It was night when they arrived, Rota holding on tight to her worn action figure in one hand, and her sister Nev’s sweaty palm in the other. She carried clothes and toys in her school backpack, and Nev carried the tent, the sleeping bags and everything else.
After a full day of walking along the road, heavily burdened and drawing curious looks, they had finally reached their destination. Rota had doubted before that Nev really had a specific bridge in mind, she thought her sister was just trying to get them as far away from Seattle as possible. But Nev’s reaction made her start to believe that her sister really had seen this place before.
“This is it!” said Nev, peering through the moonlit night at a highway bridge that ran over a small ribbon of river, “Here it is Rota, do you see? And there’s not even anyone else under there! Perfect, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah, I suppose,” said Rota, finding it hard to sugar coat her response to the bridge. It was just a bridge.
But Nev was pleased enough for the both of them. She grinned at Rota, her uneven teeth picking up the light, then grabbed up her sister’s hand with renewed purpose and hurried her forward, off the parallel bridge they stood on, over the metal dividers and down the grassy ravine where the freeway sections joined.
“Here we are,” said Nev when they came to the underside of the bridge, “this is where we pitch tent.”
“It’s not very even,” said Rota, looking at the gentle downward slope, “We’ll practically be sleeping standing up!”
“No,” said Nev, exasperation coming over her sharply, “Don’t be silly. It’s not that steep at all. Look, it’s much better down there at the base, and if you’re so concerned about it we can dig out a level section.”
“We can’t tonight. It’s too dark and late…”
“No of course not tonight! But tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ll be just fine. Come.”
They picked their way down to the bottom of the incline, very near the small river, and Nev began to set up the tent a few feet away by the light of the small electric lantern they had bought, only occasionally asking Rota for help. Nev had never set up a tent before, so it took her a while to figure things out. As she did she sang little made up songs to herself and posed questions out loud to the unresponsive sheet of instructions. Rota found it comforting, and began to relax and play with her action figure.
Her action figure was a small red-bodied construction worker with jointed knees and elbows and a rubbed-off face. His name was Red Guy, and he’d been through an awful lot. Explosions, fire, falls from high heights, near drowning, chloroform. But somehow, he always made it out of his adventures alive and well (apart from losing his face to the wear and tear). When Rota told Nev about Red Guy’s adventures, Nev always just shook her head and said something like, “Poor guy, you really put him through the ringer, don’t you?”
Rota didn’t feel bad for him one bit. His adventures were always the kinds of ones that were glamorous and exciting to go on, and the geography always looked more impressive from so small a size. He was James Bond in a hard hat.
That evening Red Guy explored his new surroundings, taking a jaunt down by the river. All of a sudden a sniper shot through the darkness and caused him to jump in to the cold water and swim upstream so as to double-back and apprehend the culprit. There wasn’t much for the shooter to hide behind on the rocky shore- so where were they? Had it been an aerial attack perhaps? Or was some secret tunnel system used?
“Rota!” called Nev, pulling her out of her dream-like play state, “come check this out!”
Rota mentally saved her game for later and turned around to see Nev standing proudly by the tent, lit cozily by the lantern that hung inside. She hurried over, and peeked inside, where the sleeping bags and travel pillows were rolled out and unzipped invitingly.
“Are you hungry?” asked Nev, “we can have a snack then go to bed. It’s late.”
Rota needed no convincing, her legs were sore and ached with tiredness. Soon they were eating granola bars and sharing a bottle of water inside the tent.
“You know how day becomes night?” asked Nev.
“No,” responded Rota earnestly, though she knew that Nev often preferred whimsy over truth.
“It’s when the world closes its eyes and holds it breath until it gets blue, because for the world not-breathing is just as important as breathing. The more it holds its breath, the more twinkling lights it sees, and those are the stars. The moon is its timer, depending on what shape it’s in, it shows the world how long it has to hold its breath.”
“That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? How do you know?”
“I just know because… because it’s not in the science books.”
“Been a while since we’ve read any science books.”
“That’s not my fault!”
All the laughter went out of Nev’s eyes.
“But I don’t mind, you know,” Rota said, regretting her words.
“You should,” said Nev, scooting herself in to the sleeping bag.
“Well… it’s not your fault,” said Rota desperately as Nev turned off the lantern and the only light that remained was the dim light of the glow-in-the-dark zippers on their sleeping bags.
Her hand landed on Rota’s face and patted it, then settled on her shoulder.
“Sleep tight, love.”
The next morning Rota woke up chilled, thirsty and in desperate need of going to the washroom, only she knew there was no washroom, just the river or the shrubs that lined the entrance to the forest. Her mood was not high as she struggled out of the tent, waking up Nev in the process.
“What? Morning?” Rota heard Nev say groggily as she headed off to the shrubs to relieve herself.
When she returned Nev was stretching and rubbing her eyes outside of the tent.
“Morning Rotes,” she said as Rota approached, “not one for going in the bush, are you? Hope you didn’t rub your bum on any poison ivy.”
“What?” said Rota, alarmed even though Nev was chuckling.
“I’m only joking, I didn’t see any over there when I went.”
Rota still frowned grumpily.
“Rota, did you wipe your butt all over the grass?”
“No,” she said.
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about, do you? Speaking of, I have toilet paper- you know, for next time.”
Rota nodded, thinking that it would’ve been nice to know earlier.
