I have absolutely no idea whatsoever who the other people on my team are, but I'm hopefully about to find out. I look at the time on my phone.
I told my dad I'm gonna go out with some friends for the week, and, as usual, he was too busy watching one of his boring TV game shows to acknowledge my existence. Oh, well, he might later when he sees I'm gone.
I look through my iridescent backpack while I'm standing on my front lawn, checking if I remembered everything.
Extra clothes and toiletries? Check.
$50 in cash from the shoebox under my bed? Check.
Sketchbook and unnecessarily expensive drawing supplies? Check.
iPod and headphones? Check and check.
Both of my chargers? Check.
Looks like I've got what I need. That's a good thing though, because I'd really hate to stall seeing as this might be them driving up to me.
The one riding shotgun leans his head out the window and squints at the bright blue morning sky. "Are you..." he holds up a paper and studies it, "Avril, and I apologize in advance because I'm gonna slaughter this, Kalissy-Peterson?"
“Wow, you really did slaughter it. Now it's bleeding out on the ground.” I reply sarcastically. “It's pronounced Kaleesee. No big deal though. It's happened before.” I open the rear passenger door and put my things inside. I sit down and shut the door behind me.
I slide to the middle seat and buckle that dreaded waist-belt. I'm not gonna sit on the side seats. There's absolutely no leg room there.
The driver, a pretty plain, stereotypical nerdy looking kid, turns around in his seat. “Oliver Tretz.” he says, his abnormally white and obviously medically straightened teeth showing when he speaks.
I nod my head at him and then turn to the guy in shotgun. “And you?”
He turns around as well. He looks quite well put together, with clean, ebony hair and smooth, honey skin. His eyes, which boast some seriously long eyelashes, are round and a deep blue, having small flecks of lighter blue within them. “Rory Meeking.” He sticks out a rather dainty hand, and I shake it awkwardly.
“Alright,” Oliver says, turning back around and putting his hands on the wheel. “We've got everyone now, so let's get this show on the ro—”
“Ahahahaha. Um… Oliver, how's about I drive this time. Your lack of skill terrifies me to no end.” Rory bluntly interrupts.
Oliver rolls his eyes. “Fine, go for it.”
They switch seats, and right as Rory is about to start the car, I mention something. “I don't mean to stall any more, but, um, are there any instructions?” I push my heart-shaped sunglasses up onto my head, “I mean, cause we can't just go off willy nilly trying to find a bunch of stuff if we don't even know what to do or where to look.”
“Yeah, here.” Oliver hands a folded paper to me. I open it and discover that it has our names, schools and home addresses on it, along with a lengthy list of instructions. We all go to Karmsworth-Falder High School, but I'm a Junior, a year above both of them.
The paper, as I'm scanning over it, is just talking about how we can't commit crimes or kill other people who are playing (as if that's not already obvious), some various locations where the items could be hidden, and how you have to keep track of them and decode their meanings to find the last item and win. At the bottom of the back of the page, a slice of text in bold letters reads:
where two gravel roads Meet, An oversized tHicket Of piNe, maplE, and birch drags you into a rather mYsterious STATE. PleAse tRead carefully, and good lucK. it’ll only get harder from here.
Clue: 3 Wkh sodfh zkhuh wzr khduwv ehfdph rqh.
I scribble down the capitalized letters inside the cover of my sketchbook. They spell “MAHONEY STATE PARK”, which is where the first item must be. The clue at the end makes absolutely no sense, but we have three whole brains here to solve it later. I fold the paper once more and put it into the pocket of my shorts.
“You've got to be kidding me.” Rory sighs when I show him and Oliver where the first item is, “That's like, all the way on the other side of the state. I don't know if I could drive that long.”
“I could always drive, you know. I'm seventeen and probably have more experience than the both of you combined.”
“No, I can handle it for right now. Thanks for offering though, Avril.” He waves me off and I roll my eyes. He turns on the car and it lurches forward at first, but then smooths out a bit more.
I lean back in my seat and pull out my sketchbook, turning to a page I haven't finished yet, glad I brought something to keep me occupied.
We pass the big, colorful water tower in York around noon as our car speeds along I-80 towards Mahoney.
