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In the morning Robyn and Hope reached a great bend of the Green River, a thumb of land that was the center and source of all the strangeness of the odd corner of King County, Washington that Victoria called Gonorrhea Gulch. Robyn felt a little confused, as though she were walking inside a dream, and knew this to be fallout from the many changes to the timeline that had been made using the Sacred Pool. It was as though reality itself was getting fractured and worn out here.

Deputy Dog had sensed the same thing and refused to venture out there.

Long ago this bend of the river had been the site of a village of Original Inhabitants too small to be a tribe, but too large to be a clan. They called themselves simply the People. And here they had built a little grassy mound that looped nearly all the way around the Earthly side of the Sacred Pool.

Robyn took her blade and cut the remains of Hope’s tattered Girl Guard uniform from her and laid it partly inside the water of the pond and partly on the ground along its edge. Then she pointed at her. “Hope, take off your panties and let them fall to the ground.”

“Why?” Hope was not naturally body-shy but she had been socialized to something akin to embarrassment at a request like this.

“Because I want the people who are looking for us to think that I was a bad person who hurt you and left you in the water. That will give us the time we need to get away from here.”

Hope had quickly come to trust Robyn because she immediately answered every question Hope had, without a hint of holding something back. Children were naturally talented at detecting lies. Hope accepted this answer, but she said, “Momma Vic is going to wonder why I didn’t scratch the bad person.”

Robyn looked at her. “Ah yes, you have a little surprise for bad people, don’t you, Hope? Razor blades for fingernails, eh?”

Hope nodded and complied with the command to strip. Robyn saw that Hope was absolutely blank between her legs, like a Barbie Doll. Hope herself showed a few signs of being self-conscious, but it was only a thin layer, like a tradition she never fully bought into.

“I know why you’re looking at me, Momma Robyn. I don’t look like the other girls down here between my thighs. Or even like a boy.”

“I played ‘Doctor’ when I was your age too, Hope,” Robyn told her. Then she broke into a sudden smile, thinking of how it must have went, when Hope was revealed to possess no trace of labia. “I bet the kids were scared and ran away, didn’t they?”

Hope nodded and smiled in return. That was the crucial time in Canterwood when Hope found out who and what she really was. And when Hope’s mind survived that revelation without entering a spiral of depression, when Hope emerged on the other side of that knowledge with greater strength, Robyn knew it was time to make her move.

So no genitalia for Hope at all. No front door, no back door, nothing to offer a molester. The scenario originally envisioned by Robyn was that a child rapist killed Hope in a frustrated rage and cast her body into this pool to hide it. And if any searchers tried to dredge the pond (the surviving searchers, that is), Yeshua could take care of that.

To replace Hope’s own clothing, Robyn gave Hope another garment, a camouflaged man’s shirt that came nearly to her knees, and so served as a kind of dress. “You’ll have to wear this, honey.”

“Where are we going, Momma Robyn?”

“Not far. Right up there, see?”

She pointed to a small mountain with an elevation of 1,460 feet above sea level, rising 880 feet above the forested plateau it sat upon. A narrow “V” shaped valley separated it from the wall of the very front of the Cascade Range.

“They call it Cumberland Quad 4 these days on the map, and also Doll Hill. But not before.”

“What did they call it before?”

“End Dome.”

“End Dome? Why did they call it that?”

“Well, it’s like a little round footstool here where the Cascade mountain range ends. End Dome, get it? And like many other things here in your backyard, Hope, it is wrapped up with a lot of history, and not much of that history was good.”

When it was light enough to safely proceed, Sheriff Victoria Shybear and DECON Special Agent Danica Fawn returned to the house of Mark Felton and went into his back yard. They could see a detachment of DECON personnel attempting to retrieve the body of Kurt Delany from the mine shaft and Danica monitored this activity for a minute or two, then turned to Sheriff Vic. “I’m ready.”

“It’s going to be a little rough going at first, Danica,” Vic said. They both agreed it would be better to drop the formal titles for the duration of the search. Vic led the way plowing through brush and Devil’s Club and bidding Danica to trust her. The route was flagged with orange and black plastic ribbons. “Not many people know about these trails. We use them and we maintain them but we don’t fully connect them to anywhere.”

“Who’s we?” she asked as she picked her way along behind her.

Before she spoke, Vic emerged onto an actual trail where their walking could finally be unobstructed.

“The local Native American community keeps this clear. The ‘Red Wing’ of the ‘Church.’ We use this trail network for hunting and for . . . religious purposes. If anyone else knows about them, it’s only by accident.”

They saw a bucket left behind by somebody when they did some work on the trail. “It is a nice trail,” Danica admitted. “A luxury Cadillac of a trail, even.”

“This one runs along a former railroad bed so it has no sharp turns or steep inclines, at least for the first mile or so.”

“Why do you work on it?”

