The trampoline wouldn’t fit in the Uhaul. It was as simple as that.
“I feel like we should sharpie our names on the spring cover,” Susie murmured, half-reverent, her elbows squashed against the back-porch railing. “ For the next kids, I mean.”
“Too obvious,” Sam replied. He was squatting next to a pile of sticks of various shapes and sizes, frowning. “If we want them to find the secret fort, they’re gonna have to be smart about it.”
He picked up two of the sticks, one with blue crafting tape wrapped around the end, the other with electric tape and a plywood crossbar, and squinted at them in turn. “Should I take Elixaber or Splinter?”
“You put more work into Elixaber.”
“Yeah, but the name is stupid as crap.”
“That’s how I thought it was pronounced, okay?”
“Yeah, well. I’m just surprised undead King Arthur hasn’t come after you yet.” Sam glanced at his swords, weighing them in each hand, then nodded. “Alright, I’ll keep Elixaber. But when we move, I’m changing his name to the right one. Ex-ca-li-ber.”
Sam swooped up the larger pile of sticks, his arms bristling with the arsenal they’d built over years of backyard warfare, and started down the steps. “You coming? I’m heading to the secret fort. Maybe the new kids will find them.”
Susie pushed away from the railing slowly, her elbows red and flat. “Nah. I’ve got a different place for mine.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Don’t know why you don’t just keep it. You put more work into that thing than anything else, and I bet we could smuggle it in with Ex-ca-li-ber.”
“It’s more than that. I made up my mind, anyway.”
“Whatever you say, but Mom’s gonna need help packing the dishes soon.”
Susie grimaced, thinking of the chaos and the pungent smell of giant sharpies filling the rooms inside. “I’ll be quick.”
The Fletch was only about a hundred yards away, downhill from the house and across the street. Halfway downhill, her backyard
(not for much longer)
turned into the Baby Woods where the Secret Fort was. She ducked under the baby pine trees for an instant. The sun-bleached towel bundle was still there, much longer than it was wide. Susie lifted and nestled it under her arm.
Memories flowed past as she continued down, memories thick as the humidity that would settle in a couple of months (once she was long gone). She wanted to slow down and savor the warming asphalt under her feet and sniff the last of her Tennessee-in-May sunshine. She closed her eyes and
the dumb mutt Cookie hacked her mindless bark as she pulled Susie’s mom up the hill after a visit to the Fletch
Eric flew past on his skateboard, only to wipe out in the bushes on the other side of the street where the Fletch started
She left the road for the wide grassy lawn just inside the park entrance (Fletcher Park, it said, in big golden letters), and Susie remembered the one time it snowed. How the local news team had stopped by during the Great McQuitty Snow War. That war had been the whole family, not just herself and Sam and the other kids from around.
It’d probably started at the top of the hill, before she’d lifted the bundle, but that was the first moment Susie was aware of a tightening in her chest.
She walked on. She knew where she was going.
She’d made up her mind.
The pine trees stood just outside the deeper woods of the walking park. Susie sped up into a half-jog, which took her back to Sam’s ninth birthday party, two years ago, when
they had invited all the boys at church for the battle, the last standoff between the armies of Good and Evil and All That, the biggest battle they’d ever fought, and every stick in their arsenal had a soldier to go with it and she’d made a red lion banner with colored sharpie and an old shirt, and there were shouts and brave deeds and red welts punctuated with bits of bark, there were howls of laughter that would last almost as long as the marks themselves
and it had been bruising, but incredible.
Her tree stretched out its limbs and she finally caught a whiff of sun-baked pinestraw, sweet and musky and the most beautiful smell in the world. The needles were soft and thick under her toes as she padded to the foot of her tree, the cool damp on the soles of her feet saying hello and welcome home and goodbye all at once.
Susie stuffed her bundle under her chin, though it stuck out a clumsy foot-or-so in both directions, and began to climb. The worn bark beneath her fingers nuzzled her hands and feet as she pulled, pushed, swung, grabbed, stepped.
She hadn’t noticed there was a breeze until she was about halfway up. The needles bobbed, then the branches, and then the slimming trunk began to sway with a ponderous lolling. Only then did Susie stop climbing.
She moved the bundle to her lap and closed her eyes, moving back and forth in the wind, her forehead against the bark, surrounded by the sound that wasn’t quite rustling and wasn’t quite tinkling, the sound of pine needles stirring in the breeze.
There weren’t any climbing trees at the new house.
There wouldn’t be a trampoline. The swingset would be gone. The Dumb Mutt Cookie would have a new home, and Susie would turn fourteen.
She pulled away from the bark and opened her eyes. Slowly, she unwrapped the fraying towel and removed her bow.
She had stolen the boxcutter from Dad’s workbench to carve the crude swirls that sprang from the handle, which was black electric tape. She had stripped the bark with the boxcutter, smoothed the pinewood with smuggled sandpaper, and painted it royal blue and red. The bowstring was green embroidery thread, knotted permanently on one end and wrapped twenty-or-so times on the other, for adjustability. It shot straight and fast, or would if she could ever figure out how to make decent arrows.
Sam was right; she had worked harder on this than anything else.
Susie laid it on her lap, then stared at the tree.
“I’m leaving now,” she murmured. “I don’t know if I’ll be back for a long time, so…”
Her voice sounded awkward in the quiet of the breeze. There was no answer.
‘Course there wasn’t. She was nearly fourteen, after all.
She gingerly lifted the bow and placed it where the trunk split in two. It seemed like she sat there in that tree for a long time, watching the branches dip and sway around the bow, feeling the soothing rock of the trunk and the brief patches of Tennessee-in-May sunshine.
When she finally climbed down, she didn’t know if she felt better or worse. But she’d made up her mind. It was the best way.
She left the pine straw, crossed the lawn, left Fletcher Park, warmed her feet on the pavement again, and didn’t look back.
Those dishes weren’t going to pack themselves, after all.