign of movement besides the soft pattering of makeshift appendages down by my feet. The now-familiar feeling of disconnection was faint but growing slowly stronger the farther in I went.

After a few minutes of listening, I felt confident enough to venture down the hall toward the gym and turn on the flashlight, shielded by my hand. Everything was predictably bare, and the water fountains maddeningly dry. There was nothing here worth exploring. I’d have to get closer to the lighted area and whoever was in it.

I turned to go back but stopped in my tracks at the sound behind me. From out of sight around a corner of the hall I could hear a concerted clattering of metal, building in volume along with a growing light. The light turned the corner before I could run, an intensely bright ripple that swept down the hall’s length, slamming all the locker doors as it passed and leaving a momentary blackness in its wake. Silence resumed, not counting the racket that was my heart ricocheting off my rib cage.

I took some long breaths, tried to get a grip — and the security alarm went off.

The sanity–and eardrum–fraying blasts of sound were accompanied by violently blinking lights. Once my wits returned, I could see with each flash that my surroundings had dramatically changed. The lockers had locks on them. One had a shoelace caught in its door, and another had been covered in gift wrap for someone’s birthday, which had subsequently been shredded by bored passersby. There were posters and fliers on the walls — in short, I was back in the Bohr Middle I knew and tolerated.

On the Viking Pride wall, the framed photos and display cases commemorating sports victories were all back — almost all, rather. I couldn’t be bothered to check more closely when there was a water fountain nearby.

I don’t have any similes for how the water tasted. If you’ve ever been that thirsty, you already know. All that mattered was it was cold and pure and kept coming for as long as I held the button down. Once I was sufficiently waterlogged, I spotted the next miracle through the window of a coach’s office: the wonderfully dull glow of sodium street lamps outside.

The office was locked, but there was an exit door down at the corner. I ran for it, stomach sloshing.

EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY — ALARM WILL SOUND

A little late for that. I burst out onto the sidewalk by the faculty parking lot. Across the field, past a fence and a belt of trees, shone the lights of houses. The crickets’ droning and the distant white noise of cars instantly joined my short list of contenders for sweetest sound. I may have choked up a little.

For a moment, I followed my instinct and broke into a stumbling run away from the school. But Nik was still on the other side.

“AaaaAAGH!” See where putting all your faith in your Spidey-sense gets you? I had to go back for him.

The emergency door, likely my only way back in, had almost swung shut. With a frenzied sprint and a dive, I got a forearm into the gap before it closed.

Once inside, I took a moment to inspect the sports wall more closely when I passed it. I was right, there was a picture missing from the orderly rows, something I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought on its own. But that particular section of wall was one I’d cultivated a habit of ignoring over the past two years. A quick sweep with the flashlight confirmed it: the missing picture was of Esther’s gymnastics team.

I got the strangest of pits in my stomach. Making sense of it would have taken up valuable escaping-to-reality time.

Before I got halfway to the lobby, Nik appeared at the other end of the hall and caught sight of me. He caught sight of the drinking fountain a microsecond later, which put escaping on hold for a bit.

“What did you do?” he gasped when he was done making out with the fountain.

“Nothing, I was stealthy as all hell! The place just changed out of nowhere, then the alarm went off.”

“That’s why I came to find you. The front door wasn’t closed all the way, that might be it.”

“But listen, I found a way — ”

“Oh, and I found another one.” He pointed behind him to what I’d assumed was the same animal/s that had entered with me, only now in a more streamlined (and six-legged, I noticed) form. As he said this, the first creature reappeared in the lobby from wherever it had wandered off to. It immediately scuttled toward its counterpart, which was breaking down into a semi-blob. They both dissolved at the edges and began to merge. We knelt to look closer and could just barely make out the mite-like things that composed them crawling over each other and interlinking. There may be more unsettling things to watch under a strobing alarm light, but I’m hard pressed to think of any.

The new entity pulsated, stretched itself several times, and stood up on three fresh legs, just under twice as tall as before.

The many questions I had were all shoved out of my mind when I heard another approaching wave of clattering. We’d wasted too much time. “Oh no, no. Come on!” I bolted for the exit, Nik’s long legs catching up to me in no time despite my head start. But before we could reach it, the pulse of light and slamming lockers followed by blackness passed over us, with the alarm cutting out shortly after.

I flung the door open, knowing what would be outside it. We were back in the dead, empty world.

“Shhh!” Nik tried to silence my stream of expletives or at least keep the volume down. “They probably already know we’re here, what with the alarm. Don’t tell them where!”

“I was so close! We were almost back!”

“If it changes that fast, we might get another chance. Or we can try a different part of the school.”

The conglomerate creature accompanied us deeper into the building, having sprouted some more legs and keeping itself long and low to the ground. “Is this guy our pet now?”

“I’ve got enough already,” said Nik. “This one’s yours.”

“Do you think they just fused or were they already part of the same…the same — you know, we really need a name for it.”

“Boy or girl, you think?”

“I’m not checking, ick. And I bet it could be both if it wanted.”

“Any ideas then?”

“We could just go with Ditto.”

“Not very original. What about Wrigley?”

“What, like the gum?”

“Or because of, you know, wriggling.”

“Does he really wriggle, though? It’s more of a — ”

“Shhh! Hold up!” We were approaching the open, two-story central area of the school, which was dominated by a wide set of stairs and a balcony walkway on the second level. It was dimly lit from upstairs but still empty of the usual chairs, tables, and decorations. Men’s voices reached us, faint but growing.

“This way.” I followed Nik down the hall leading to the arts wing, while he glanced from side to side at potential hiding spots and muttered to himself, “Not there, not there…” The voices were getting closer. I strained to make out even a word or two of what they said, but I wasn’t getting any of it.

He carefully opened the door to a stairwell and descended to the basement level, where it dead-ended at a mechanical room. We slipped into the space under the stairs and waited.

Two voices approached the door above us. There was a brief exchange, and one set of footsteps continued down the hall. The door opened and a beam of light entered the stairwell.

I inched toward the mechanical room door and slowly turned its handle, thinking anything would be better than getting trapped in a corner like this. I resisted opening it when Nik put a forestalling hand on me. The man above us hesitated for an awful moment, then his footsteps began climbing toward the second floor.

