They’d been at the rented cabin for two weeks when Ryder threw the rusty handsaw into the trees. Nina heard its metal gyration in the air, and the reverberation as it hit the ground. She was sitting in a brown lawn chair that rocked back and forth.
“I’m done here,” he said. He’d been complaining all week about every little thing — splinters, the heat, the shitty box TV. “I’m done playing pioneers. It’s time to go home.”
“But the city is a cesspool,” Nina said, sitting up on the towel. She pulled her sunglasses off and wiped the sweat from her face. There was a bee sitting on the lip of the chardonnay.
In contrast to the cabin and endless miles of redwoods, their apartment back in the city depressed her greatly. The dingy apartment was stacked on four others like crates. The lightless living room was too dim to read in during the day and her bedroom shuddered every time a car careened through the narrow alley to the cramped parking lot. The only thing she actually liked was the maroon carpet, which emanated a sickly-sweet cigarette smoke smell like the casino floors in Las Vegas.
“Well, my friends are there,” he said. “They’re all together and I’m here.” With his foot, he pushed the half-hacked wood off the chopping block. He looked into the trees like he was thinking of running.
Her son, Ryder, hadn’t even asked about how they were affording this rental. It was wild. Nina had been fired from her job as the events coordinator at Torch Nursing Care because she’d made friends with the hairdresser and was getting her hair washed during work hours. The facility fired her for that and the other thing — an elderly man had put her in his will the week before he died, which was suspicious. But how could she help it if some of the old people liked her more than their own kids who never visited?
“You could have your friends come up here,” Nina said, shaking the bee from her glass.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “They can sleep on the floor or the couch. How many?”
“Four,” he said and scratched at a hard-to-reach place on his back.
When he was little, he’d lie on his belly and wait for Nina to finish brushing her teeth and putting on face cream. He’d lie so still with his arms tucked under his chest. And as soon as she got into bed, he’d whisper, Will you scratch my back? And she’d find all the itchy spots.
“You’re fine if they stay here?” he asked.
Nina shrugged and waited until the bee was still, then flicked it off with her painted fingernails.
“Let me die here,” she said. “I don’t want to go back.”
Ryder looked up at her for a moment and then went into the cabin.
His friends arrived around noon the next day. There were only three of them, not four. They brought sleeping bags and lawn chairs and a couple of warm beers they tucked into the refrigerator. Nina looked through what she had for food and decided to drive into town. She bought five steaks, chips, salsa, coffee, cereal, milk, pancake mix, eggs, iced tea, and two gallons of ice cream.
One of them set up some fly traps for her in the trees near the cabin. Then the boys walked out into the woods together to look around. There was a small pond a mile from the cabin. It was slimy and lichen-green, and she doubted they would swim in it, maybe just throw some sticks and rocks in.
Nina slathered sunscreen all over herself and sat in the hot sun with a big iced tea and a straw hat. She’d set a fan up at the door to blow all the insects off her. When dusk came, she boiled some corn and lit up the grill. She chopped up a salad and threw in feta, peppers and peaches but didn’t want to grill the steaks before the boys got in. She waited, reading one of the cabin’s mystery novels until she heard them laughing and talking.
Over dinner, the boys told her about the pits they’d found beyond the pond. Nina hadn’t walked out too far and didn’t know where they’d wandered.
“There were three big pits with something metal at the bottom,” Ryder said, his skin bronze from the sun.
“I think it might be a bomb shelter,” Bruno said. His shoulder-length black hair swished anytime he tilted his head back to drink his beer.
“Could it be a gas tank?” Nina asked.
“There’s a door,” Greg said, running his thin hands through his mousy, brown hair. “Like a submarine.”
“Did you see any signs posted?” Nina asked.
“No,” Ryder told her. “Nothing for miles.”
“How far did you walk?” Nina asked.
“At least three miles,” Bruno said.
“No more than two,” Greg said.
“You should come out and see it tomorrow,” Nolan, the one who had put up the fly traps, said. He picked up pieces of salad and ate them with his fingers.
“Maybe I will,” Nina told them and drank the melted ice at the bottom of her glass.
“Thanks for dinner,” Greg told her and forked the rest of the steak into his mouth.
The boys brought their plates and glasses to the sink and Nolan helped with the dishes.
“Who taught you such good manners?” Nina asked, bringing in the salad bowl.
“My mama,” he said without sarcasm.
“Well, you can stay longer than all the others,” Nina said and patted his shoulder.
