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The Tree Fort
By William Holby
Ian Muldoon was an old man, as old as men can get after losing those they love. Throughout the neighborhood it was well known that you should steer clear of the old man’s house. Not because he would ever actually do something, but because of how scary and decrepit his wrinkled face was. His home was dingy and without oxygen. The furniture was smoke ridden and covered in sheeted plastic. Above the door was an M1 Carbine with sights that were rusted and scraped beyond repair. Korea had chewed Ian up and spat him back out. The hole that ‘some gook’ blasted through his right leg still ached. All that was so long ago now, more than a half century. It felt like just yesterday that Mrs. Muldoon was here, making Shepard’s pie for the kids. Kids he hadn’t seen in years.
Ian spent most of his time looking out the window at the forest behind his house. One time a bunch of the neighborhood kids snuck into his backyard by way of the swampy undergrowth that camouflaged the ground from the windows of his house. He had watched them as they took up flanking positions behind the trees and stood in awe and fear of their dare. They snickered in their hidden positions until Ian chased them off his property like any crotchety old man would. That was more than two decades ago now. Those kids were probably grown up and married. The memory of that old man chasing them away was probably forgotten in the fog of childhood.
There Ian stood, day after day, staring out the window at the forest as the seasons changed. He had long since stopped watching television; it made him sick to see the world as it was. He didn’t know quite why, every time he thought he had a handle on what exactly it was, it would slip away again. And so Ian resigned himself to staring out that window. Sometimes, as he stared, he would think about her. Not Mrs. Muldoon, but another woman, a girl he had known growing up, before Korea. Ian often wondered where she was, or whether she was even still alive. He liked to imagine what her life must have been like. Did she marry? Have kids? Ian had no way of finding out. He knew he would never see her again.
One snowy windswept December day, Ian was staring out his window. He was just sitting there, his eyes permanently locked on the frozen trees. He might as well have been looking at a painting, for it never seemed to change. The same great oak stood, the birds nest in one of its branches temporarily dormant. Spring, that was Ian’s favorite season, a season in which he could watch things move.
Ian was sitting in his usual spot, when he saw something amidst the canopy of the trees, something different about the forest. The sight was so shocking that it caused a jolt to go threw him. There in the woods, roughly thirty feet in the air sat a giant tree fort.
It was a tree fort of tree forts, so large you could fit a dozen people in it. A moldy rope ladder was strung from the trap door of the fort half way down the tree trunk it rested in. The frayed ends of the ladder were pointed toward the ground, an angel’s hair left to droop. That ladder has to be decades old, Ian thought as he stood up.
How did I not see it before? As Ian stared at the fort something changed within him. He felt excitement and exhilaration for the first time in a long time. He had to solve this mystery.
Ian’s cane clattered against the hard wood floor, as if he had never needed it. His hand fumbled for a moment as he took the oxygen line away from his nose. The damage left from a lifetime of smoking seemed undone. Ian turned on his heel, his right heel, and headed for the closet at the front of the house, his war wound hurting less than usual. In just two minutes Ian had a coat on and was out the back door. As he made his way through the two-foot thick snow on the back porch he could still see the fort, just where it had been, he was not hallucinating. He wasted no time, setting out immediately into the forest, trudging through the snow with strength he had not known since the war.
As Ian entered the woods he felt the weight of something in his coat pocket. A hammer and box of nails he had left in the coat years ago when he had gone out to fix the paneling on the front of the house. He pulled the hammer and nails out and examined them while he walked.
The cold of that December evening seemed to dissipate as he drew closer and closer to the tree fort. Ian noted to himself that the air was warmer here in the woods, the snow suddenly less deep and easier to move through. Before Ian knew it he was sweating in his hefty coat and his boots were making crunching noises. He looked down to see that he was no longer walking on snow. He shrugged the coat off with ease and continued forward at a faster rate. His legs were now striding farther, and his arms were swinging of their own accord. The air was no longer sharp with winter cold and now smelled of pollen and had the glare of honey.
A little boy no older than ten reached the base of the tree upon which the fort had been situated. The boy was clasping his hammer and nails, ready to help whomever it was constructing the thing. But to the boy’s astonishment there was nothing in the branches above, and no older boy with some master plan.
The tree fort had yet to be built.
William Holby lives in Boulder, Colorado.
#Fiction #ShortStory #TheTreeFort #Treehouse #Aging #Youth #Childhood