Nik crept back up to the first floor landing to listen better. I was still gripping the door handle next to me, and for curiosity’s sake I swung it partially open as soon as the slamming of the second-floor door told us we were alone.

Wind brushed past me and into the opening, and I felt noticeably colder. Before I even clicked the flashlight on to look, I could sense the emptiness like vertigo. Beyond the threshold there were no walls or floor, only a drop-off into absolute blackness. I turned the beam every which way, but it penetrated no more than a few inches. There was nothing for it to illuminate. Still, it was hard to look away from that nothing.

If every public school had one of these underneath it, I somehow felt that might explain a lot.

“You don’t want to go that way.” Nik was leaning over the railing trying to beckon me up.

“Yeah, I got that,” I said, still staring. I finally shut the door and followed him.

From the sound and light farther down the hall, it appeared that the second man was searching the band room for us. Before we could get far in the opposite direction, Nik changed course again, ducking into the teachers’ lounge. Almost as soon as I followed him in, we heard the man reemerge into the corridor.

There came yet another pulse of light and dark, after which the fluorescents outside the room flickered on. In the glow from around the edges of the door, we got our first, dim view of the room that was our teachers’ secret hideout, now fully furnished. It was mostly disappointing, with one exception: the refrigerator.

“It’s not safe to leave yet?” I whispered. Nik shook his head, corralling his agitated snakes back into their pockets.

“Would opening the fridge blow our cover?”

He put an ear to the door. “Go for it.”

Desperate times demand desperate measures. If you ever read this, Mr. Muranaka, I’m sorry. Your chicken salad went to a good cause and could have used more dressing. A similar apology to the owners of all the unlabeled leftovers we raided.

“Are you hungry, little guy?” I asked the creature who’d followed us in. “What do you even eat?”

“He still needs a name. You haven’t said what you think of Wrigley.”

“I think it’s a snake name you were kicking around before your dragon obsession and you’ve been waiting for something to use it on, but I don’t have anything better.”

“Hey, do something if you want us to call you Wrigley.”

It cocked its “head” at him, like it heard but couldn’t yet understand. He held a palm out in front of it. “How about it?” It extruded a crude palm of its own, which he high-fived. “Good enough. Wrigley it is.”

Not sure if or when we would get another chance like this, I got greedy and gathered up some pieces of fruit from the fridge and miscellaneous snacks I found in cupboards. I unzipped the backpack to stash them for later, and flinched when I saw something move inside. It was the talisman.

When I pulled them out, the linked leather medallions were twitching. I let them dangle and they swayed back and forth of their own accord, then came to rest at a slight upward angle like a steel chain near a magnet. “I knew it,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Whatever’s going on here has something to do with Essie. I think I’m picking up a connection to her.”

He shushed me again. The man who’d been looking for us down the hall was returning. As we moved farther away from the door and waited for him to pass, I felt the talisman pull a different way. Then it relaxed, swung freely again, and stiffened in an entirely new direction. What could it be latching on to besides its missing half or its owner?

Questions would have to wait. Once the coast was clear, we stepped out and moved toward the nearest exit, the courtyard doors by the central staircase. We passed a scattering of photocopied fliers reading WE CAN LIVE IN A WORLD THAT WE DESIGN or UNLEASH YOUR TRUE SELF, put up by the kids who were trying to start a Transcenders Fellowship student group. Nik tore them all down.

My attention was elsewhere. Since noticing the missing picture, I was forcing myself to look for all the things about this school that I’d become an expert at avoiding: the marks Esther had left on it.

The idea was that if I didn’t notice them, didn’t point them out or draw any attention to them in connection with myself, maybe someday the rest of the school would stop doing it. And to some extent, it had worked. These days the adults didn’t mention Esther in the same breath as me anywhere near as often, but it had taken a couple years of letting their expectations down. I personally thought they should have gotten the memo a lot sooner, but hope dies hard.

Near the end of the hall was a wide display case labeled BOHR MIDDLE WALL OF LEADERSHIP, honoring students who made some outstanding contribution to the school or the community. As we approached, I was mildly surprised at how much I hoped the Esther Emberley section would still be there.

This time hope died fast. Her name, all the text and pictures, and the local newspaper clipping were gone without a trace except for a speckling of pinholes on the blank red background.

That weird pit in my stomach got deeper, and now I began to suspect that what was making it so weird just might be a touch of guilt.

Nik and Wrigley walked right on by while I stood gaping. He looked back and whispered, “What are you doing?”

“Look at this! They took her down. Are they trying to erase her from the school?”

“We gotta move.”

“What if it’s not just pictures and stuff? What if they can actually make us forget her?” My travels had messed with my memory enough to convince me it might be possible. A thought crossed my mind that has never really left it since, one that still churns out the occasional nightmare: Who’s to say it doesn’t happen to people all the time? We’d never know.

“Reid, they’ll find us, we have to go now,” Nik hissed.

When we emerged into the open space around the stairs, now furnished and back to its regular self, it looked like we had a straight shot across it to freedom. We broke into a run, but we were too late. Nik was almost there, outpacing me by a good margin, when a surprisingly tall man wearing overalls, what looked like a tool belt, and a stern expression stepped into view between us and the exit. Nik cut to the right and made for the lobby only to be blocked by a second, almost equally tall man with a gray beard and a complicated pair of goggles. Overalls advanced toward me, forcing me back and cutting me off from Nik. I turned back the way we’d come to find that yet another man had moved in to block that hallway. This one looked younger than the other two, wearing a kind of vest and with his hair in a short ponytail, and yes, he was also vertically gifted.

They approached us slowly, methodically, each of them with a beam of light trained on one of us. Wrigley was nowhere in sight. The talisman in my hand was flipping erratically back and forth.

Ponytail spoke to us, harsh and distinct, but to my dismay I still couldn’t understand any of it. It didn’t sound like any language I’d heard on Var or Earth. Overalls said something as well, equally incomprehensible. It finally clicked for me that here, in my own domain, all my inwords might not have any effect.

Goggles must have acquired some of his own, because we both got the gist when he spoke. “How did you get in here?”

“This is our school,” I said.

“Yeah, how did you get in here?”

