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Time traveler

We walked into the silent forest. Mom unclicked the leash so we could each explore at our own pace. I lifted my nose toward the clouds and sucked in the smells of wet dirt, pine needles, and prehistory.

As I walked, the pine needles thinned under my paws into a line of free dirt. I followed it, and soon small stones appeared on either side of the trail to show I was on the right path.

Mystery drew me forward until the rocks spread in a wide circle. I followed the rocks' instructions and stopped in the center of the henge. I turned all the way around as if I were in a microwave, listening for what the path wanted to tell me.

There was a podium tucked at the edge of the ring, right where you would never see it if you were in a hurry. I sniffed its base while Mom caught up.

"What does it say?" I snorted.

Mom looked down at the part of the podium that I couldn't see and was silent for a moment as she listened for the secret message from the forest.

"It's one of those interpretive centers where the signs are like your tour guide."

"Bor-ringggggg," I scoffed. "I don't need a stupid sign to tell me to stop and smell the bushes." I turned and took a step toward where the trail left the circle.

"This one is about volcanoes," Mom said.

I stopped.

"It tells us to enjoy our journey back through time."

"Coooooool!" I mooed.

"We'll go back millions of years to see how lava made this landscape. Each stop is like a chapter of prehistory. There's something called Splatter Cone, and a place called Bat Cave."

I looked at the dent in front of me with new admiration. This could have been the crater where the dinosaur-murdering-meteor landed. Except, dinosaurs were supposed to be big and the crater wasn't. "What's this one called?"

"It's called..." Mom paused dramatically, and I leaned in.




"... Sunken Pit!"


"Sunken Pit. See?" She pointed her eyes at the dent. "There's a network of lava tubes under our feet. Sort of like sewers, but for molten rock."

"Sunken like the Titanic?" I asked, hoping it was more exciting than it sounded.

"More like sagged, or I guess subsided if you're being technical."

My excitement subsided. I raised my nose to sniff for a better story, but all I smelled were the clouds stuck on that teepee-shaped mountain in the distance. The mountain hid where it thought I wouldn't notice, blending from earth, to white, to cloud so you couldn't tell where one ended and the other began.

"Come on, let's see what else is out here." Mom walked across the circle and picked up the trail. I shot past her to lead the way.

The next time the trail ballooned, I raced around its perimeter searching for clues. A metal rail held back a bottomless pit on the far side of the clearing.

I checked over my shoulder for Mom, but she was still too far away to read the sign on top of the railing, so I ducked my head under for another sniff.

SCREEEEECH! came a noise behind me.

A few steps behind me, Mom had turned to stone with her face stuck in a horrible grimace.

That face usually means I'm onto something exciting. It was a good thing the leash was hanging limply around Mom's neck where it couldn't reach me.

I turned back to the pit and climbed under the railing. This time Mom actually screamed — out loud.

"Oscar! Get away from there!"

"Why? What's wrong?" I kept my paws where they were but stretched my neck to look into the hole. It went down, down, down into such thick blackness that anything could be hiding down there.

"Oscar! C'mere!"

When I turned back, Mom was folded down to my height. She held her arms wide in an invitation for a hug. With the leash draped over her arms and shoulders, she didn't look as inviting. One paw patted her knee to distract from the other, where the leash's clip was snapping its jaws.

"C'mere," she said again. "There are bats in that cave."

The leash licked its chops.

"How do you know there are bats? You haven't even gotten close enough to sniff yet."

"Because it's called the Bat Cave," she read.

"Oh, is that all you're worried about?" Girls don't know anything about superheroes. "Batman is a good guy. I bet he's down there right now workshopping new gadgets with Alfred."

"Cujo was too curious around a bat cave and you know how that turned out..."

Cujo is a fable about a dog that gets bitten by a bat and then he heroically tries to pull a boy and his lady out from a car on a hot day.

It's a tragedy because he dies at the end, but some people miss the point of that story. Obviously Mom was one of the dummies.

I let her click on the leash and then she let me pull her back toward the railing. When we got there, Mom wedged her leg in front of my nose and stepped in front of me.

