Fort Building: A Short Story
Fort Building by Justin W. Price
Est. Reading time: 45 minutes
Zeke could hold his breath for a long time.
Down there, beneath the surface of a shallow creek somewhere in the mountains of central California, he was fascinated by the clarity of his hearing. As he dog- paddled through the creek, eyes wide open, he pushed rocks aside with both of his hands. They thunked against each other. A musical sound. A sound that he could not repeat on land with the same resonance with the rocks for the fort that he and Jerry had begun to build the day before. He challenged himself to stay under water until his lungs burned. He surfaced, gasped in the thin mountain air, and dove under again, trying to see if he could increase his underwater time with each excursion.
Jerry, Zeke’s kid brother, swam ahead, in the deeper part of the creek. Zeke was heading there, at a much slower pace, more concerned with the sound of the gentle crashing of the rocks, the movement of the water, the heat from the sun melding with the iciness of the water. He surfaced again, Jerry was still ahead, splashing, laughing, giggling, sounding every bit of seven years old.
Ezekiel and Jeremiah Their parents had a thing for Old Testament Prophets.
Zeke stood and looked to shore. Mom was there, a one-piece swimsuit, sunglasses and a visor. Her belly swelled with their little brother. They would name him Solomon.
“That’s far enough, boys,” She shouted from the shoreline, hands over her eyes. She was in deep conversation with the camp directors’ wife and Zeke found it incredible how his mom could be fully engaged in conversation and yet still keep an unwavering eye on her two rambunctious sons. Dad was off teaching the afternoon Bible study, leaving the parenting duties to mom.
“No, mommy, we are not. I can touch, see?” Jerry called back, going to under water and popping back up. “See? I just touched.”
“You’re too far, come closer. If you can’t touch, you’re too far.”
Zeke swam out to Jerry and stood a few feet ahead of where his younger brother was treading water. “Look, mom. I can touch. I’m not even going under,” He said.
“That’s far enough. Jerry, you come closer. It’s time for more sunscreen anyway. Do you want to catch cancer?”
Jerry protested until mom snapped her fingers. He knew the next cue would involve yelling and belittling, and, even at seven, he knew he wasn’t up for that kind of embarrassment. He swam to shore. Zeke, happy with his stature, dove back under the water to listen to the sound of the rocks. Under the water, the shrill voice of his mom talking about her sister’s new house and how much nicer it was then theirs, travelled beneath the surface with the clarity of a telephone.
Engraved in wood, above the door to the dining hall, the sign said BIBLE CAMP OF THE REDWOODS. The dining hall was housed in a long, ranch style structure, held up by planks. Huge windows in the dining room provided views of Mt. Shasta. The tables inside, were long and, seated about twenty on each side. Zeke had spent every summer of his nine years on the road, going to these camps.
After a while, they all blended together. They all had swimming, whether it be a pool, a creek, a lake, or an ocean. They were all attended by hundreds of teenagers (which Zeke was surprised to learn, were still technically kids), they were all in the middle of nature. His dad was the only constant: His music, his stories, his spiel to get folks to buy cassette tapes “All proceeds go to needy children… Mine.” He would say, with a smile, pointing at himself, and then out in the crowd to Zeke and Jerry.
The food was the differentiator. From the dry mountains of north central California, to the plains of the Midwest, to the strange and oppressive humidity of the East Coast; the one thing Zeke would always remember when thinking of his travels each fall and winter, was the food. Which ones had good food, bad food, cold food, hot food, weird food. Which ones had a long winded prayer prior to consumption, which ones allowed you to simply dig in. Which ones had leftovers that they had access to, which ones had leftovers under strict lock and key. It would be the food that he would always remember.
The food was served buffet style, a personal favorite style for Zeke. He could pile his plate with as much and with whatever he wanted to, knowing that it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t eat it all. Knowing that his mom wouldn’t be stressing out behind him, telling him that he couldn’t order this or that because they couldn’t afford it. Here, at Bible Camp of the Redwoods, he was free.
Dad was off teaching the afternoon Bible study, leaving the parenting duties to mom."
Zeke and Jerry loved to explore. Their mom had done her best to instill in them a healthy fear of pretty much everything, but, it hadn’t really stuck. The second day of camp, they biked to the crest of a small hill, about a quarter mile from their cabin. Here, they decided, would be the perfect place to build a fort and, with any luck, it would be completed by the time they left camp at the end of the week.