He said a few things I missed, then, “Stay where you are.”

There was another flash, a rattling of doors and windows, and everything went black. I heard a set of sprinting footsteps that had to be Nik, followed immediately by what sounded like Overalls and Goggles scrambling to try and intercept him in the dark. I picked a direction, begged my spatial memory not to fail me, and ran.

After the Columbine massacre a year ago, my main friend group and I had spent more time than was healthy discussing how we would evade and bring down a shooter at our school. A disproportionate number of our fantasy scenarios involved this part of the building, though of course now all the furniture we planned to use for cover had just vanished. There remained an odd freestanding wall that ran parallel to the stairs with shoulder-high openings in it, an architect’s statement of something or other. That wall, the staircase itself, and the columns around the room’s edge were the only real cover available.

I made for the space between the stairs and the freestanding wall, which had a few seconds ago been occupied by a handful of study tables and chairs. Our vision was back but we were still in near-total darkness, filled with the echoes of everyone else’s running and confused shouting. Judging by Ponytail’s flashlight beam, he had retreated toward the nearest hall to cut me off if I tried to escape that way. Seeing that I hadn’t, he now ran out into the middle of the floor, sweeping his light in all directions.

Overalls and Goggles had gone after Nik into the language arts wing, and it might sound bad but I wasn’t overly worried about him. He could sense danger and was one of the fastest kids in school. I had a backpack full of useless items and an apparently busted talisman. I was almost certainly in more trouble on my own than he was.

It seemed these people didn’t have a way to track us like Neery and Bugsen, or to shift rooms around. All they could presumably do was switch parts of this space from one state to the other, if in fact anyone was controlling the transitions. It was hard to tell. The point was, they were on our turf, and as long as we could avoid detection by normal means, we had a chance.

The wall was still shielding me from Ponytail’s searching flashlight, but he was closing in, circling around toward the foot of the stairs. I backed away and slipped into the shadows under the staircase just before he shone his light into my former hiding spot. The talisman was wadded up in my hand to keep it from flapping and possibly making a sound. With every move, I had to be careful not to let the contents of the backpack jostle against each other too much.

After a pause, he advanced toward me, forcing me to move to the opposite side of the staircase. I was prepared to go around the mulberry bush like this as many times as I had to, but after checking under the stairs, he seemed satisfied and took off to search the lobby area.

All the lighted sections of the ground floor had gone dark. Even if we made it out of the building, we likely wouldn’t be any closer to home. The only light I could see was coming from upstairs, and all the enemies I’d seen were downstairs. No-brainer.

I hurried up the steps as lightly as I could and paused at the top to consider my options. To my left was the long passage connecting us to Bohr High, which for once in my time at this school looked like a viable escape from something. But the talisman was twitching harder in my hand now. I let it hang free and it stretched out taut, tugging me firmly to the right. It had finally made up its mind.

Footsteps and voices were returning downstairs, and I had nowhere to hide on the balcony. With no time left to deliberate, I went with the talisman.

It led me into the second floor main hallway, which was barren and featureless except for a pool of light — not fluorescent, but yellow, almost natural-looking — outside the doors to the library. I approached on tiptoe, hugging the wall, and got just close enough to view a slice of room through the glass.

There was still a library on the other side, that much was clear. But it was neither my school library nor any western-hemisphere Earth library, not if that really was daylight streaming in through the nearest window. The ceiling was high, the shelves imposing and made of carved wood, and here and there they contained scrolls mixed in with more conventional books. Some of those books looked so antique you could go to jail just for opening them. As impressive as parts of the Institute Holistic had been, this was a class of library I exclusively associated either with Hogwarts or with a typical British person’s country manor.

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but when I didn’t hear anyone inside, I decided to risk a closer look. The door, though unlocked, took some effort to open. Air rushed in as soon as I cracked it, more aggressively than in the basement — I was fighting a difference in pressure. I slipped through and tried unsuccessfully to close it without slamming.

I was mildly disoriented at first. Each step felt ever so slightly like being on a down elevator. I didn’t think too hard about it, chalking it up to the effects of crossing over rather than considering nerd things like gravity.

The walls and floor were made of what looked like smooth, dark gray stone. This end of the room was apparently a reading area with tables and some expensive-looking but comfortably worn seating, all a little too high off the ground.

The talisman pointed toward the other end of the room. Having no better ideas of where to go, I continued following it, staying between rows of shelves. It wasn’t long before I heard voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They were almost certainly speaking the same language as the men downstairs, only now I could understand more of it.

“…dealing with intruders…main bond focus…complete separation without any further disruption…”

If I hadn’t been so intent on their conversation, I might have paid better attention to my surroundings. A blade pricked the side of my neck and a hand gripped my shoulder from behind. Someone had entered through another door and snuck up on me. When I jumped, the blade pressed harder. “Still,” a female voice ordered.

“Who’s there?” called the man.

“We have a visitor!” The woman behind me shoved me forward, all the way to the end of the shelves and out into the open, to face two looming figures across a massive table.

“…The brother.”

“We were wondering what became of you.”

“You know what, I have a name.”

“I apologize, Master Reid.” Only then did I realize they were speaking to me in perfect English. “You’ve caught us in the middle of a pressing — and I’m afraid still experimental — operation. We’ll have to forgo the usual hospitality.”

Next:
12. Class of 2000 and Never

Previous:
10. Hollow Glen

10. Hollow Glen

Wind. Hot, dry, relentless, and familiar. Familiar was good. Anything I could feel, identify, make sense of was good. If I’d been able, I would have caught hold of the wind the same way I was clenching handfuls of the grass under me — normal, bladed, mildly scratchy Earth grass, not the soft stringy stuff I’d been getting used to.

Awareness was coming in waves, like fading in and out of sleep on a Saturday with no alarm clock, except with a face full of lawn and a mind full of inexpressible terror. Only once my body got the memo and dutifully flooded with stress hormones did the awareness stick. I rolled over, spat out a grass blade, and sat up, heart racing and muscles jittery.

