Arrival in Anywhere
Far out in the northwesternmost reaches of the continental United States rests a proud and beautiful land of high mountains, waving valleys, pristine forests, and shimmering coasts. A land of expansive natural majesty, man-made architectural intrigue, and unexplored supernatural mystery. Locals may know it as the “Evergreen State.” Everyone else may know it as (The State of) Washington. With unspoiled landscapes to behold and unending experiences to be had, this land is a traveler’s paradise for those seeking adventure in the greatest outdoors. For everyone else, there’s Seattle, and as far as they’re concerned, that’s about it.
It stands to reason, then, that Jules and Elliot Paige—two such non-adventure seekers en route to a small, rural village in the backcountry of Washington State, 100 miles from the nearest Seattle, Portland, or anything worthy of mention in Idaho—were none too eager to reach the terminus of their family road trip. This is not to say that they were the type to favor the journey of a family vacation over the destination, for they were not too keen on that aspect either. The real problem lay in the fact that this was not actually a family vacation at all, nor was it a road trip. Those phrases would imply a certain level of ephemerality that did not exist in this situation, which would be better categorized as a long haul, or better yet, a permanent relocation. This was in part thanks to Katherine Paige—mother of the family—whose new position as a ranger for the National Park Service came with a package deal: a package which included her being stationed at a park in Washington, far, far away from the family’s previous home in southern California, where she merely did secretarial work for the NPS. The move was also in part due to her acceptance of this deal.
Marcus Paige, father of Jules and Elliot, and Katherine’s literal right-hand man (as she was driving and he was next to her), had worked simply as a grocery store clerk before, and while he was happy to try his luck at finding another job in their new home if it meant Kate could follow her dream, the kids were not so easy to convince. Packing up and leaving a home is one of the hardest things for teens to have to do, not the least because they have to acclimate to a completely new school. This means beginning once again from the lowest rung of the social order like a freshman to high school, which Jules would have to get out of the way anyway come the next school year. Luckily for her, Kate’s new job started in June, so she’d have all summer long to dread it.
Elliot, on the other hand, thought he had gotten that whole nasty business out of the way a year ago, when he had to go through the freshman fresh-meat phase. Now it seemed like that had all been for nothing, because he’d once more have to go to an entirely foreign place, only this time he wouldn’t even know anyone there. Hopefully, he hoped, he could at least keep up some connection to his old school pals, if only through the vast dreamscape of online gaming. In this hope, though, he wasn’t even kidding himself; he knew long distance relationships never lasted, especially in a world built around anonymity and impersonality.
There was no reason in mulling this point over now, though, for with a sword of pure silver in his hand and the power of blessed water in a flask at his side, Elliot had only one thing of any real importance in mind at that moment: slaying demons. With his well-oiled thumbs and an itchy trigger finger, he unleashed a fury of slashes and blows on an endless horde of bloody-red Hell-spawn, as they tried to claw their way past him out of the depths of the fiery underworld and up to the unsuspecting and hapless mortals above. This he could not allow, and this was his soul-sworn duty to prevent. He would gladly give his life to this end, and maybe even all three he had left; any more, though, and he would have to start over from level one. This he could also not allow, because if he wanted the achievement, he would have to reach the boss level and defeat the prince of darkness in under 216 minutes. That, and how could he possibly live with himself if he allowed the overworld—his world—to be overrun and enslaved by an army of evil?
Meanwhile, with the world on the brink of destruction and her brother doing his best to stand in its way, Jules made sure to be doing her part as well, by keeping the troops at home posted on their progress.
I can tell we’re almost there just from the smell alone. It’s like a mixture of dirt,
pine trees, and horses. I haven’t seen a mall for the past 171 log cabins.
By the way, I’m keeping track of the distance by the number of houses I see that probably don’t have indoor plumbing. Kill me now—JK—but really the request stands.
I’m so sorry for you, I can’t even tell you how much I can’t even tell you how sorry I am for you. If I were in your place, I’d say I think it’s time to move out of the house.
There’s number 172. I bet everyone out here drives a truck and owns a gun. If you hear about a girl in Washington having to be put down with a shotgun after being run over by a drunken idiot in a pickup, know that I would prefer that to Lyme Disease.
Sorry, I had to help my mom with something. She still wants to turn the whole garage into her pottery studio and needs stuff moved into the basement. Uh, that sounds like your problem, Mom—gosh. Anyway, you still not in the middle of No One Cares Where yet?
Not that I’m paying attention anymore, but no, I don’t think so. I haven’t noticed any flannel or camouflage yet, and the road is still paved, so maybe we’re not in the deep, deep woods yet. It’s only a matter of time, though, until you’re my last and only connection to the civilized world. Promise you won’t let me turn into one of those country bumpkins, will ya?
