CHAPTER 1 – Summer Break
John Tidewell flashed a sly smirk, revealing the lone dimple in his right cheek amid freckle constellations, as he watched Mr. Maxton at the head of the class. Their teacher wore a long black-haired wig and star-shaped glasses and he swung his arm around and around riffing on the air guitar only he could see, while his mouth twisted in the exaggerated howls of Alice Cooper’s famous ode to the end of the year: “School’s Out.”
Thank goodness the end-of-school bell saved John and his classmates from more of their teacher’s terrible serenading. Yep, there it was. The end of fourth grade. The beginning of summer. Is there anything as wonderful as summer?
John’s stomach tingled with giddy bubbles as he thought of all the fun that comes with summer vacation: days at the lake, hikes, summer camp, trips with the family, pickup basketball games with his best friend, Roman—
John paused and looked down at his Nike basketball high-tops, a birthday gift from Roman.
“Come on, John!” Roman patted him on the shoulder before dashing over to the posts where the backpacks hung. Roman had a wide nose and deep-set eyes with a low forehead. Though built stocky, unlike the traditional basketball physique, Roman was light on his feet like all the greats and a valuable ally on the court.
But there’d be no basketball games with Roman this summer.
The Tidewells—John’s family—were moving in a week, away from Colorado and out to Maryland because of a job transfer for John’s dad.
John sighed. He hadn’t been sleeping much and he felt tired. But this was more than a regular kind of tired, this was a heavy, walk-slow kind of tired. A Do I really have to get out of bed? after ten hours of sleep kind of tired. John didn’t know anyone in Maryland. He could barely remember where it was on a map. They didn’t have any mountains. And, most important, his best friend, Roman, was here in Colorado. His fort was here, his favorite hikes were here, the bike loop where he’d clocked a record twenty-seven seconds was here. But in Maryland . . .
The rest of his classmates (old classmates, now) brushed past him, excited to get going, some hooting and hollering. Not looking where he was going, John smacked into a girl and dropped his backpack, startled, his hands up in alarm.
“Sorry!” he yelled. She scampered out the door not even noticing him.
Roman put his hand on John’s shoulder. “You okay?”
John opened his mouth but didn’t know how to answer the question, so he closed his jaw and shrugged, looking down again.
“Wanna shoot some hoops?” Roman asked.
John’s lips curled up in a smile. “Always.”
Sarah Tidewell couldn’t wait for the adventurous summer ahead. They were moving to Maryland! Close to Washington, DC, its free museums, the ocean, so many new places to see and people to meet. Walking down the hall of her middle school, she looked around with her head held high and an easy smile on her lips.
“Goodbye, sixth grade!” She’d worn her glittery sequined shirt for the last day of school, so it fit well when she gave her best princess wave with a cup of her hand to the block of stacked steel rectangles lining the hall. “Goodbye, funky green lockers. Goodbye, glass case of trophies. Goodbye, cafeteria. Goodbye—”
“Oh, come off it, Sarah,” said the girl on her left, Cynthia. The bright yellow bow in her hair bounced when she laughed.
Sarah flipped her long red hair in a mock dismissal toward her friend.
The girl on her right, Maxine, said, “Yeah, we’ll miss you too, Sarah.” She rolled her eyes. Maxine wore a button-up collared shirt that made her look like an older boy.
Sarah turned to her and with a curtsy said, “Goodbye, Maxine Johnson, princess of sarcasm.” Then she turned to Cynthia. “Goodbye, my dearest and bestest and only true friend, Cynthia Cummings. I’ll miss you most of all.”
“Oh, get a room, sheesh,” Maxine said, slapping Sarah on the back.
All three girls giggled and leaned into one another for a group hug. In the huddle, Sarah dropped the royal routine and added, “Seriously, you have to come out and visit me in Maryland. It’s going to be awesome.”
“Boys?” Cynthia asked.
“I hear they have some of those on the East Coast too,” Sarah said.
“Yeah,” Maxine scoffed. “The mysterious types with dark eyes.” She pushed up her black-rimmed glasses.
“Are you going to New York?” Cynthia asked, bubbling like a bath bomb, swaying in her dance stretch pants.
“Why not?” Sarah threw her hands into the air and flung her head out of the huddle. “I want to visit everywhere!”
“Everywhere?” Maxine asked. “Even the sandy desert of the Sahara?”
“Everywhere!” Sarah skipped off down the hall, leaving her friends behind. “Why not?”