The fear and confusion that had followed me back from the map’s edge near Camp Outlook had begun to fade as soon as I was taking in things I could recognize. This time it was more penetrating and persistent, remaining with me even as I took in the view that had greeted me every day for almost six years. Barring any reality-hole-induced hallucinations, I was sitting dazed on the front lawn of my house in Morrow Glen, CA, USA, Earth.

“Sem?”

Neither she nor anyone else was around to hear. It wasn’t unusual for my street to be dead quiet and empty of people at midday, though I would have expected to see at least a few cars. Even the immovable El Camino two doors down was absent from its driveway for the first time since we’d moved in. But I didn’t waste any time pondering curiosities. As soon as I convinced myself I was really back, I made for the front door.

It was unlocked. “Mom! Dad! Tori!”

There they all were waiting for me, even Esther, and we had a good laugh as I told them all about the trippy dream I’d had while passed out on the front lawn. I never forgot the lessons I learned that day about appreciating family members and the importance of hydrating before pickup basketball games.

I didn’t make it past “M—”.

When I say the house was empty, I don’t just mean no one was home. It was as bare as the first time I’d set foot in it. At first, as I ran bewildered through every room, it looked like no one had ever lived there. Then I began to notice subtle traces here and there, like the door I’d helped Dad install on the laundry room, or the poorly patched dent Esther had put in the dining room wall during one of our more brutal Nerf wars with Tori.

I still had the backpack and everything from Var. My watch once again told me it was a few minutes past midnight on Sunday, January first. And aside from the high position of the sun, there was nothing to tell me otherwise.

The existential panic faded out just in time for a more grounded and specific variety to take over. The street sign and house number confirmed that this was 618 Tilton Street, but it wasn’t my home. Not without Dad’s beachcombing relics and metal detectors that had yet to turn up anything but soda cans for me; without any of Tori’s odds and ends in random places, from handcuffs to boomerangs; without Mom’s goofy sculptures from college or my shrine of all the autographed hockey memorabilia my grandparents kept sending me. I’d even have been happy to see Esther’s shelves full of trophies again. Instead I had to settle for traces of the gouge in the wall where I’d tried to pull them down years ago, which was no comfort.

All the neighbors’ houses I checked were the exact same. There was no electricity or running water to boot. After the fifth try, I sat down on the sidewalk and tried to calm down.

There must have been an evacuation since I left. Another earthquake? Then why no structural damage? And why, as I forced myself to keep quiet and listen, could I hear nothing but wind and leaves? Not only was the constant background of car noise gone, but there were no birds or insects.

I got up and started walking fast, breaking into an occasional run. Whatever had happened, if it wasn’t all in my mind, must have only cleared out my neighborhood. There was no way it could be like this —

Everywhere. Everywhere I passed through it was the same: streets and structures perfectly intact, all the familiar trees and plants, and not a sign of life otherwise. Not so much as a lizard or stray ant.

By the time I drew near the center of town, my feet were getting sore from walking and my head from rationalizing. Also presumably from dehydration. The only water I’d come across was in drainage ditches by the road and a moderate trickle in the glorified flood control channel we called an arroyo, but I wasn’t that desperate just yet.

The first hint that I might not be alone came at Vista Mesa Park, the sprawling backyard of the community rec center where Esther, Trina, and I had done so many summer programs. As I was trudging past a row of shrubs along the sidewalk, something rustled inside them. I moved toward it more quickly than was judicious and must have spooked it, because it burst out of its hiding place and took off across the field.

It was really tearing along too, on a pair of gangly legs like a roadrunner’s, though without any feathers or other birdlike features I could make out. It was about a foot and a half tall, with a compact little body and pointy head, all colored the same dusty gray and brown as every camouflaged animal in the hills.

“Hey, wait! Sorry!” Determined not to lose the only other sentient thing in this daymare of a suburb, I hurdled the bushes and jogged after it. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” (I mostly meant that, although my stomach was getting empty and I hadn’t seen anything edible so far. I couldn’t help wondering for a fleeting second how this little guy would taste.) “We’ve got to stick together, us…still-existing…living things.”

It stopped and swiveled its head to look straight back at me. Not like a twitchy bird glancing over its shoulder for danger, but a response. It then ran at a more leisurely clip back in my direction. Just as I was remembering the relevant scenes from Jurassic Park and wondering if if I’d made a mistake, it halted a couple of yards away.

I mentioned that it looked at me, but now that it was up close, I couldn’t make out any actual eyes in its head. Some rounded symmetrical spots on either side might have served it in that capacity. It gave a sort of chirp and extended a small appendage toward me.

“Holy cow. You got something to tell me? Can you understand me?”

It turned, jerked its head in the direction of the Alta Heights neighborhood, and scampered off. I didn’t see any choice but to follow. It seemed smarter than a normal animal, not quite smart enough for language perhaps, but it knew something I didn’t. As long as it stayed friendly and didn’t summon a pack of its little buddies to go procompsognathus on me, I’d play along.

It paused every so often to check that I was still following — without turning its head, I noticed. I got the distinct impression that its shape was no longer exactly the same as when I’d first seen it. “It’s okay,” I muttered. “You’ve seen weirder things.”

Yeah, but weird isn’t supposed to happen here.

Alta Heights was possibly the geographically lowest point in town, situated so that everyone else could look down on it literally as well as figuratively. I lost sight of the critter after walking only a short way into it. When shouting for it produced no response, I tentatively kept going.

The first thing I’d thought of while approaching the old neighborhood was Nik’s house. I didn’t visit often: Mom didn’t like me spending time in this part of town, Nik didn’t like my heinous attempts at flirting with his sister, Jess didn’t like being heinously flirted with, and we had better video games at my house anyway. Still, I was familiar enough with it to feel the urge for a quick peek. It would only be another disappointment, I knew.

I had just admitted with a heavy heart that tracking down my little mutant spirit animal guide should be my priority when I heard one of the sweetest sounds of my life, a very close challenger to that first intelligible sentence from Forside. A screen door slamming, two rows of houses away.

Given that the wind and any number of inhuman agents are perfectly capable of slamming screen doors, you might call me overly optimistic for sprinting ecstatically toward the noise. And unless you too have been transported to a ghost town all on your own with no explanation or apparent way out, I must request that you kindly shut your face.