“What!?” Jules erupted in the backseat. Elliot was so surprised he almost dropped his GRS (Game on the Run System); that would have been detrimental to the fate of humanity. “Why is there no service here? Don’t tell me they haven’t discovered electricity yet.”
“It’s just the mountains,” Katherine said, her voice not carrying the urgency Jules knew the situation deserved. “They do a pretty good job blocking out the signals from most of the cell towers. Most folks around here communicate by radio, even with the police. Keeps this place a little more…rustic.”
“Backwards, I think is what you mean,” Jules savagely remarked.
But Kate’s words were a little more accepting. “If beauty is backwards, then I don’t want to be forward. If anything, those mountains are at least something nice to look at, and every single landmark out here holds a story. See there?” she said, pointing out the tallest, snow-capped peak ahead of them. “That’s Mount Neverview, the highest peak around. It got its name from the cartographer who scaled it a couple hundred years ago. He wanted to climb to the top to survey the surrounding area, but the native tribesmen told him that the higher you go, the worse and worse the weather always gets. Of course he didn’t listen to them, and by the time he reached the summit it was a white-out blizzard. That’s when he turned to the man carrying his equipment and shouted, over the roaring winds, ‘We’ll never get a view from up here!’ Or so the story goes.”
“That’s great, Mom,” Elliot said, praising her storytelling, but nevertheless wanting to bring the conversation back to the important issues, “but we still have internet, right? Because if not then I think bringing me here is a hate crime.”
“You know, Elli,” Mark said, using the nickname that everyone in the family knows annoys the boy, “with new beginnings come new opportunities. I think next school year we should sign you up for drama club. Melodrama club, that is.”
“Uh-oh,” Jules said. “Moooom, Dad’s trying to make jokes again.”
“Try nothing,” he replied. “I’m practicing.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Elliot pushed. Now he actually had his game on pause; things were getting tense. “Do we still have internet?”
“Yes, obviously,” Mark said. “We’re moving to the country, not Texas. It’ll be a few days before it gets set up, but you’ll be more preoccupied with setting up your room anyways. And furniture…and bed. Hopefully it’s all waiting for us there like it’s supposed to be.”
“Good, fine,” Elliot said, resuming his crusade, “but any more than a few days and I’m moving in with Grandma.”
“If you can even get a call out to her,” Jules said, hitting the “resend” button progressively more aggressively, despite knowing from experience that that never works. But it was all she could do at the moment.
As the rolling hills turned to fields of grain, and the fields of grain grew into dense forest, the kids remained fixed to their technological comforts, clinging to one of the few constants that remained from before this great and terrible transition. In Elliot’s head—without even thinking it—he knew that no matter what this change may bring, no matter how terrifying or stupefying or mystifying things may turn out to be, he always had a safe place to hide away and ignore it. He knew that that little device was his GRS. There were many like it, but that one was his, and with it he could connect to all the other ones out there; to anyone in anyplace other than what would come to be their new home. It was a world he knew well, and very well knew that it never would, nor would it need, to change. A world where he not only towered above his digital enemies, but where he was also a good deal of a better player than most of his friends. Why should he ever want to leave that behind?
And Jules. For her that little touchscreen phone in her hand was perhaps even more important. More than just a line connecting one dot to another, but a lifeline, connecting one half of a BFF to the other. She was not entirely asocial, but with only one, good, best friend who she would sincerely miss, she was also not entirely un-asocial; she was single-social. Amy was singularly her true friend; all the other people she hung out with were Amy’s friends. So having to move two states and over 500 miles away, that small, handheld communication device was the only thing helping her not feel so alone in that bright, green, and also terribly foreboding new world.
That and her family, of course, but that was completely different.
“By the way,” said Jules’ mom, to Elliot’s dad, “did you remember to grab the rest of the bags from the pantry? I forgot to check when we left.”
“I did remember,” replied Jules’ dad, to Elliot’s mom. “Just then when you reminded me. Doesn’t do us much good now, though.”
Kate sighed. “Well, looks like we’re going shopping today, guys. I guess it’s a good thing, really; the sooner we start getting acquainted with our new community the better. I also kinda want to show you all where I’ll be working. Couldn’t hurt to meet my new coworkers before the official first day.”
“What happened to unpacking?” said Elliot, over the screams of fallen adversaries in his earbuds.
“There’ll be plenty of time for that,” Kate assured him. “A house is just four walls with a bathroom; we’ve got a whole new home to fall in love with.”
“And it’ll be a lot easier if the people who are already there get to like us,” Mark added.
“Besides,” Kate continued, “if we start settling in right away, there’ll never be a good time to stop, and unless you really want to go without dinner and breakfast, we need to go to the store.”
“Your mother’s right,” Mark said, cracking open a can of miniature sausages. “All we’ve got is what we’ve got in the car, and this is the rest of it. Hungry?” he asked, handing one back to Jules. She gently but adamantly pushed his hand—and the foul morsel—out of her face.
