“Remember the hideout?” I asked, mostly to Hank because Robbie never really spent much time there.
“What hideout?” Robbie replied.
I stared at Hank for a long moment hoping that recollection would prompt him to respond, but he remained propped stiffly in the Adirondack chair with his eyes closed.
“Hank.” I nudged him with my elbow.
“What?” he mumbled.
“Do you remember the hideout?”
Hank forced open his eyes as if he were wrangling over control of his eyelids. “Not really.”
“How could you not remember it? We spent so much time playing there when we were kids.”
He looked confused like he had just seen an image that didn’t make any sense. “I don’t know…I just don’t remember it.” He closed his eyes again and shifted in the chair to a supposedly more comfortable position.
I sighed heavily. “Robbie, do you remember that old shack near the lake we used to play in?”
Robbie scrunched his face and looked up into the sky as if he were trying to pluck the memory from the air. “I think so. Didn’t it have a loft?”
“And didn’t it have big warped door that we could never get open?”
“That’s the one.”
“I wonder if it’s still there.”
I left Robbie with that thought and turned back to sleepy Hank. “Hank, you don’t remember it?”
“Nope,” he replied after a delay.
I turned back to the lake, exasperated. Robbie’s float bobbed out of sync with the breeze.
“You might have something,” I said, nodding toward the float.
Robbie reeled the line in a bit, and then he jerked the rod. The float sank under the water, and he began to reel it in quickly. The rod bent toward the lake as the reel whirred. Robbie stood up and braced himself against the floor of the deck as the rod bent further and further under the weight of whatever was on his line. In the excitement I stood up from my chair and watched the water as the line and the submerged float came closer to the edge of the dock. Just as the tension reached its greatest, the line released and fell loose again.
“Damn it!” Robbie said. He reeled it in the rest of the way revealing an empty hook. “The fucker got away.” He pinched the hook between his thumb and forefinger and stared at it intently as if he could discern how the fish removed the bait and itself from the hook. He clipped the hook onto one of the loops on the rod and sat it down on the deck next to his chair.
“You’re not going to fish anymore?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not now. I will later.”
“You never were good at fishing,” Hank interjected.
Robbie smirked. “That, you remember.”
Hank let out a half-hearted laugh, but the smirk didn’t leave Robbie’s face.
“We should go see if the hideout is still there,” I said, changing the subject before my brothers butted heads again.
“Why?” Hank asked. He still hadn’t opened his eyes.
I looked at him and then to Robbie. Robbie seemed uncommitted but willing to give it a go, which encouraged me to push my curiosity upon them.
I stood up from my chair and patted Hank on the knee. “Come on, let’s go.”
Robbie stood up behind me, and Hank finally opened his eyes into narrow slits as he looked up at me from his reclined position. “Do we have to?” he mumbled. His response immediately transported me across our collective childhood when our parents forced Hank to do something he didn’t want to do. Although his voice was deeper now, I still heard the preteen Hank.
“Yes, it will be fun.”
Hank groaned and I could feel the tension rising in Robbie behind me. He emanated his annoyance like a beacon, but to be truthful, he was looking for a reason to be annoyed with Hank. He wanted to confront him right away and get it all over with, but I stood between them, as I always had.
Hank stood up wavering like the breeze was too much for him to bear. He wobbled in place and I put my hand on his arm to steady him. “Are you okay?” I asked.
He nodded, forced open his eyes, and said, “Yup.” I held his gaze for a moment before I stepped past him and walked toward the porch at the edge of the cabin. I glanced back at him, oblivious, hopeful.
When we were kids, the hideout felt like it was deep in the woods. Hank and I crawled around the lake like seasoned explorers once our parents allowed us to wander off on our own. Dad would always warn Hank to look out for me when we trampled down the steps at the edge of the porch and stepped onto the soft patch of grass that separated the cabin from the woods that huddled around the lake. Mom, sitting on the sofa on the other side of the big, open windows in the cabin, would yell for us to stay away from the water, which seemed impossible given the size of the lake. Once we stepped into the thick underbrush, hacking our way through, we were in a different world, or so it seemed.
Hank always chose the path we’d take because he was older and knew more about the trails than I did, so I’d follow him. He’d decide that we’d climb a tree or build a fort out of old logs and fallen tree limbs. He’d take us to the lake’s edge to get closer to the ducks that glided along the grassy edge, and he’d lead me through knee-deep mud so that we could get to the other side for some mystical destination convincing me that it was worth our mother’s unyielding ire when we returned to the cabin with filthy, ruined shoes.
In the woods that surrounded the cabin, Hank and I were closer than we’d ever be. I felt like I was one of his best friends there because it was just the two of us. He talked to me like he wanted me with him. His whole demeanor changed. Back home in Portland, he often ignored me and hung out with his friends, who were his age. I was just his annoying younger brother who was too little to keep up and too dumb to participate in their games. Mom tried to appeal to him on my behalf to get Hank to include me, but he never did except when we were at the cabin. Obviously, he had no choice when we were at the cabin because it was just us. Mom and Dad were adamant that it was family time, so none of us were ever allowed to bring friends along for the trip. Hank was too social to wander the woods alone, so he had to hang out with me by default.