I rounded the corner onto Nik’s street (Please let it be his house, please please please). His place looked typically deserted from the outside and through the blinds of the front windows, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I prowled around it as quietly as I could, not for fear of being heard but for fear of missing the next sound. It didn’t take long; I had almost reached the back of the house when I heard the bump of dresser drawers coming from inside.

I ran for the back door, shouting, “Hello? Nik?” No answer. I opened it onto the empty kitchen and yelled even louder, “Mrs. Alwyn! Jess? Anyone?” Silence.

“I’m coming in!” All the rooms in sight were bare. Had I been hearing things? If so, it was still happening. A bedspring creaked, there was a slight thump and a metallic scraping from the end of the hall that I hadn’t inspected yet.

Like a castaway seeing a ship, I reached the hall and saw Nik’s bedroom at the other end, the door partially open. And out of the entire house — the entire town — it still looked like a place someone lived in.

Nik!

He was just back from track practice, sprawled on his bed with his running clothes in a heap on the floor, textbooks spilling half out of his bag. He’d just opened one of the two terraria that dominated the wall behind the bed to take out Orm Embar, his black rat snake. He was also blissfully ignoring me. Orm turned his head toward me briefly, but I couldn’t tell if that meant anything. Could snakes even hear?

Only at this point did it occur to me that I might be dead.

Again, shut your face.

The afterlife was a raw deal if I could still get footsore and hungry in it. If Nik was the only person I could see, I would find a way to mess with him, maybe get some cryptic messages across. But if I had to be stuck haunting one person, why couldn’t it have been my seventh grade English teacher or one of those cretins from the school baseball team?

By this point I’d already barged down the hall and into his room. He was turned away from the door, still unresponsive to anything I said. I took a deep breath, suddenly scared to find out whether I would go through him, strode up to the bed, and clapped him on the shoulder with one final “HEY!”

The poor kid almost chucked Orm across the room, he jumped so hard. His other reflex was to swing out with his free arm and clock me square in the gut. From there our touching reunion consisted of me doubled over groaning and him crouched on his bed cussing me out, as bug-eyed and discombobulated as I’d ever seen him.

Reid? Where did you come from? What happened to knocking?

“Nice to see you too,” I half wheezed, half laughed.

“…not enough for you to send everyone into this mass panic hysteria, you had to sneak in here and — the crap are you wearing?”

I finally realized how odd I must look in my outfit from Brenest: the coarse pants woven from waterproof plant fiber, shapeless lightweight shirt, and long-sleeved green woodsman’s jacket I had tied around my waist on account of the heat. “You don’t like it? I’m an adventurer now. You gotta see it with the cloak to get the full effect. Here — aw, right, I lost the cloak —”

“Forget the cloak! Everyone’s been losing their minds for the last two days!”

“Two days? I’ve been gone for —” I remembered my watch was no longer giving me instant time updates, checked it manually, and remembered it had reset — “like eleven days.” Eleven Var days, whatever that comes out to.

“Are you high? It’s been two days. You and Esther are all anyone’s talking about. There’s cops everywhere, search parties — some kids didn’t even show up to school because their parents wouldn’t let them out of sight. Trina and I are busted for the camping trip, if you were wondering. We both got questioned and we had to tell them everything.”

If it’s possible to be nostalgic for something two weeks/days ago, I got nostalgic for the halcyon days when being busted registered on my list of worries.

“Where were you? Where’s Esther?”

“Okay, I can try and explain one of those, but I’ve got bigger problems first. Like seeing if I’m an actual brain-melted lunatic or not. Come.” Ignoring all further outbursts, I dragged him into the hall by the wrist. I had to know what the world looked like to him.

His stupefaction on seeing the rest of the house told me everything I needed to know. The bedroom door clicked shut behind us as he darted from room to room with mounting alarm. “Jess?” he called, rapping on her door.

“Nik, they’re not — ”

Jessica!” He switched to pounding, then threw the door open, froze, and ran back down the hall shouting, “Tanya!

I couldn’t tell whether to be more relieved that I wasn’t going irredeemably bonkers or worried that the two of us were now in the same boat. After a minute of standing in the hall thinking in circles, I gave up trying to make sense of it for now and went to reel Nik in.

“They were both here,” he said wildly. “Tanya and I just got home, I could hear the TV, Jess was on the phone in her room, then you popped up.”

He was panicked, but not in quite the same bewildered floundering way I’d been. Underneath his confusion was the kind of paralysis that comes from something you’ve been expecting, something you’ve had the time to dread. “This can’t be it,” he was muttering to himself as we returned to his room, gripping his snake a little too tightly lest she disappear as well. “There should have been some warning, I thought we had more time, I’m not ready…”

He opened his door and froze again. Only one thing remained in the bedroom we had left fully furnished and lived in: his other pet, a kingsnake named Great Red, crawling casually on the carpet beneath where his tank used to be. Otherwise, it had become as much of a shell as the rest of the town and, for all we knew, the world.

“Reid…what did you do to me?”

If I’d been hoping for a link back to the normal world, I had achieved the exact opposite. Nik was now trapped here with me.

After going through an abridged version of the same stages I had, after seeing the outside for himself and accepting my assurances that it really was like this everywhere, he was ready to slow down and talk things over sensibly. Either that or we were both ready to go bonkers together, which I still considered an improvement.

He sat with his snakes on the low brick wall of his neighbor’s yard while I paced in front of him, thinking of how to make what I had to say remotely plausible. “Okay. You’ve heard of parallel worlds, right? Neverending Story, Narnia…Half-Life. That kind of thing. That may not be exactly what’s going on, but I gotta start somewhere.”

“You went there?” Instead of the skepticism I was expecting, he immediately leaned forward, his eyes drilling into mine. “What was it like?”

“Imagine Humboldt County but like, insane, and with monsters. I almost died so many times, you have no idea. Although the whole place wasn’t like that, just the part I spent the most time in. You’d probably love it there with all the weird animals, it’s like they took the training wheels off evolution.”

“Sure…” He looked more deflated than excited at my description, but he was still hungry for information. “Is Esther still there?”

It was my turn to deflate. “She wasn’t with me. We think she got taken to a different domain — a different world.”

“You got back by yourself?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I mean, I did find a few adults who helped, but one of them ditched me and the other two…I just hope they’re still alive.”

