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A PERFECTLY ORDINARY CAMPOUT
IT WASN’T TECHNICALLY A LIE.
Blue Patrol really did want to test out their new camp stoves. The annual Pine Mountain Company cook-off was coming up at the end of the month. Green Patrol had won the Golden Spork award the past three times, so for Blue Patrol to have any chance at winning it this year, they would need to practice their recipes on the real equipment.
“Why does it need to be at the river, though?” asked Indra. “Couldn’t we just do it in one of our backyards? That’s going to be the first thing they ask us.”
They referred to their parents. Blue Patrol needed an excuse for why they were squeezing in an extra campout—a campout for only their patrol, no adults or other Rangers invited.
“We can say we need to duplicate real-world conditions,” said Wu. “That’s plausible.”
Connor agreed. “Also, make sure to mention the fire ban. That explains what’s different this year versus other years.” After a remarkably dry summer, the Forest Service had banned open campfires in the Colorado mountains, which meant all patrols would be using tiny butane camp stoves. With limited fuel and just two burners, the stoves made cooking much more complicated.
“That still wouldn’t explain why the campout has to be at the river,” said Julie Delgado. “Our parents are going to ask.” Her twin brother, Jonas, had the same concern.
“The river’s the only campsite we can hike to from town,” said Wu. “That way, no one needs to drive us. And if anything happens, we can just walk back.”
Arlo Finch shook his head. “We shouldn’t even bring up that something could go wrong. That’ll just make them nervous. It has to seem like a perfectly ordinary campout.”
In reality, it was far from ordinary.
What Blue Patrol had planned for this first Saturday in September was incredibly risky. It involved deception, bargaining, mystical artifacts and a seven-thousand-mile journey. There were a hundred ways it could go wrong.
But Arlo Finch was convinced it was the only shot they had.
* * *
A flash flood had destroyed the original town of Pine Mountain over a century ago, leaving behind rubble and ghost stories. This Saturday morning, as Blue Patrol set up their tents along the Big Stevens River, it was hard to believe such a small creek could do such tremendous damage. It was lower than any of them had ever seen it, with dried mud clinging to the exposed rocks. Water striders skittered along shallow, slimy pools.
“It stinks,” declared Julie, never one to shy away from stating the obvious. She and Jonas staked their tent farthest from the water. In the three months since summer camp, Arlo, Wu and Indra had been careful to keep the twins involved in the planning, so they wouldn’t get too upset when supernatural perils inevitably appeared. They weren’t anticipating another hag or troll, but you could never be sure.
As part of those preparations, Connor and Indra set up the wards around the campsite. Indra had nearly completed her Elementary Wards patch, but still needed practice in properly sourcing and stacking the stones to protect the camp from malevolent and mischievous spirits.
If only there were wards to keep people away, Arlo thought. That was one of the biggest question marks in their plan: what do we do if someone shows up and starts asking questions?
The dry summer and campfire ban had greatly reduced the number of tourists coming to see the autumn aspen foliage, which meant Blue Patrol didn’t need to worry about nosy outsiders. The bigger concern was that one of their parents would decide to stop by for a visit—perhaps a surprise cookie delivery. Diana Velasquez, the company’s marshal, might also decide to check in on the patrol.
Connor had said not to worry, that if anyone showed up they’d improvise. Arlo had to trust that his friends could handle it, because he wouldn’t be there.
He checked his daypack one last time, confirming it held two water bottles, four protein bars, a box of waterproof matches, an aluminum emergency blanket—and a bowling ball covered with duct tape. Given how full it was, the pack was lighter than one would expect.
He kept his Ranger’s compass and the spirit knife in his pockets. He knew he’d want them close.
“Someone’s coming!” whisper-shouted Wu, pointing to a shape making its way down the hill from the road. Everyone tensed up until they could confirm it was who they expected.
Arlo checked his watch: 9:19 A.M. His sister was early. She was never early.
* * *
It was strange to see Jaycee in outdoor gear. She usually wore combat boots and a black high school marching band sweatshirt, but today she was dressed in appropriate hiking gear, including a fleece jacket.
“What are we standing around for?” asked Jaycee. “Let’s do this.”
Arlo thought it would have been polite for her to at least introduce herself to the rest of the patrol, but suspected his sister was as nervous as he was.
“Send one last text to Mom,” said Arlo. “But not a question. You don’t want her to text you back.”
“Why don’t you send her a cat meme?” suggested Wu. “Everyone likes cat memes.”
Jaycee stared at Wu through narrowed eyes. Arlo had gotten this withering look from his sister a thousand times and knew to ignore it, but he could see it unsettled Wu. Arlo realized he was going to have to watch out for any tension between Wu and his sister. They had a long journey ahead of them.
“I’ll text her that I can’t find my charging cable,” said Jaycee. “So when I don’t answer she’ll assume my phone is dead.”