“Yeah—no,” she said.
“Exactly. So, as soon as we get to the house, we’ll empty the car, check out the ranger station, and hit the market.” He stuffed the sausage in his mouth. “Not neffefarily in that order.”
“No, that order sounds about right,” said Kate. “Unless we want to go to the store before unpacking the car so that we have no room for the groceries, then go to the ranger station before going home so that all the groceries go bad, and then go home and arrive too late to start unpacking anything anyways. We could always do that.”
“Oh my gosh, you’re so funny I can’t eveeeeeen,” Jules replied, with just a hint of sarcasm. Just a hint.
“You know,” Elliot said, to Jules, “even when you talk like that ironically, it still only perpetuates the not-too-far-off myth that you always talk like that.”
“Uh, if anyone here is per-pet-uating a stereotype,” she snapped back, “it’s you, Mister Glasses-wearing, Videogame-playing, Fifteen-year-old, Girlfriendless Demon Slayer.”
“Demon slayer?” scoffed the boy. “Please. I’ve checked the demographics, and only 21% of Downworld Uprising players have the know-how, endurance, and skill to make it even to level 55. I am level 104: Paladin Todmeister.”
Jules looked at him, pretending to be thoroughly bored, although it wasn’t so much acting as just letting her real emotions show through. She then cupped her hand around her ear, and acting for real this time, said in a surprised tone, “Did you hear that alarm?”
“What alarm?” Elliot asked, stepping directly into her trap.
“Oh—I’m surprised you didn’t hear it—it was so loud and obvious; it’s the alarm that always accompanies the NERD ALERT!” she shouted.
This outcry was not only so loud and unprecedented as to make Mark accidentally spill a bit of the canned sausage juice on his shirt, but also to cause Kate to drift ever so slightly into the lane of currently no oncoming traffic.
“Please!” the mother yelled, correcting her course. “Inside—voices—in—the car.”
“Yeah, geez,” Elliot said, lightly pushing his sister, as a means of further annoying her.
“This is what I get for eating in the car,” Mark said, reusing some napkins that had been thrown away. “I knew it was coming; I knew it. I’m kind of impressed it took till now to happen, though. Only one hour to go and a good seven hours behind us; I’d call that a minor success.”
“I’d call it a humanitarian effort if Jules could go that last hour without talking,” said the brother of the aforementioned Jules.
“I call it a technological marvel that scientists were somehow able to splice stupidity with nerd-dom into a functioning human being,” said the sister to—and of—the aforementioned brother.
“Actually, that was your mother and I,” Mark said, instantaneously regretting it. “Except for the stupid part…and the splicing part—(Oh gosh that sounds weird.) Forget I said anything.”
“You were saying something?” Jules sarcastically asked.
“Oh, how I love family road trips,” Kate wearily noted.
Only it wasn’t exactly a road trip. As the long and lonesome country highway twisted and turned, snaking its way up the mountainside like the river it followed—albeit in the opposite direction—it became painfully more and more obvious—in an unseen and unspoken sense—that this trip, which in fairness did directly involve the use of a road, would lead—like most road trips—to a new town, in a new state, in a brand new world. But unlike most road trips, that wasn’t the half of it; that was it, the end. When that car stopped, the timer marking the two weeks until the obligatory return trip did not begin, but rather the timer marking the last few fleeting hours of things being mostly the way they always were ran out. And that timer was about to go off.
Before they knew it, Kate called out a faded, green road sign as it whizzed by the car. Only 5 more miles to go, it told them. The next place of any real interest or significance was a further 50 miles beyond that, or another 10 miles behind them…Make that 11. The trees along either side were now so densely packed that you could only see a hundred feet or so into the thicket before all visibility was lost. Anything beyond that would forever remain hidden, except to the eyes of those brave or stupid enough to venture in. Any free space was populated with a yet denser mesh of brush and ferns. If there were any secrets hidden within the impenetrable natural fortress, you would never even know to start looking...That is, of course, unless the secrets came to you.
As the car came around a sharp corner, Mark leaned suddenly forward in his seat, and pointed at something out the windshield. Kate saw it right away, too, but Mark was already pointing, so she felt no need to.
“Woah, look at that!” Mark said, as all of what was just explained was happening.
The kids disinterestedly looked up from what they were doing, expecting maybe a large bird or coyote or maybe even a groundhog, as their father had on multiple occasions gotten as excited as he was now over such trivial animal sightings. For all they knew before actually looking, it could just as well have been a great big tractor or a nice wardrobe someone had left by the side of the road for disposal. All of these things had at one time or another grabbed the man’s attention, so what exactly had him so worked up they couldn’t have guessed, but in the brief second between looking at, and actually seeing what he was talking about, the kids were assured in themselves that it was probably not worth the effort. Turned out: it was.