“So how did you get back?”

“Fell down an institutional hole.”

“Down a what of a what now?”

“Long story.”

He looked down the deserted street in both directions, then pointedly back at me. “You got somewhere to be?”

“That thing she said about her city. Was there any more to it?”

“She said a lot of things about everything. I can try and summarize, but bear in mind I’m probably butchering it. She said…a city is a relationship. Places can remember what they were made for, but if people aren’t doing their thing and keeping it all together, it just becomes a bunch of pieces. Like the Institute. It stayed what it was because of all the work she put into it. Of course, Bugsen was still able to slide right in and jack it all up in basically no time.”

“I need you to know that every time you say ‘Bugsen,’ all I’m picturing is Bugs Bunny.”

“Good.”

“Which still isn’t as moronic as you trying to fight them with tampons.”

“A, number one, we refer to them as absorbers,” I said loftily. “Don’t go disdaining on them, they’re versatile. B, number two, it could have worked. Maybe.”

We had walked and talked our way to the market a few blocks away from Alta Heights. The facade of the main building included a set of roofed turrets, and while any reasonable person would assume they were there for zombie/Y2K apocalypse defense practice, the management insisted they were just decoration and no one was allowed up there. With no management in sight, we’d found a way up to one of them and were now targeting the parking lot’s light poles with pieces of roof gravel as we continued our conversation. Great Red was coiled comfortably around Nik’s shoulders while Orm made himself at home in the crevices of my cast-off jacket.

“You really think you could have picked up Esther’s trail if those guys hadn’t shown up?”

“If Sem knew what she was talking about.” I added under my breath, “It’s not like anyone else did.”

“That’s annoying that there was nothing in her journal.”

“Doesn’t mean she didn’t write anything in it, I just couldn’t…” I stopped short, realizing that the journal was now an ordinary book again. I whipped it out and —

“Oh come on!” Esther’s neat, expansive handwriting was indeed there on the pages, but so were all my writings and drawings, directly on top of it. We could only make out words here and there. Nik gave me a look when we got to the page entirely filled by my picture of a shark eating a surfboard.

“Well, I wouldn’t have colored it in if I’d known, would I…look, there was a long wagon ride, I got bored. Sue me.”

“I guess none of her stuff is going to be much use then if it’s all back to normal.”

“There is one thingy I got that’s from another another domain. It might work here. Maybe we can use it to find someone.” I began rifling through the backpack looking for Forside’s locator before I remembered. “Ah, crapsicles, I gave it to Sem. Man, I hope she’s okay.”

“If that hole you fell in spit you out at home, kind of, maybe the same thing happened to her?”

I had a vision of her wandering a hollow version of So Ameda and never knowing the difference. To banish that depressing thought, I turned to the practical. “Even without my locator, I still found you. This is a big town, there must be at least a few more like you out there that we can find.”

“Like me,” he said quietly. “Yeah, about that…There may not be anyone else like me.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was trying to think of a good way to tell you, since today’s the day for dumping crazy news on people.” He let out a long breath through his teeth. “I’m not from here.”

“Duh.”

“Not from Earth, Reid.”

Facing him in silence, I discovered that no amount of strange new encounters can prepare you for the moment the old and familiar suddenly becomes the strange encounter.

“You’re from another domain,” I said slowly.

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

“You’re — I — ”

He kept quiet and gave me space to come to grips, looking away and stroking Great Red anxiously.

“Since when?”

“Since ninety-one.”

“I thought you were adopted from Pakistan! Even the teachers think so.”

“When did I ever say that?”

“You totally…um, wait. Give me a second.”

“Better question. Where did you first hear that rumor?”

“I dunno. Martha, probably.”

“You really think Martha knows what a Pakistani looks like? She made it up, or someone else did and she passed it on.”

“And you just went along with it?”

“I never denied it. It was easier than making something up myself. I was grateful, really — just had to do enough research to answer the same three or four questions you guys would ask.”

“I asked more questions than that.

“Which is why —”

“— you started saying you were too little to remember!” It was finally making sense, the hidden layer of Nik that had kept me curious all these years. It was easy enough to buy the nationality the rumor mill had assigned him, because I couldn’t have guessed with any confidence. With his dark skin and hair, something African or vaguely Middle Eastern would have been the limit of my conjecture, but the truth was he didn’t quite have the features of any race I recognized. Because of course he wouldn’t.

“Oh, shoot. Are you an alien?”

“No!”

“You can tell me! Is that why you’re so flexible? Please tell me you’re one of those robots with a little dude in your head.”

“Even more no.”

“How do we prove it, though? Let’s see, everyone knows robots don’t have boogers…”

“Want me to blow my nose on you, dingus? Keep this up if you really want to see my snot up close.”

“I’m just messing.”

“Yeah, I know. Look, I think I’m human. Pretty sure my doctor or dentist would’ve said something by now.”

“And we both hit puberty around the same time, didn’t we?”

“That’s another thing. I couldn’t actually tell you how old I am. Not in years. We didn’t do birthdays back home that I recall. The agency had to take a guess based on how I looked.”

“Is that why you stopped having birthday parties?”

“Nah, that was your fault. You traumatized me that time you puked all over the piñata.”

“No, for real.”

“Maybe I was tired of getting the same Power Ranger sword from three different people.”

“Dude, it’s okay. It’s me.”

He relented and dropped the flippancy. “Yeah, that’s why we stopped. It got too weird for me, knowing it wasn’t real. Making me think too much about…home.”

“Home. Right.” I refocused. “Why are you here? How are you here? What was it like where you came from?”

“Where to even start with that,” he sighed. “My parents didn’t tell me why we had to leave home, just that it wasn’t safe there anymore. After that we were walking what felt like forever, days, weeks, I don’t know. Sometimes there were other groups walking with us. That and being hungry is what I mostly remember, hungry all the time. Starving.”

It was the first time I’d heard him say “my parents”. He couldn’t mean Tanya and Gavin Alwyn. It was jarring, after feeling bad for him that he’d never known his birth family, to instead feel bad that he had known and lost them.

“What happened to — ”

“I don’t want to talk about that part. Let’s just say it was only me and my dad by the end.” His demeanor was stoic throughout the story, but it was costing him some effort.