I’m just doodling in my sketchbook, flowers and little things, and then coloring them in with some nice gel pens. I should really be working on improving my art instead of doodling, especially if I want to get into Crestfield University of The Arts.
For those who don't know, Crestfield is this uber prestigious school bent on revolutionizing how people perceive the arts. They accept nothing less than the best artists: from contemporary dancers to computer animators, and if you don't fit their strict mold, your next best option is CalArts. Now, CalArts is by no means a bad school, it's just that Crestfield has been my dream to go there ever since I was little. If we win this thing, that's what I'm asking for: to go to my dream school and prove everyone wrong.
Oliver suddenly turns on the radio to some pop-slash-country-western station I’ve never heard of. Rory, clearly disgusted, quickly pushes his hand away, turning it to a rock station, which is much more suitable to a sane person’s taste. “Driver picks the music.” He proclaims, cranking up the volume with a sly smirk.
I put on my headphones and pull out my iPod, putting it on shuffle and turning it up just enough so that I can't hear the radio.
I turn to a blank page in my sketchbook and start to scribble the outlines of three human figures, getting the basic proportions and features down. Might as well do something productive while I'm stuck in the back of a car with a couple of kids who might as well have just gotten their driver's licenses yesterday.
After another half hour or so, we pull into Lincoln and head downtown to get some lunch. Rory drives us into a parking garage and parks the car without much fail on the third story. “And that, my dear friend,” he turns to Oliver with a sly, smart-alecky grin, “Is how you park a car without scraping your mirror along the trunk of the principal's truck. I still have no idea how you got your license.”
I burst into laughter. “Wait, that was YOU?! I thought it was like, Mycol Ghresden!”
“It was an accident…” Oliver sputters, his face flushed with embarrassment. He turns to Rory and murmurs, “I don't like her, Rory. She's being a low-key bi—”
“WOAHOHOHOH! Slow down there, buckaroo,” I interrupt. “No need to throw derogatory terms around. I was just about to compliment you on inadvertently showing ol’ Principal Dingbat McStupidface the 69th that high school students aren’t a force to be reckoned with.”
Oliver snickers and thanks me, apologizing instantly afterward for almost ratting me out for doing nothing.
We all compile our own money and the two thousand we were given. Together, it comes to almost twenty-two hundred dollars.
“Let's take like, forty right now and leave the rest in the glove box,” Oliver suggests.
I stop him. “Take eighty. That'll cover food, snacks, some supplies, any possible parking or minor speeding tickets, and some extra just in case.” I relay what I can remember from my personal finances class in freshman year. “Put five hundred in the glove box and lock it, five hundred under the passenger seat, five hundred underneath each rear seat, and the other hundred twenty inside the driver's side sun shade.”
“That’s... really random,” Oliver states.
“Listen, you want more of the money to get stolen easier if someone breaks into our car and finds it all hidden in the glove box?”
“I— You've... got a good point.”
“So, are you like, named after Avril Lavigne or something?” Rory asks, taking a bite out of his gigantic burrito. We decided to go to Chipotle for lunch, which was closer to the car and ended up costing a lot less than we first thought, which is a good thing on our part.
“No. My parents went to southern France for their honeymoon, and they visited this little space-themed gift shop in a village by the sea called Les Étoiles D'avril: April's stars.” I tell them the short and sweet version of the story of my namesake, which would usually take about the length of your typical movie to explain with all of the unnecessary nuances and going off on tangents.
“They were total astronomy and astrology nuts, and my mom said that that was her favorite place in France other than the beaches and the countryside. Then, when I was born, they decided to name me Avril Étoile after it.”
“So, you're named after a French gift shop.” Oliver says nonchalantly, scooping up some guacamole with a tortilla chip.
“Yeah, but I've also been told I was actually named after the character Avril Kent from Emmerdale, which is one of my dad's favorite TV shows, but the former makes more sense.” I take a long sip from my cup of Fanta, the fake orange taste burning my mouth a bit.
After a bit, Rory wraps up the rest of his burrito in its foil and stuffs it into the pocket of his hoodie. “We ought to get going so we can find this thing before anyone else does.”
“Oh, someone already has.” Oliver interrupts.
“Wait, what?” I ask, taken aback a bit.