Through rattlesnake inhabited grasses, they gathered as many twigs, sticks, and rocks as they could into a haphazard pile. Zeke liked the sound of the rocks crunching under his feet and thunking against each other, but they did not resonate as they did under water.
By the end of that second day, they had gathered a pile of fort building textiles as tall as Zeke. The next day they would find a shovel and bring it up with them so that they could start digging the foundation.
Even at their young ages, they were already expert fort builders.
The speech his dad gave was well rehearsed, always given verbatim, down to the inflections and the breathing. Zeke found a comfort in that. In another childhood summer spent far away from home, these rehearsed speeches, followed by his dad’s familiar songs, gave him a sense of normalcy. Whether he was inside the chapel, at the back table selling merchandise, or outside on his bike, playing cowboys and indians with Jerry, he always timed his evening to the rhythmic words of his dad.
His dad had a battery of speehces. The one that night dealt with a rash of deaths amongst high school students at a youth group he was the youth minister of in the mid 1970’s. This was before he quit the clergy for a life on the road. He was a musician and speaker at heart. Always was and, Zeke reckoned, always would be. So, after his songs, which his dad was tired of (but never showed) he broke into that nights’ grisly topic.
“You just never know when your time is going to come,” The speech began. “And you never knew when anyone else’s’ was either. Back in the early 70’s, I was a youth minister in Chico. One summer, we had a rash of deaths amongst some of the students I was ministering too.”
Every time the speech began, Zeke, whether he was in the room or not, dropped what he was doing and gave it his full attention. This night, he was at the merchandise booth and he had stacked the cassette tapes into houses. He leaned forward, small hands under small chin and licked his lips.
This was his favorite story.
“Bruce had this shiny Harley Davidson. He drove it to and from school, keeping it polished and spit shined. After school each day, he would unroll a pack of Marlboro Reds from his t shirt, put the cigarette in his mouth, light it, and begin the ride home. Bruce was too cool for a helmet.”
Zeke could picture it. And, even though he knew the rest of the story, he was gripped.
“One day as Bruce drove home, a car pulled just a few inches too far into the intersection and Bruce’s bike was clipped and he went flying, helmetless, into a telephone pole.” At this, his dad would snap his fingers. “Like that. Gone.”
“And, later that week, Melinda Carson snuck out of her house and headed to a party when she was nabbed by two masked men, beaten and murdered. They found her body in a creek by her house.”
Zeke leaned in closer still. His favorite part was coming up next. He knew he shouldn’t like these stories, but he’d heard them so much that he had personalized them. He could picture Bruce. He could picture Melinda. He felt like he knew them. He felt the rush of reliving their deaths each time he heard the stories.
“Another,” His dad continued, his voice popping into the microphone, the crowd of students and leaders hushed, showing the respect that this story deserved. “Had a meeting set up with me to meet and get together and just talk. But he never made that meeting. Instead, he went home, went to his dad’s den and grabbed a box of buckshot. His dad left a key in the top drawer of his work desk. He grabbed that key. Next, he went to his dad’s safe, unlocked it using that key it pulled out a hunting rifle. He slowly made his way up the stairs to his bedroom where he sat on his bed, cracked open the barrel and loaded one shell into it, before sticking the barrel under his chin and pulling the trigger.”
He didn’t know if it was wrong to like this story. He didn’t even know if the story was true. He would often close his eyes and picture what it would be like, that final moment before pulling the trigger. What would happen after? Would that person hear the shot? Would they feel anything? Would that person be ushered into the hell he was taught to believe in? Would there be eternal joy and peace? Would there be simply nothing? He knew these thoughts weren’t normal at his age so he kept them to himself. And, while he had no desire to experiment, these thoughts kept him awake late into the night.
He knew he shouldn’t like these stories, but he’d heard them so much that he had personalized them."
He was slightly sunburned so the cool of the creek felt even better on his back. His mom had chided him for forgetting to sunscreen his back the day before. He didn’t tell her he had his shIrt off while he was working on the fort. She could never know about the fort. “You’ll get skin cancer. You get sunburned at your age and you get skin cancer.”
Cancer was a word he heard far too often in his house; from his mom’s constant panic attacks and the fear that she herself would die from the disease, as many of her friends had, to the constant reminders about parabens and UV rays and tainted food. As he swam, he wondered when the cancer would strike. Would it hurt? Would it kill him? How would it feel?
Jerry, oblivious to his brothers’ morbid thoughts, swam out further. Mom was distracted by conversation.
“It’s been tough.”
“He doesn’t make enough money.”
