Nobody in town much liked West Gate or the Groves who owned it. Encompassing all of Gate Creek from its source to something the locals called The Plunge, its northern and eastern boundaries were the high water mark of the opposite bank of the North Gate River; its western boundary was the ocean. The southern perimeter was Highway 138, the only place where you could drive along the estate’s intimidating boundary, your car dwarfed by steep basalt cliffs.
Abigail Nelson lived directly across the highway from the estate’s only known entrance, but, in the two years that she’d lived there with her dad, she’d never once seen the massive metal barricade come open. Today, that changed.
It was 9:00 A.M. on a bright, cheery June 15th when what sounded like thunder and felt like an earthquake tremor made her, a native Californian, dash to the window. Her heart pounding in her ears, she was startled to see a white police car parked before West Gate’s entrance. Within moments, the tremors stopped, even as the rolling sound of thunder got louder. Amazed, she watched the huge, black, metal barrier began to split in two and was out the door, bounding across the highway with not so much as a glance to check for traffic.
* * *
It’s a prison. We’re taking him to a prison, thought Nancy Rutherford as, wide-eyed, she watched small explosions of dust and pebbles break loose from where black, banded metal seemed welded into stone. Then the huge metal arch before them began to form a center seam with a deafening crack and rumble. Her right hand tightened its grip on the passenger door armrest; her left now grabbed the center console. Next to her, Deputy Mark Sutter’s hands rested lightly on the steering wheel. He seemed unconcerned.
She took a breath, trying to calm her pounding heart before looking back at her silent charge. “You okay?” she asked the black-haired boy strapped in the back seat.
The boy’s eyes, as black as his hair, were riveted on the gate. He ignored her except to nod just slightly.
“We’re almost there,” she said, her voice encouraging. She hoped he’d finally speak. He hadn’t said a word-not that she had ever heard in the three months she’d known him, except for the most hesitant ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ He’d read for hours, though, curled up in a chair in her office during his monthly visit for reevaluation. And he’d write. But he never wanted her to see what he was writing, so she had to sneak looks when he left to use the bathroom.
Carrick Ainsley wasn’t slow. In fact, for a mere eight years old, he seemed to far out-flank his age group’s literacy level. He was also very good at math, testing four full grades above his third grade peers. What he wouldn’t do was talk. Not a single sentence had ever passed his lips in all the time he’d been in foster care or public school, a new experience for him.
The thunder abruptly stopped, and Nancy turned back to see the gates now set at almost perpendicular angles. Before them, the road surface turned from pavement to something akin to a very broad, heavy livestock grate. Dark water swirled and rippled just beneath it, sparkling where the morning sun touched it’s surface. Directly in front of that was what appeared to be another wall of stone. That wall curved left, the grate meeting what looked like translucent, rounded black brick.
Mark eased the car forward, the tires rumbling on the grate. Something squeaked.
“Is it safe?” Nancy whispered.
“Seems to be fine,” he said, glancing over at her.
The road-a tunnel, actually-curved left and upward. Small light globes anchored to either side winked on as Mark followed the narrow track upward through the pitched darkness. “This is scary,” Nancy whispered. “This tunnels right through the cliff?”
“I’d say so,” Mark replied, his voice nonchalant. “Relax. This place has been here since before Grant Haven was a town. The Groves are well-known around these parts, if not particularly well-liked by some. They’ve never, ever been a problem to local law enforcement. More the opposite.”
It was an odd statement, Nancy thought, but, when he didn’t say more, she didn’t pursue it. Turning her attention back to the boy she was assigned to protect, her eye caught the barest glimpse of shadow dart past the backend of the car. “Mark! What’s that?”
“What?” he asked.
But it was gone now. “There was a shadow.”
She heard him chuckle.
“Yeah. It’s pretty dark in here.”
The boy was watching her, his eyes glinting, almost predatory, and, though unnerved, she smiled. “Are you okay about this, Carrick?”
His eyes, suddenly neutral once again, moved to the windshield, but, this time, he didn’t nod or shake his head. This time he spoke-”West Gate. I remember.”
Nonplussed, Nancy stared at him. He’d spoken. Gathering her wits, she asked, “You’ve been here?”
“Not this side. The other.”
He’s talking. Finally. “What other?”
“The other side“-anger.
“The river?” Sutter asked.”
“Uh-huh. Across it is the place where Mom and Dad went when those men attacked them. That’s where I come from.”
Beside her, Deputy Sutter gave a short, strangled chuckle. Despite the boy’s fantasy concerning his parents’ murder, Nancy was thrilled that Carrick had finally found his voice. Maybe the damage wasn’t as bad as the psychologists originally thought.
* * *
Rowan watched them from her balcony, her green eyes steady on the car as it emerged from the entrance tunnel. She heard the ravens call alert and saw a great horned owl take flight. Within moments, tires screeched, and the car come to an abrupt halt as both the ravens and the owl swooped down to challenge the intruders. “They’re here,” she said, though no one stood near. “So is the newsome.”
A breeze shifted the delicate, white voile curtains behind her. Leaves rustled, scent rising from the wild honeysuckle that grew on the railing and around the double eyebrow balcony doors, new tendrils reaching upward toward the roof. With a sigh, Rowan retreated backwards through the curtains, her eyes never leaving the car. Moments later, the balcony doors closed.
* * *
The woman screamed and ducked; the car swerved and stopped. Awestruck, Carrick just stared in wonder at the huge birds that dove down and seemed to stare in at him for longer than it took to blink. The woman was still screaming when the birds angled off to disappear into the big trees. Carrick wished she’d stop. Moments later, she did, but it wasn’t soon enough.
Carrick Ainsley didn’t like the woman called Nancy. She asked too many questions. He liked the policeman okay. But not her. She was fluttery, not solid. She was blinky. She wasn’t really real, and Carrick had decided that the only things he wanted near him were the things that lasted, not the things that didn’t. If he couldn’t treasure them forever, he didn’t want to see or know them. That included Mom and Dad.
The car started up again, and he watched out the window now that there was something interesting to see-big trees and boulders, moss and giant ferns. He really liked the places in between where he could peek through to see that the big trees went on and on. Just like home.
“Oh, no!”-the woman again.
Carrick looked up to see what she was upset about now. Ahead was another tunnel, only this one you could see through to the other side. Even bigger rocks and huge, gnarled tree roots made the opening. He grinned. Neat.
“It’s all right,” the cop said. “This one is short and level.”
The car slowed down, and, just for a second, they were inside a really old archway whose insides were covered with dripping moss and shiny, sparkling things. Then they came out the other side into a rock-paved oval that had a fountain with a dragon in the middle. He couldn’t help himself. “Cool!” He didn’t notice the house until the woman said something, and, again, he couldn’t help himself. “It’s a tree house!”
The cop turned around to grin at him. “Sure looks like one, doesn’t it?”
Carrick grinned back. He liked Mark. A lot. He would remember him. Not Nancy, though.