Back to The Hills – 1: Out of Range
Well, they were going to move again. Right in the middle of the school year, too. A new town, a new school, new friends. It just wasn’t something Alex wanted to do again. He knew it wasn’t worth arguing, though. At supper, his father told them that they were moving in three weeks, and that was just the way it was going to be.
Alex lay on his single bed in the small bedroom that was his. It was a dormer room in what used to be the attic. As a perpetual outcast – well, as a perpetual new student at least – Alex had taken up some strange hobbies to pass the time, time that made up for the friends he didn’t have. One of those habits was construction.
He supposed it was a strange habit for a high school junior, but as unbending as his father was, he did allow Alex freedom with what he called “your part of the house.” It began with drawing on the walls. Now it had become something more.
In this somewhat boring house on the outskirts of Atlanta, Alex had remodeled the previously empty and unfinished attic into a bedroom with two dormer windows, one north and one south. Normally hot in the house, on cool February nights like this he could leave both windows open a crack and get a nice cool breeze through his room. It was really quite enjoyable.
Sure, tearing up the roof, rebuilding it, and finishing the room inside wasn’t cheap, but his father made plenty of money and didn’t bat an eye when Alex handed him the bill. To his father, Alex supposed, the bill was a simple payoff so he didn’t have to talk to his son, because when Alex took to a project like the attic, he was all in.
Alex had begun remodeling right after school last summer. He’d had nothing else to do, and his father had been gone all the time, investigating. Roc Harrison was trying to be one of those ghost hunters on television, with a show like you’d see on the History channel on a weekday afternoon when no one was watching. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a television show yet. Roc did have a YouTube channel with plenty of subscribers, though, and with those subscriber numbers came some high-rolling sponsors.
Regrettably, Alex would have to admit that his father was successful, at least in the realm of ghost hunter popularity. The cost was the time that he put into it. That had cost him a marriage and a relationship with his sons. Roc was a good guy, and Alex got along with him fine, but it wasn’t really what Alex would call a father-son relationship.
Jax, on the other hand, idolized their father. Jax was a fifth grader who walked to school but ran home, hopeful that his father would be home. He was never disappointed when Roc wasn’t home, though, because he could always wait ten minutes for Alex to get home, and he loved helping Alex with whatever project he was working on.
Jax had helped Alex through most of last summer, carrying boards and fetching boxes of screws. He wasn’t allowed on the roof, and he wasn’t allowed in the room when Alex was finishing it. Mudding drywall was hard enough without a hyper fifth grader bouncing off the walls. But he was a good hand, and Alex was glad for his help most days.
Lying in bed tonight, Alex stared at the sky-blue ceiling and wondered what kind of place Nebraska was. He’d heard of it, sure. It wasn’t that far away. However, he didn’t know anything about it. He rolled to his side, grabbed his phone from his nightstand, and opened a Wikipedia page. He searched “Nebraska” and then skimmed through the article that popped up. One passage particularly caught his attention:
“Indigenous peoples include Omaha, Missouria, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, and various branches of the Lakota (Sioux) tribes. These peoples lived in the region for thousands of years before European exploration. The state is crossed by many historic trails, including that of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”
He had learned about Lewis and Clark this year in American History, and he vaguely remembered reading about some of the different tribes of Native Americans that had lived across the expanse of the middle of the country. Wasn’t Sacajawea from one of those tribes? He read on:
“Nebraska is composed of two major land regions: the Dissected Till Plains and the Great Plains. The Dissected Till Plains region consist of gently rolling hills and contains the state’s largest cities, Omaha and Lincoln.”
Well, that was hopeful, at least. Omaha was a large city that he’d heard about, and wasn’t Lincoln home to a pretty big football program? It must be a decent-sized city. His anxiety built as he read farther, though:
“The Great Plains region, occupying most of western Nebraska, is characterized by treeless prairie, suitable for cattle-grazing.”
That sounded more like the type of country that popped into his mind’s eye when he heard the name Nebraska. Wide open and nothing in sight. Not his cup of tea, really. Alex preferred the cozy tree-bounded islands of civilization across the east coast, where he’d spent pretty much his entire life. He didn’t know what he would do with himself in a wide-open place.
He turned his screen off and rolled over. Surely his father was moving them near one of the cities. What was the name of the place he’d said? Ridgeway? Ridgeville? Something like that. Surely it was a subdivision on the outskirts of Omaha, or at least of Lincoln.