“I was too weak to really move much or do anything, all I remember is people talking, some of them in a language I didn’t know. Men in strange clothes. My dad told me I had to go with them, they would take me somewhere safe, but he couldn’t come. He was really weak too by that point. Then I remember lights, wind, high-pitched sound like a siren, and feeling like I was falling for a really long time.” He threw a rock as high and far as he could, watching its arc until it bounced to a stop far away on the asphalt. “After that all my memories are from here.”

What do you say to a revelation like that? Sorry for your loss, like everyone at a funeral? Something about being brave?

“Wow,” I mumbled. “That sucks. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

We threw more rocks.

“As for what it was like there, I shouldn’t — I feel bad saying this, but I get the feeling the whole place was…kinda boring? The first thing that really knocked me back when I got here was how many colors there were.”

Here?

“You don’t understand.” He pointed up. “You don’t realize how blue this sky is. I think ours was sort of blue too, but it was all just less, somehow. My dad tried explaining it to me, but I don’t think I could put it right in English. You could say everything was ‘falling apart,’ maybe, but that’s not really it.

“There’s a few strong memories of places, obviously memories of my family, and the rest is a blur. I don’t know how much of that is ‘cause I was little and how much is there not being a whole lot worth remembering.”

“All this interplanetary-dimensionary-domain…sionary voodoo does glitch up your memory, I can confirm that. I remember plenty from when I was four, or however old.

“Are you okay talking about all this?” I went on after a pause. “You’re not still mad at me, right?”

A subtly twisted, pained smile. “I’ve been holding all this in for nine years, man. Letting everyone think what they wanted because it was easier that way.”

“There’s no one here but us. What better time to LET IT ALL OUT!” I leaned over the edge and bellowed the last few words. Nik put Red down and joined me, the two of us screaming our every care and frustration over the parking lot, the rooftops, and the soccer fields beyond, the storefronts across the street screaming echoes back at us.

“Damn, I needed that,” he said once we were hoarse and breathless.

“I think I did too.”

“I’m not glad about what happened to you and Esther, or that we’re stuck here, but having someone to talk to about this? It’s like taking a breath after you’ve been at the bottom of the pool for too long.”

“You never told anyone? Not even Tanya and Gavin?”

“Once I had enough English to start talking about it, someone from the agency told me it would be too dangerous. They think I was abandoned at a church and no one knows where I’m from.”

“And how did you know you weren’t from Earth?”

“Remember about the colors? Some things you can tell just by looking. When I asked to go home, they told me we were too far away to ever go back, and if we could…well, there might not be anything there anymore.” I got a bona fide chill when he said this. “From there, as I got older, all I had to go on were stories, like you said. Parallel worlds. They got me thinking, putting my own theories together. Didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to test them.”

“I assume this wasn’t the kind of chance you were hoping for.”

“I had no idea what to hope for. So if you have any ideas what to do next…”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty, I had a long walk to think. It’s just that almost all of them are terrible. The only one so far that makes sense is to go back to the place where this all started.”

“That valley from our camping trip. Oof.” He massaged his leg. “That’ll be a slog.”

“Soon as you’ve got something better, speak right up. Please.”

“I know, I know. Let’s do it.”

“We’ve only got — well no, I guess we still have a few more hours. It’s still so bright out. Heh, it’s crazy how fast I got used to shorter days.”

Nik tied on my jacket with the snakes curled up in two of its deep pockets and we descended to ground level. “You know,” I observed as we were passing by the surrounding shops, “it’s funny how all the buildings are abandoned, but some of these look more abandoned than others.”

“What do you mean? Those stores were already abandoned. They went out of business months ago.”

“No kidding? We used to go to a few of these places when we first moved out here. I didn’t hear anything about it. Don’t really pass by this way anymore.”

I got to pass by much more than I’d ever paid attention to in the course of our trek. We walked down the center line of every road, hopped every fence that got in our way, cut through someone’s backyard every time we felt like it. We took a shortcut down the long desolate corridor bisecting the town that was the high voltage right of way, the towers free of their ominous buzzing for once. When we passed through the substation, Nik ran his hands along wires and swung from transformers with impunity, and I followed as soon as I was ninety-five percent confident we wouldn’t burst into flames.

We climbed gradually higher as the sun sank lower, till we could take in nearly all of Morrow Glen steeped in orange light and long shadows. The moon had been out for a while, looking friendlier than I’d ever given it credit for. I kept looking up to reassure myself it was still there, half blotted out by a shadow that could only be Planet Earth.

“You really think we can make it there before night?” Nik asked.

“I’ve got a flashlight.”

“I don’t feel like stumbling around in the dark when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Real talk, I was wiped out from practice even before all this walking and I’m mostly thinking about where we’re supposed to sleep.”

“Find a house with a nice soft carpet, maybe. I’m tired too — pretty sure this is the literal longest day of my life. I just don’t want to quit until we have to. Remember we’re probably not eating till we get out of this, never mind seeing our families.”

“Like I could forget,” he groaned.

“Sem was going to make something special for dinner too. Caught all those ick balls in the water tank for nothing…now if I get any hungrier I bet I could eat a handful of them raw.”

We continued discussing which Earth or Var animals we’d be willing to devour raw until he caught me eyeing the jacket pockets where the snakes were. “Let’s talk about something else.”

As the last light was fading, we stopped by the edge of the outermost housing tract to make up our minds about pressing on. It was there that we saw the first of the stars come out.

I was hit with the same relief as when I’d first spotted the moon. As alien and impossibly distant as I knew they were, they were my stars. Before long we were lying under a brighter, deeper, and more crowded sky than either of us had seen in years, the kind that, when you’re on your back and it takes up your whole field of vision, lets you realize that you’re not just looking up, you’re glued to the side of a planet and looking out at the universe.

It’s not my fault, Kir. I hope.

“Wow,” Nik whispered. “I bet nobody’s seen this many stars here since the quake.”

“You know people in LA saw the Milky Way for the first time that night and got so spooked they called 911?”

“Ha! I wish that surprised me.”

“Actually, I’m no constellologist, but I’m not seeing the Milky Way. These are our stars, right?”

