Another car peeled out. Todd Hammond glanced over his shoulder. It was a pickup truck, lean as a coyote. It revved its engine and accelerated past, and John Warner stuck his head out the truck’s passenger window and yelped a war cry.
Normally, Todd would avert his gaze. Today, he held John’s eyes with a cool smile. Boiling with rage at his affront, John snarled out his window.
The truck passed, swerving a little as if to hit him. Todd kept his smile. He knew they wouldn’t bother him. Today, he had a plan. More than a plan, really. A secret. Which in high school was better. A plan could backfire. But a secret! A secret gave you options.
More cars flew by. Todd smiled at them, pushing his luck, but got no response. They either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. Todd did care. He wanted all of Cascadia High to see him, smiling under the sunshine, gloating with purpose. He had somewhere to be.
The road curved south. The dogwoods disappeared, opening up into a series of barren plots. To call them “farms” would be generous, as they were only an acre or two, with a few mangy cows stared out. Two orange Highland cattle watched him dully, horns protruding out their heads, their strange, shaggy fur hanging like moss.
The verdancy of Dunam was so great, it always amazed him that it could support any farms at all. To have a farm meant war with the blackberries and Dogwoods and Ninebarks constantly fighting to take over everything. Where families could beat back the greenery, there were farms like these. These strange, shaggy cows had been here since he could remember. They were never slaughtered for beef, and he never saw anyone milk them. He shrugged. Clearly Dunam had mysteries left to uncover.
Todd turned off Main Street, past Hunsaker Oil, where a single, forlorn logging truck sat rusting in front of a tiny wooden watchtower. Decades ago, when this station was still part of the McKraken Mill, drivers used it to inspect their chains. Now it sat useless and decomposing like everything else. Nothing new ever came to Dunam. Except when it did.
It was yesterday, Sunday, when he’d found her. One of the beauties of living in a remote place like Dunam was that you didn’t have to travel far to get away. You could drive five minutes and be out of site of the houses. You could walk down Tuscarora road, step over the guardrail and into the deep ash trees and begin—legally—hunting elk. Even spots popular with the town—like Lost Lake—were only a half hour out. Lately, Todd had been expanding his range for hiking, driving further to find new and unused trails. But then on Sunday, his dad and his sister had a horseshoe tournament up in Snowden and Todd stayed behind. He didn’t have his dad’s truck, so he just walked out his door and started to hike.
As is often the case, the things most familiar to us can hold the biggest surprises. Jewett creek was only three houses down, and it’d been years since he’d hiked it. He’d expected to find it packed with kids on a Sunday, but as he scrambled down the steep embankment and slid through the alder groves, he was pleasantly surprised to find the streambed empty, even from the insolent middle schoolers who always seemed to be down there. Except for the bottles of detergent and empty beer cans, he saw no sign of civilization.
Now, as he passed his house and slid back down into the creek, he had a strange sense of deja vu. Everything about it felt eerily the same as yesterday’s hike. The same plastic grocery bag was wrapped around the same pile of sticks. The sunlight seemed held in the same position. Even the gurgle of the creek seemed to repeat itself. He shook off the feeling, and began hiking upstream.
He stayed in the creek bed, leaping from rock to rock. If he came up onto the bank, he would see houses, and that would ruin his illusion of isolation. Even when he was certain he’d escaped the boundaries of Dunam, he continued along the water, savoring the anticipation of the slow hike. He had no idea how long it took him, but eventually he heard it; the low, furious roar of the waterfall.
He came around a bend in the creek, and there it was. Rock Ridge, the locals called it. It was only slightly taller than he was. The pool at the base was not deep, but clear and wide. At one point it had been a fashionable spot to bring dogs but had fallen out of favor for other, more beautiful waterfalls. The Rainier beer cans nestled in the rocks were faded and sunbleached.
Todd stepped off the creek rocks onto the bald, packed dirt where blankets used to be spread. He crept carefully along, clinging to the mossy cliff, inching toward the falls. As he neared, the mist of the falls wafted across his face, reminding him of cruel months of early spring the town had left behind. Moving slowly, he reached the spot he’d been to yesterday. Holding a tree root with his left hand, he plunged his right hand into the rocks. The rocks shimmered and flickered, as if they too were made of water. His arm fell into them, disappearing up to his elbow.
Good. So it was still there.
Todd didn’t know what to call this thing. A portal to another dimension? It felt like something out of sci-fi movie. He repositioned his body, moving closer to the falls. Then he threw his head into the rocks, shutting his eyes tight. He felt an immediate lightheadedness, as he had yesterday. It was if the great weight of existence were suddenly lifted from him, and he felt almost giddy at the thrill. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or shut; they swam with colors and swirls of sensation. He called out, not with his mouth, but with his mind.