Alex’s thoughts shifted to school. Tomorrow, he would have to take the paperwork that his father had given him in to the office at school to let them know that they would be moving soon, and Alex would need his school records, whatever those entailed, transferred to Ridgeview or wherever it was. He would have to figure that out so he could look it up tomorrow on Google Maps and see where it was.
He lay there on his back, trying to think of what Omaha or Lincoln would be like. His mind kept drifting, however, as he neared sleep. Red-yellow grass, tall and seeded, flashed across his dreaming eye. As he fell farther away from reality, the plain of grass in his mind began rolling, like giant swells on an ocean, until the distance was full of nothing but hills and emptiness.
* * * * *
“What do you mean, you’re leaving us?” Mrs. Crawford asked. “You just joined us last year.”
Alex stared at her across her desk, and he shrugged his shoulders. What was there to say?
Mrs. Crawford sighed. “I suppose it’s not for you to decide.” She looked over her glasses at him. “How many places have you lived?”
Alex began recounting the names of the towns in order from as far back as he could remember, ticking them off on his fingers as he went. It was the only way he could keep them straight.
“Eight, I think,” he said.
Mrs. Crawford’s eyes never left Alex’s as she slowly shook her head. “Well, you’ll know what you’re doing, I guess, and you’ll be fine. We’ll miss you here.” She said it but her voice didn’t really communicate any emotion. Alex supposed it was difficult to have a connection with individuals when there were nearly a thousand students in the high school.
She handed him a paper. “This is your checkout sheet,” she said. “You’ll need to take it to each of your teachers and have it signed. You’ll have to turn in all of your materials and settle all of your accounts before teachers will sign it.”
Mrs. Crawford droned on through the instructions that she knew by heart, but Alex had already checked out mentally. He pretty much knew these instructions by heart now, too. Instead of listening, he was thinking about Ridgeline, Nebraska – that was what it was called, he’d found out this morning. He just remembered that he wanted to check the place out on Google Maps but hadn’t yet.
Finally, Mrs. Crawford finished and dismissed him from the office. He stepped into an empty hall. It was still third period, and the bell wouldn’t ring for another few minutes. He took his phone from his pocket and opened Maps. He typed in “Ridgeline, NE” with well-practiced thumbs and watched the screen zoom out from Atlanta, scroll across the country, and zoom back in on an area in the center of the country.
Everything on the screen was a blur, and then the screen was gray except for two intersecting yellow lines – highways, he supposed – and a small white gridwork. Was that all there was of Ridgeline, Nebraska? It looked like the town spread only a couple of blocks in either direction from the intersection of highways in the middle.
Alex clicked on the square in the bottom left corner of the screen that said, “Satellite,” and an aerial view somewhat like the color of his dream last night came into view. Not only was the white gridwork all that Ridgeline consisted of, but it was surrounded on one side by what looked like fields, though many of them looked circular for some reason. On the other side, the land looked squiggly and irregular.
“Hills,” he said under his breath, remembering his Wikipedia search and zooming out to see how far they stretched. As he zoomed out, he realized that Ridgeline was quickly lost in a patchwork of those strange, circular fields and large expanses of what must be grass-covered hills. There appeared to be nothing for miles. A few small bodies of water broke the pattern, but it stretched almost the entire distance between two rivers, both running west to east, one north of Ridgeline and one south, about thirty miles apart.
There were other towns, but most of them looked to be about the same size as Ridgeline. He zoomed out more to see where in Nebraska this was, and if it was close to Omaha or Lincoln? He soon discovered that Omaha and Lincoln were on the far eastern side of the state, and Ridgeline was smack dab in the middle east to west, and in the southern third. No cities were close by.
The bell rang. Alex closed the app and pocketed his phone. Students quickly flooded the hall in a cacophony of noise, going this way and that, pushing through crowds trying to get to their next period in the few minutes between classes. Alex glanced at the large, industrial clock mounted above the lockers in the hall, confirmed that it was going to be fourth period, and began pushing through the crowd toward his next class.
* * * * *
Alex stared out the window at the blur of trees. The first leg of this eighteen-hour journey was pretty much what he was used to. The green wall of trees and vegetation never changed much. Alex was content in his little bubble of the world. It consisted of about fifty feet to either side of the interstate but stretched off to the front and rear as far as he could see.
This part of moving always excited him a little. It was the mystery of what was to come, the expectation of something new. Alex felt that now, still mixed with a little of the anxiety that he’d felt when he searched up Ridgeline on his phone. The vibration of the car and the constant blur of trees dulled those feelings a little, but whenever he began to daydream about where they were going, those feelings surfaced again.