Arlo had to admit that was a pretty clever plan. His sister clearly had practice at this. He had marveled at how easily Jaycee had been able to sell the ruse that she would be sleeping over at a friend’s house to work on a class project.
How many other not-true stories has Jaycee told over the years? Arlo wondered. He suddenly felt bad about not being honest with his mom about what he was up to this weekend. It wasn’t technically a lie, he reminded himself. Blue Patrol really would be camping at the river and testing out the new stoves. But Arlo Finch wouldn’t be there. Neither would Henry Wu. If everything went right, they’d be halfway around the world with his sister.
Once Jaycee’s text was sent and delivered, she turned off her phone. Arlo, Wu and Jaycee strapped on their daypacks and said goodbye to the patrol.
“Don’t forget to check in when you get back,” said Indra.
“And don’t die,” added Julie.
Arlo looked to Wu. “You know you don’t have to come.” While Wu had been instrumental in planning this expedition, it ultimately wasn’t his mission. Arlo wouldn’t have blamed his friend if he wanted to stay in Pine Mountain.
“You seriously think I’m missing this?” Wu pointed his walking stick into the forest. “Let’s go!”
THE CITY OF LOST THINGS
THE LONG WOODS GO EVERYWHERE. That was one of the first things Arlo learned upon his arrival in Pine Mountain almost a year earlier.
Indra and Wu had explained that the Long Woods weren’t part of the normal world, but rather connected to it at thousands of distinct spots around the globe. Later, Arlo had learned how Connor and his cousin had been drawn into the Woods as children. That cousin—Rielle—would end up living with the mysterious Eldritch, while Connor would emerge from the forest hundreds of miles away in Canada. The strange geography of the Long Woods meant that distances didn’t work the same way. You could hike for just a few hours and end up on the other side of the world.
That’s what Arlo was hoping to do. But first, he had to figure out exactly where he was going.
As Arlo, Wu and Jaycee left the patrol at the banks of the trickling river, Arlo could clearly picture where they were headed first: the Broken Bridge. Of all the places he’d visited in the Woods, it felt the most familiar. He’d spent many hours there this summer (and another summer thirty years earlier).
Part of the reason they’d chosen the Old Pine Mountain campsite was that it was only ten minutes away from a reliable Long Woods entrance. To get there, they first needed to cross the river, then cross it again.
“Why didn’t we just stay on the other side?” asked Jaycee, frustrated to have already gotten her boots soaked from splashing through the water.
“That’s not how it works,” said Wu.
“But we’re headed back where we began!”
“We’re on the right path,” said Arlo. “You just have to trust me.”
Although the Long Woods went everywhere, it wasn’t a simple matter to find one’s way from point A to point B. Locations within the Woods couldn’t be mapped, nor could the passageways in and out. You had to navigate by feel.
Originally, Arlo had relied on the subtle vibrations of his Ranger’s compass to find his way, but as he gained more experience, he found himself picking his routes by pure instinct. No matter where he was in the Long Woods, Arlo could picture a familiar location like his house or the Gold Pan diner and feel where they were. Then it was a simple matter to head in that direction.
Well, simple for him. It was clear that Arlo had an uncanny ability to find and follow the paths of the Long Woods. Like Rielle, he was a tooble with mismatched eyes and a spirit trapped inside him. This dual nature allowed him to navigate the Woods unlike any other Ranger he’d met—except for the villainous Hadryn. And Hadryn was now a captive of the Eldritch.
Up ahead, an immense boulder rested in a shaft of sunlight. It looked like a stone whale covered in lichen. Arlo reached into a narrow crack along its face and pulled himself up, finding footholds as he went.
“Can’t we just walk around it?” asked Jaycee.
“That’s not how it—” Wu stopped himself midsentence, frozen by Jaycee’s icy glare.
Arlo understood why Jaycee was confused and frustrated. She was used to a normal world of marching bands and standardized tests. Nothing about the Long Woods made sense until you experienced it with your own eyes.
“Where we’re going is up here,” he said simply.
Jaycee wedged her foot into the crack and hoisted herself up. Arlo took her hand and helped her through the last bit. As they stood atop the rock, his sister let out a small wow.
Wow was right. They weren’t standing on a boulder at all, but rather one of the fallen stones near the Broken Bridge, a massive structure that extended halfway across a vertical chasm that Arlo suspected was bottomless.
Wu scrambled up behind them. He’d been here before, but the first glimpse of it each time was still impressive.
“You need to keep your voice down,” whispered Arlo to Jaycee. “There’s a troll who lives under the bridge.”
“That’s not the only ravenous creature you’ll find,” said a voice from the foot of the stone. They looked over the edge to find a small man with a handlebar mustache relaxing in a patch of sunlight, gnawing the last bit of meat off the carcass of a freshly killed bird.
It was Fox.
“Figured I should have a meal,” he said, licking his fingers, “in case it was my last.”
Copyright © 2020 by John August