“For safety. You saw what happened to your Agent Kurt. This whole land is . . . sick. Rotted through with holes like Swiss cheese. The land around here has suffered the heavy hand of man upon it for more than two hundred years. See that big cedar stump?”

“How could I miss it, Vic? Big is not the word for it. Ten feet across, easy.”

“All the big sticks were taken out in the Nineteenth Century, say about 1887 or so. There was a second wave of cutting in the Twenties, and a third wave in the Sixties. By now so much nitrogen has been taken out of the ground in the form of lumber that the land can only grow this junky red alder crap you see all around, fit only to be pulped for paper mills.”

“What about all the holes in the ground?”

“They were from gold mining at first. When the gold ran out, they fell back on coal. See all those strange hummocks covered in fallen leaves and ferns? Those were debris piles created during coal mining operations more than a century ago. You’ll see huge rock slabs with right angles, covered in moss. They’re really concrete foundations. We Ponies have been up one side of this land and down the other for many decades.”

“Yes, we know all about how you ‘Ponies’ have to wear their hair long and in a ponytail, but that is the least troublesome thing about them. It seems that End Dome Church family reunions were also meat markets.”

“We weren’t the wackiest religion to come out of Nineteenth Century America, Sheriff. Every church rides its own hobby horse. One church might say no card playing, another might say no dancing, another says no Demon Rum. This church says worship only on Saturday, that one over there says wiggle on the floor to be saved from the fires of hell.”

As she spoke, Vic and Danica passed a nameless bog with a large vine maple that formed a canopy of twisting small trunks. Vic’s trail spanned a finger of this marsh on a giant fallen cedar which had been converted into an ad-hoc bridge by many axe-strokes which made a flat path along the top.

“Be careful here, Danica, one slip into that muck and I won’t be able to get you out.”

Danica picked up the thread of the conversation again. “You forgot that you also have to handle snakes, go door-to-door with tracts, roll in the saw-dust, babble in tongues, rock back ‘n’ forth with your eyes rolled inside your head, beat your wife and kids, make anti-Semitic remarks, burn flatpacks that have Satanic messages when you clock the data backwards, watch for black helicopters, look for commies under every bed, preach that ONE is going to invade the country, join a militia, and take textbooks out of schools if they so much as mention evolution.”

“I’m right with you there, Danica, but for some reason, no one could abide the kissing cousins of our branch of the Dunker Church.”

“It’s one thing to allow people to marry their cousins, sometimes, but the Ponies are required to marry only their cousins, their first cousins, or maybe their second cousins in a pinch, and no others. And who knows how such a thing like that got started?”

“Some say it’s when deacon Mark Lange of the Sharpsburg Dunker Church got the hots for his cuz, right around the time when Marse Robert invaded Maryland and the Dunker’s little white church building became a landmark for the artillery of both sides in the worst one day battle of the war. Others say it was when Mark Lange became the pastor of a Dunker offshoot church in Gettysburg by folks who wanted to get away from the shooting.”

Their journey began to be slowed by the presence of many blown-down trees which had been knocked over recently in the Armistice Day storm and lay directly across the trail. Sometimes they could roll over them, but other times they had to crawl under them, which was exhausting work, and they could not avoid getting their uniforms soiled.

Until this moment Vic had been reluctant to lay it all out for Danica. For too long she had been covering things up herself, hiding her association with the Girl Guard to avoid giving her opponents something to use against her in an election campaign. Maybe now it was time to offer herself to the public as simply herself, Victoria Shybear, elected Sheriff of Prince County, and if someone wanted to play dirty politics next time and tie her to the Church of End Dome, so be it.

So she said, “Time for a full disclosure, Danica. The reason I won election to King County Sheriff was with fund-raisers and Get Out The Vote Drives organized by the B’nei Elohim. That’s not something I’d like to get out there for general knowledge, but I trust you, Danica. And besides, the issue now is my missing daughter. Everything else takes a back seat.”

“Thank you very much for telling me that, Vic. I can imagine why you’d want to think twice before revealing something like that. There were rumors around the office, of course, but now I know.”

“And you know about the Change. But you may not know about the Artifact that brought the Change. Well, Sheriff, if you look through that little window in the trees you can start to see End Dome, where the Artifact was kept.”

It was a teddy-bear tummy of a hill, bristling with a dull carpet of alders which had already shed their leaves. Vic knew that for the Red Wing of the Church of End Dome, this place had always been their home. She though about that for a moment, and said, “But you said the Church of End Dome was a ruse.”

“We don’t marry our cousins anymore but we still have the stories and scriptures and have historical continuity with the End Dome Church, it was the Ponies of the old days who made all the holes in the ground around here, with something we call the Golden Gift.”

And Victoria removed her own copy of the Golden Gift from her utility belt and lit it off, sliced a branch off a tree. It was an indication of where Danica was coming from that she didn’t resort to the usual DECON instinct of attempting to subdue Vic and seize the weapon.