We didn’t discover the hideout until one spring when Dad decided to take an early vacation. Normally, our trips to the cabin occurred in the summer when the vegetation was at its thickest. Despite our wanderlust, we probably never made it very far from the cabin itself because the underbrush dragged us down, not to mention that there were many interesting divots and meandering trails to distract us from pushing further away from the cabin, but that one spring revealed a side of the woods we’d never seen before. It looked almost bare in the delayed bloom of that just-arrived spring. We could see further into the woods than we’d ever seen before, and that piqued our curiosity.
As Hank and I wandered along some nondescript trail that we didn’t recognize from our previous summer’s visit, he came to a sudden stop in front of me. My feet skidded on the trail as I almost bumped into him.
“Do you see that?” he asked.
I tried to follow his line of sight, but I couldn’t see anything but the dull gray of the tree trunks. The sparse foliage felt disorienting despite the preponderance of pine trees that surrounded us. “No, what?”
“Between those two trees.” Hank pointed to his right. I followed his finger until I could see something rust-colored between two large deciduous tree trunks whose limbs were still mostly bare.
“What is it?”
“Let’s go see.” Hank stepped forward with a look of determination, but a chill of the unknown slithered down my spine. I fell in step behind him after he got a few paces ahead of me. I feared being left alone in the woods more than I feared whatever was on the other side of the big trees.
We descended a slight hill that was still slick with wet dead leaves from last fall, and I almost fell trying to keep up with Hank whose longer legs made his stride much quicker. “Wait up!” I yelled as he ducked between the trees. He didn’t stop, so I quickened my pace. A hollow feeling simmered in my stomach. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt like we were being watched.
At the foot of the hill stood, or, more appropriately, leaned this old building. It looked like an old barn, but it was small for a barn. Made of weathered gray planks covered with splotches of moss that crept up its sides and down from its roof line, the barn moaned from the weight of its age. The two gaping holes in the front that passed for windows had once been rectangular I imagined, but now, they were more like rhombuses. The big front door that probably swung open at one point had been pinched and warped so that it would no longer budge from its frame. The rust color came from the tin roof that was mostly covered with moss and dead vegetation.
When we first happened upon the old shack in the woods, it frightened me. The whole scene look foreboding. The shack itself looked like a decrepit old person with pits for eyes screaming for us to stay away. I wanted to run back up the hill as soon as I came to a stop next to Hank.
“Cool,” Hank said as we stared at the old building. “Let’s check it out.”
“It doesn’t look safe.” I tried to sound cautious, but my quivering voice betrayed my innate fear.
“Are you chicken shit?”
“No,” I lied. I was scared out of my wits, but I didn’t want Hank to know. He’d tell all of his friends back home and they’d make fun of me to no end.
“Then let’s go inside.” Hank looked at me as if he wanted me to go first, but there was no way I was going anywhere near that building unless I was pinned behind Hank.
He took a step forward and looked back at me. I quickly sidled up behind him. He sighed to convey his annoyance and then walked up to the shack like he lived there. He pulled at the crusty, old handle on the door, but the door just whined at his effort. He put his foot against the frame and pulled with all of his might. Nothing.
When we discovered what became the hideout, Hank was already 12 years old, which to me seemed big at the time since I was only seven then. He’d already experienced a significant growth spurt that made him about as tall as our dad, so when he couldn’t open the door, I knew it was permanently fixed in its position. I secretly hoped that’d put an end to our adventure, but Hank wouldn’t be deterred.
“It’s stuck,” he said, stating the obvious. He stood up tall again towering a good two feet above me. He looked to his left and then his right. “Why don’t you crawl through one of the windows?”
“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. I’m sure the fear flashed from my face like a spotlight.
Hank laughed. “Come on, Buster. It’ll be fun.”
“No. I want to go back to the cabin.” I took a step back in that general direction.
“This could be our new fort.”
I looked up at the ominous-looking structure, wilting under the weight of so many seasons. “I like our other fort better,” I replied referencing the one we had built the previous summer.
“I doubt that one is still there after the winter rain and snow.”
“Let’s go check it out.”
“No. I like this one better. Now, are you going to go in or not? Or are you just a baby?”
Hank knew how to push my buttons. I was forever searching for ways to prove that I could hang with Hank, and he was always saying I was a baby. The very word “baby” raised my cackles, and he knew it. I took a deep breath and swallowed all of my fears. “Okay.”
Hank bent down and I put my foot in his hands. He pushed me up to and through the window frame. Once my elbows were on the bottom of the warped frame I looked inside the shack.
Light filtered through the cracks between the planks of the walls. Hank’s attempt to open the door had stirred up some long-dormant dust that filled the air and floated through the beams of light like mist rising from the lake in the morning. I inhaled the dank, organic air and sniffed decomposition both of the building itself and whatever had crawled into it to die. Rusted hooks hung from the wall boards and some unidentifiable garbage gathered in the corner barely visible from the overgrown plants that covered the floor. A crooked ladder missing its bottom steps hung from a loft in the back of the old shack. It appeared that it was a barn at one point, just a small one.
