The U.S. map on the wall of his Dad's office had gone all but unnoticed by Charlie until recently. Like the endless shelves of books, the classic movie posters and the framed certificates of appreciation from this group or that, it was just another boring thing in a boring room that Charlie mainly tried to avoid. In fact, as he nudged his way in to the empty room through the half open door, it occurred to him that he had never actually entered the office voluntarily before. Summoned, a polite knock and permission to enter was usually more like it. But with the news that the family would soon be moving from California to New York, the big "boring" map had taken up a coveted spot in his mind next to previous curiosities like swimsuit issues and credit cards.
As a sixth grader, of course Charlie already knew a lot about New York. The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Yankees, and of course Albany, which came first in the alphabetical list of state capitals in his Social Sciences textbook. What Charlie needed from the map however, was more than the standard World Book Encyclopedia fare. With California on the west coast and New York on the east, he wanted to watch as the two population behemoths stared each other down across the width of their contiguous little brothers. A one on one battle to see which state could visually fan the embers that were Charlie's sense of adventure into homecoming week, pep rally bonfire size flames.
It was no contest. New York's bends, points and angles running in every direction could be a skate park adventure for mom's minivan. California's elevator shaft posture reminded him of barfing on the parachute ride at Magic Mountain. New York had a posse of six New England states lined up right behind it ready to help if there was trouble, or bring cupcakes and Yoo-Hoo to the victory party afterwards. California just lay spooning with Nevada. To Charlie it looked like New York might just leverage itself against the Great Lakes on the west and the Atlantic on the east, pop itself right off the map and strut off to start its own country. While California was the class weakling who let everybody push him aside, ended up at the back of the crowd and wouldn't even be able to see what all the commotion was out east.
In truth, California never had a chance. It lacked the preceding adjective that made all the difference to an 11-year old " new. Its original settlers after all, had not named the place Unused York, or Additional York, or Facsimile York, Modern, 2nd, Unfamiliar York or York, Jr. For more than the sake of brevity it had been forever christened New York. And to Charlie, who had no interest in reruns or sequels, never ate leftovers and whenever possible changed his socks and underwear halfway through the day, new meant different, unexplored and more possibilities for coolness than he could even imagine.
The map had spoken. Charlie smiled. In six weeks New York would be home. He left the office door back at halfway open on his way out and went to find his two younger brothers.
Mark and Eric cried for about half of the six hour flight from "where we belong" to "a stupid place nobody even cares about". It wasn't the wailing you hear from a kid whose mom won't buy the chocolate milk but the low rumbling of thunder in the distance that had several rows of passengers continually asking themselves, "Is somebody crying?" But if there's one thing guaranteed to cheer up two sad, young boys on the east coast for the first time, it's snow, and today the weatherman was Patch Adams.
The Tancred family's first encounter with the northeast phenomenon of sleeping, while Mother Nature makes a quick costume change from brown, barren work rags to spectacular white formal wear, was a thrill. The boys were like infants with their first toy. Though they were far from understanding the subtle link between snowball formation and accuracy, the awkward chunks that they hurled and heaved at each other still served their purpose well. As was usually the case it was Mark and Eric who teamed up against Charlie. Despite the fact that Mark was only 18 months younger than his older brother, it was 7 year old Eric that he was closest to and spent the most time with. They were trying to stuff snow down Charlie's pants when Dad emerged from the hotel lobby and the brothers united to open fire on the new common enemy. Dad was appreciating the Holiday Inn hired plow that would forestall for a day the beginning of his own seasonal excavating career, when he took a solid shot to the groin and brought the games to a quick end. Minutes later, Dad still sore and the boys now wet, they met the moving truck at the end of a slow rising, quarter mile long driveway in roughly the center of a ten acre property and their new home.
The gazebo, the ponds, the in-ground pool and the vegetable garden would have to wait until spring to show their best side and try to catch Charlie's attention. But at the moment, seeing the area in person for the first time, Dad pointed out something that Charlie was still taking in even as the others had moved on. Except for the south side of the property where the driveway came up from the road, the ten acre perimeter was marked by a stone wall. Behind the house to the west it ran along the back of a plateau with two dozen fir trees at the top of a half-hearted slope. By the time the wall reached the far corner the slope had lost all interest and flattened out into what somebody had decided would be an appropriate grazing area for broken sports equipment. Charlie could see the remnants of a trampoline, a basketball hoop and a really big raft sticking out of the pile, the rest of which was mostly covered in snow. The wall along the north side of the house ran completely downhill. But unlike the other sides, here it rose and fell to an odd assortment of different heights. Too many stones, not enough stones, or clever colonial architecture intended to foil a charging regiment of redcoats? Charlie couldn't decide. Finally, the stone wall ran along the edge of the front yard at the bottom of the hill all the way...
