They’d been driving for two hours, the high whine of the Batmobile fading into the background, it’s backfire only occasionally startling them back into the present. They passed back and forth a bag of sunflower seeds, taking handfuls, spitting the shells out their windows. The road weaved, hanging sometimes along the edge of the Skokullom, sometimes under a dark wall of trees.
A small, pitiful rendition of My Bloody Valentine’s Loomer finished playing through the crackling car speakers. A silence followed, and Jay pointed at the tape deck.
“Here’s another hole. I know the song, I just don’t know the name of it.”
There was a crackle on the tape, and then they heard Jay’s voice, singing; “Bum bah bum ba dum ba dum.”
Colin glanced over.
“Hearing it in context helps me remember,” Jay explained, concentrating on the music.
“Aren’t there any lyrics?”
“Not on this one.”
Jay’s off-key Bum-Ba-Bums continued through the speakers.
“Javier and I have this great process down. He finds the song, I get the CD. Do you know Columbia Music House? They have this great deal. You buy a CD, and then get ten for a penny. So I get the CDs, then I let Javier make a tape of the CD. Everyone wins.”
Jay’s voice finally crackled out, and then Smashing Pumpkins Cherub Rock started. Colin nodded appreciatively. “I like this song alot.”
“They’re all really good. When I finish this mixtape, I’m going to donate it to the Library of Congress. This is the music our country deserves.”
They passed a large cedar sign for “Cartwright National Forest” and the road drifted left, taking them away from the water and deeper into the woods. Sheltered from the sun, they felt the temperature drop. Despite being only eighty miles outside of Dunam, neither of them had ever been this far out of town. Jay shivered with the adventure of it. They hadn’t seen a car or a logging truck in over half an hour. The national forest sign and the road were the only signs of civilization.
“Whoa, what’s this?”
Up ahead was a lone stop sign.
“A stop sign.”
Colin slowed, then stopped, carefully looking both ways.
“That’s odd, though right? A stop sign way out here?”
“Reminds me of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. How, when they got to Narnia, there was that lamppost in the forest. C’mon man, what are you waiting for? There’s nobody here.”
Colin cautiously proceeded through. The road turned left. Jay leaned the atlas against the dashboard and fished a compass from his backpack. He frowned.
“We’re curving east.”
“So the Atlas shows the road continuing south along the river. The Atlas is wrong; the Build is right!”
“Maybe it straightens out?”
“How we doing on gas?”
Despite being slightly heavier than a kitchen table, the Batmobile had terrible gas mileage. Its engine guzzled gas, turning it into black smoke without converting much of it at all into actual forward motion. When Colin crunched the numbers, he found it only got fourteen miles per gallon, the same as the biggest Ford Trucks in A-Court. They’d filled up before they’d left, but the batmobile had a small tank. Running out of gas in these deserted woods was a possibility.
“We have just over half a tank.” He patted the dashboard. “Poor girl. I think she has a cylinder out.”
“I think we should go back to the stop sign. We’re heading east now.”
They spun the car around, pulled over, and shut off the car. The last remnant of civilization died with the engine, and the imposing silence sank in around them. There were no motors, no planes. Nothing except the muted roar of the river. They stepped out of the car.
Huge cedars loomed over the road, turning into willows and maples closer towards the Skookullom. The lone stop sign was a hundred yards away, now a friendly reminder of Dunam, the only other sign of life. There was a large, dirt shoulder on their right. Colin bent down to look for tire tracks, but found nothing.
“Do you think hunters ever come out here?”
“I don’t think anyone comes out here. C’mon.”
Jay pulled his school backpack off the seat, and wrapped it over his shoulders. The square he’d drawn on the atlas was an approximation, and he estimated their hike in to the edge of The Build would take about three miles. But he was bad at judging distances. Also, he was uncertain of whether they’d even notice when they reached the edge they’d found in The Build. It was probably nothing. The woods might continue on for sixty miles before dropping down into the Columbia River. If that were so, this could be a long hike.