He noticed that his father had turned in the front seat, dividing his gaze between the road and Alex. Alex took his earbuds out. “What?” he asked.
“I said, we’ll be in St. Louis soon. Are you hungry, or do you want to go to the hotel first?”
“The hotel!” Jax said from the front passenger seat. He liked to ride in the front seat, and that worked well because Roc liked the energetic conversation up front and Alex liked the quiet of the backseat.
“That’s fine with me,” Alex said. “I’m not really hungry yet.”
He watched out the window as the thick cover of trees gave way to more and more industrial-looking buildings and warehouses. Soon, as Alex watched between the two front seats and out the windshield, the interstate became very busy, with turnoffs going in all directions and traffic picking up. There were ramps passing above them, and they passed over other ramps at the same time.
Suddenly the seemingly confused spiderweb of roads spit them out on four separate groups of lanes that seemed to disappear into the sky except for the scaffolding of railroad bridge to the left and a giant metallic arch on the right.
“There’s the arch,” he heard himself say.
“Yeah,” his father replied. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.”
They watched as the arch seemed to come closer, the skyline of St. Louis became visible behind and beneath it, and the wide expanse of the Mississippi River reflected the light of the late afternoon sun. The passage over the bridge was a peaceful reprieve after the confusion of roads they had passed, but as soon as they were over the bridge, they were thrust into another lane of confusion. Construction has narrowed the road to a single lane, but traffic had not slowed, and Alex’s father kept the four-door pickup up to speed. It felt like zooming along on a Hot Wheels track, and Alex put his earbuds back in and slouched into his seat.
The hotel was standard, though nice enough to have a pretty good restaurant in the lobby where they ate. After they were seated and had ordered drinks, Alex’s father took a long look at first Jax and then Alex.
“Okay, how upset are you with me for making us move again?” he asked.
Alex was used to this. His father was rigid in his decisions. In other words, Roc made the decisions and they moved forward based on those decisions. However, Roc was pretty good about checking in with Jax and Alex to see how they were doing.
Alex shook his head. “I’m not upset,” he said.
“Me either,” Jax shrugged.
Roc just nodded, waiting for more explanation.
Alex went on. “I’m just curious about where we’re going. What’s at Ridgeline?”
Roc’s gaze rested on Alex for a moment while he thought about an answer. “I don’t know for sure,” he said. “There have been some strange stories, sightings and things, but I can’t get a very clear explanation from anyone.”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked. “We’re moving out here based on rumors that you can’t get a clear answer on?”
“No, not exactly,” his father said.
But the waiter arrived with their drinks then, and he took their order. When they were finished ordering, Roc answered.
“I got a call,” he began. “A friend of mine that I haven’t seen since college called me. He, uh, was pretty scared by something that he’d seen.”
“Does he live there, dad?” Jax asked. “Is his house haunted?”
“No, no. It’s nothing like that,” Roc said. “He doesn’t live there, but he has family in Ridgeline. Cousins, I think. Anyway, he had heard about some strange things happening, and he went there to visit or hunt or something, right before Christmas. He called me a short time later and recommended that I check it out.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Alex began. “You mean, we’re moving out there because an old friend called you and recommended it.”
“He was pretty worked up when he called,” Roc said. “Something scared him. I know it’s not much to go on, but I’ve done some digging – newspaper articles and such – and, I don’t know, I just get the feeling that there’s something going on there.”
“This is a pretty big gamble on a feeling, isn’t it?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Roc said, but he trailed off. Alex watched him take a drink of his iced tea and look off across the restaurant. Alex had seen that look before.
“What else is there that you’re not telling us?” Alex asked.
Roc looked back at Alex and set his glass down. He spared a quick glance at Jax, but Jax seemed to be sucked into his handheld video game now.
“The guys and I, we kind of broke up,” he said.
Alex knew that his dad meant the other two guys who helped with the YouTube show. Jimmy and Elijah were a little younger than Roc. Jimmy was good with a camera, and with all of the technical editing and video-posting stuff. Elijah was a researcher, and more than once, Elijah’s systematic methods had debunked the “ghost” aspects of a case and revealed simpler, more realistic causes for the events they were investigating. Alex knew Roc was disappointed when a case was debunked; ghost mysteries sold better when they couldn’t be explained away.
“So, you’re going this one alone?” Alex asked, his eyebrows raised.