Charlie's eyes tracing the path of the wall stopped at a spot where something looked wrong. From his angle it looked like... The distance, the slope of the hill, the snow drifts made it hard to tell but... He had seen something similar before. Where? The trees. Yes, the trees gave it away. Eric's haircut. Several years ago Eric was running through the house like a maniac, when he tripped, fell and hit his head on the edge of the living room table. After the stitches were taken out he had a scar from the beginning of his hairline about an inch long, running back at an angle to the left. His hair would not grow on that small spot but it didn't really matter because it was always long enough that Mom would just comb it to the side right over it. But then last summer he wanted his hair short and spiky like some of the other kids on his soccer team. It looked good and he liked it a lot except for the fact that the scar became a noticeable part in the forest of his spiky 'do. This is what Charlie now saw in the trees. It was harder to notice at ground level that there was a gap in the stone wall, but in the trees he could definitely make out the part left by a trail running into the woods back and angled to the left just like in Eric's summer haircut.
The move in went smoothly, Dad liked his new job, Mom was friendly with the neighbors and once enough winter clothes had been bought to keep the laundry room from becoming the permanent capital of Tancred nation, the family fell into a daily routine that seemed to serve everyone well. The boys adjusted to their new school and made plenty of friends, loved watching Dad stoke the flames from the dining room side of the double-sided fireplace and after their first visit to one in New Jersey, already had eight signatures on a petition to bring a White Castle to their county. (Mom was grossed out and refused to sign.) Of course the California natives also suffered the ire of winter weather as cold and flu ran through the home like bad jokes through 4th grade recess, and bumps and bruises were had from minor sledding incidents " the boys on the slopes in the yard, Mom in the minivan on every road within a five mile radius of home.
All the while, good day or bad; sick, injured or healthy, Charlie was itching to find a way down to the stone wall and that inviting break that lead into the trees. Without revealing details on where and why, he enlisted his brothers, Mom and Dad, cousin Taylor and 7th grade twins Conor and Kyle from down the street, in various combinations for numerous sorties to the bottom of the hill. But every attempt, via sled, snowboard, bicycle or foot, was failed by too much snow, ice, mud, wind, rain or just simple face freezing, ridiculous cold. The last effort of February was Charlie's most creative and therefore the most disheartening as well. Armed with a marshmallow gun loaded with Blizzard Wizard ice melting salt pellets and anchored to the front door with a 100-foot lifeline made from old superhero bedsheets, he tried to descend the frozen hill solo. Had Mom known Charlie had a Buzz Lightyear pillow case tied around his waist at the other end of that line, she probably wouldn't have untied it from the door handle and he may have made it. Instead, untethered and free, sliding too fast to control himself, he ricocheted off a stranded snow saucer frozen in place, veered way off course, took several shots of friendly fire from the discharging marshmallow gun, swallowed a salt pellet, got sick and missed a week of school. The daunting decline was San Francisco Bay, the breach in the wall freedom and Charlie felt like a hopeless, miserable Alcatraz lifer.
April showers bring May flowers but it was a full week of April sunshine after endless spring rain that brought Charlie out of the doldrums with the knowledge that the environmental hurdles to success had been cleared not with ingenuity, persistence or the force of numbers but with patience. And despite the anticipatory buzz in his stomach from a breakfast of what must have been a large bowl of sugar coated, bite size Tesla coils, patience continued to hold sway. Aunt Gina was en route from central Jersey for a visit and the boys had to help Mom clean the house before any playing, watching TV or exploring of nefarious, beast laden, mystery trails could be done. It was a long, tortuous morning. The buzz was traveling Charlie's insides the way his parakeet traveled the house when let out of its cage. 'I'm never eating high-voltage, resonant transformer circuits for breakfast again' thought Charlie.
Aunt Gina arrived earlier than expected (which is to say she was precisely on time), before the house cleaning was done. Mom was visibly upset that she didn't have time to finish, while Dad, Mark and Eric would have welcomed a visit from Satan himself if it meant they could stop dusting and get on with the day. Charlie, on the other hand, had been looking forward to some free time with his brothers before the formal visiting began and would have gladly continued sweeping out closets if it meant getting it. But now that opportunity was lost. Gina would undoubtedly have new clothes for the boys to try on, homemade cookies to fawn over and an endless string of unanswerable questions about school to struggle with. ("I don't really have a favorite subject, I guess, maybe recess...") The coup de grace however, would be the photo albums. Once they were brought out Mom and Gina would have the boys on the couch like condemned in an iron maiden " there would be no escape.
And so it was that things progressed as Charlie thought they would; clothes, cookies and cuestions leading the way. Several times there was a lull in the banter and Charlie sensed Mom make just the slightest lean, look or step toward the mahogany oak chest next to the piano that held all the captured moments of Tancred lore. But then Gina would open a new tin of cookies or pose another awkward school query ("Yeah, I think maybe Mr. Johnson's probably a pretty good teacher.") and Mom's wandering attention would return.
Finally there was the tour of the house to be given. Mark had taken on the role of family docent, took it very seriously and "damn, if the kid isn't really good at it too", Dad had remarked. Through his own research Mark had come up with little factoids that he proudly liked to drop in at certain moments; like the number of electrical outlets in the home and the best way to send a loud, clear fart sound through every room on the intercom system. He also had a joke for the laundry room about leaving a few dollars in his pants and money laundering or something like that. He didn't really understand it so it lost something in the delivery. Unfortunately for Mark though, Aunt Gina was opting for the simple residence tour, as opposed to the grand tour, skipping the unwelcomingly steep stairs of his favorite rooms, the attic and the basement. It was then, as Mark muttered to himself about how cool the petrified cat poop in the attic was and Mom laid out the last of half a dozen photo albums on the living room table, that Gina turned the corner from the kitchen to the den, looked right at Charlie and bellowed, "Well that was wonderful! Who's going to show me around outside?"