On the atlas and in The Build, there was a horseshoe bend on the Skookullom. This was where Jay expected to find the border. At least they had something to look for. He’d urged Colin to pack as if spending the night out here. His own sleeping bag dangled loosely, tied to the bottom of his backpack. Colin had a superior backpack, an Eagle Creek, a hybrid backpack / roller bag, wheels sprouting from its bottom. Jay watched Colin carefully fuss with his bag. His face poured with sweat, and he was breathing heavily. Jay frowned.
Colin wasn’t meeting his gaze. “What do you think we’ll find out there?”
“Probably nothing. This atlas is probably better at geography than Krave III.”
Colin nodded, still breathing hard. “But then why did highway 24 turn east? That’s not on the atlas.”
“Look, it’s crazy that all atlases would be wrong, and nobody would say anything. This highway has to go somewhere. Otherwise, where do all the logging trucks go? Are they just dumping all the lumber they cut in some giant hole?”
Colin smiled. “Probably not.”
“And where does all our food come from? Those Ninja Turtle Pies come from somewhere, right? They don’t grow on trees.”
Colin chuckled. “I wish.”
“C’mon, man, it’s just an adventure. We might even be the first people ever to go this way. The Dunam Lewis and Clarks.”
“Yeah,” Colin mustered a smile. “Trying to find the Northwest Passage.”
“That wasn’t Lewis and Clark but, yeah. Right sentiment.” Jay adjusted his shoulder straps. His pack was already straining, and he wondered where he should leave his canned peaches or chili in the car. He decided to risk discomfort.
The woods were still, the only sounds were the light hum of insects, the occasional chitter nuthatches, and the nearby rumble of the river. The sun was high above the trees now. Sunlight covered the road and touched the shoulder they were on. Jay eyed Colin’s giant backpack with envy.
“I wished you told me you were bringing that. I coulda brought my extra pair of socks.” Jay bent over and re-laced his shoes.
Colin walked to the edge of the shoulder. Through a thin strip of poplar trees, and glanced down the steep embankment of the Skookullum. The river looked colder and fiercer here than it did in town, running around sharp rocks, through narrow canyons, swirling in fierce eddies then doubling back on itself as small, white waves. Colin watched, mesmerized. It was much faster than in Dunam.
“Too bad we don’t have a raft.”
“So we could be dashed to pieces?” Jay clapped. “Let’s move!”
A small path lead off the shoulder and into the woods. It was well-travelled enough that Jay found himself wondering if he may have been wrong; maybe it wasn’t a game trail. Maybe some entrepreneurial hunters had been out this far. They set off into the darkened veil, where the smaller trees were swallowed up by giant old growth. They pushed in under the canopy of trees and moss, where a brilliant forest floor sprouted up with an emerald rug of maidenhair fern, foam flower, and wild ginger. Jay and Colin hiked in hypnotic silence, taken in by this world. The old growth forest outside Dunam never lost its magic. It had a sense of unreality, as if they’d fallen into another universe.
“I think we should make our own game.”
Jay was so deep in his thoughts, he had to shake himself to hear Colin. He didn’t know if they’d been hiking for minutes or hours.
“Yeah, we have that map editor now.”
Jay realized with a thrill that Colin was right. With that tool, they could make their own Krave III maps, possibly even their own game. He smiled.
“Alright, what’s the pitch?”
“Well, maybe that’s what the Krave III designers were thinking by including that map. What if gameplay wasn’t on the planet Gorkon?”
“Ha! You mean, fighting Gorkons in Dunam? That’d be awesome.”
“Yeah, start with that. But we could build other realms, too, with new creatures and weapons. Like, what about a version of Krave III in the old west. Or a fantasy Krave mash-up? Or Krave in space?”
Jay’s mind spun with possibilities.
“You could build resource management into it. Or a hybrid between Krave III’s combat meets Dune II’s strategy. I wonder how hard that would be to do?”
“I bet Stevie could figure it out.” Jay muttered.
