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"Turn left," the Witch ordered. The Wagon obeyed, and that's when the earthquake hit.


The windows clattered, doors rattled, and the car-house's knees creaked. Bags slipped off of shelves and barfed their insides onto the floor. The couch jiggled and bounced so violently that it was hard not barf onto the floor myself.



"Flawed granite, not again!" Mom cursed. "Every clucking trail is at the end of another long dirt road. Do they pave nothing in Death Valley? Why doesn't AllTrails warn you that there's no dog-manned road to get there?"


The car-house stopped and so did the earthquake. I shook the cottony silence out of my ears while the cloud of dust outside settled. "What Valley?" I asked. "It sounded like you said Death Valley."


"Yeah. Death Valley," Mom said, like it was a name as uninteresting as Paperweight Valley or Nothing to See Here Basin. "There are supposed to be trails around here, but where the pluck are they? Everything is just a big, blank nothingness on the map."


She held up the Witch and scowled so her displeasure would be the first thing the Witch saw when she opened her screen. Whatever excuse the Witch gave, Mom didn't like it one bit. She made little disgusted sounds in the back of her throat as she pinched and poked, swiped and jabbed more aggressively. She slammed the Witch back into her lap and glowered out the window for a moment. Finally, she spoke.


"Get out of the car, Oscar," she commanded in an icy voice.




"I thought we were gonna..." I started. Mom's eyes flashed in the mirror and I changed the subject. "Okay! I love exploring."


I went to find a potty, but there was no sign that anything living or dead had pottied here since the beginning of time. There were no bushes to pee on, no grass to roll in, no flowers to fertilize, just dust and drab grey rocks.


When I came back to the car-house, Mom was just clipping the packpack strap across her chest. "I thought there was nowhere to hike," I said.


"Lots of trails, my foot," she seethed. "If that hunk of junk is too flimsy to drive on a dirt road, then we'll walk." Mom stomped into the desert without even checking to make sure I was following.


"Really? Where?" I looked around for something to catch Mom's eye, but the rugged landscape was slippery, with nothing for the eye to hang onto. It looked like a planet still under construction, with the broken-off ends of mountains not yet polished, a jumble of blank rocks not yet decorated, the plants not yet delivered, and a coat of dust over everything.


I'd seen movies about what happened to guys who were driven into the desert, ordered out of the car, and told to walk into the wilder-ness.


"This trail is supposed to lead to a waterfall," Mom lied.


Even a dog knows that this isn't the kind of place where you find a waterfall. I'd seen this movie. Some poor fool gets driven out to the middle of the desert and ordered out of the car. Then the gangsters tell him to start digging. When he's done, there's a bang and that character is never seen in that show again.


'Every dog has his day,' I thought glumly as I followed Mom toward my gristly fate. I hung my head under the harsh light of the naked sun and waited for Mom to tell me to dig.



"What have I done?" I pleaded. "I didn't pull you into the Grand Canyon even one time. I was a good boy and stopped making butt jokes and after the fifth or sixth time that you asked. I protected you from hunters... Why would you want to ex-cute me?"


"What in the world are you talking about?" Mom stopped and looked at me for the first time since the car-house. "Why so serious? I don't want to ki— um, ex-cute you! What would I do without you?"


"That's what The Joker said when he had Batman right where he wanted him," I wailed.


"No, no, no! No," she said. "You... you complete me."


"That's what the Joker said next!"


"No! No! Really! It's a real trail." She pulled out the Witch to back her up and hurriedly flipped through the lies. When she found what she needed, her face scrunched. "Now that you mention it, it is kind of hard to see in the photo. And it's hard to believe there would be that much green for Death Valley."


"I already know that green is something you made up just to mess with me," I said, flopping down in the dust where a boulder left a flake of shade. "I've been playing along, but it's all lies. Every time you say something is green, or blue, or red, it's just grey."


"Come on, Oscar," Mom whined. She unclipped the packpack and poured me a bowl of water.


"No thanks." I slurped the last of the water from the bowl and sat back in the cool shade. "It's too hot out there. I like it here."


The bossy stiffness leaked out of Mom's shoulders. "No, I swear. I think the trail map is for real this time. And I swear to dog, it's only 70º out here. Give me a chance."


"Fine!" I took extra care to grunt and moan as I got up so she would see how hard I was trying. When I looked back up the trail, a glimmer of hope twinkled in the dusty distance ahead.



When I caught up to Mom, I had a better view of what the glittering was coming from. There was a car kennel ahead full of shiny Priuses and Corollas sparkling like jewels in the bright sun.


"Why would they have a parking lot in the middle of nowhere if there were nothing cool out here?" Mom said like it proved her point. "People who drive sedans don't go up a dirt road for nothing."


"Maybe it's something that other people think is interesting like Sephora, or reggaeton, or Home Depot, or Meg Ryan movies," I said. "If a bunch of random strangers marched into the desert for no reason, would you do it too?"