"Daaaaad!", Charlie yelled.
Mom and Dad were in high spirits as they began the walk outside with Aunt Gina. Eager to share their plans for hosting all manner of barbecues, parties and other family events with the amenities featured around the house, something else entirely was slowly taking the air out of their happy balloon. For the first time Mom saw the intricate landscaping around the deck, the ponds, the gazebo and the pool, not for the way it looked but for the amount of work it would require to keep it looking that way and what kind of mutating albatross it might quickly become if she couldn't keep up with the clipping, trimming, weeding, mulching, raking and sweating. Likewise, Dad was hoping John Deere had a frequent mower miles program, and if not, how much it might cost to install several acres of artificial turf. Taken aback and seeing their free time trickle through the hourglass of summer, Mom and Dad didn't notice that Charlie, Mark and Eric had wandered off and started their own tour. It was Gina's "where are they going?" that brought them to, just in time to see the boys pass the stone wall and slip behind the trees.
With the trail running at a 45 degree angle to the tree line, each step put another layer of the woods between the intrepid and the wary until all that could be seen were visions of the mischievous ragamuffins that might emerge having stumbled into one of nature's hidden pitfalls. Mom was thinking along the lines of mudholes and snakes, Dad more like poison ivy and thorns. Aunt Gina thought of Lewis and Clark, Magellan, Captain Cook and the things they must have done as kids to try to satiate their curiosity for the unbeaten path. It was no place for a grandmother with a bad hip and terrible bee sting allergies but for three young boys it seemed a perfectly normal and harmless thing to do. "I'm sure they'll be OK", she said.
As Charlie had broke from the adults and headed down the hill with Mark and Eric in tow, he found himself hoping they would both chicken out and turn back. The last thing he needed was those two getting together on some stupid idea and bugging him so much that it ruined everything. What was it that made them so quick to disagree with him all the time?; to take each other's side against him just to purposely frustrate and annoy him?; to make everything an argument, a fight, always two against one with him on the short side? Why couldn't they just cooperate once in a while?
They were about a hundred yards down the trail when Charlie turned back for the first time. The part in the trees where they had entered the woods was completely lost. He looked down at the trail and followed it back with his eyes; stone by stone, tree root by tree root, step by step, as far as it went. Still there was no visible break in the trees like the one he knew they had just come through. It was as if a door had been closed, the portcullis dropped, the tomb sealed. Growing confident in the continued spring warmth, the surrounding growth seemed to be flourishing quickly from all angles, making the trail narrower and blocking out the sun. The squirrels, rabbits, butterflies and woodpeckers Charlie had been expecting were not to be seen. It appeared the only other creature with them was doubt.
"Hey guys," Charlie called, now glad his brothers were with him and he had somebody to talk to, "are you scared?"
"Let's go back." "Yeah, this is stupid." Mark answered first, followed by Eric; but their statements were spoken as one sentence from one person who really only wanted to say one word " "yes."
"It's not stupid," Charlie shot back emphatically. "Who told you to follow me anyway?"
"Duh." "You did!" "Like every day." "Turd brain."
"Shut up Eric!"
"No, you shut up!" "It is stupid."
"You guys are just scared."
Mark and Eric continued their alternating jabs at Charlie. "There's nothing here." "What's the big deal about trees?" "This is stupid." "Let's go back."
It was kind of scary and maybe even a little bit stupid, Charlie was thinking to himself. But despite these misgivings there was no way he would admit as much to his brothers and let them talk him into turning around so soon. Resolved to continue he simply yelled, "Come on, let's go", turned back to the trail and walked on, unaware of whether Mark and Eric were following him or not.
"Dad's calling! Dad's calling! Charlie, Dad's calling us!" Charlie and Mark were sprawled out on the ground moaning; Charlie holding a twisted left ankle, Mark a bloody nose. Oblivious to their pain Eric stood over them continuing, "Dad's calling us! We gotta go, Dad's calling! Charlie come on, we gotta go!"
Having stayed behind trying to decide what to do as Charlie had disappeared around a bend in the trail, Mark and Eric heard Dad calling for them and took off in a frenzy to find Charlie. Unbeknownst to them, Charlie had made a discovery up ahead and was sprinting back in their direction. Instead of passing like ships in the night, Mark and Charlie collided like plastic tugboats at the mercy of a young boy during playtime in the bathtub. It was painful but distracted them only momentarily from what had put them to running in the first place.
"I found something over there", Charlie said, on his feet and cringing as he began to put weight on his sore ankle.
"We heard Dad calling us Charlie." "He's calling us, come on, let's go!" Eric's excited plea more than made up for Mark's understated muttering which came through clenched hands trying to stop the flow of blood.
"Over there, there's a little... a, a little, I don't know, like a little hut. There's like a little hut right over there."
"Where?" "What's a hut?"
"Around the corner there's a clearing," said Charlie pointing.
"But Dad's calling us," said Mark slowly, inviting Charlie to tell him why this was not important.
"What's a hut?"
"It's right there, it'll take a minute. We'll just say we didn't hear him."
