Just East of Eden
That third week of July, aka summer’s peak. Midsummer is summer concentrated; mid-July is midsummer concentrated. The sun shone brightly over East Eden, a splash of yellow across the blue sky, fat white clouds rolling along in shapes like whipped cream on a strawberry cake, and summer this and summer that, yada yada, Lucille was in a pissed off mood with no time for similes and metaphors.
Her whole routine was in disarray and her brain tended to bounce around her noggin rather than concentrate. If you want to fly, you gotta let go of all the shit weighing you down, so the saying goes. All the unhealthy crap - the vape, LeBong James, anything else she could smoke or sniff, was outside with the rest of the trash (well, not James, who now had his home with Jackie). Lucille was going cold turkey, because she was tired of feeling poopy and using the things that made her feel poopy as the solution to feeling poopy. It was all very poetic and romantic - she would now only be getting high off of life, living life with a straight-edged consciousness, interacting with it fully instead of through a glass darkly.
Lucille had decided on that course of action yesterday. Just a day later, she was already scratching at her walls, bored out of her skull. It takes a little bit to remember that things are fun by themselves without any sort of additives involved. Lucille struggled with that remembrance - when she booted up her computer and tried to watch some anime, she uncovered a horrid truth - that she simply could not watch these moeblobs or tsunderes or shonen heroes sober.
Who in their right mind could watch shows about slightly sexualized high schoolers sober!
There was more to anime than that, but maybe there isn’t, but maybe there is. Lucille couldn’t tell, so she shut the computer down and gazed out her window. Out - that was the key thing. It was summer! For too long, Lucille had associated the summer season with lazy days watching anime, staying inside, eyes locked to a screen. Something had to give, and today, she decided to unlock that old latchkey kid feeling of high school.
Lucille made a call on her phone. “Hey, Regina,” she said. “Let’s go to the secret base.”
Like any good little New England town, East Eden had a little bit of wilderness to it. One spot of the town, in the crook of several highways, featured a woodland - complete with a stream running through it - that offered maybe an hour of hiking if you took it slowly and admired the bright green shine of the surrounding foliage. A lot of people make pilgrimages to the famed Walden Pond, but every town in New England has something similar. And unlike Thoreau, you can’t even walk to Walden Pond anymore - you have to drive through a checkpoint that’s off-limits to those on foot, pay your parking fee, and walk in thick crowds where Thoreau once walked alone. Just go to East Eden instead, because you can essentially get that same feeling but for free and with far fewer people (just don't mind the noise from the highways).
On that summer weekend morning, there was only one other car in the little parking lot carved out of the woodland. Lucille and Regina gazed at the entrance to the trail.
“We haven’t been here since high school,” Regina said. “What made you want to come here now?”
“I’m trying to get outside,” Lucille explained, basking in the sunlight. “And feel the summer on my face.”
“Ehh.” Regina scratched her back. “I’m good for the trail, but going all the way to the secret base, I just don’t know.”
Lucille spread her arms wide. “Think of it like a treasure hunt. And I’m also feeling a little antsy and a little grabby, so let’s get going.”
Regina subtly kept her distance as the two women entered the trail. Years ago, their high school versions would’ve kicked rocks as they headed down the path, complaining about this and that, wanting to go anywhere but this crummy little town. And here they were in the present, seeking solace in it. Funny how time is a wheel like that.
Wooden planks squeaked as Lucille and Regina stepped onto a small bridge over the stream. Lucille came to a stop in the middle, watching the way the water ebbed and flowed, emerging from thick trees, bubbling and susurrating along, until it disappeared beneath the bridge below her. She rested her back against the wooden railing and gazed up at the sky.
“I haven’t been able to get into anime recently,” she admitted.
“Congratulations,” Regina offered. “I’m proud of you.”
Lucille groaned in Regina’s general direction. “Maybe I’m just bored of it? Maybe I’ve just outgrown it? I can’t tell. Maybe I need to watch a new genre. I’ve been reading manga, at least. A lot more manga. It’s the same thing, but maybe not having to hear it, you know, forcing me to act out all the parts in my mind, maybe that’s what makes me able to read it without getting embarrassed.”