They both leaned toward the middle of the backseat and looked out the windshield. Following the trajectory of their father’s outstretched finger, their eyes led them a few hundred feet down the road, to a large, dark figure standing just on the edge of the forest. The car was fast approaching, but the figure fast withdrawing. It’s safe to say that whatever it was probably saw them before they saw it, and it wasn’t wasting any time in rectifying the error of having been seen at all. From the distance they were at, they couldn’t make out any finer details, but the animal was definitely large—not improbably eight or nine feet tall—and it was hairy, hairier than anything they had seen before. At no point during their momentary glimpse could they see its legs, but by the way its head and massive shoulders rose up above the brush, it was obvious it only had two of them.
Within an instant or two, it disappeared amongst the trees, and by the time the car made it to the scene, there was no trace of it left. The four travelers sat still and silent in the middle of the road for a full minute, scanning through the depths of the forest for any sign of movement, watching for anything that might be watching them back. They saw nothing, and once the minute had passed, Kate threw the car back into gear and sped off once again down the road.
“Wow,” she said, more enchanted than anything else. “Get used to that, guys; bears are really common around these parts. We’ll have to make sure to get some bells at the store.”
“That was so cool,” Mark said. “I’ve never seen a bear before. What kind was it?”
But before Kate could answer, Jules came in with, “That was no bear. That was clearly no bear.”
“Yeah, bears don’t stand on two legs,” Elliot added.
“Of course they do,” Kate responded. “They do it when they scratch their backs on trees, they do it to reach higher things, they do it to get a better sense of their surroundings…”
“But do they also run on two legs?” Jules interrupted.
“No—don’t be ridiculous. Maybe they could stumble a couple feet, but certainly not run, no.”
Jules and Elliot looked at each other, both wondering if it was they or their parents who were going crazy.
“You saw that thing running away on two legs, right?” Jules asked her brother.
“You saw that that obviously wasn’t any bear head, right?” Elliot counter-asked.
There was no auditory or visual confirmation on either of their parts, but nevertheless they both unequivocally agreed on what they had seen, and turned their attention back to their parents.
Jules started with an, “Uh…” and had much more planned to follow it up, but she never got past that point, as her father again jumped enthusiastically at the idea that they had just seen a bear.
“So, are they like…dangerous?” he asked, almost in a state of awe. “I mean—obviously bears are dangerous, but do we need to start like…constantly watching out for them?”
“It’s never a bad idea to be wary of wild animals,” Kate responded. “But around town they’ll mostly stay away from humans. Often, when someone is attacked by a bear, it’s because they accidently snuck up on it. It could be sleeping in a pile of leaves or next to a mound of dirt and you would never even know right up until you stepped on it. That’s what the bells are for. A lot of people think they’re somehow to scare the bears away, but it’s really to let them know you’re coming. They rarely want to go through the trouble of trying to eat a person, but they really don’t like being surprised.”
“Uh…” Jules tried again, but to no avail.
“Are there wolves and mountain lions out here, too?” Mark asked.
“Wolves, cougars, wolverines, bobcats—plenty of dangerous animals, but nothing to feel unsafe about—I assure you. It’s my job to protect them, and everyone else’s job to leave them alone. Do that, and there’s no reason to be any more afraid of them than an unleashed dog; view them from a distance, and take a wide girth around them.”
“Uh, Mom?” said Elliot this time.
“I know—I know,” said the mother, “it sounds a little unnerving, but there’s nothing to worry about. In the city you learned how to watch out for cars, how to avoid the dangerous parts of town, and how to defend yourself from an attacking human. Well, now just switch the humans out for animals and wiz-bang-boom: you’re country living. Of course, every animal is different and you’ll have to learn how to deal with each individually…and there’s also some plants to look out for, but luckily for you, there’s plenty of such educational workshops right down at the park visitor center; free to the public and taught by experts in their fields. Or you can always ask me, if you want.”
“Yeah, okay,” Elliot said hurriedly, before one of them could start up again. “But what…”
“Ooh, look!” Kate said, cutting him off. “We’re here!”
The kids again leaned in and looked out the windshield. There, stretching high over the road, strung from a pair of wires between two poles, was the sign the family had been looking for all their lives…well, expecting really, for at least the past eight hours…or more so dreading on the kids’ part. It was old, wooden, and worn out; its pale and peeling paint showing only remnants of a time when the people who put it there had actually believed in what was written upon it. It was sun-bleached, weather stripped, and wind whipped, but like a rugged old watchman it remained ever vigilant over the town it guarded, greeting any and all travelers whose ventures brought them into the cozy little hamlet…That, or maybe it was warning them away, because, as it said, “Anything Can Happen in Anywhere.”