Mark looked back down the trail and was quiet. He couldn't hear Dad calling now anyway. "Man, my nose," he said and started toward Charlie.
"Come on, we'll hurry."
"What's a hut?" Eric asked again.
The Tancred brothers continued down the trail and around the corner. Charlie had a limp, Mark had wiped his bloody hands on his pants and Eric had no idea what a hut was. Charlie had a heartbeat becoming quick and rambunctious as his breaths became slow and measured, Mark had thoughts of Jack and Annie's treehouse and the Pevensie's wardrobe and Eric had to pee.
The trail straightened out again before it ran up a long slope and came to a perfect T-intersection with a second trail visible for only a few yards in each direction. But just before the trail began its ascent, on the right side, at the back edge of a small roundish clearing was the hut. Behind and to the sides it was overgrown and almost completely covered by the surrounding trees. Only the front edge of the roof could be seen as its rising point spread the branches drooping upon it in half. The approachable front was a single door and a pane-less window. Splintered pieces of wood and chipped paint could be seen everywhere. Yet the hut stood straight and tall, looking every bit as solid as the trees that neighbored it. It was predominantly a deep shade of maroon with all the outlines and trim in beige. More realistically though, both colors were well on their way to becoming the exact shade of dirt underneath the boys feet.
As they neared it Charlie had a flashback to the first year that he remembered trick or treating. Was he 3, 4, maybe 5 years old? He was Frankenstein that year and going house to house in costume with that heavy rubber mask on he felt an overwhelming sense of bravery. Like he was protected. Bulletproof. He could see out but no one could see in. As each doorbell was answered and the other kids jostled to get their treats Charlie would slip past the host into the stranger's home. How big was their TV, what was in the refrigerator, where was the bathroom? He was impervious to embarrassment; uninhibited. Nobody knew who he was, couldn't see him giggle. Despite Mom's reprimands he was intoxicated by the ability to see things and go places he wasn't supposed to without feeling guilty or ashamed. His innocent home invasions continued all night. He never saw the Frankenstein mask again and his trick or treating was limited to the mall for several years after but he never forgot that feeling.
Now the uncertainty and doubt of earlier was changing. He found his Frankenstein mask in these dense woods. He was looking out again with no one able to look in. Like ignoring candy handouts for the excitement of surprising strangers in their home, the hut held a lure that drew Charlie closer even as Dad was calling for him to hold open his trick or treat bag.
"Is that a hut?" asked Eric.
"It's just an outhouse Charlie" Mark said disappointedly.
"What's an outhouse?"
"It's not an outhouse! For who? Out here?"
Eric asked again, "What's an outhouse?" Then thought for a second. "Hold on, hunters?"
"There's no hunters you dorks! It's not an outhouse."
"So let's go in then", said Mark, "come on, you said we were gonna hurry."
"Alright, shut up", Charlie said and took the final few steps up to the front of the hut. He got up on his tiptoes and took a look in the window first. It was too high for him to be able to see anything down inside the hut but he did notice something that got his attention.
Mark and Eric hung back and began to grow impatient as Charlie's window reconnaissance seemed to take forever. They were quiet and tried to listen for Dad's calls. Nothing... except there was a weird buzzing sound in the distance. As they held their breath and listened intently to the strange sound they could now tell that it was growing louder. Closer? They looked at each other.
"Charlie we gotta go." "Charlie what's that?" "Someone's coming." "I can hear something Charlie." The boys didn't realize how low they were whispering and how ignorant Charlie was to their worry.
On the back wall of the hut Charlie could see two small windows " these with the panes of glass still in place. With the heavy growth outside them they were not letting much sunlight in. What surprised Charlie about them however was how far away they were. The hut was actually a lot bigger inside than he had expected. If this was an outhouse it wouldn't be roughly the same size as a ten stall men's room at Yankee Stadium. If anything, it could be a good day spa for hunters, not just an outhouse. Between the two windows, in a spot that would be perfect for a massage station to treat cramped trigger fingers, something in a white frame hung on the wall. He was squinting, trying to see what it was in the poor light.
The mysterious buzzing sound continued to grow. It was becoming more like a low roar now. Mark thought it sounded like the wood chipper in the scene from Fargo but he dared not mention that to Eric. Their whispers to Charlie had graduated into audible pleas but he only waved them off, concentrating more on that white frame than his whiny little brothers.
"Oh man, I really gotta pee", complained Eric. As lifeless as the woods had been so far it made Mark and Eric jump when a flock of birds suddenly squawked overhead as they flew elsewhere. As the sound became louder it rose in pitch and sounded to Eric like the chainsaws they once saw loggers using in northern California.
The boys were on edge. They were indecisive. They didn't want to leave without Charlie. They didn't want to go any closer to the hut and that approaching sound. They didn't want to stand there and do nothing. So Eric unzipped and relieved himself while Mark tossed a rock at the hut. It missed to the right by three feet and a second soared into the trees over the roof. As he unleashed a third two frightened deer blazed by on the adjacent trail. Startled, hopping, yelping, his concentration shattered, the rock hit the hut door dead on and Mark shouted, "Charlie! We're leaving, come on!" Eric zipped up with wet sneakers and they both began a slow backpedal retreat down the trail.
They finally had Charlie's attention. And now that he had his face out of the hut window he heard the ominous sound too. "What is that?", he asked nobody. Before nobody answered he knew what it was.