Regina rested her back against the opposite railing. “I heard that’s the natural progression of someone who watches anime. They soon turn to manga. And soon enough, you’ll be turning to light novels.”
“If I wanted to read a book, I’d read a book,” Lucille complained. “But maybe you’re right. Maybe life’s just a cycle like that.”
“Maybe.” The two women left the bridge behind, heading deeper down the trail. They had to slip over a fallen tree that blocked the path; it was maybe three seconds of work, but Lucille had to catch her breath all the same.
“What kind of manga have you been reading?” Regina asked during the lull.
“Do you know what that means?”
Lucille collected herself and the pair resumed the hike. “It’s like newspaper comics. I used to love reading those, so maybe that’s why I’m liking 4 koma. You got a strip of four panels, and there’s a formula for it. It goes set-up, build-up, climax, conclusion. At least, something like that.”
“Hmm…I don’t get it.”
Lucille rubbed her chin. “Alright, let me show you. It would go a little something like this-”
“Hey, want to see a special skill of mine?” Lucille asked.
“No,” Regina answered.
The two girls stared at each other.
“Oh,” Lucille said.
Regina ducked under a tree branch hanging low over the trail. “Alright, fine.”
“Awesome!” Lucille said.
Regina watched with a dour look as Lucille picked up a piece of grass.
Regina slumped when Lucille blew into it and made farting noises.
“That’s your special skill?” Regina asked.
Lucille nodded. “I can use a blade of grass as a whistle.”
The two women stared at the piece of grass.
“I’m having an off-day,” Lucille admitted.
“So, you do get 4 koma now?” Lucille asked.
“Not really,” Regina answered.
The pair came to a bend in the trail.
“Yeah,” Lucille said. “I guess it works better in a visual format, anyway.”
This wasn’t just any bend in the trail - while the rest of the path curved back into the forest, this part of the trail bordered a meadow that contained the staple of the Japanese aesthetic - power lines! The giant metal pylon loomed over the meadow, its cables stretching into the distance, connecting to another structure down the line, and on and on. The power lines always had the land around them cleared, so Lucille was able to see the rolling hills dotted with power lines until it met horizon. Very rarely could Lucille see any distance in the town since houses and trees always surrounded her.
The connecting path to the meadow used to be completely cleared, but a thicket of shrubbery and vines blocked the way. Lucille glanced back at Regina, who looked rather reluctant to continue on.
“Early bird gets the worm,” Lucille supposed, and then struggled through the thicket, leading the way, ignoring the thorns that scraped at her and avoiding an encounter with poison ivy. Once she made it through into the meadow, she checked herself for ticks; Regina, meanwhile, used the path conveniently made by Lucille to step through without so much as a scratch.
“Second mouse gets the cheese,” Regina supposed with a shrug as Lucille gave her a tired look. But that exhaustion was soon replaced with anticipation - they were out in open country! Or, at least, the power line trail, rarely used outside of electrical workers and bored kids with nowhere to go but trouble. But power line trails are beautiful - no other way to put it. Off the beaten path, just you and the quiet, humming pylons lined up like statues, a warm day at the peak of summer and the gentle living that comes with it - okay, maybe Lucille did have time for metaphors.
A low hum echoed through the clearing as they passed by the pylon. After wading through thick grass, Lucille’s pants came away with bundles of brown burdocks stuck to it; while she shook them off, Regina relaxed and sunbathed on the flat surface of a large boulder left here back during the Ice Age. Lucille hauled her to her feet, and two pressed forward.
The trail wasn’t as well-kept as it used to be during high school. Lucille had to step nimbly through mazes of vines and shrubs and bushes, all armed with thorns. Regina started to whistle as the morning turned to afternoon; the sun kept beating down on them. Lucille stepped in a pile of mud; Regina stepped around it. Lucille’s arm got caught in a branch; Regina ducked below it. Lucille almost fainted from stepping on a snake; Regina admired a trio of deer prancing off in the distance, their fur a shiny, healthy brown.
“I’m enjoying this,” Regina realized.
“Yeah, me too,” Lucille said sharply, eyes narrowed, as she narrowly avoided a patch of poison oak.