“We never do. He’s too nice. He needs to ask for more.” She rubbed her rounded belly as she said this, as if to emphasize the point.
She was speaking with the wife of the camp director, the wife of the man that hired Zeke’s dad, on the strength of his one single that got radio play. The wife of the man who could pay him more if he were so inclined.
“Maybe you could see if there’s more. We have to make it to Dallas after this.”
Zeke, tired of listening, dunked into the water and reinvestigated the sounds of the rocks clanging against each other under water. Once again enjoying the muffle of the outside world. Enjoying his hideaway.
He swam, eyes open, and saw the legs of his little brother. He picked up speed and lunged shoulder first into his brothers’ legs, sending him reeling into the deep part of the creek, beyond where he could touch.
Jerry screamed, his childlike confidence gone and he flailed, yelling for help. Zeke rose from the water, laughing at first, until he noticed his brothers’ predicament. He knew he would be in trouble now.
Mom ceased her conversation and rushed out knee deep into the water, swearing at Zeke for what he did, screaming for Jerry to get to shore “Right this instant.”
Zeke swam out to his brother and imagined, if only for a fleeting moment, what would happen if he didn’t grab his brother. What would happen if he let his brother drown right there, or if he didn’t get to him in time? Where would Jerry go? What would happen to him? Would he end up in his dads’ stories? Would they be secretly relieved because there would be one less mouth to feed? What would happen to Zeke?
In his minds’ eye, he was holding his brother under the water, his brothers’ arms thrashing, grasping for hair, clawing at his big brother. In reality, Zeke was saying “Grab my arm” and his brother was grabbing his arm and Zeke was pulling him to shore, a hero and a villain.
Once they got to where Jerry could stand, Zeke let go and his mom trounced in, pulled on Zeke’s arm, dropped his pants and swatted him as hard as she could on his bare ass.
He devoured breakfast the next morning, as he had to go to bed without dinner the night before. He didn’t know why he knocked Jerry under and down. He didn’t know why he fantasized about holding him under. His dad played it up to boys being boys, his mom said he was naughty and she prayed over him.
He had missed some tremendous excitement the night before.
As his dad was performing, a baby rattlesnake slithered its way to the stage. His dad mid song, stopped performing and stepped back. The camp director rushed the stage with a shovel and cut off the head of the snake throwing the carcass into the woods, wrapping the head in cloth and burying it deep within the garbage.
His dad replied, with a smile: “See? You never know when the end might come.”
After breakfast, Zeke and Jerry roamed the perimeter of the outdoor chapel looking for the remains of the baby snake but they were unable to find it. Zeke wanted to place it in front of the fort to ward away predators.
Zeke and Jerry rode their bikes together, back to their secret fort. Zeke had stolen a shovel from the side of the chapel and rode with it up the hill to the site of their fort.
Zeke was somewhat wary of rattlesnakes now, what with last night’s vicarious encounter, but that didn’t stop he and Jerry from digging and building. As brothers are wont to do, they communicated without speaking. Jerry was in charge of digging the hole “Dig until it’s a couple feet deep, at least. If you can see China, you’re too deep.”
Zeke had heard that you could dig to China and he always wondered what would happen if he did that. Would he suddenly find his hand clutching air, pulling himself through into the hustle and bustle of Beijing? Would he be able to climb all the way through and explore another side of the world and then return home through the same hole? Would he even want to return? Life was good, but what was on the other side was probably more exciting.
And, so, Jerry dug and Zeke gathered more sticks, logs, and rocks. He was careful not to reach under rocks or into holes. He knew if he reached under a rock where a rattlesnake was napping, that he would be bitten, maybe die, and definitely be scolded for not being more careful.
The holes being dug were for the foundation. Zeke would drop in a stick or a log, Jerry would fill in the hole and pat it down with the shovel. They would lean the walls up against trees, or tie them together with the stalks of brown grass. Soon, the walls were up, just higher than Zeke’s head. Held in place haphazardly. This was not sturdy, yet, but it was getting there. About the time Zeke’s stomach was rumbling for lunch, the fort was nearing completion, big enough for one regular sized person, or for two little boys.
The two boys climbed inside the wobbly fort, giggling and excited about their secret creation.
Zeke had heard that you could dig to China and he always wondered what would happen if he did that."
Dad was speaking again, but this wasn’t his big speech. This was his between songs speech. He had finished with his more upbeat songs and the cheeseball jokes and was now mellowing down for the evening. It was time to be serious.