“Probably not the Mahoney item specifically, but uh...Team Mauve is leading with one item and 1,000 points. There’s a thing on the site where you enter in the coordinates of the items you’ve found and get points for it, and then there’s a scoreboard of the different teams.” Oliver pulls up the page on his phone and points to a pink hyperlink. He clicks on it, and a scoreboard pops up. “ It says that they are in the lead right now, and we, by color order, are 45th of 66.”
We all subconsciously decide to rush out of the restaurant at that moment. As we hurry back to the parking garage, Rory says with pride, “Let's go show Team Mauve who's boss.”
The trees of Mahoney State Park tower above our tiny car as I drive it down the winding road.
We unanimously agreed that I take us the rest of the way so Rory could sleep after almost four and a half hours of nonstop trying-not-to-cause-an-accident.
He is snoring in the backseat, a line of drool trickling down from the corner of his open mouth. Oliver says that he might also be having a caffeine crash, and explains how he somehow has the unquestioned ability to drink our local Starbucks dry.
Seven mocha lattes? That’s like, almost thirty bucks! I think, taking a hard right past the enormous dining hall in the middle of the park.
“Where are we going to find a specific thicket of trees in a place that’s literally full of trees?” Oliver asks.
“The clue said that it was a thicket of pine, maple, and birch where two gravel roads meet. But there sure are tons of gravel roads here.” I mention. “And the last part of the clue is encrypted, but we can all figure it out toge-”
The car runs over a big rock in the middle of the road, and the three of us are jerkily thrown sideways in our seats. I swerve like a madman to avoid crashing into the trees and cabins. Rory wakes up, startled, just as we get going straight again, and wipes the drool from his face.
“Oh, we're here already?” he yawns, a hand to his mouth. He sits up all the way and then leans forward, resting his elbows on the tops of the seats. He dangles his forearms down in front of the seats and asks sleepily, “Have you found the first one yet?”
“No.” Oliver turns to him, handing him a bottle of water we bought at a gas station on the way. “Here.”
I glance back at Rory inspecting the purple label. “Look at that! Chip-ay-wuh.”
While they continue to chit-chat, I spot something on my left. The only fork in a gravel road I've seen in this entire park.
I slow down and turn on to the path. The forest is reaching out towards us with wooden hands, eager to engulf us in the blotchy, emerald-tinted shadows of bright green leaves and brand new branches.
Soon enough, the roads spread out wider, revealing a little grove of trees. I park the car on the side of the path, the fresh mud from some recent rain squelching under its weight.
I step out of the car on to the gravel road and breathe in the fresh, mostly unpolluted forest air. I pull my hair into a ponytail and hang my sunglasses on my shirt by one arm.
Rory climbs out of the car and jumps over the mud, landing next to me.
Oliver joins us, GPS in his hand. I pull the paper out of my pocket and look at the clue again.
3 Wkh sodfh zkhuh wzr khduwv ehfrph rqh.
“Any ideas?” I ask.
“I think I might’ve learned something like this at summer camp once. It's like, a sort of numbered code where the letters are switched with others based on a specific number.” Rory takes the paper from my hands.
“You’ve lost me, Rory.”
He points to the “3” at the beginning. “See that? If my thinking is correct, switching each letter three places forwards or backwards will decode it for us.” He pulls a pen out of his pocket and starts writing the clue shifted forwards:
Ank vrgik cnkwk act nkgwzy hkigsk utk.
“That's definitely not it.” He says, and then immediately starts decoding it backwards.
The place where two hearts become one.
“Cheesy, but it’s an actual sentence.” Oliver interjects.
“Maybe the first item is hidden in a sentimental spot. Like, one of those hearts carved into a tree with the names of people who never end up dating for more than two weeks.” Rory smirks and chuckles at his own humor.
“You might not be wrong, though.” I say, zooming in to a map of the park I pulled up on my phone. “It says here that this thicket is called Lover's Grove. Indubitably sappy, but it makes perfect sense.”
We head off into the trees, looking for any sign of a hidden… whatever it is. We scale trees, looking for holes or crevices that something might be hiding in. I get a glob of pine sap on my hand as I descend another tree without any loot.
“Guys! Over here!” Rory shouts from the middle of the thicket. We rush to him and find him gazing up at a birch tree covered in multiple, dark, heart and letter-shaped scars.
The place where two hearts become one.
(Continued in part two)