We went into the woods once, you and I. Dead leaves skitter on the concrete, crunch and scratch my socks as I wade through them. The air whips a hint of cold and fire, rich burning, red and yellow leaves ablaze in the treetops. Can you savor me like this? Like a ghost story. I can almost touch it when the air grows sharper, like a mirror about to turn on us. Or the world. Something always turns in autumn. Something always falls.
It was your idea to go inside. We were playing in your backyard fort again, this time runaways, trail mix and pretzels stashed in handkerchiefs and knotted on sticks. The day before we had been princesses in the tower, waiting for our knight. He hadn’t come. We grew bored. So we packed our knapsacks and scouted the horizon. The wind was favorable.
Where will we go, I asked.
You said you had an idea. We climbed down the rope ladder. A concrete spillway marked the edge of your backyard, bone-dry besides a loogie of green water moistening its spine, dead leaves wreathed along the sides. You hurdled wreath to wreath, a clean-sneakered ballerina, and I followed, stomping on the leaves to hear them crunch.
Yellow grass and stickers met us on the other bank. We scuttled up and through. You led us to the tree line.
The edge of the woods stood very quietly. Tall. Solemn. Sunlight sliced by the branches. The No Trespassing sign was written in red block letters. I stopped.
Come on, you said. No one’s looking. The wind fluttered my hair, petted my cheek. The branches swayed and groaned. A crow cawed. I felt like Halloween when we turned off all the lights in my basement, put on a spooky sounds tape, and crept blind along the walls, screaming when we touched. The darkness was electric.
We’ll get in trouble, I said.
We won’t, you shook your head. If anybody asks us, we’ll say we didn’t see the sign.
What sign? I said and laughed.
We threaded our bodies through the branches and the world stilled. I wanted to melt like butter in that sweet gold light—that gentle cross-stitch of limb and sky. The clock stopped there and the sun would never set. Rough trunks and toppled logs, dappled, moldy bark. Leaves piled so thick we sunk to our knees, their broken edges filling the sides of our shoes and gnawing at our ankles until we fingered them clean.
Watch out for poison ivy, you said.
What does it look like? I asked.
Green and leafy, you said, and I tired to make myself as small as I could, tensed and tucked and barely breathing, avoiding the reach of the tendril fingers we passed.
The leaves on the ground shallowed along a packed dirt path, kissing the edge and winding deeper. We followed it, tight-roped a fallen trunk, and then you grabbed the back of my shirt and I lost my balance, scraping my palms on the bark.
Shh, you hissed. Look. There was one edge of a house visible through the trees. One window. The light wasn’t right, the glass a pearl sheen. We couldn’t see what lay behind.
It’s them, I whispered. The ones who made that sign. Our hearts beat in our throats and we ran, crashed through the vines and crooked branches with abandon. Don’t let them see us. Don’t let them know. Our skin and clothing snagged and pulled, scratches burning on our cheeks and hands. We ran until we came to a clearing, and all around were trees, and there were no shouts, no dogs, no cars, no windows. No one but us. Pink sunlight pooled in grass and clover.
Are we safe here? I asked. You looked around.
I like the fort better, you said. I want to be off the ground.
We can build one, I said, looking for the perfect tree, the perfect branch. We’ll build a secret fort in our secret meadow. I danced around the clearing, searching, planning. There was a ditch along one side filled with broken things: bits of cloth, smashed Bud Light cans. There was a wooden crate pulled apart at its edges. A fort floor. A fort wall.
Let’s go, you said.
The wind smelled like burning as the twilight came on. Velvet blue drapery. Branches groaning like they were about to shatter and fall.
Come on, you said. Something’s coming.
How did you know? I followed you anyway. My limbs felt light as the night air. We flew up a dirt incline with roots and vines protruding like bones, damp earth sticking to our hands and shoes, and just like that the tree line was behind us. We could see your backyard down the way.
Oh, I said. Civilization was near. The houses bore down, trespassers accused.
Just pretend like nothing happened, you said. You went your way, and I went mine, and at dinner I asked my dad about forts. He said the foundation was the most important part and that none of the trees in our backyard were big enough.
The next time I went to the woods, you didn’t want to come. Let’s ride our bikes to the park instead, you said when I suggested it. We rode along the spillway, houses to our right, the woods up the bank to our left. I was watching them go past and bumped your back tire. Watch it, you said in a tone that cut. Ride faster then, I said. You took off and I couldn’t keep up. I parked my bike by yours, and sat on the swing next to you, dragging my feet through the gravel and twisting the chains.
This is boring, you said. Let’s go find my brother.
I didn’t like your brother. He was older, and you were different when you were with him. Meaner. You made me feel like a fire-faced lion in the ring.
I have to go home, I said, even though you always knew when I was lying.
