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THE BROKEN BRIDGE
THEY WEREN’T COMING.
He didn’t blame them. It sounded crazy, and he hadn’t made much sense on the phone. You just have to hurry!
But why? What had he found?
Arlo Finch couldn’t really explain. That’s why he needed them. That’s why he was standing atop Signal Rock on a hot Sunday in June, watching the canyon road far below. There was only one way up to Arlo’s house on Green Pass Road, so if his friends were coming, he’d spot them.
He adjusted the focus on the binoculars. His hands were shaking a bit, and the vibration was making him dizzy. He exhaled, trying to control his breath. That helped. His thoughts steadied as well.
Arlo would show his friends what he’d found. Wu would have a wild theory. Indra would have a reasonable explanation. They would argue it out. Eventually, together, they would arrive at a third idea that was more or less correct.
But only if they came.
None of them had their own phones, so Arlo had used the old one in the kitchen. He’d called Indra first. She was practicing piano; he had heard it in the background when her father answered. Even though Indra said she would come right away, her parents probably made her finish her lesson. Plus she had an aunt visiting from Boston. Odds were they wouldn’t let her leave.
Wu had seemed hesitant to come at all. For the past few months, he had been playing Galactic Havoc 2 nonstop, competing in virtual sci-fi battles with a league of strangers from around the world. Arlo had watched over his shoulder, but didn’t really understand the game. Arlo’s family still didn’t have internet at the house, so he couldn’t play with Wu anyway.
Arlo knew it took fourteen minutes to bike here from town. It had already been twenty. They weren’t coming.
He lowered the binoculars, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. He had to make a decision.
He could go back and investigate by himself. It might not be that dangerous. After all, Arlo had been exploring the edges of the magical Long Woods by himself for the past few months without incident. Usually, he would just cross in deep enough to feel that shift where normal directions no longer applied, where north and south became meaningless. After a brief visit, he would make his way back to the normal world, using his Ranger’s compass to find a path out.
But this afternoon, just after lunch, his curiosity had taken him down a new trail, one leading deeper into the Woods.
That’s where he’d found it. That’s where he’d found them.
The clock was ticking. If Wu and Indra weren’t coming, Arlo would have to go back and do the best he could by himself. It might be smart to write down what he’d seen first, in case he didn’t return.
He had just made the decision to go alone when he saw something. Movement.
He raised the binoculars so fast they banged his nose. There, on the road. One bicycle. No, two. It was Indra and Wu, riding side by side, pedaling furiously.
His friends were coming.
Wu and Indra ditched their bikes on the gravel road.
When they got to Arlo, both were breathing too heavily to speak; the last quarter mile was steep. Wu hunched over his knees, dizzy. Indra held an elastic in her mouth while she wrestled her hair back into submission.
Arlo handed them his water bottle. “We have to hurry. I’ll explain when we get there.”
Nodding, they followed him across the tall, dry grass, where tiny insects flitted in the bright sun. As they approached the edge of the trees, Arlo could smell the pine sap in the air. Unseen birds were singing in the forest, the sound interspersed with bursts of woodpecker hammering.
In the six months since the Alpine Derby, Arlo had discovered five different paths into the Long Woods. He suspected there were dozens more around Pine Mountain, each route leading into and out of some distinct part of the Woods.
Of course, the trails were never straight or obvious. They couldn’t be mapped, because they invariably required doubling back, or crawling under a fallen tree, or circling a specific boulder counterclockwise.
Sometimes the paths disappeared altogether. Arlo had spent weeks trying to find a way back to the Valley of Fire, with no luck. He wasn’t certain the canyon even existed anymore. Maybe it had died along with the hag, the forest witch who had lured them there back in the winter.
“Stay close,” he said, leading Indra and Wu down into a gulch just taller than their heads. A thin trickle of spring water ran along the bottom. In the wet dirt, he could still make out his footprints from an hour earlier.
Arlo led his friends forward no more than thirty feet until he felt his compass vibrate. This was the spot.
To the left, the bare roots of a tree reached into the ditch. Arlo grabbed hold and pulled. The roots shifted in the dirt, but held firm. A few pale beetles scurried out, alarmed.
Something was wrong. This wasn’t how it had worked before.
“Maybe we all have to do it together,” Arlo said.
Wu and Indra didn’t question why. They each grabbed a section of root and tugged along with Arlo.
This time, the roots didn’t budge at all. Instead, the world around them seemed to swing, as if the roots were the handle to a very heavy door. The sun slid across the sky, strobing as it ducked behind branches.
Wu gasped. “Whoa!”
Water rose up over their sneakers. The stream was suddenly much more substantial—and ice cold.
“Sorry,” said Arlo. “I should have warned you.” He let go of the root and they continued along the path of the burbling creek.
Ahead, iridescent moths fluttered in a shaft of light, forming elaborate patterns as they chased each other. As always, Arlo wished he could take a photo or video, but the strange magic of the Wonder made that impossible.
Indra was fascinated. She reached out her hand. A moth landed on her finger, shimmering dust falling from its wings. “Is this why you called us?”
“No.” Arlo pushed through the moths as if they were curtains. Wu and Indra followed him.
The gulch opened to a clearing, yellow grass swaying in a gentle breeze at the border of an ancient pine forest. It wasn’t the landscape that made this place remarkable, but rather a building.
An immense stone tower stood at the edge of a cliff. From its base, a truncated arch reached for a matching tower on the far side of a great chasm.
“What is that?” asked Indra.
“It’s a bridge,” answered Wu. “At least it was.” It was easy to envision the intact structure, its heavy stone arms connecting the span. What was harder to imagine was how it got there, and who had built it.
Everything they’d encountered in the Long Woods so far had been natural—or, in the case of the hag’s hut, primitive and handmade. But this ancient tower, this bridge, was a massive feat of engineering. The huge stones appeared to have been carved to precise specifications and somehow placed into position. There was artistry and planning behind this structure. It had a purpose, a history and a maker.
“This is what you wanted to show us,” said Wu.
“No,” said Arlo. “Over there.” He pointed to the far side of the chasm, where a group of four kids stood beside the matching tower. They were all wearing Ranger uniforms with blue neckerchiefs. One girl with wild, curly hair waved to them.
Arlo handed Indra the binoculars.
“Who is that?” asked Wu, confused.
Arlo waited for Indra to answer. She slowly lowered the binoculars, perplexed and intrigued.
“It’s us,” she said. “Blue Patrol. That’s us over there.”
Copyright © 2019 by John August
Maps copyright © 2019 by Dustin Bocks