“Yeah, I was thinking that too.” There was a lightness in Colin’s voice. Jay looked at Colin carefully. Was there pining in Colin’s voice? Did his friend just sigh a little when Jay uttered Stevie’s name?
For several hours, they build worlds in their brains, ignoring the splendor around them. For a while, the mystery of highway 24 disappeared, and they were simple nerds again, eager to get back indoors and in front of their screens.
The terrain began to change. Sometimes they scrambled over fallen trees as thick as cars. Other times they leapt over giant boulders on a collapsed hillside. Around one o’clock they stopped for lunch. Jay lead them off the trail, down through mossy trees and ferns, towards the river. As they stepped out of the trees, they found themselves in an open corridor. The trees shot up on either side and walled them in, while grey rock ran under their feet. They found a fallen log running parallel to the river, and they sat on it without breaking conversation, as Jay cut an apple and spread peanut butter, and Colin produced granola bars and ding dongs, and a milk jug of water.
They munched their meager fare in silence, staring up at the trees about them, and feeling the magic of these woods. Here it seemed entirely possible that the woods might go on forever. There was no sign of human life. Jay had never been to a city, and now he tried hard to imagine the wall of trees ending, and skyscrapers taking their place. It seemed impossible.
After lunch, the boys hiked in silence. Colin may have been mulling their game idea, but Jay’s mind turned reluctantly to the practicalities of their trip. They had been walking now for several hours. The going was slower than Jay had anticipated, and there was no sign of the forest ending. Worse, he could only intermittently see the Skookullom, and he worried they might miss the horseshoe bend entirely. They might hike on forever. The sun was already drooping in the sky, and the trees marched relentlessly beside them, without any sign of change or thinning. Jay was about to make the call that they turn around, when they heard something.
It started with a faint roar. The sound was soft, but different from anything they’d heard so far, and it caught their attention. The trail wound down, and they heard the Skokollum flowing faster, but couldn’t yet see the river, as the bank to now sloped up and obscured their view. Jay took the lead, his excitement growing as he crashed ahead. The foliage around them thinned. The thick cedars and firs vanished, and the ferns on the floor disappeared into a grove of scraggly cottonwoods that blotted Jay’s vision. Jay shut his eyes and held up a hand, pushing through their branches. He felt, rather than saw, the light pour in.
Jay felt himself yanked back by his collar. He opened his eyes and a shock of adrenaline coursed through him. The ground gave way before him. The spindly hedge of cottonwood trees opened out into nothing, as the earth fell away into a rocky cliff that dropped hundreds of feet down. Jay felt the onset of vertigo. He grabbed desperately for tiny cottonwood branches and clung on. Another step, and he would’ve plummeted over the edge.
The sun leaned into the west, tinting the sky orange and lengthening shadows. A warm wind blew up from below, hitting the solid rock face and travelling straight up over their faces. The rustle of leaves was slight, and nearly engulfed by the roar of the Skookullom, which plunged over a rocky outcrop and fell down the cliff in a broad, silver waterfall. The trail of water disappeared into the yawning green below. There was no break in the trees. The thick forest continued, in strange and alarming uniformity, seemingly forever. There was no for path, no highway, no meadow, no river. It stretched out flat, and dead; an endless green desert.
Far in the distance were mountains. Huge triangles that blotted out the sunset like ancient pyramids, purple in the fading light. They looked pictaresque and unreal, like the end of the rainbow you might chase forever but never reach.
As Jay stared out in awe, he felt his backpack unzip and Colin rummage through. Then Colin had the atlas out, and was looking between it and the cliff.
“This wasn’t on the map.”
Joining Colin at the atlas, Jay saw the Skookullom river cutting back and forth through the green. There was no sign of any drop off. That atlas was filled with forest service roads, and nearby peas, such as Silver Star Mountain and Stubb peak, which they should be able to see.