I rode to my house in case you were watching and then doubled back around. I wheeled my bike just inside the woods and left it leaning. I’d make you your fort. I wouldn’t be boring. I yanked the pieces of crate free from the weeds that had begun to wind through the slats, stacked them up, surveyed the trees again, their branches out of reach. It would have to be a ground fort. The foundation’s the most important part.
I put one piece down flat in the center of the clearing, two pieces edge to edge—a teepee—one more piece to lean against the back and leave only a front door. No one could sneak up that way.
I went back to the ditch and fished out two stringy lawn chairs, dirt and rust staining the torn fabric. I yanked the bent metal frames apart and set them up in front of the fort. We could sit and drink lemonade from a thermos. Watch the clouds. Maybe we’d see a deer up close.
The wind had blown plastic roses and bouquets in from the cemetery on the far end of the neighborhood, the sturdy blossoms catching among the sticks and cans inside the ditch. I plucked out the prettiest, wound them between the slats, a flower-strung home, beautiful and perfect. I could sit cross-legged inside and not hit my head. When I came back again, I’d bring markers and color the inside walls. I’d draw tulips and stars, saturate the cedar with color. I hoped you’d like it. That it was off the ground just enough.
When the air turned blue and thick, I left. My bike was gone from where I left it in the trees, no sign of it or anyone. I told my parents it was stolen from the park when I wasn’t looking and was grounded for a week for being irresponsible.
I called you once when my parents were distracted, but nobody answered. The fort waited. As soon as I could, I came to find you. I wanted to show it to you.
When I rang your doorbell, your brother answered. Well, look what the cat dragged in, he said. Long time, no see. I asked if you were home and he yelled for you as he disappeared back upstairs. You slid over in your socks.
I have something to show you, I said.
I have company, you said, and another girl joined us. I didn’t know who she was but she was very pretty. She was wearing eyeliner and mascara. I felt small and naked.
What is it? the girl asked, like I’d tell her, like she wasn’t a stranger.
It’s—it’s nothing, I said, picking at my cuticles.
Then why’d you come over? you asked.
I shrugged, felt heat flush in my face.
I think she’s lying, said the girl. You lie a lot don’t you?
No, I said. Not a lot.
What is it? you asked.
It’s out back, I said. In that place we went to before.
Worry lines crinkled your forehead. I don’t want to go back there, you said, crossing your arms.
I do, said the girl. I’m curious now. She slipped on her shoes and headed for the door. We followed. What else could we do?
Where is it? she asked.
The woods, I said.
The girl looked down at her clothes. I’m not going to get dirty am I?
We’ll be careful, you said. You walked in the middle, looking over your shoulder. Scanning, alert. Eagle-eyed guard.
What’s wrong, I asked.
Nothing, you scoffed and continued scouting.
The fort was still standing. A few roses had fallen to the ground. When you saw it, you froze.
What is that? you whispered. Oh my God, does someone live there? You backed away.
No, no, I laughed, reaching out to stop you. I built it. It’s our new fort.
You dodged my hands.
The girl started to laugh. It’s like a hillbilly shack or something, she said. Like from a horror movie. Do you actually sit in those chairs? That’s sick.
I ignored her, looked at you. You can go inside if you want, I said.
Lucky girl, she said. You stared at the fort, looked at your friend, gazed off into the woods.
A homeless man probably peed it in, you said after a moment. Or some nasty boys. The ones who leave their beer cans.
There’s probably condoms too, the girl said. I knew better than to ask.
You can have it all to yourself, the girl said. Then she turned to you: let’s go find your brother. She started walking and I tried to meet your eyes, thinking maybe it was just an act, maybe you did like it. You could tell me the truth now. You didn’t have to pretend.
There’s not room for us both, you said. And you walked away.
I crawled inside the fort and sat cross-legged. Yes there was. I sniffed. It smelled like saw dust. It smelled like rain. I lay down and stuck my legs out the front, stared up at the ceiling slant, whispered what I should have said under my breath, practiced for next time. I wiped my eyes, blew my nose on my sleeve.
A twig snapped outside. I stopped and listened and suddenly the quiet was pulsing and heavy. I imagined a homeless man with a bloody face. I imagined a clawed clown, slithering through dead leaves. I imagined a hand on my ankle, teeth on my shin, and yanked my legs away from their grasp. My heartbeat was too loud. It was too open here. I was too alone.
I scrambled out and didn’t look back as I ran. Rotten chairs and funeral wreaths. There were too many ways to lose.
I never went back, and two weeks later it was gone. My dad told me. He said the neighborhood association found a shelter. They believed a drifter was squatting in the nature preserve. They tore it down. All that was left was a square of dead grass in a clearing, pale yellow as butter.
It was a fort, I told him. It was just a fort that I built.
A fort? he echoed. You built a fort in the woods?
I thought he would be mad, that he would yell at me about the danger, about boys with beer cans and condoms, but he just threw back his head and laughed.