“What do you see?” Hank asked from below. He had let go of my foot once I had propped myself into the window. I held myself firmly in place, but I suddenly feared falling into the barn.
“Nothing. Help me down.”
“No, let’s go inside.”
“No.” I could feel Hank climbing up the side of the wall beneath me. The barn creaked and whined with his added weight.
“Come on, stop being a baby and move!” Hank yelled. I feared his reprisal more than anything that lie in wait inside the barn, so I reluctantly pulled myself into the window and dropped down onto the other side. My footfalls stirred up more dust. I could feel the spores inside my nose. I coughed.
Hank pulled himself up and into the barn quickly landing squarely next to me. The beams of light cut lines across his face, but I could clearly see his smile as he panned across the barn.
“This is cool,” he said without looking at me. “Let’s see what’s up there.” He pointed to the ladder and before I could protest, he already had his foot on the first solid rung. I didn’t want to be left below alone, so I followed him up to the loft.
The floor of the loft felt unstable. The planks gave way to our weight as if we would crash through to the space below, but Hank didn’t care. He bounded from one end of the loft to the other, peering through the cracks in the walls as he did. He found something on the far wall and began yanking on it. The barn shimmied and whined against his effort. I thought he was going to send the whole structure clapping to the ground. I grabbed one of the ceiling beams to support me as he stepped back and kicked the wall. After a few swift kicks, a small, square board flew away from the wall and clattered onto the ground below. A rush of sunlight brightened the loft, and it didn’t look so scary anymore. Hank smiled at me and leaned out the window. I walked over to see it for myself.
We probably weren’t that high up, but to a seven-year-old, it felt precipitously high. I saw the board Hank had kicked laying on the throngs of dead leaves below, and I felt dizzy. I stepped back from the window suddenly fearful again that the barn would collapse and we’d fall to the ground.
“Let’s go,” I said. I knew my voice sounded shaky because it felt like it.
Hank just shook his head as he sat down next to the window. He scanned the woods around the lake as if he were seeing them for the first time. “This will be a cool fort,” he said without looking at me. And so it was.
The hideout stood just as we had left it, which is to say it looked exactly the same as it had the last time I remembered seeing it many years ago. The wood had darkened, but it remained the creaky, old structure it had been in my memory. Seeing it after all these years left me flabbergasted. The thing had to have been built in the early 1900s, so it quite possibly was over a hundred years old.
“Holy shit,” I said because there was nothing else to say when we descended the hill and arrived at the foot of the old barn. “You still don’t remember this, Hank?”
“I’m sorry, okay.” Hank went from laid back to annoyed in no time.
“I’m just surprised. We spent so much time here.”
The hideout didn’t seem scary at all now. Even after I had grown accustomed to its shadowy appearance as a kid, I had still feared the dark spaces within it. Now, I struggled to see what had been so fear-inducing. I walked up to the big, warped door and tugged on the handle. The wood groaned and whined. I heard a few cracks at each tug, but I could feel the door sway a little.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Robbie warned. “I’m not dragging your old, injured ass out of these woods.” He smiled mischievously at me. I smirked back at him.
I placed my foot firmly on the weathered frame and gave the door another forceful tug. The cracking noise sounded like a tree falling after it had been cut down, but the door popped loose from the frame and swung open. It didn’t open more than a couple of feet before the edge jammed into the damp earth beneath it. I couldn’t open it any further, but it was open enough for us to squeeze into the building.
I stepped back and looked at Hank. Robbie stood just behind him. “All of those years and we couldn’t get that door open,” I said. Hank just looked at me, dumbfounded.
I shook my head and stepped into the opening to check out the hideout. Nothing felt the same. The loft wasn’t as high as I remember. I reached up and touched the edge of the loft floor without using the ladder. It wasn’t as dark as I remember either. Maybe the wall planks had decayed more and now more light filtered into the hideout, but there were fewer dark spaces than I remember. Neither Hank nor Robbie followed me.
“Hank, you want to check it out? Maybe that will help you remember?” I yelled outside to them.
“No thanks,” Hank replied.
“That can’t be safe,” Robbie said.
I thought about calling them a couple of babies, but I doubted it would have the same effect it had on me a few decades ago. I looked at the ladder to the loft, which was missing a few more rungs. A couple of the planks in the floor of the loft had broken and now hung down from the ceiling of the floor below. The familiar, old smells still permeated the place. I couldn’t help but smile at the many fond memories I had of Hank and me playing games in the hideout even if Hank didn’t remember any of it. I took a deep breath and then stepped back through the small opening in the door.
Hank leaned against a thick tree in front of the hideout. He seemed out of it. Robbie seemed relieved to see me again.
“A lot of great memories here,” I said, looking pointedly at Hank.
“If you say so,” Hank said. He pushed himself off the tree and started walking up the hill back toward the cabin. I watched him walk away for a moment. Robbie fell in line behind him. I looked back at the hideout. I thought a stern push would probably bring it crashing to the ground, but something inside of me wanted to preserve it, keep it the way it was in my childhood memories. I stared a bit longer before I turned and joined my brothers on the path back to the cabin.