An airborne ATV flew into view. It landed mightily, kicked up a cloud of dirt and roared away on the other trail just in time for a second one to appear. It had not yet hit the ground before the Tancred brothers were in a full sprint up the trail racing for home. They didn't see the third or fourth ATV fly by but they could hear them well enough.
As they neared the stone wall Charlie's ankle was throbbing terribly, Mark's nose was bleeding again and Eric, seemingly in one continuous breath all the way from the hut, was still yelling "huuuuunterrrrrrrs!"
The trail and the hut popped up in family conversation a few times over the next week. Dad made it perfectly clear that beyond the stone wall was not their property and the boys were not to go past it by themselves again. If they wanted he would walk them into the woods one afternoon for a nature hike. Mom's line was that the boys now had a story to laugh about with their future families when they gathered for the holidays in the years to come. ("And then Uncle Eric...", "Uncle Mark was so scared...") But soon enough the incident was old news, put away, tossed into the pot as another ingredient of the thousands needed to make a proper, delicious and happy American family stew.
Charlie however hated stew. Whether it was proper, delicious, happy or canned, it was gross. It was not someplace to relegate a perfectly good and fertile chance for discovery. A nature hike? With Dad? Mark and Eric might have use for that kind of thing, maybe followed by some arts and crafts and naptime, but not Charlie. He was not giving up his mask so easy this time just so that Dad could hold his hand and tell him where he could go and when, what he could do and why. The hut awaited and Charlie planned to go back on his own terms.
The problem was finding the right time for an opportunity to do that. Little League had begun and the boys were practicing Mondays and Thursdays, with games on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Religion class was after school on Tuesdays, and Cub Scout meetings were on Fridays with an activity on Sunday afternoons. There was homework, stupid book reports and daily chores to keep up with. Put it all together and it was several weeks before Charlie realized there was only one time and one plan to get back down to the hut.
Charlie and Mark took the same bus from the middle school and got home at 3:00. Eric, still in the elementary school, was dropped off by bus at 4:10. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday Mom tutored high schoolers in the afternoon and got home at 4:30. Cub Scouts was at 5 but baseball wasn't until 5:30 and on Wednesday nights Charlie had to spend extra time studying for the weekly math quiz on Thursday morning. What it all meant was that a Monday had to be the day. Now, if Eric knew about Charlie's plans he would tell Dad, and if Mark knew he would tell Eric. So while Charlie put all this together in his head, mum was the word.
Charlie always got off the bus before Mark. Usually he didn't so much as turn around to acknowledge the fact that his brother was walking up the driveway behind him. Over the course of the quarter mile he would pull away enough that he was well into his first bowl of after school cereal by the time Mark made it through the side door. Only then, at the kitchen table snacking Joey Chestnut style, would they discuss the cauldron of swirling activity that had been their day at school.
First off the bus today, Charlie crossed the street and waited.
"What are you doing?" Mark asked as the bus pulled away.
"What are you doing?"
"What'ya mean what? What are you doing? Are you just..."
"I'm waiting for you dork. Let's go," Charlie relented and started up the driveway. They walked only a handful of steps in silence before the question that was stuck in traffic between Mark's brain and his mouth was answered.
"I'm going down to the hut. Right now before Eric gets home," said Charlie. Mark's question made a sudden illegal u-turn, nearly ran "I hope Mom makes spaghetti for dinner" off the road, swerved to avoid a collision with "Do we still have practice tonight if it rains?" and threw the heavy traffic into full blown gridlock leaving Mark speechless. All lanes were still clear leading to the rest of his face however so it was left to his forehead, eyebrows, lips and chin to express the surprise and disagreement he felt from head to toe.
Charlie had so expected an immediate and forceful protest from Mark that he proceeded as if that's what he had gotten. "I don't care," he said. "I know what Dad said but what's the big deal? I mean, you know, it's barely off our property. It's not like we're gonna graffiti the place or steal something. Right? It's ridiculous. We're not little kids, you know? Come on. We're gonna look at a hut in the woods. Wow, big deal."
Local authorities had cleared Mark's internal congestion and taken the recklessly traveling question into custody. He was free to respond verbally and did, albeit less emphatically than he would have moments earlier. "Man, Charlie, Dad's gonna be mad."
"He may not even find out. I mean, if we just go down and back before anybody gets home... You know?"
"What about Eric? You're not gonna tell him?" asked Mark.
"Why would I tell him? He'd go tell Dad right away. Let him go down by himself. Or on a nature hike or whatever."
Mark could feel Charlie's eyes on him like bright sunshine and he knew exactly what his older brother was thinking. He wouldn't tell Eric but he sure thought Mark would. Sheepishly Mark turned toward the sun knowing that Charlie's direct gaze could possibly cause serious retinal damage.
Like the moon intercepting sunlight during a solar eclipse, something at the bottom of the driveway had taken Charlie's attention away from Mark.
"No way," whispered Charlie in utter disbelief.
Mark turned to see what it was that had set him freer than Michael Jordan off a Rodman back pick.
Mrs. Feldman? Eric?
Mark looked at Charlie. Charlie looked at Mark. "What the...?" they said in unison. Mrs. Feldman was waving at them from the driver's window of her SUV and Eric was running up the driveway with a big, goofy smile on his face.