CHAPTER 2 – A Mysterious Cave
“I don’t want to go,” John whined to his mom and dad as they finished dinner together. John had wolfed down the meal, one of his favorites: herb-roasted chicken, green beans, and red potatoes pan fried in butter. His mom always called him “Little Chef,” since, as she said, he seemed to have a “refined palate.” John wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but he enjoyed helping his parents in the kitchen, especially when he got to choose what they ate for dinner.
John excused himself from the table and rinsed his dish, then put it in the dishwasher. “What about Monopoly instead?”
Still hopeful for a last-minute stay of execution from the hike he didn’t want to do, John thought one of their favorite pastimes would be a convincing argument.
“This will be our last family hike for a while,” Mom said. “In Colorado, at least. Please, John?”
“Let’s go!” Sarah bounded to the bench next to the back door and sat, putting on her worn hiking boots.
“Don’t forget your water bottle, sweetie,” Dad said, holding up a blue steel cylinder. “Always so eager to go, go, go. You’re like your mother.”
“There’s so much to see!” Sarah said, and spun in a circle. She winced and rubbed at the small scar on her right temple. Last year, she’d hit the corner of a picnic table while attempting to jump over it on a skateboard.
“Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan or be careful,” John said.
“Ugh,” Sarah responded with an emphatic roll of her eyes until John saw only whites in her sockets. “Gotta live a little, John.”
“Sarah,” Dad said, giving her the “look” that meant she’d said something insensitive. John had heard them have that conversation numerous times.
“What about ice cream first?” John asked.
“Here’s your water,” Mom said, handing another steel bottle to John. “How about ice cream when we get back from the hike?”
“Fine,” John said. “A short one.”
“Who knows, you might have fun,” Dad said, ruffling John’s hair. John swatted the hand away and scowled.
Dad put both palms up. “Okay, okay.”
“What’re you thinking?” Mom asked Dad.
“Let’s do Crescent Vista,” Dad said. “Should be a beautiful sunset tonight.” He held up a flashlight and dropped it into his own backpack, then handed one to his wife, and Sarah and John too. “Just in case.”
“Let’s do it!” Sarah yanked open the kitchen door to the backyard and skipped off to the gate in the fence.
“All the way ’til sunset?” John whined, imagining his tired legs already. “I thought you said it’d be a quick one.”
“It will,” Dad said. “Sunset is only about an hour away. One last view of these beautiful mountains before we leave for the flatland and the sea.”
Mom smiled at Dad in a loving way that made John happy, then she leaned in and kissed her husband on the cheek.
John trudged out the back door and looked up the slope of the towering pine trees.
Above the forest, leaning in like a king whispering a secret, the line of mountains arced gracefully against the purple sky of dusk. A lazy cloud stretched out against one pinnacle, reclining, waiting for the sunset show.
As a family, they set off up the mountain on a familiar trail. John knew this hike well. The overlook from Crescent Vista could steal your breath away. Especially after hiking up the steep incline to get there.
The angle of the terrain, mixed with the rocky ledges and the plentiful trees, made for excellent fort-building territory. Going around one switchback, a bit of nostalgia came over John when he remembered one such hideaway that he and Sarah had built together—before she stopped being interested in forts. Nothing more than a lean-to barely big enough for the both of their bodies, with some pine boughs as a roof. But it had felt cozy, not small.
“Sarah,” John said between panting breaths. “Remember Fort Tidewell?” He gestured off to a clump of trees off trail.
Sarah stopped and smiled, chuffing some air from her nose and taking a swig from her water. “Of course. Defend Fort Tidewell from the Sasquatch!”
John laughed. “Oh, yeah! I totally forgot about the attack of the Sasquatch. That was so fun.”
“Also known as the weird hairy animal doll Aunt Lorraine made me, whatever that was supposed to be,” Sarah said, chuckling.
“Didn’t you bury that thing out there?”
Sarah’s eyes looked up and to the left as she reminisced, then she started nodding. “Oh, yeah. We had a funeral for Harry the Sasquatch and everything. I think I remember where!” She leapt off the trail toward Fort Tidewell, kicking up dirt and loose stones that tumbled down the steep slope. John watched the mini-avalanches with a pinch of anxiety.
“Wait!” John said, but he only hesitated a moment before chasing after her.
They ran a little ways before Sarah suddenly skidded to a stop, holding her arms out to stop John behind her.