The next song, a song about how Jesus is the only hope, also had a rather morbid preface. Zeke’s dad would talk about his inspiration for the song, a Chicago style ballad, with ubiquitous keyboards, and a slow build towards a passionate denouement.
“I was inspired to write this song,” he began, “When I read about a young girl, fourteen years old, that entered into a life of prostitution and was murdered by one of her Johns.”
Zeke, who was building a fort out of the cassettes and CD’s at the table in the back of the room, perked up and leaned forward. Like the kid sticking the shotgun in his mouth, Zeke always waited with baited breath for this story. He felt sad for the girl, yet exhilarated by the danger. He told no one, afraid of the consequences but he listened, his breath picked up, his mouth watered a little.
“The article showed her pictures,” His dad continued, the room quiet, the microphone popping at the word “pictures”, his dad’s acoustic guitar swayed from his neck and shoulders as he spoke. “Starting with her as a little girl, braided hair and smiles, braces in her teeth. Moving up, into elementary school, the smile a little less profound, the look a little darker, then, progressing into middle school, black hair, black lipstick, no smile. The transition was startling and, as I read about her life and her murder, I just wanted to reach out to that little girl and shake her and tell her that there was hope, and, so, the words to this song came to me. It’s about finding hope in Jesus when you may not think that there is hope.”
And so, he started to play the ballad and Zeke closed his eyes, he imagined what she looked like as a little girl, and then, what she looked like as an adult. He had a reasonable idea of what a prostitute was and he pictured her, wandering the streets, probably smoking a cigarette and then getting into a car with a stranger. He pictured her body, bruised and bloodied, lying in a ditch. Was she afraid? How long did she lie there and what happened when she finally closed her eyes and stopped breathing? Zeke was pretty sure he knew what happened, but he tried not to think about that. Instead he thought about that girl, and it left him sad and exhilarated.
Back at the fort the next morning, Zeke and Jerry added walls and a second room. They didn’t know how far the fort would go, or when they would know it was done. They just knew they were building something. They felt safe and, it was one of those rare moments where Zeke wasn’t focused on the possible dangers surrounding him. It was one of those rare moments where he was simply a little boy, enjoying the moments of being a little boy.
He looked at Jerry and realized that this would be the last summer that it would be just the two of them. Soon, their little brother would come along and he would change everything. Instead of being able to pair off, he would have to tag along. A third wheel. Zeke was only twenty months older than Jerry. They had things in common and they fought and played like brothers do.
But this new imposter growing inside his mom, how would he change things? Where would he sit on those long family car rides? How would he fit in with the rest of the family? Zeke was just getting used to life as a little boy. The idea of having to get used to that with someone new in the family seemed like too much. He wished that there was a way to change things.
He thought back to when he tackled Jerry in the creek. Why had he done it? What if he had held him drown under that water? He looked at the fort with its precarious walls, the brush which could be teeming with rattlesnakes. Even the cliffs a short distance ahead. Life was precarious. He knew it was unusual for a nine-year-old to think like this. He knew that he was unusual.
His mom and dad were fighting. It was their first fight of the trip, but Zeke knew that there would be more. The sun was out, sweltering through the dirty windows of the cabin. Mom was lying in bed, her hands on her swelling belly. Dad was on the floor doing pushups, beads of sweat breaking out across his back.
As always, the fight was about money.
Zeke and Jerry were across the small room playing with plastic cowboys and Indians, pretending not to know what was going on.
As with suicide and prostitutes, Zeke knew that he knew far too much about his families’ finances. Yet, here he was, trapped in a cabin in the middle of North Central California, his parents bickering like barn cats. He’d heard it all:
“That’s not enough for these sweltering conditions,” His mom loved the word sweltering.
“It’s a contract! I signed it and agreed to it. I can’t go back and change the terms now.” His dad liked to hide behind contracts.
“You should have checked with me first. I didn’t let you drag me out on the road for nine weeks to go home broke again.”
“It’s not just that. It’s our ministry. It’s my calling.” He gestured at the boys playing in the corner: “You know the boys’ love it,”
At this, their mom grew silent and turned her eyes away from their dad.
“I can’t deal with his,” He said. “I’m going for a walk. I need to clear my head before tonight.”
That night was the last night of camp and was the denouement of his collective messages. That night he would bust out his finest songs and would make a final push for merchandise. That night there would be an impassioned speech followed by an altar call. That night was a big night, as the last night of camp always was. He didn’t need the stress and the fighting.