Outside, Nina sat down on the chopping block and looked up at the moon. The boys were trying out the record player. All the cabin had was Etta James, Neil Diamond and Carole King.
She could hear a roar of laughter now. She was delighted that Ryder had good friends. It meant something that they’d driven five hours to see him and get out of the city, find a little freedom.
What girlfriends, parents, and routines had they left behind? Nina wondered what she was going to do when she got back. In another six weeks, Ryder would be starting his last year of high school. And she needed another job. Far out in the dark, she thought she saw two yellow eyes. And then more and more yellow dots appeared, and she realized they were fireflies. She thought to call the boys out but sat there in the beautiful dark all alone.
In the morning, the cabin filled with the smell of fresh coffee. Nina got dressed and found the boys sitting at the dining table eating pancakes.
“Here,” Bruno offered, and slid a plate of pancakes towards her.
“She doesn’t eat in the mornings,” Ryder said.
“It’s not everyday someone makes you breakfast though,” Nina said.
“Would you like a cup?” Nolan handed her a cup of hot coffee.
“My God,” she said. “I feel like I’m at the Four Seasons.”
They boys smiled a little.
She put her hair up and had a little breakfast and listened to their plan for the day. They were going to drive out to the big lake for a swim. They were coming back for lunch, but they’d bring something back to cook. And in the afternoon, the boys and Nina were all going to the pits. They wanted to know what she thought. Who cared what she thought? But they wanted an opinion before they climbed down – it wasn’t that deep, they assured her. They were going to bring flashlights and a rope.
After they left for the lake, Nina spent the morning reading and putting dishes and laundry away. At one, the boys came back with fresh fish from the market and grilled it with butter and lemon. Bruno scored a squid and grilled that, too. How did he know how to do that? He watched a lot of cooking videos. Nina told him she’d grown up watching Food Network. He asked what she’d learned to make from all that TV. Not much, mostly that butter made things taste good, she told him.
After lunch, they put on their sneakers and hiked into the forest. Nina followed them out past the sparse pine trees and into more dense and uncharted redwoods. She kept scanning for posts or signs. A long time ago she’d lived even farther north. She knew people disappeared into thick woods like this or were shot as trespassers. People up north, even in a liberal state like this, were different. They were environmentalists and they liked their guns.
No litter, no signs of other humans around. Greg sang Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” which was pretty good for just learning it the night before. The air in the redwoods smelled sweet. Driving up to the cabin with Ryder, she’d curved around each bend, forced to slow down to twenty miles an hour. Up here, the stillness, quiet, and the plentitude of trees and fresh air were a balm. She was now exactly where she needed to be to clear it all out and absorb the nutritive natural elements. Ryder had been enthusiastic, too, visibly contented to leave the city behind. With his friends up at the cabin, Nina wondered if Ryder could last a bit longer out here though she prepared herself for the possibility that he’d want to return to the city with them once they’d tired of the cabin.
Nina looked at the one leafy maple in the dense acreage of redwoods as they passed the pond. It was possible to not be paying attention and walk right into the water because it was so mossy and covered in algae.
Nolan whistled Etta James. Bruno told a story about how his uncle had attended a funeral last year and gone up to the podium to add his respects, telling everyone what a great co-worker Kenny was. He’d gone over to the casket on his way back to his seat and was shocked to see a woman in there. He’d gone to the wrong chapel. They all laughed.
Nina told them that once, when she was in graduate school on the east coast, she’d climbed up the fire escape into her neighbor’s apartment. The neighbor had left his trance music on all night and she couldn’t sleep. She’d knocked twice and then realized he probably wasn’t home. It was almost three in the morning. She climbed up the fire escape and looked through his window. All the lights were on but she didn’t see anyone inside. So she opened the window and crawled in. She found the stereo and shut it off. But she couldn’t get back out through the window because there were so many glass bottles underneath. She decided to go out the front door. And that’s when she saw him, completely naked and asleep on the couch. That made them laugh, too, though after, they said it was probably dangerous to go in like a cat burglar. Nina thought so, too, but she’d only been nineteen then.
“What did you study in graduate school?” Nolan asked.
“Poetry,” Nina said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. But it was free, that education.”
He nodded and they climbed down a shallow valley.
“See the pits?” Ryder asked.
“Yes,” Nina said. She could see one of them. It was a trench, at least twelve feet long by three feet wide.
They stepped up to it and looked down.