“Over there. Big Dipper.”

I sat up, trying not to think about candy bars, and took another look at the town. A completely dark Morrow Glen was an impressive sight in its own way, as comforting as it would have been to see some—

“Light! Look, look, get up, there’s lights on!”

There were two, no, three of them in view, small but unmistakable points in the blackness. Candy bars and constellations forgotten, we jumped up and tried to figure out where they were coming from. “Okay, the closest one is downtown. Looks like it’s right on the other side of the…” I snapped my fingers, trying to recover the name for those sets of parallel steel rails that ran past the industrial area. “You know, the thing.”

Nik stared at me like he didn’t know whether to laugh at me or check my temperature. “The train tracks?”

“Yeah, that.”

“You all right?”

“My brain needs food, give me a break.”

“Is my brain starving too, or is the other one coming from Bohrdom?”

“I think you’re right. Yeah, it is! Huh. We should still check out the train tracks one first.”

After some tedious backtracking, we hit the railroad and followed it until we caught sight of the nearest light, emanating from the top of one of the ramshackle, supposedly abandoned farm supply buildings. As usual, the door was unlocked.

The inside of the place was as empty as every other, but parts of it looked clean and well-maintained, in sharp contrast to the exterior. We found the stairs to the roof and emerged into the faint electric glow coming from inside a single massive air handler, chugging away like it was any old non-eldritch April evening. Nik approached it, and seeing that I hung back, said, “It’s safe, come on.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. Have I ever been wrong about this kind of thing? I can feel whenever something’s dangerous.”

My feet and brain ground to a halt as years’ worth of unexplained incidents slotted themselves abruptly into place, from our camping trip all the way back to his first run-ins with school bullies. “Holy so that’s why — buh — ”

He let me splutter for a little longer, unable to keep a good-natured smirk off his face. “Yeah. Guess I should have mentioned that earlier. It does come in pretty handy.”

“Handy? It’s like a superpower! I was thinking you were like Superman, getting sent to Earth from wherever, but this is like that Spidey-sense thing. You’re Spider-man! Ooh, have you ever tried shooting a web?”

“No I can’t shoot webs.” He rolled his eyes.

“But have you ever triiied? Climb up that wall.”

“Stop being dumb.”

“No. Pbththbpt. Seriously though, can everyone do that where you’re from? Wait, no, this is because you’re displaced, isn’t it? You’re the tube of sunscreen I was telling you about, the one that gets taken up to the top of the mountain and then…explodes? I don’t think I’m saying that right.”

“I was thinking about that. Wouldn’t it be the opposite of what happened to you? Wouldn’t me coming from my world to here be like going from the top of the mountain to the bottom?”

“So then the tube would…”

“Get crushed,” he finished morosely.

“Hold on now. But when you open it, it would suck everything back in, wouldn’t it? That’s like the same force. Same difference, literally. Aah, this metaphor made more sense when Sem was doing it. Basically the moral of the story is that you suck.”

“And you blow. Glad we cleared that up.”

Examining the boxy unit turned up a single panel we could easily open. Rows of buttons, some knobs, and an LCD screen were among the controls we recognized inside. Below them were more esoteric inputs such as a pair of circular pads and what looked like a cross between a joystick and a fancy wine opener. I commenced the universal protocol of pushing every button at random and the screen blinked to life. A crawl of text ran down it too fast for me to read, then a virtual keyboard popped up with a prompt:

PASSWORD:

“Great. Anywhere else we can try?” The remaining panels couldn’t be pulled open, so we resorted to prying. Nik got a purchase underneath one of them with the flathead screwdriver on the multitool, and I was able to slip one of the scissor blades in and lever it outward. Almost immediately there was a sharp hiss and air began rushing into the gap we’d created. The light inside the unit flickered and the LCD froze, jagged lines distorting the image. The hissing stopped after a minute, and we found we couldn’t pry the panel any further without risking snapping the scissors.

Nik tapped the screen, which stayed frozen. “Oops.”

I gave the unit a kick, equal parts annoyed at what we had failed to learn and freaked out by the one thing I could deduce. “They were already here. Of course they were.”

“Who’s they?

“How should I know! I forgot to tell you about all the sketchy stuff that went down before Esther ran off. Like what they did to the mall. I got lost in this employee closet, and Esther — wait, Esther was talking to someone, meeting with someone the day before! She told me not to worry about it…aarrgh, why can’t I remember?” I kicked the machine some more until the screen went black, then sat with my back against it. Nik slid down next to me.

“So Nik,” I said after a long pause to cool down, “You said your family didn’t…you know, make it. None of them came here with you.” He nodded.

“Who brought you here?”

“No idea. It’s not like I could understand anything they were saying. I only remember one guy’s name, the one who spent the most time with me. The others called him Anthony.”

“Okay, probably an American name. You sure it wasn’t just something that sounded like it?”

“How much are you absolutely sure of from when you were that little?”

“Fair. How’s this for a theory: First I found the little goober that led me to your neighborhood — that was out of place. Then I found you — now we know you’re out of place here. Then we find this thing, however it’s getting power. Oh, and the snakes for, um…some friggin’ reason. Where did you get those two?”

He took them out for some fresh air, and to make sure they hadn’t relieved themselves in my jacket pockets. “Zoo Station. It’s just a normal pet shop as far as I can tell.”

“Well fine, ignoring them for now, what if everyone or every functioning thing that shows up here has a connection to another domain?”

“Like we’re on some kind of border.”

“And it’s safe to say someone who lives here made this, someone who programmed it in English, probably the same people who fixed up the downstairs. Also, tangent, is it just me or do like seventy percent of the ghost stories kids tell come from this part of town?”

He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t get many trouble vibes around here.”

“Whatever. There are people in Morrow Glen up to some seriously not-normal stuff is what I’m saying.”

“Good theory, good theory.” He yawned. “Where are you going with it?”

“See, I was hoping I’d have that figured out by the time I was done making all those points…”

The night was getting no younger and we weren’t likely to learn any more from the machine. So speaking of learning, it was time to make for the distant flickering light that appeared to be coming from, of all places, our school.

Next:
11. Full Bohr

Previous:
9.2. We Put the Hole in Holistic

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