“We should go treasure hunting more often.”
“What treasure are we hunting now?”
“Don’t know. You said we were treasure hunters.”
Lucille wiped the sweat off her face. “Good point. What treasure did I even want?”
Regina thought about it. “I want a Swiss bank account.”
Lucille stopped and glanced back at her. “You think we’re going to find a Swiss bank account at the secret base?”
“Well, no.” Regina shrugged. “I thought we were just listing what treasures we would like.”
“In that case, I’d want to go on a rocket to outer space.”
“A big ol’ cruise, then.”
“All-expenses paid trip to Tokyo.”
“Some good Chinese food.”
They walked below another pylon and its stoic humming. “That’s not like the others,” Lucille pointed out.
“Aw, c’mon, Lucille. You can’t beat some good Chinese food. Shit smells the best on the way coming home.”
Lucille ignored the rumbling in her stomach because they were almost there. At the third pylon on the trail, they took a sharp right toward the surrounding forest. Surprisingly, compared to the way they had came, this next part of the trail was well-kept, with any greenery cleared or crushed into the ground, creating a nice, easy path for them. The two women walked into the forest, arriving at a ridge. Lucille’s heart raced, because after four years, here she was, at her high school secret base, where she spent summer afternoons and nights, ate pizza here in the dwindling days of autumn, returned here in spring with a smile on her face.
When she got to the ridge, Lucille gazed down, deeper into the forest, and saw her secret base. It merely consisted of a cracked concrete platform, perhaps one built for a pylon that never came or some other infrastructure purpose. Long ago, somebody had dragged a whole picnic table down there, and kids could sit in the middle of these woods, away from prying eyes, and just enjoy themselves and the quiet. Secret bases are powerful ideas in the mind of a child, because it’s a place under your own authority and your authority alone. It’s yours.
Except it wasn’t really. In the present, Lucille could only stand on that ridge and see a band of high schoolers now sitting around that picnic table. They were talking up a storm, taking pictures, being nuisances, being teenagers, being friends. This was their secret base now, not Lucille and Regina’s.
“Well, it’s not like we can kick them out,” Lucille supposed. “Nor do I really want to.”
The two left the ridge, retraced their steps, and ended up sitting on the concrete platform below the third pylon. Lucille yawned and stretched her arms. “Well, I guess we inherited the secret base as well. Somebody before us moved that table there, after all. So it only makes sense somebody would inherit it after us.”
“For not being able to get all the way to the secret base, you seem pretty happy. Did you find your treasure, then?”
Lucille looked at the power line cables above her and smiled. “I guess so. I wanted to get out of the house and reset a little, so I think this helped. And besides, maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.”
A couple of dumb laughs drifted through the clearing.
“You gonna go watch anime after this?” Regina asked.
“Eh. Anime comes and goes, I’ll watch it when I feel like it. No need to force enjoyment out of something.”
Regina nodded in agreement. Then she scratched the back of her neck. “There’s still one thing I don’t get, though. How’d those kids get there when the trail we took looked like it hadn’t been touched in years?”
They answered that question after wandering around the clearing for about thirty seconds. The trail continued after the third pylon, leading down right into - a new road. Lucille blinked. “That wasn’t there before, wasn’t it?”
“Not when we were in high school,” Regina said. “And neither were those houses.”
Entire neighborhoods had somehow sprung up in town without Lucille even realizing. She supposed she really needed to get out more. “Well, I guess somebody has to inherit East Eden, too. Want to leave down this road?”
Regina nodded and took a single step, then stopped. “Ah, shoot. We gotta go back the way we came since I parked there.”
Lucille gave a pained smile, then shook it off. “Time for one more treasure hunt?”
“What’s the reward, my car?”
“That, and then some Chinese food. Beef fried rice, crab rangoon…”
“Chicken fingers…lo mein…”
“Moo goo gai pan…moo goo goo…that moo goo goo goo goo…”And with that, the adventure continued, lasting all day, the new access road that would’ve taken them back to their car after a twenty minute walk remaining simply as terra incognita in the changing landscape of East Eden.