Dad put on his shirt, grabbed his leather bound Bible and stormed out the door. Mom turned to the boys and said “Go to college so your wives won’t have to deal with this stuff all the time.” And then she turned over and went to sleep.
With mom asleep, Zeke and Jerry made their way outside the cabin, hopped on their bikes and peddled away. There was unfinished business at the fort in the woods and time was short. Zeke knew that once they left, they would likely never be back and, if they did return, the fort would have long been destroyed.
They scattered dust behind them as they pedaled towards the fort, a quarter mile away, and up. It struck Zeke as strange that, with the fort so close, they could feel so alone and away from everything. He liked that solidarity between he and Jerry. He liked the dangers of rattlesnakes, the risk of the fort collapsing, and mountain creatures.
They dropped their bikes in front of the ramshackle structure. Their skin was covered in a light layer of dust.
“I want to gather the rocks this time,” Jerry said, running toward the grass.
“No!” Zeke yelled, causing Jerry to stop mid stride. “No don’t run. There’s snakes. And, besides, you’re too small. You can’t lift the rocks.”
“Am not!” Jerry Protested.
“Are too. Now come back here and start digging more. I’ll bring over the rocks.”
Jerry stomped his feet and stuck out his tongue and Zeke. “No. I want to carry the rocks. I’m a big boy.”
Zeke looked at his little brother. Small, even for a seven-year-old. He wondered how his new little brother would compare. Zeke was on pace to be of average height and build, but Jerry was always going to be small. Zeke felt protective of his little little brother and, more than that, didn’t know if he could face the wrath of his parents if something happened to him.
But, still, what could it hurt? He would grab a few rocks and get tired anyway.
“Okay, Said Zeke. “But be careful.” Zeke made it to the haphazard walls of the fort and started straightening the sticks and stones, digging holes for future rocks and sticks that would add to the stability. This was going to be something!
He ran his hand along the roughhewn fort. Some of the rocks were jagged, others smooth. The sticks, long and short, smooth and branchy, holding up a roof made from lady ferns, twigs and dried grass. The fort trembled at his touch. It was quite the feat for two little boys without any training in construction at all, without any tools, or adult supervision. Just yearly fort building throughout America. Some of the stones, sticks, and leaves were tied together with long pieces of grass and some with twine that Zeke had taken from the family minivan.
Jerry came with a load of medium sized rocks and dropped them to the ground. They fell against each other with a hollow thunk and Zeke’s mind ran back to being under the creek and listening to the almost musical quality as the he moved the rocks with his gangly arms.
“Come on, dig!” Jerry said to Zeke, taking charge for a moment before running back into the dried grass, which swished against his legs.
The rocks were useless. They were too small and soft to make an adequate wall. The fort was already wobbly and these stones would do nothing for the structural integrity. This was just what Zeke feared. He heard more swishing through the grass.
He thought about making some mud and putting it between the stick and stones to make a mortar, and bind everything together. To make it stronger. He wanted to be able to sleep in the fort without fear of collapse—even though he know he would never be able to spend a night in his creation.
He heard another swish followed by a scream from Jerry.
It wasn’t a normal scream. It was a scream full of pain and fear. Zeke knew to run towards the screaming. When he reached his brother, he saw the rattle of a snake scurrying away, and that’s when he realized that the sound he had heard was not the swishing of the grass. He saw his brother clutched over grasping his leg, screaming, blood was pouring from the wound as Jerry wobbled and fell to the ground, still screaming, clutching his leg.
Last year in school, Zeke had learned that elevating wounds was important because it kept the blood from circulating and could keep someone from bleeding to death. He didn’t know if that would work here, but he didn’t know what else to do. It was the only way that he could think of to stop the poison. He grabbed the rocks his brother had gathered, the useless, jagged, weak rocks, and piled them next to his screaming brother before grabbing his leg and raising it on top of the rocks.
“You stay there like that. Don’t move. I’ll go get help.”
His brother screamed and gripped the dirt. “Please, don’t leave me. I don’t want to stay here by myself. Please don’t leave.”
“I have too! I have to get help. You’ll probably die if I don’t.”
At that, his brother screamed louder and louder, clutching at Zeke, who pulled away, his shirt tearing in the process. His face was turning purple, a bright bruise forming on his leg.
As Zeke stumbled to his bike, he dry heaved. He was looking death in the face, and it was very real and scary. He dry heaved again. Finally, climbing onto his bike, past his screaming brother, pedaling to the main camp. By the time he reached it, he could no longer hear his brothers’ screams.
© 2018 Justin W Price