“C’mon over here and we’ll have breakfast,” said Nev, nose inside her backpack.
She pulled out another bottle of water, Ritz cracker and cheese bits, an apple and a banana. They ate in the ground in front of their tent, staring out at the river with glazed eyes.
“Come to think of it,” said Nev at one point, “I don’t think we should have food in our tent at night. We need to stick it up in a tree tonight.”
“Why shouldn’t we have food in our tent?” Rota asked.
“Animals could smell it, I suppose.”
“Like bears?” Rota said, her frown growing again.
“Bears? Well, no, I don’t think so,” said Nev, glancing at Rota then squinting off across the river, “No, nothing like bears. Bears don’t come this close to the highway. I was thinking of, uh, raccoons.”
They finished up their breakfast in silence then Nev shoved everything back in her pack, even the garbage and went to river to splash water on her face.
“Alright,” she said, looking refreshed, “Want to know the plan?”
Rota had just brought out Red Guy to pick back up on the adventures of the previous night.
“I guess so,” she sighed.
“Hey now,” said Nev, looking at her sharply, “This is serious. It’s our lives and we’re both in charge of them. So I want you to listen, and I want you to give your input, because it matters.”
"I know, I will," said Rota, moving obediently over to Nev.
"Okay, so here's the plan. Not too far from here is a small town. It's sort of quaint and quiet- gets lots of tourists in the summer. I want that to be our town. This," she gestured at the tent, "is only temporary. First things first I have to get a job, so that's what I'll be looking for today. Then I'll save money and eventually we'll have enough to rent an apartment in the town. Hopefully by the time school starts, but even if we don't have a place yet, you'll go to the school in town. It's a good school. Smart rich kids and all that. Science books- so you can prove me wrong about more things."
Nev waited for her response, smiling with only one corner of her mouth turned up.
"But what about if they ask where I live?" Rota asked.
"You say you live in a little house just south of town. It's the truth."
Rota wrinkled her brow.
"Well, it's not a house, it's a tent."
"Then say 'home,' say your home is just south of town. But let's not worry about that now. Won't be for a few months."
"We have to go to town, first to the library to make a resume, then around the town to find a job. You can stay at the library the whole time if you'd like."
"Do I have to?"
"You don't want to?"
"No I want to stay here."
"I can't just leave you."
"So I have to come every time you have a shift for your job?"
"Well, I don't know-"
"I want to stay 'home,' if it was a real home I could stay here."
Nev laughed thoughtfully.
“I won't go anywhere, or do anything dangerous,” promised Rota, “Just play with Red Guy. I'm too tired to walk again today!"
Nev pressed her eyes shut for a few moments, thinking.
"Fine, fine," she said finally in a pained voice, "Help me take the tent down and obscure it behind the shrubs. I don't want the highway patrol to see it. And it'd be best if you played behind the bushes and kept yourself out of sight as well."
"Like camouflage?" Rota asked eagerly.
"Yes. Great idea. Stick leaves and branches to yourself. Then if someone sees you they'll only think you're a Sasquatch."
After they had taken down the tent and stuffed everything behind the bushes Neve gave herself some finishing touches in Rota's small plastic pocket mirror, put on her finest outfit (a clean blue t-shirt and jeans, along with some scuffed black flats), bid goodbye to Rota and headed off down the highway in to town.
Rota focused her attention back on Red Guy. He stood now in a field of high grasses, enclosed on either side by towering rain forest. It was the next day, and his investigation of the previous night's attempt on his life had led him here, in to the wilderness. An anonymous tip had given him a set of coordinates in code leading him to the lair of the notorious animal poaching Rainforest Gang. There was only one problem: finding the Rainforest Gang would require entering the actual forest, the perfect setting, but she had promised Nev she wouldn't stray far from the bridge.
But surely Nev was more concerned about the road and the highway patrol officers, and not taking a little adventure in to the forest. Besides, what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. The matter was decided; a rainforest adventure it would be. Rota plunged back in to Red Guy's small blocky shoes.
He would follow the river through the forest, it was the quickest way, and once he had reached the longitude he would follow the latitude.
He started down the right side of the river, along the soft bank and large slabs of rock that extended before him in to steep cliffs above the roaring chop of the water. After several miles of walking for Red Guy, and substantially less crouched steps for Rota, it was time to enter the treacherous rainforest, where any manner of poisonous snakes and insects could lurk - not to mention aggressive gorillas, which could be either friendly or deadly, depending on the individual ape's mood.
They encountered quite a few of all those things, as it turned out, and in several instances they nearly got the better of them, but in each showdown Red Guy's quick-thinking, bravery and brute strength prevailed and before long they were at the gang's hideout.
It was the perfect location- the base of an impressively large tree with a root that rose out of the ground and down again in an arch. That would be the entrance to the hideout, and Rota would pretend that everything past it up to the next large protruding root was indoors.
She took a short mental break from the game to look about briefly and memorize the location, as she had been careful to do all along the way. She could no longer see the river, but she could hear it, and easily knew what direction was back towards the camp. She was in a small clearing of sorts, the forest floor carpeted by pine needles from the conifers all around. But the tree with the large roots was not a conifer. From the distinctive red of its bark she knew it to be a redwood. She followed the trunk upwards with her eyes.
The words escaped her mouth even though there was no one around to answer. She picked up Red Guy and took several steps backward, wondering if the large wooden structure up high in the tree could possibly be what it seemed. A treehouse.