"Hey, can I have a snack with you guys?"
The boys spent five minutes arguing about whether they should have known about the elementary school's half day, five minutes arguing about whether they should go down to the hut or not, five minutes negotiating a bribe to keep Eric from telling Dad once they had decided to do so and then about thirty seconds threatening him when those negotiations went nowhere. As a result Charlie's watch read 3:28 by the time they reached the tree line and started their second trip down the trail.
Whatever tension may have been eased by their familiarity with the foliage, the light and the quiet, was made up for by the bad breath of consequence that hung in the air. Dad would find out.
It better be something amazing in that stupid hut, thought Mark. Like super smart homeless people who will do all your homework if you bring them a cup of soup or something.
'It wasn't my fault, they made me go down there,' Eric envisioned himself saying to Dad. 'I just wanted to have a snack and start my homework.'
Charlie felt sorry for Dad. If he could only feel the thrill, the mystery, the adventure of a little harmless exploring he would understand. But to him it was only trespassing. And now that he had told them not to do it, whether he understood their reason or not, they were disobeying and there would be hell to pay.
The boys rounded Collision Corner and stopped as the hut came into view. It was obvious right away that a couple of things were different. Like a shiny new, perfect penny among the dregs of ordinary loose change, the front window now boasted a crystal clear pane of glass. It was an obvious sign that the hut was cared for and paid attention to; it was not abandoned, forgotten or unused; and it had a current, vibrant, meaningful reason for being there. However, it was actually the second different thing about the hut that made this point to the brothers. Right next to the door, on the far side, sat a bag from Subway and a large drink.
"Is somebody in there?" asked Eric.
"Shut up!" demanded Charlie in a whisper that was actually louder than the question had been. He moved closer to cover at the trail's edge and looked skyward as if Jared might have sniper support in the trees above. Mark took his movement as retreat and gave Eric a "Let's go" as he turned to head home.
"Hey," said Charlie and motioned them back over to his spot. "Don't leave, let's wait."
"Is somebody in there?" Eric asked again.
"I don't know," said Charlie. "Probably." He was eyeing a heavy clump of brush directly across from the clearing in front of the hut and didn't respond to Mark's "Dude... dude... dude..." Suddenly he grabbed Mark's arm and pulled him out into the middle of the trail with only a single command, "Stay low." Mark grabbed Eric likewise and the three of them were on the move.
Had the goal been strictly to adhere to Charlie's lone direction, the tree root in their path would not have been a problem. They each tripped on it in rapid succession and tumbled from an accordion crouch to a pancake sprawl. As far as staying low was concerned they couldn't do any better without a backhoe and last rites. Hiding behind those bushes to avoid detection by the mysterious Subway luncher however, had suffered a major setback. And as the boys rose and the door to the hut swung open, it in fact became an impossibility.
Surprised, embarrassed, scared, defiant, ill, brave, helpless, angry, excited. Charlie, Mark and Eric were the game show contestant locked in a windy booth with a thousand dollars in swirling cash. As they grabbed onto one emotion, three others floated by; catching a new one, the first was lost; a whirlwind of feelings, each experienced for just a moment until the next was blown in and the old blown out. Overwhelmed; distracted and blinded by more money than they had ever seen at once, the boys were unable to remember, even moments later, what the man who emerged from the hut looked like. It was only what he said that made any impression at all.
"Hey y'all." He closed the door gently behind him and then gestured back towards the hut, "Grandpa says Hi." He picked up his bag and took a long sip through the straw of his drink. He held their gaze for a few more seconds, then quickly turned and headed down the adjacent trail and out of sight.
Charlie was the first to speak. "Who was that guy?"
"Who's Grandpa? asked Mark. "Is he in there too?"
"How come we never go to Subway?" added Eric. "Mom always goes to Quiznos, I mean..."
"Shut up Eric!"
Mom said a final 'Good night' before she turned off the lights, closed the bedroom door and headed downstairs. The bedroom discussion that usually followed this weeknight ritual was about video games, TV shows, friends and relatives missed back in California and lately, Charlie had gotten weird and was talking a lot about girls. But tonight was not usually. Not by a mile. What Charlie thought was a meticulous, foolproof plan had proven to be only smoke rings of wishful thinking. First Eric, then the Grandpa-man and finally the indignity of being caught red-handed coming back up the hill by Mom.
The thirty second music clip on the DVD menu started over again as if Mom was trying to reinvent television's yule log. Since putting the boys to bed and sitting down for a movie while waiting for Dad to come home, she had wandered off into thoughts about her little babies and the mischief mongers they were becoming. Would they have gone into the woods if they hadn't been told not to? Was it all Charlie's fault? Should she be angry, disappointed, forgiving, relieved? Would they learn a lesson if they were punished? Not punished? What if something tragic had happened? Was she a bad mother? Would they have done this if they were girls?
The questions ended when Dad walked in and asked why she was about to watch Mighty Ducks 3.
"Oh. Wrong movie," she said and changed the subject. After several minutes of chit chat about Dad's day he asked about hers and dove into his re-heated dinner.
"I got home early...," she said.
"Yeah, my last two kids were out sick and I've been working ahead on the JFA's so..."