“What is it?” John asked, trying to see around her body.
“This wasn’t here before,” Sarah said.
John bobbed his head left and right but didn’t see anything but scree and rocks and trees.
“What is it?” John asked. “Did you find a real Sasquatch?”
Sarah turned her body sideways so John could see, but she kept one arm out like a turnstile guarding him.
Up ahead, almost like an optical illusion in the rocks, a black oval dissolved into the mountain. It seemed to shimmer in the fading sunlight.
“What . . . is it?” John asked, taking a step back.
Sarah moved forward. “It—” She stepped closer, hunching to get a better look at the dark shape about the dimensions of the full-length mirror they had on the back of their bathroom door. “It looks like a cave. Cool!”
“Careful, Sarah. We shouldn’t go in there.”
“That’s a great idea,” Sarah said, standing upright and walking toward the mysterious black shape.
“No, wait, I said we shouldn’t go in there.” John turned to walk away. But he couldn’t leave his sister. “We should get Mom and Dad.”
“I’ll just peek in,” Sarah said, standing only an arm’s length from the entrance. “It definitely looks like a cave, or maybe an old mining tunnel or something. I don’t remember this from before.”
“Come on, Sarah.” John’s tone sounded more urgent now.
Sarah stepped closer, slowly, her lips parted and her eyes fixed on the cave.
Without another word, Sarah stepped across the threshold, and her body disappeared into the black.
“Sarah!” John called out. “Sarah!” He pushed his foot into the ground for a running start toward where Sarah had been absorbed into the mountain. But he slipped on the loose gravel and his leg slid out from underneath him, pitching his body forward and onto the slope. He landed hard with a thump and a puff of dirt, the air knocked from his lungs.
John rolled down the rough hill, then splayed out and came to a rest on his back. He lay there, catching his breath, assessing the damage. Startled, but no pain. Trees above. Ground below. All good signs. He leaned forward and saw some scratches on his legs but no blood, no broken bones. Lots of dirt on his clothes, but that was normal when playing in the forest, so something he didn’t think twice about. He shook his head and a cloud of dust billowed out, making him sneeze.
“John?” It was Sarah’s voice. “You coming?”
John turned and looked uphill. Sarah’s head and torso seemed suspended in midair, pushing out of the dark hole in the mountain like someone sticking out their tongue and saying Ahhhhh. She had a flashlight in one hand, waving him up. Sarah seemed to take no notice of his awkward sitting position down the hill.
“Just enjoying the view down here,” John said.
“Well, stop lollygagging and get up here. Check this out! So cool!”
John stood and dusted himself off and was relieved he didn’t have a twisted ankle or torn knee.
“Wow,” he said to himself. “Got lucky that time.” A jagged rock like a Native American hunting knife stuck out from a boulder mere inches from where he’d tumbled down. If he’d slid across that, he might not have been so lucky.
John reached the tunnel. He couldn’t see Sarah inside, but he cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted in. “I still don’t think this is a good idea, Sarah. Come out. Let’s get Dad and Mom to explore this with us. You know they say we shouldn’t go spelunking without proper gear.”
Sarah popped her head out of the void, startling John backward. His foot hit a rock at an awkward angle, and he was about to fall back down the slope again when Sarah’s hand reached out and grabbed him by the shirt. For a moment he dangled backward, then pulled himself up to vertical.
“You mean proper gear like this?” Sarah said, flicking on and off her flashlight.
John really meant parental supervision, but he didn’t want to tell that to his sixth-grade sister. No, wait—seventh-grade.
“I’m going whether you’re coming or not,” Sarah said. “Just a quick peek and then we’ll catch up with Mom and Dad. Come on, it’ll be fun!”
For the second time this evening, John’s shoulders slumped and he put his head back, reluctant to accept that she was going no matter what he said. “Fine. But make it quick.”
“Two minutes, promise. Yay!” Sarah disappeared into the tunnel.
John checked his watch: 6:52 p.m. He flipped on his flashlight and poked his head across the line of darkness. It wasn’t particularly noisy outside, but once he stuck his head into the portal, sound seemed to get sucked away. It was a kind of quiet he’d never experienced.
The flashlight fought away the darkness, but even its light seemed suppressed. John smacked it on the side, thinking maybe the battery was low.
When he aimed the beam back into the tunnel, Sarah’s face appeared in an instant, sending a jolt of sheer panic up John’s spine, and he jumped and dropped his light. What should have been the clatter of it falling into the ground sounded muted.