Danica and Vic passed a large duckpond so serene that it reflected the sky and the branches of the trees above the water like a mirror. The trail skirted the edge of this pond with a small but calm diversion before resuming its course.

They entered a small stand of fat virgin pines that draped the slope down to the edge of the canyon, and here the character of the hike changed dramatically. Vic thought it was a magic place that had escaped the ax in the first, second, and third waves of cutting, as though by an oversight.

Vic went on. “America in those days found the practice of marrying so close within the bloodlines to be taboo. Who knows why? Superstitions about babies born with three eyes maybe. So a few months after Mark Lange and some of his his Gettysburg Dunkers moved to Waverly, Ohio and started a new church that was all about first cousins getting married, they forced the quick passage of a law in Ohio forbidding marriage between first cousins. Then two hundred and fifty members of the Five Corners Free Congregation picked up and moved over the river into Kentucky.”

“I guess breaking that taboo raised a lot a bad juju among the locals and their preachers,” Danica put in, but she winced as soon as she said it.

“Well, the following year the scene repeated again,” Vic said, knowing Danica was just being a little corny, “and two hundred members moved to Missouri. The year after that one hundred and fifty members lit out for the Nebraska Territory. Pastor Lange refused to compromise one little bit. He was certain that consanguineous marriage was an imperative from God Almighty to His One True Church. As their exodus went on and on they got smaller and smaller, and left a swath of states in their wake which forbade cousin marriages.”

“That explains why cousin-marriage is prohibited by some states and not others,” Danica said. “I do know it’s a curious prohibition which exists in only a few places abroad.”

“I think something like a quarter of all marriages in the world are between cousins,” Vic said. “It’s no big deal, really, but for some reason it was a big deal here in the Sates, and especially back then. Pastor Mark’s group was whittled down to just a little remnant of forty hard-core members trekking by wagon across the west to a place where they could make a stand and grow to such numbers and influence that no one would dare raise a statutory hand to them again. And so the future White Wing of the Church came to the foot of that hill right there named End Dome, driven clear across the country by religious bigotry.”

Now the sheriff and Agent Fawn reached a large outcropping of stone that Vic called Picture Buttress which offered a marvelous view down a high cliff to a forest glade. Danica thought it was beautiful but dangerous. The trail actually wrapped around the parapet here, and a thoughtful person, probably even Victoria, had provided a rope for them to hold on to.

“Did you realize, Danica, that this area is the very epicenter of the ‘Bigfoot’ phenomenon?” Her voice resonated around the area strangely. There was some funky trick of acoustics here.

“The legend that a seven foot tall half-man, half-ape roams this forest? Who hasn’t?”

“Probably half of the economy of the Green River Gorge is Bigfoot tourism. Right here where we’re standing now, Danica, the Picture Buttress, this is where the Bigfoot legend began. Way down in that glade back in about 1924 there was a little cabin where some gold prospectors lived for a while, but you couldn’t see it, because it was hidden by the trees. And up here some girl scouts were having a little fun throwing rocks down into the glade.”

“Naughty girls, they should have known better, you could never know if someone was down there camped amid the trees.”

“Well they were screaming and giggling, and the acoustics of this place distorted and morphed their voices into a sustained unearthly howl. And the sunrise was behind their backs, which revealed only their silhouettes to the miners when they looked up to see who was throwing rocks at their cabin. They had heard the Native American legends of Sasquatch which predated 1924, of course, and being superstitious men, they told everyone who would listen to them in the saloon that they were attacked one morning by angry rock-throwing monkey men with horrible inhuman screams.”

“Surely that wasn’t the only sighting.”

“No way. There’s been one or two spotted every year since then, and in the Sixties one gentleman even made a famous 16mm film of a Sasquatch walking across a clearcut on the back side of Franklin Hill. All this is money in the bank for the tourist trade around here, of course.”

“What about you, Vic? Do you think there’s anything to Bigfoot?”

“I do, Danica. Our scriptures call them the nephilim. We know their whole history. They’ve had many dealings with humans. That’s one of the reasons we maintain these trails. But that one film is fake. It’s supposed to show a female sasquatch. Looks like a walking gorilla with tits. Nephilim females are tall but they’re also lovely. They have less body hair than you do.”

Now they entered an area Victoria called the Gorgeous Gorges, all tributary to the Green River. There was Jackstraw Gorge, Nurselog Gorge, Stormwater Creek Gorge, and Hairpin Gorge. And it was here that Agent Danica Fawn saw the first of Hope’s little snowmen made of stones.

“A trail marker?”

“I didn’t make it, Danica.”

“If your little girl made it, it shows she’s thinking.”

“Hope is an extraordinary little girl, let me tell you.”

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Strangers In Paradise