Mom looked into the center of the earth and shuddered. There wasn't much else to see in there except your own mortality, so she looked up instead.

“See, Mom. We’re together, and we’re having fun, and it’s beautiful. Isn’t that enough?”

“Wouldn’t you rather have been doing this than spending 4 hours with the kidnappers?” she asked back.

I wasn’t sure if a good life was supposed to mean that nothing bad or scary ever happens. I’m a good life coach, but that question gave me a lot to think about; more than a dog could think on in one walk, anyway.

We puzzled over something called Puzzle Rock. We took a lump called Hollow Dome at its word. We decided that neither Giant Steps nor Steep Cone were worth climbing. Collapsed Pit was about as exciting as its sunken brother. Sandy Bottom sounded like it could be fun. We were almost there when the rain returned.

"Ack! Go, go, go! Back to the van!" Mom ordered.

I did as I was told.

I checked over my shoulder every few steps to make sure that the pitter-pattering behind me was still coming from Mom. Each time I did, she pushed her hands at me a few times to make a tailwind. "Go, go, go!" she commanded.

We reached the car-house like a speeding train hits a wall. Mom grabbed the door handle and swerved away at the last second, pulling the door open with her. I jumped inside and Mom followed me, slamming the door with a thump.

We sat for a moment listening to the rain on the roof. Then Mom reached under the driving chair and pulled out the biggest book I'd ever seen. She spread it across the driving wheel.

"What's that?" I asked. "A book of spells?"

Mom pulled her head back to protect her nose from the turning page and then leaned in even closer to see the tiny words she'd uncovered. "Haven't you ever seen a road atlas before? In the past, this was all people had to navigate by. It's just like the maps in my phone, except it still works when you don't have cell reception." She leaned back to zoom out and her face turned in little circles as she searched the far corners of the earth for a clue. "Except, crap, where the hell are we?"

"We're right here. In the middle of the forest. On a long, lonely road with no name."

Mom looked up from the useless book of spells and stared at the forest outside the front window as if she was expecting an explanation. "Exactly! It does no good to know where you're going if you have no idea where you're starting from." Mom booted up the car-house and guided it back onto the road. "I guess we'll drive until we find a clue."

"What sort of clue?" I asked, taking my position in the copilot's seat, where the car-house's warm breath felt sweetest on my wet fur.

"Like a sign," she said unhelpfully, "or a landmark."

The moments swelled to millenniums as we tried to notice everything we passed. After a million lifetimes, the car-house stopped at a fork in the road. Billboard-sized signs listed all the imaginary places we could visit.

When the car-house didn't move, I asked, "Now what?"

"I don't recognize the names of any of these places." She pulled out the decoder book again, but before she could spread it back over the driving wheel, something in the mirror caught her attention.

"Aw, dog doo."

A pair of glowing eyes judged us through the back window.

Mom shoved the book back under the driving chair and pointed the car-house to the right of the gas station. "I guess we'll just go this way and see where it goes."

The car-house drove until roadside boulders turned to houses and the trees turned to fast food signs.

"Aw, crap. This isn't right at all." She looked up at the highest branches of the Dollar Tree sign, and then noticed the Black Bear Diner across the street. The car-house halted at a light and started clicking.

When the light set us free, Mom rolled the driving wheel hard to one side. Everything inside the car-house tumbled from where it belonged as it turned its tail and fled back into the forest.

When we reached the fork again, the car-house turned to other side of the gas station.

But that road also ended in a dead end of laundrymats and one-room churches. "Crap, this isn't right either," Mom narrated.

The sun had sunk to the tree-tips by the time we arrived at the fork in the road a third time. I looked out all the windows for a clue, but the car-house's tires had already tread every path there was to explore.

... all but one, anyway. The car-house turned its wheels and cautiously approached the gas station.

"This is a dead end," I copiloted. "See? It's just a car kennel and some juiceboxes."

"I almost forgot," Mom said triumphantly, "before Google it was okay to admit to a stranger that you didn't know something. I wonder if it still works..."

Mom went inside the gas station. She was gone for a very, very long time.

She came out wearing a pompom on her head and holding the key to our salvation in her paw.

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