“It’s probably about eighteen feet down,” Greg said.
“The other ones are deeper,” Bruno said. “Maybe thirty feet or something.”
“What do you think that is, Mom?” Ryder asked.
She could see something like a greenish gray tank below with a door, which was already ajar.
“It looks like a bunker,” Nina said.
“That’s what we think, too,” Ryder said.
“What era?” Greg asked.
She told them she didn’t know. And the boys began to discuss who should go down first and how they’d get back up. They could climb down using the walls. The rope wasn’t long enough to tie around anyone’s waist. At best, it would be looped around your arm to help you climb back out.
Ryder volunteered to go first. He was about the same size as Greg, but taller. He split his legs and used his hands to climb down using both sides of the hole. Bruno, the heaviest of them all, followed after him. He said he wouldn’t need to be pulled up because he free climbed in Joshua Tree with his dad last fall. So he could get out on his own. But Nina wasn’t so sure. This wasn’t hard rock. The soil could erode. When Ryder jumped down, the tank echoed. Then it made a deeper sound as Bruno landed. They switched on their flashlights and pried the door open slowly.
“Mom, we’re going to check it out. We’ll just look around and come back out,” Ryder said.
“Be careful,” Nina said, already feeling light in the head.
Nina used to feel a flash of pain across her chest or behind the knees anytime Ryder fell running as a little kid. And she felt she was on the precipice of that now, too.
“He’s really cautious,” Nolan assured her, staring down into the pit.
The bobbing lights disappeared and their footsteps faded. When they didn’t come right back, Nina thought they must be all right. They were leisurely exploring. She knelt down on the ground and kept watch over the pit. She kept position like that for what seemed a long time.
“Where are they?” Nina asked. Her knees and palms hurt, embedded with small stones.
She called but no one answered. Then she and Nolan called together.
“Here, I’ll go down. The walls might be dampening the sound. I’ll call them from inside the tank,” Greg said. He climbed halfway down and skidded the rest, losing his footing. “Can you lower down the rope?” he asked. He swatted at it when it came down to his shoulder. And then he stuck his head into the tank and called after them. It was loud and cavernous.
Nolan tossed him the remaining flashlight, and then Greg slipped into the tank. They watched his light bounce around and then go in the same direction Ryder and Bruno had gone. His voice calling out Ryder and Bruno. And then Nina thought she heard someone call Mom. She waited but it seemed to be coming from behind her. She stood up and asked where the other pits were. Nolan pointed her in the direction of one, and she ran two hundred feet to the second pit, which was much deeper than the first one. She crouched down and listened. Again, she heard what she thought was Ryder calling her, but then it was gone.
Nina was in a cold sweat now. She ran one way and then the other, and found the third pit, which was just as deep as the second one. She waited and listened before returning to the first pit where Nolan was crouched and shouting the boys’ names. What had happened to them? She wondered if they’d gotten lost in a subterranean maze. She crouched over the pit with Nolan. A warm wind swept over them.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Four,” Nolan said.
How long had they been waiting? She didn’t want to be stuck out this far in the woods after dark.
“You don’t have another flashlight?” she asked Nolan.
“No,” he said.
“I’m going down, but don’t you dare come after me. Do you hear?” Nina said firmly. “If I don’t come out in twenty minutes, you have to go get the fire department. You keep the rope. If you go for the fire department, leave the rope hanging partway down as a sign.”
“Okay,” he said, scared.
“Set your timer once I get down,” she said. “And as soon as it goes off, you go look for help if I don’t come out.”
“Yes,” he said, on his knees.
Nina went down the pit the same way that the boys had, the cold, hard earth scraping against her shoes and hands. When she landed on the tank, she glanced up and saw Nolan watching nervously. It was damp-smelling down in the pit, and it was much darker.
Nina called out for Ryder and peered into the mouth of the tank. The boys were probably just exploring and had lost track of time. Or they’d gotten lost in the tunnels. Either way, she was going to find them and bring them back together. They would have to help get her out of this crazy ditch though. And then they could add this story to the ones they told for fun — like going to the wrong funeral or crawling into your neighbor’s window. The boys were probably fine. Likely they’d found something interesting and were lingering. But now she felt a sharp flash of pain behind her knees and panic flooded her body. She slid into the tank, lowering herself until she had to let go. She turned the way the boys had gone, opening her eyes wide against the blackness, calling for Ryder, stretching to hear him with her whole body.