Dad smiled and chewed, chewed and smiled, and swallowed. "How are the boys?" he asked.
"Look, I'm pretty sure she's not gonna tell him," said Charlie. "I mean, you heard her. And besides she never told us not to go down there, you know. It was just Dad, she probably didn't even care."
"We're dead"; "Yeah, we're definitely so dead," responded Mark and Eric in their verbal tag team style.
"We're not dead. I don't think she'll tell him. Why would she?"
"Why? Come on...," said Mark.
" 'Cause she's Mom! We didn't listen, we're gonna get slammed." "Totally slammed."
"No, you heard her. She said all that matters is that we're safe and nobody got hurt."
"But that was before I barfed," said Eric taking the lead. "Yeah, that hurl really got her mad. She hates cleaning that stuff up."
"Look," said Charlie. "You only barfed because Mrs. Feldman gave you spinach not because we went down to the hut. And don't forget after that she said we had learned an important lesson."
"We did?" asked Mark. "What lesson?" added Eric.
"I have no idea but who cares. If she thinks we learned a lesson then there's no reason to tell Dad."
"I don't know," said Mark. He was thinking that Charlie had actually made a good point but it couldn't possibly be that easy.
Charlie continued, "Hey, remember when we broke that glass thing, from the table? Mom said it was really expensive, remember?"
"She didn't tell Dad about that, remember? She was super mad right? But she didn't tell Dad that."
"That's stupid. So what? Dad didn't tell us not to break that stupid glass thing..."
"He didn't tell us not to break a lot of things," Charlie interrupted. "That doesn't matter!"
"It matters, it's different." "What?"
"She doesn't always tell Dad things we do, that's all I'm sayin'. I don't really care anyway."
Mark was clearly frustrated with having to deal with Charlie on top of worrying about Dad. "Good for you," he said. "You better care, it was all your fault anyway."
A few unintelligible mutterings were offered by each brother before the room fell silent for a minute. Then from the bed nearest the night light came a quiet sobbing.
"Eric are you awake?" asked Charlie. "Eric? What are you crying about?"
Eric was quiet. He wiped his nose and took a deep breath. "Guys I'm scared. I've never seen a dead guy before."
"You didn't see a dead guy," said Charlie dropping the confrontational tone. "It was just a grave."
"The boys went down to the cabin today," said Mom.
"What cabin?" Dad kept eating, completely unaware that where Mom was going with this would kill his appetite faster than any meal.
"Down that path in front. In the woods."
"You took them down there?" asked Dad, surprised that Mom would spend her 'leave work early time' doing that. "Was Charlie bugging you?"
"No, I didn't take them..."
"You let them go by themselves? You know I didn't want them..."
"No, no, of course not. They went before I got home."
It was here that Dad stopped eating. "They what?"
"All three of them," said Mom. "They just went on their own. When I got home they were coming back up the hill."
"Are you kidding me? Jesus..."
Mom could see Dad changing. He stood straighter, tightened his lips and breathed through his nose, he was blinking faster and he began circling his right foot on the floor like he was putting out a cigarette he'd just dropped. Before his frustration could catch up with his physicality and become anger, she knew she had to appeal to his sympathetic side.
"It's OK. Listen, they're a little spooked. I guess that cabin-thing is like a poor man's mausoleum or something."
Dad's sympathy took this statement and passed it on to his curiosity. "In the woods? For who?"
With a bewildered head shake Mom answered, "I really don't know but the boys said it was creepy. Eric was scared, he threw up. Mark was really upset too."
Dad's sympathy took back the hot potato. "Charlie?"
"Well, you know Charlie. I don't know what he was expecting in there but it wasn't that. He was..." Mom started chuckling. "He was pretty stunned. He's fine. I mean he was just really confused. Disappointed I guess. I don't know."
The physical manifestations of Dad's rising temper were retreating. "That is strange." He looked at his food and took up his fork again but then put it down. "Who buries somebody in a wooden shack in the woods?"
"Apparently our neighbors."
"Yeah. I'm just glad it was that and not something dangerous. Somebody was telling me about guys up here who use pit bulls to hunt deer..."
"Oh my god, that's crazy," Mom said.
"That's all we need is a couple of them chained up in some place like that."
Dad finally pushed his plate away and headed for a seat in the den as Mom said behind him, "Lucky for us. Just somebody's sad, old grandpa."
"Sad what?" asked Dad inattentively as he looked for the TV remote.
"Grandpa. Just somebody's grandpa. The boys said the headstone had 'Grandpa Butch' on it."
"Grandpa Butch?" Dad was suddenly re-attentive. "Mr. Wilson's Grandpa Butch?"
"I think I'm gonna throw up again," said Eric.
"What?! Why?!" Charlie knew that another vomit volcano by Eric would worsen Mom's feelings about the whole afternoon and increase the chances of her rolling over on them. "Wait, what's the problem?"
"I just feel sick. I'm sick. We shouldn't have gone down into that place Charlie. That dead guy, the dead grandpa was in there. When I think about it I feel sick. I'm gonna throw up. I guess dead guys make me sick. I can't help it."
"Hey, will you just relax. Think about something else. There was no dead guy there, he was buried, he was way underground, it's no big deal, relax." Eric; he knew all along Eric would be the one to blow it, and if he blew chunks now it would all be blown. "Just take deep breaths or something, you're not sick."
