Shades’ final class was a study hall, and he had used his arrangements— as he had these past four years— to go to Mr Marten’s computer lab. It only took twenty minutes or so to wrap up his paper, and now he and John were discussing their plans for tomorrow’s adventure. One of the perks of being in any of Mr Marten’s classes was that he didn’t care if his students talked, worked on other classes, or even played computer games— as long as they completed his assignments on time.
“So Arthur isn’t coming with us?” John asked, not even taking his eye off his spreadsheet. He had been doing this all year, and it was now second nature to him.
“Yeah, he had to fill in at work.” Shades had managed to get the station next to John’s. Mr Marten’s lab was a hybrid of three different waves of upgrades, and his computer was a Frankenstein chimera of older parts, but it still worked for his purposes. That paper had used up the last of his disk space, so he would have to bring another disk next week. In the meantime, a little Solitaire was in order.
“Guess that’s one less lunch to pack.” Yet that news didn’t seem to diminish his enthusiasm. One thing about John Doe that Shades could always count on was his friend’s hyper personality, and the most animated face he had ever seen to go with it. Only a flicker of regret, then, “So why aren’t you writing? Don’t tell me you’re stuck again.”
“No, I just need another disk.”
“You can borrow one of mine,” John offered, and Shades simply waved his hand.
“Thanks, but I don’t have enough time left to do anything now anyway.” Shades stayed on top of things (and secretly hoped his teachers weren’t pulling his leg about this stuff being useful in real life), even finding time to pursue his own private projects. After his “Bermuda Triangle” paper years ago, he had started compiling accounts of paranormal events, but after a time he got bored and started writing a few accounts of his own. He had worked on them off and on over the years, and in light of her remarks in class, he now couldn’t help wondering offhand what Amy would think of them. “Anyhoo, it’s too bad Arthur couldn’t come along. After all, he doesn’t get out there all the time like we can…”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” John’s typing slowed down noticeably. “You never get tired of wandering in the woods, do you?”
“Nope.” Shades folded his arms behind his back and stared even deeper into space than John was. “You would’ve loved it…”
“Loved what, dude?”
“You didn’t move here until we were in the seventh grade,” Shades told him. “It was different when I was a kid. It all felt so… new, but also really old… I don’t know how to describe it, but this time of year kinda makes me feel like that again.”
There was a sense of mystery out there that he couldn’t quite explain. That even year after year of outside encroachment still hadn’t fully erased. There were things out there whose stories had never been told, places that had an aura all their own. Explored and mapped, yet still full of well-hidden secrets.
John sat there in uncharacteristic silence while Shades reminisced.
“When I was in the third grade, I used to walk to and from school.” Of course, back then he had gone to school in Lakeside, and could therefore do that. “There weren’t as many people around back then, so there were trails and shortcuts I couldn’t show you anymore. I wish you guys could’ve been there…”
“Yeah.” John knew that Shades sometimes got like that, but he just didn’t have the heart to stop him. When his friend got going like this, he could almost see it. Then he came back down to Earth, asking, “You’re still gonna hang out with us at Sandy’s Sunday night, right?”
“Not this time,” Shades replied.
Sandy lived just a couple blocks’ distance from Shades’ house. Over a year ago, Sandy started a band called Nowheresville— which Vince (keyboard) took every opportunity to point out, Dave Barry would’ve said was a good name for a rock band— and John played drums. They originally called themselves America’s Most Wanted (an inside joke on John Doe’s name), but decided that Nowheresville worked better.
On Sunday nights, Nowheresville could be heard for blocks around, at least according to the neighbors.
“Tom’s got a couple new games, and I want to check ’em out,” Shades explained.
“Oh. Good for him.”
“Come on… I’ll be there next week.” Shades often hung out with them when they rehearsed on Sunday nights, while Sandy’s mom was off at church, and politely (sometimes not so politely) answered the phone for the various people who called to complain about them during their sessions. For having played together for little more than a year, he didn’t think they sounded half bad. “After all, without me, who would hold off all of your adoring fans?”
“More like major critics,” John muttered. “Wouldn’t know good speed-punk if it bit them in the ass…”
“Yeah, but if no one stood in your way, it would be all too easy. Anyhoo, let’s talk about tomorrow.” He had been too busy lately to get very far, but he looked forward to getting out into the deeper woods again. He could already imagine what the forest must look like now that the snow had melted off and everything was green again. “You think anyone’s done anything with that old fort?”
“Probably not,” John replied after pondering for a moment, then, remembering the small mountain stream that ran next to their house, said, “If you think about it, we’ve got the closest bridge. It’s a long way around.”
“I guess you’re right. Maybe we should fix it up and camp out there this summer. That first level’s big enough to put up a tent.”
“Yeah, dude, we probably could.” John and Shades had discovered it a few years ago on one of their hikes, and he was still impressed. “Though we’ll have to see how much that pulley can handle… I wonder who built that thing anyway.”
So did Shades. He especially had seen many things while wandering in the woods, including a number of little forts built by successive generations of kids. Then abandoned, then taken up and added on to by others. Yet this particular one, a tree-fort, was one of the most impressive specimens he had ever seen.
In the most far-flung corner of John’s family’s land was a mighty pine that stood head and shoulders above the surrounding trees. And set high in its branches were three platforms, from the highest of which one could see for a long way. There was a rickety set of rungs nailed into the trunk, but a couple years ago they had replaced it with a rope ladder. The main platform was large enough to walk around on, and underneath the second platform was hung a pulley for hauling things up. The other two platforms had ladders between them, where they had found a battered canteen, a wind-swept pile of ruined magazines, and the tattered remains of an American flag.
“Whoever they were,” Shades remarked, “they really knew what they were doing.”
“You can say that again! Dude, we should make a campfire near there and have a barbecue and—”
The rest of John’s great idea was drowned out by the bell.
“Come on, John. You can tell me all about it tomorrow. I already know Arthur’s down for it, and I bet Sandy and the others would be interested too.”
Shades would usually have followed him back to his locker, but today he was in a bit of a hurry. Bypassing everyone else, he made it out into the parking lot ahead of the crowd. A good head start, given everything he needed to do between now and tomorrow.
He added possible wardrobe and equipment changes for tomorrow’s excursion to his mental notes as he looked up at the sky. This morning had greeted him with a blameless blue sky, and a forecast of more of the same tomorrow. At some point between US Government and study hall, though, dark clouds had settled in, giving him the sinking feeling it was going to rain within the hour.
Could already smell it.
Not only did Shades have the advantage of not having to stop at a locker on his way out, he also had a secret weapon for escaping crowded parking lots. Even as he made his way, he removed a black helmet dangling from the side of his backpack. He loved the feel of the wind in his hair, but he wore a helmet most of the time anyway; though very confident in his own riding skills, some other drivers’ exploits did not inspire his confidence. Fished his keys out of his pocket and threw his pack over his shoulders.
A sixteenth birthday present of sorts, Master Al had hooked him up with a really good price on it. Even if he had had to work over a year to pay it off. Even so, he took good care of that black motorcycle, for only its awesome gas mileage offered him any personal freedom without being at the mercy of others, given what great distances he had to traverse every day.
He threw on his helmet and gloves, mounted his motorcycle, and wove his way through the other early departures with ease.