But Mom was already following.


"Do you have enough water for your dog?" a man asked from the shady side of his Elantra.


"Help me, I'm dying," I begged.


"Oh sure. My backpack's full of water, and it's not that warm out here," Mom told him, as if he couldn't feel the lie himself. "My weather app says it's in the low 70s."


"That's the temperature where dogs melt," I told him, letting my tongue hang extra low for effect.


"Is there really a waterf—" Mom started to ask when a shriek rang out in the valley, interrupting everyone.


"Awwww! It's a puppy!" a people puppy gushed, running across the firey car kennel to introduce herself.


I rolled onto my back in the dust, stuck each leg in the air at a different angle, stretched out my neck, and waited for something to happen. She would probably pet me sympathetically, but you never know, she might bring me back to her air-conditioned car and save me from whatever cruel fate Mom had in store. I could probably train her to dispense cheese in a week or so.


I tried not to be disappointed when all I felt was a tiny hand on my chest.


When I opened my eyes, Mom was pouring water into a bowl beside my head. I didn't move so as not to scare away the people puppy patting my chest. When she stood up on her own, I rolled over with a groan and sucked the bowl dry.


"There are definitely more bushes here than there were closer to the car," Mom said. "You know what that means?"


I looked at the bushes. They were as dry, jagged, and lifeless as the rocks around them. "Something to hide behind when you whack me?" I guessed.


"Oh stop. It means there must be more water nearby." The shrubs rustled and crackled their dry leaves as if to cheer her creativity. "And look over there," Mom added triumphantly, "trees!"


"Nuh-uh."


I looked where her arm was pointing and, lo and behold, there was a clump of trees nestled in a hollow in the ground. Their tender leaves fluttered gently in the wind. "Come sit in our shade, Oscar," they whispered. "Wait till you see what's around our roots."


They didn't have to invite me twice. I left Mom behind and ran toward the trees.



It was cooler in the shade, but the ground was still bone dry. The air softened as it cooled, rounding off the sharp dryness of the desert. The softness in the air thickened into the smell of water as I walked through the grove.


Not long after, I heard a tinkling sound and the squealing of kids on a playground.


"Dost my ears and nose deceive me?" I gasped. "An oasis? No, it can't be! It must be a mirage."


"Spare me the theatrics. You're so melodramatic," Mom said with the wolfish smile of someone who knows she's won a bet but doesn't know if I know that I've lost yet.


"Only one way to find out," I said, running ahead to check.


I came around the next corner just in time to see a people-puppy take flight.


It took off from the top of a rock and hung in the air for a moment, all four of its legs flapping to catch enough air to soar. Instead, it dropped wriggling and thrashing into a pool of real, honest-to-dogness water. A geyser erupted where the puppy disappeared.


"Dear Dog no! Won't somebody save this poor people-puppy?" I barked desperately. "Somebody do something! He's getting all wet!"


Despite my desperate screams for help, the people puppy slithered out of the pool, dripping and mouth breathing without anyone to help him. Once he'd wriggled back onto the shore, he climbed back atop his rock and launched himself into the air all over again.


"No need to worry, Mom. He's just playing," I reassured her before running to the pool myself for a cool drink.



We continued following the river through its woodland hideaway. The trees gathered more densely as we went, guarding the secret river more possessively as the rocks closed in around us.


The trees and rocks did something funny with the sound of the water. The gargling turned to something like a hiss,

or maybe a plop,

or a hiss made up of a million plops.


The trees opened into a hidden grotto where the river pooled into a little pond. Rock surrounded me from the front and trees closed in behind me. Here, where no one would think to look for it, a waterfall showered through the rocks, kicking up a sparkling mist into the air.


"It's a miracle!" I said, not doing a very good job of hiding the wonder in my voice.


"I told you there was a waterfall," Mom said smugly.


"I know. That's the miracle," I said. "You never find what you're looking for."


"That's not..." Mom stopped to think. "What about... Ummm..."


"This whole trip has been cursed. When you waited for the good things to find you, we never found anything and then you turned to the Witch to guide you. But witches don't grant wishes, they cast curses."


Mom stroked her chin. "I see what you mean. It's like that old fable of the monkey's paw where every wish goes horribly wrong."


"Hey, I'm the one solving this riddle," I said. "To break the curse, you needed to be willing to sacrifice what means most to you in the world in return for your freedom."


"Oh stop. I wasn't trying to ex-cute you," she said, ruining the story again. "Don't you think what broke the curse was my determination to take the problem into my own hands and my faith that, no matter how unlikely it seemed, it would all work out in the end?"


"What kind of a lame story is that? There isn't even a dog in it," I said. "Everyone knows that a bucket of water is the only way to lift a witch's hex after she's led you to a strange and dangerous land." I looked meaningfully at the waterfall. "Mom, I think you know what to do."




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