"What if the grandpa guy turns into a ghost or a zombie and he comes to get us? You know, for goin' into his little house place. If he comes to get us then we'll have to tell Dad, we'll have to..."
"Eric, his name was Grandpa Butch. You saw the pictures of him in there. Did he look like someone who would turn into a zombie or a ghost?"
"I don't know."
"He was just somebody's nice grandpa. Ridin' a nice horse in all those pictures. Stop being crazy..." Where was Mark when you needed him? Off in the bathroom when he should have been here calming Eric down. He would know what to say.
"What about Irvington Crane?" asked Eric.
"The headless horseman, don't you know anything? My teacher..."
"It's Ichabod Crane, dork."
"Well my teacher said that story happened right in New York. What if it's true?"
"It's not true! Are you worried that Transformers is true and Megatron is gonna crush you?"
"No, but if that grandpa was such a horse rider guy maybe it could come true, you know? Like maybe he died 'cause somebody shot his head off."
"You're being stupid Eric. Mom is right, Dad lets you watch too many PG13 movies."
"Yeah but why is he buried out there?" continued Eric. "Nice people are buried by churches, only headless horsemen and werewolves and zombies are buried out in the woods, right? Only really bad..."
"Shut up already! You just ate too much spinach, go to sleep!"
"No I didn't. Spinach doesn't make me sick anymore and besides Mrs. Feldman mixes it with ice cream so it tastes better."
"That's gross," said Charlie. "Spinach and ice cream?"
"Chocolate chip," answered Eric matter of factly.
Mark returned from the bathroom " finally! " but he brought sobering news. "Guys," he whispered. "Dad is home. I heard him talking to Mom downstairs."
"Oh man, Mark I'm sick, I'm gonna throw up again! Tell Charlie..."
Before Eric or Mark or Charlie could say another word, it was done.
'Now what?' thought Charlie.
Ned Wilson inherited almost 150 acres of land from his grandfather. Content with his own home and property he bought a horse and spent years improving, subdividing and selling that land to others. He and his partner created ponds, streams and walking trails; they cleared hilltop areas with the most scenic views; they planted colorful and beautifully blossoming trees and bushes; and they stacked stones for miles, outlining, highlighting and dividing different features with authentic and simple stone walls.
Ned and his horse grew old and weak together, loving the backbreaking work they put into the land. When finally Grandpa Butch suffered a shattered leg caused by a misstep hauling stones uphill, Ned was forced to put his best friend to sleep. Leaving the stone wall project incomplete and out of sorts among the rest of their postcard quality work, the last sweat that Ned put into the soil was to bury Grandpa where he lay. He sold the remainder of the property to his son Nick, who built a shed around the horse's grave, and moved to Florida.
Mom took in the story the way Dad had taken it in weeks earlier from a dad at a little league meeting. She pushed for telling the boys to ease the discomfort caused by their callous and inconsiderate trespassing. Dad thought maybe it would serve them well to be bothered and worried rather than let them off the hook by making light of their misdeed. True, but feeling that way all afternoon was long enough Mom countered.
"Do you think they're still awake?" Dad asked her.
"Probably. I just heard footsteps a minute ago."
Dad rose and started for the stairs.
"What are you gonna tell them?" asked Mom.
"I don't know. I'll wait and hear what they have to say first."
He smiled and headed up the stairs.
Charlie was in crisis mode. With Mark and Eric yelping like hungry dogs about having to go get Mom, he was brainstorming for possibilities whose outcomes projected to be less ruinous than what his brothers were lobbying for. Tell Mom Eric threw up because he swallowed a bug, his pajamas smelled gross, the room was too hot, Mark made him eat bird food. Tell Mom he was the one who threw up or it was Mark who threw up. Make Mark and Eric clean up all the vomit, clean it up himself, tell Mom it's not vomit " Eric just brought oatmeal to bed and spilled it. These all had holes in them for sure, but the truth would decisively tip the first domino in a row that would quickly come crashing down squarely on Charlie.
"I'm getting Mom myself," said Mark heading back for the hallway.
"Hey, hold on, just wait a minute," said Charlie. He hadn't noticed that Eric was crying again.
"No, don't wait Mark, go get Mom."
"Just wait a second..."
"No, I'm not waiting Charlie," Mark said raising his voice. "He's sick so I'm getting Mom."
"But we can tell her something else, so she won't be so worried about Eric, so she won't tell Dad."
"I thought you didn't care, huh? What are you so afraid of?" "Yeah Charlie, you're afraid."
Afraid? He knew Dad could make him feel worried, helpless and intimidated but not afraid. He didn't want to get punished but that didn't make him afraid. "I'm not afraid," he told Mark. "Stay here with crybaby and I'll go get Mom."
"Dad's down there too. What are you gonna tell 'em?" asked Mark.
"I'm gonna tell 'em Eric threw up 'cause you punched him in the gut."
"No you're not. Tell 'em it's all your fault." "Go get Mom Charlie."
Dad reached the first landing from the bottom of the stairs as Charlie reached the first from the top.
"Charlie, you're still up."
Mom from the kitchen and Mark from the bedroom crept closer to the stairs in an attempt to listen in on the conversation.