The rock under Jay’s feet was covered in loose gravel, and Jay slipped a little. He looked left and right down the sides of the cliff. The sheer rock continued in either direction, endless, straight, not declining or turning at all. Just like the border he’d drawn on the atlas.
“This is impossible.” Jay murmured.
“Yeah…” Colin peered down the cliff face. “I didn’t bring any rope.”
“What would we do, even if we got down there? There’s no road. There’s no anything. Where’s the rest of the world?”
“Under the trees?”
“Look at these cliffs. They’re exactly where that Krave III map ended. Look how straight they are.”
“Maybe it’s a continental shelf.”
“Where’s the Columbia River?”
“You’d think we’d learn about this stuff in geography, instead of Nigerian exports.”
Colin was silent for a moment. The wind blew over them both. Nearby, the rhythm of falling water sounded strange, almost mechanical.
“How does anybody leave?”
As they hiked back, the speckled light of the forest turned orange, then blue. Darkness fell around them like the ending of a song. Each time they looked up, the sky between the cedar branches was fainter, a thin strip of a fading light. Bats darted joyfully across that bleak divide, disappearing into the darkness of the treetops.
They walked in stony silence. Once, trying to lighten the mood, Jay resumed their conversation from earlier, talking about the levels they would design. But the topic now felt strangely portentous, and Colin’s answers were brief and flat. The noises of the forest changed. During the day, there was an openness underneath the canopy, and the cry of bluejays and kingfishers felt bright, even funny. At dusk there were new bird cries that Jay didn’t recognize. Jay’s backpack pulled at his shoulders, rubbing his skin raw. Colin seemed to have lost his will to move, shuffling along as if he were walking to a class.
Then the woods thinned, and the dying twilight brightened a little. Between trees they saw a glimpse of Highway 24, then the forest ended, and there was the road, and the dirt shoulder, and the Batmobile. Jay felt a rush of strange relief that everything was as they’d left it.
Jay threw his bags into the front trunk, and was about to climb into the car, when he felt Colin nudge him.
The light now was quite dim. The blackness of the trees spilled out, consuming the other shapes along the road. It took Jay a moment to see what had spooked Colin so. Then he saw it. Up the road, perhaps two hundred yards, sitting on the grassy shoulder and partially blended with the trees, was a car. It sat facing them, immobile, its lights off. From what Jay could see of its dim outline, it only a little bigger than their Bug, though its hood extended out further. It looked as if it might have come from Dunam, except Jay couldn’t recall seeing it in town.
The two boys froze. Jay squinted to make out details. The darkness was spreading fast now, and it was impossible to tell who or what was inside.
“Maybe it’s a hunter?” Colin’s voice was flat and unconvincing.
“Jay.” Colin’s voice was rising. “Remember that guy I saw in the road outside Liz’s place?”
“I didn’t see him.”
“What if someone’s following us? What if… whatever happened to Todd…”
Colin let the silence finish for him. Both boys eyes widened in the darkness. Jay barely breathed.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
Colin grabbed Jay’s arm, frozen. He stared back at the car. There was a faint light inside. Like a tiny flashlight. In the driver’s seat. Definitely moving. Someone was in the car, watching them.
Jay and Colin slid into the Bug. Colin fumbled with his screwdriver, shoved it in the ignition, and pressed the doorbell buzzer. The engine turned sluggishly but wouldn’t catch.
“Give me a push!”
Jay opened the door. The darkness was complete now, and he could no longer see the other car. Not even the light of the cigarette was visible. Jay grabbed the car door and pushed. His feet slipped in the velvet dirt, but the bug didn’t weigh much. Then, slowly, the car rolled out into the road. Colin tried the ignition again, and the tailpipes issued a boomed through the forest. Jay’s heart leapt up into his chest. He jumped into the car, and they were off into the night.
Colin’s headlights barely dimmed the road. The trees seemed to leap at them like crazed animals. Jay turned. The rear window was dirty and hard to see through. But Jay thought he saw another pair of headlights fall across the road, lighting up the woods behind them. Then they rounded a curve, and the vision was gone.