Then somewhere far away, he heard her voice echo. “Hello?”
“Hey. It’s me, Todd. You’re still here?”
There was a moment of silence, then: “I told you not to come back.”
“Yeah, I know… But I had too. I can’t leave you stuck here; I have to get you out.”
“What if I came in there?”
“No, don’t. Please. The best thing you can do is leave me alone.”
Todd really did want to help this girl. But he had another, secret purpose for coming back. He’d thought about it all night. Prom was coming up in a few weeks, and he didn’t have a date just yet. There was something romantic and Arthurian about pulling a girl from a rock, then taking her to prom. Maybe even living happily ever after.
“You never told me your name.”
The girl’s voice became more agitated. “You have to leave. Right now.”
“Why? I want to help you.”
“You can’t help me. But if you leave right now, you might save yourself.”
She seemed upset. But Todd couldn’t let this opportunity pass. Nobody new ever came to Dunam. He had a strong hunch this girl—a new girl—could be worth her weight in gold, if he could get her to prom. If she got out and wasn’t his date, she would soon be someone else’s. The baseball team would ditch their dates in a moment to bring a fresh face to prom. It was now or never.
“Okay, I’ll go. But listen, when you get out, I want to talk to you. Come by my house, okay? It’s at 19 NE Washington street—”
Todd groaned and pulled his head back out of the rocks. The world rushed back around him. He clung to the slippery rocks and moved crab-like back to the pool. He felt the sting of rejection, and so didn’t at first didn’t notice the other boy.
He was sitting on the flat earth by the pool. Dunam’s current population was 4,127—give or take a few babies and deaths. Just big enough to know everyone in town, if not by name. He recognized the boy immediately, though he didn’t know his name. He thought he was maybe even a student at the high school—he should be, given his youth—but Todd hadn’t seen him around in good long while. Perhaps he’d dropped out. He was thin, with dark hair and dark eyes, and he wore a fanny pack around his waist.
Todd was startled to see him but he his his surprise, to give a friendly Dunam hello.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
The boy smiled impishly. “Good. You?”
Todd colored, wondering how much this boy had seen. “Good.”
Todd looked around. The forest was eerily quiet. The normal bird calls and far off engines seemed muted. The only noise was the roar of the falls, which seemed to be growing to fill the vacuum.
The boy must’ve walked in on a different trail. Todd looked around to see where he might have come in, but all the old trails were overgrown, with no sign of recent disturbance. The boy now had a huge cheshire grin on his face, and it reminded Todd of a picture of Rumpelstiltskin he’d once seen in an old book.
The boy was still smiling at Todd, overly earnest. Todd shifted, uneasy.
“You used to go to Cascadia, right?”
The boy shook his head gleefully. “A long time ago. I haven’t been back in a while. Ages, really.”
He looked around, soaking in the forest. “I used to come to this spot all the time.” He glanced sharply at Todd.
“Do you come here often?”
Todd felt a lump in his throat. The boy must have seen him. “Not often.”
“But you’re here today.”
Todd nodded slowly.
“Kinda a special place, isn’t it? That rock?”
Todd nodded slowly. “Is it always like that?”
“Oh no. It’s a... recent development. Magical, though, isn’t it?”
Todd had the keen sense that he was about to fight, though he didn’t know why. He’d gotten into a fight once with John Hogburn. That had felt much the same beforehand. He couldn’t place it, but he was certain this boy was somehow threatening him. The boy stepped eagerly forward.
“You been here before, you said?”
“You tell anyone else about this spot?”
Todd shook his head.
“How’d you find it? Something… bring you here?”
“I was on a hike and I wanted to get my head wet in the falls.”
The other boy seemed to relax. He reached into his fanny pack and drew out a shimmering, purple sword. It was at least four feet long, way too long to fit in a fanny pack. Todd’s fell back, staring at the unreality of it. It looked as if it were made of crystal. The boy held the sword out. Todd shook his head in horror. Panic erupted inside him. He felt reality slipping away. He tried to speak, but couldn’t.
“No, please. Take it. I’d feel guilty if you didn’t.”
He pressed the sword into Todd’s hands. Todd wondered at its heaviness, at the coldness of its steel. Suddenly the boy leapt towards him, pumping his legs at impossible speed. Todd watched, utterly dumbfounded. The boy deftly ran up the cliffside, then did a backflip into the air. Todd watched the boy’s foot sail towards his face. He opened his mouth to yell. The boy’s foot smashed through his head, bursting it in a fountain of goo. Todd’s body fell to the ground.
The man picked up the sword and slid it back into his fanny pack. Then he climbed up on the cliff to where Todd had been, and got to work.