“For now,” his father said. “I found us a house, and I found myself a job so we can get by for a little while. I’ll look into the case when I can, and if I find something that will make a good story, we’ll figure it out from there.”
“You got a job?” Alex asked. He couldn’t remember the last time his father had held down an actual job. “Interesting. What kind of job?”
“The post office,” Roc said.
“Ridgeline has its own Post Office?”
“Very funny, Alex,” his father said dryly before turning to see what Jax was doing on his video game, and Alex tuned out again.
This was the part that Alex couldn’t reconcile. His father had often, in the past, made decisions that uprooted and moved the family, and those decisions were based on rumors and his father’s hunches. A good ghost story picked up from the comments under one of his videos would send Roc researching, making calls, and even travelling to a place to dig through old newspaper records at the local library. Rarely was there much to go on beyond local legend, but Alex supposed that was the way it went with ghost hunting shows. Jimmy had told him that it was all in how you produced the story. That, he said, was what made people watch.
In the end, Alex didn’t think about it much. It was too difficult to make his mind up about what his father was doing, so he tuned out instead. What was important to him was the fact that by tomorrow night, he would be in a new house, waiting for their furniture and things to arrive in the moving truck, and checking into a new school.
Ridgeline’s school was one building that housed kindergarten through twelfth grade. There were about two hundred students altogether, in thirteen classes. Two hundred. That meant two hundred school-aged kids in the whole town. How was he supposed to disappear in a group like that?
Being the new kid was made so much easier by disappearing into the crowd. Alex was used to doing that in a class of, say, two hundred. But if the entire school had two hundred kids, that was like fifteen or sixteen kids in each class. Alex would stick out like a sore thumb!
* * * * *
The next day’s drive was anything but what Alex was used to. It began normally enough, with a long interstate highway through Missouri bordered by trees. However, as the day drug on and they approached Nebraska, the trees thinned and soon they were driving north alongside the Missouri River. They took an offramp, topped off with gas, and then crossed a bridge into their new state.
Things did not immediately seem different. The trees had been gradually thinning out, but now they were back. There were hills, too, and the four-lane divided highway rolled over one and then another. There was nothing at first, and then there were buildings.
Just like that, they were driving through Lincoln. The highway had turned into a wide city street with shopping centers and restaurants and houses and all the stuff that cities had. Jax had Google Maps opened on his phone and was talking their father through the turns, because their path through the city was not a straight one. Pretty soon, they were on a feeder road out of the city, and they took a big curving onramp onto another interstate.
Interstate 80 was where it all changed for Alex. Right away he noticed that the land was flattening out and the views were opening up. The sun was just past straight up and on its way toward the western horizon. The hills finally gave completely away to flat plains covered by flat yellowish fields, and that was all there was then. Trees clustered in small, far apart groups across the plain, and Alex could see for what he thought must be a hundred miles in either direction. The long interstate highway disappeared ahead of them at the horizon.
There was little change during the first hour out of Lincoln, but then the interstate began running along a river on the left, which Alex only remembered from the Maps view on his phone. It just looked like a row of trees from the road. Out the right side of the car were more fields, but what looked like many miles to the north were hills against the horizon. Alex remembered the dream of rolling, grass-covered hills, and he imagined them to the north.
Eventually, he felt the pickup slowing and pulled his earbuds out to hear the click of the blinker. He sat up a little straighter and watched as his father took the next offramp at a small town. There was a Walmart and some fast food restaurants, a few gas stations, and that was it. His father turned south, away from the town. They crossed the river and wound their way through the half-mile or so of trees near the river. When they emerged, Alex saw that there were hills to the south, too.
The two-lane highway wound its way alongside the river for a few miles and then turned south. Almost immediately, they were climbing the first of the hills, and Alex saw that the fields were gone, and the road was now bordered by the red-yellow hills from his dream.
There was nothing to look at, really, but Alex felt his eyes drawn to both the near and distant grasslands. Each hill they drove over gave them a fresh view up a new canyon. Alex could only see a little way into the canyons before they bent around the hills and out of sight. The mystery of what was out there would just begin to dig into his brain, and then they were up and over another hill, and another canyon would come into view, beginning another bout of curiosity.
There was nothing between the river and Ridgeway, and Alex only knew they were entering Ridgeway because the highway passed out of the hills, between two fields, and then into a small group of buildings behind a small green sign that said, “Ridgeline, population 697.” As they pulled to a stop at the town’s one flashing red light, the first of the streetlamps was just flickering to life.
“We’re here,” Roc said. Jax and Alex were already staring out the windows.