John saw Sarah’s lips move and he could hear her faint whisper. It felt like he had cotton in his ears. He picked up his flashlight.
“What?” John asked, wiggling a pinky in his ear.
“Quiet in here,” Sarah said, not really any louder than she had before, but closer to his ear.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” John shouted. “Isn’t there usually an echo in a cave like this?”
“And that smell,” she said, sniffing.
John took a snort of air. What was that smell? He closed his eyes and took another full inhale. A memory of the beach in California with his cousins came into his mind. Not the ocean, but when he’d been buried up to his neck in the sand. That smell of hot sand, not like dirt or silt or anything else—the smell of a zillion tiny rocks.
“Sand?” John asked, opening his eyes. But Sarah was gone. “Sarah?”
The dim beam from her flashlight danced up ahead, then turned a corner and disappeared.
“Sarah!” John yelled after her. “We shouldn’t go any deeper! This isn’t safe!”
John stood still, ears perked, waiting for a response. He couldn’t even hear his own breathing. Sarah probably hadn’t heard him. Or she’d decided not to respond.
A look back to the tunnel entrance reassured John. He was barely inside the cave, but it seemed so much darker than it should, as if light couldn’t penetrate past the entrance. Leaning back out of the cave, he heard a flush of sound and he breathed in fresh mountain pine air. It calmed him. With a lungful of that, he straightened up and took a few more steps forward. After about ten steps, the passage veered to the right. Up ahead another five or six steps, he could see Sarah, her flashlight tracing over shapes on the wall.
John looked back to the cave entrance. It looked so far away, like the light just stopped immediately at the cave entrance. The rectangle of shimmering light sparkled so brilliantly bright compared to the darkness surrounding him. If he stepped further toward Sarah, he wouldn’t have that touch point with the light; he wouldn’t be able to see his exit.
A pressure weighed on his chest and pushed thick blood up into his neck that pounded through his temples. His breaths were harder to force. He’d just take the few steps to Sarah and drag her out. If she wouldn’t come, then he’d go get their parents and tell them. Sure, she’d call him a tattletale, but this was too much. This—this was too much.
He didn’t quite realize it until he got all the way to Sarah, but John had been holding his breath since losing sight of the exit. When he touched her arm, he exhaled heavy air and inhaled another lungful, though it felt like it only filled him up a quarter full at most.
“We have to go.” He moaned the words like they could be his last.
“Look at this,” Sarah said, amazement in her calm voice. She didn’t seem to be suffering any of the same effects John endured. Her eyes were big round orbs staring at the wall in front of them.
John followed her gaze and looked at the wall. Into the stone, worn etchings depicted shapes and animals and what might be interpreted as letters, though not in English.
“It’s so cool,” Sarah said, transfixed. “Are these hieroglyphs?”
“You mean like from ancient Egypt?” John asked. Sarah’s wonder had momentarily distracted him from his own panic, and his breathing had almost miraculously returned to normal.
“Ancient Egypt,” Sarah repeated.
She stepped closer to the wall and traced one particular carving in the shape of an eye. It had two lines coming out from the bottom of it, one going straight down with a knifelike edge, another that stretched at an angle diagonal, with a curlicue finish.
As soon as her finger finished following the line of the eye, a bright flash illuminated the chamber for nothing more than the blip of a nanosecond, as if an electric bulb had exploded and gone out. John blinked back a sudden headache, wondering if he’d imagined the burst.
“Did you see that? So cool!” Sarah exclaimed.
John’s heart was in his throat. “Can we get outta here now?”
“So cool,” Sarah repeated, shaking her head. “I wish I had my phone to take a picture of this. Dad will love it!”
John tugged on Sarah’s shirt. “Can we please go now, Sarah? Please?” He could feel sweat on his forehead.
“Yes, fine,” Sarah said, pulling her arm away from his tugging. “This is a dead end, anyway. Let’s go.”
She marched off back to the corner and around it, John close behind. John could feel his chest loosening with every step, could almost taste the mountain air again. He plodded along behind her in the tunnel without looking up.
As soon as they were out of the cave, John smashed into the back of Sarah, who’d stopped suddenly.
“What the—” she muttered.
John didn’t smell the fresh mountain air. When he looked around his sister, expecting to see the scree slope and forest and the way back to the trail, instead he dropped his flashlight and his jaw at the same time.
He’d never seen anything like it.