I’ve known Billy a long time. Most of my life, in fact. We met when I moved here, I think I was 5 or 6 at the time. It didn’t seem like he hung out with anyone, and we were around the same age. I think he lives on the other side of the woods behind my house, but I’ve never actually been to his house. Which I suppose you could consider somewhat odd, because he’s my best friend. Come to think of it, he’s one of my only friends. You see, I don’t find it particularly easy to make friends. Most others think me to be a weirdo, or just strange, I guess. A lot of people like to just steer clear of me. But I don’t really mind that too much, because Billy and I get along so well that we don’t really need other friends. Well, we hadn’t before. I’m not really sure what I mean by that, but maybe I could have made other friends if I tried to. I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, because I haven’t seen Billy in a while. Maybe he’s been sick or something, I don’t know. I’m sure he’ll call around once he’s feeling better; when I’m raking the leaves out back or playing out in the woods like usual. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen him since that day he freaked out on me. I hope I didn’t scare him by what I was asking, it was just a simple conversation, a simple question, a simple query between friends.
It was a couple of weeks ago. I was wandering in the woods out the back of my house. I’d walked for about twenty minutes in until I reached the part of the woods where it thinned out a bit more, where we used to make forts a few years ago. We made so many over the years, all different sizes and designs. You could even still see the skeletons of some of the more sturdy forts we’d constructed. This part of the woods was kind of an old fort graveyard. Fallen down and half destroyed little huts, decrepit and covered in moss and mushrooms. Big orange toadstools covered the entire solitary wall which was all that remained of one of them. Another was just a crumpled heap of rocks and barren, dead branches. A tattered old sheet, mottled with gaping holes and severely frayed edges clung to an old tree, violently flapping in the mild breeze, almost as if trying to wrestle free from the twiggy branch that it was once tied to, but now only tangled in.
I recall being distracted by the sight of it. It began its life here as a doorway to the fort we considered our keep. The greatest and biggest we’d ever built. Ironically, this shredded sheet seemed all that remained of it aside the dead tree the fort was built around and the memories that I clung to. The thought that I was holding onto these memories unnecessarily had crossed my mind. I hold onto many things that could be better laid to rest. Like grudges and the sort. I call it sentimental, but maybe it’s something else. Perhaps this sheet exhaustively trying to take flight on the wind was a perfect metaphor of these things, and I, the tyrannical twiggy branch, perverting this natural course. As I was pondering this existential philosophy, I saw his shadow in the distance and it made me feel uneasy. My train of thought was broken, and I felt an urge to turn and run. But I couldn’t, just like the sheet.
Billy walked into view through the light mist, and I let out a great sigh; I must have been holding my breath.
“Billy!” I was strangely shocked to see him. He beamed a smile at me, and I was puzzled because I didn’t do the same.
“What’s crackin’, Click-Clack?”
“Don’t call me that, dude, you know I hate it.” It was a silly nickname he’d made up one day, Click-Clack Cracker-Jack. He even had a weird rhyme to go with it, too. It creeped me out, but he doesn’t usually break it out. We bumped knuckles as he reached where I was standing and leaned on the dead tree next to me.
“Pretty foggy day today, eh, Jack?”
“Yeah…” My voice trailed as I looked up at the sheet again, now above his head.
“You alright, Jack? You look a bit lost, mate.”
“Do you think that some people hold onto things for too long, like memories or notions? Or, like, I dunno, it’s really hard to explain. You know what, never mind.”
“People do lots of things we may never understand, Jack. People are weird like that.”
“Yeah, I guess. But do you think their lives might be better off if they just let go of some of those things? Put it behind them and keep moving forward?”
“Maybe. Some of them, sure. Some people might only be where they are on account of holding onto something. Like a life raft, hahah!” He chuckled gleefully.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
The smile faded from his face and he stood off the tree, looked at me real intently and narrowed his eyes. The tension was strong, the fog seemed to thicken. I didn’t know if I should say something else, if I should change the subject or ask him again. I don’t even know why I asked him. It was probably the eerie atmosphere that came with the fog, the sheet flapping on a bony branch like a Reaper’s cloak, the skeletons of summers passed surrounding us. All culminating with this idea in my head about things perhaps better forgotten still lingering.
And then, like flicking a switch, he smirked as he slowly turned, pointing to the crumpled heap of rocks over the way.
“Do you remember building that one?”
“That was the sentry tower, right?”
“The keep has to have a sentry tower, you said. Every keep has a sentry tower…”
“Oh, come on, man, I said I was sorry.”
“The rocks shouldn’t be this high, Jack
–But a sentry tower must be strong and tall-”
“It was six years ago, Billy.”
“You snapped my leg, Cracker-Jack, the fucking bone was sticking out.”
“Yeah…i-it was intense, but it was an accident. I-I’m sorry!”
“I thought things would be different with you, Jack, but they’re not. You’re just like Simon. I never made it home, Jack!”
“Who’s Simon? We never built forts with anyone else…”
Always breaks a bone!
You’ll never make it home!
Might be lookin’ at you!
To break your bones in two!”
He said it so viciously, and yet, with a whimper in his voice. He began stepping backwards during the last few lines before turning and scurrying away, enveloped by the thick, grey fog. I was stunned, rooted in place. Once again, I looked up at the tangled sheet. It was hanging dead still.
On second thought, I don’t think I ever will see Billy again. Though, something about what he said still bothers me. I should ask Mr Berensin about it. He’s lived here his whole life and, if I recall correctly, also lives on the edge of the same woods. I’ll ask him if he knows of any other kids building forts in these woods. Maybe he knows Billy and if he had been building other forts with a kid called Simon. I’ll ask him once he’s done speaking with Mrs Kowalski, here.
“Oh, and Simon, can you check over the Bunsen burners and make sure they’re up to scratch for the science class in period 4?”
“Sure, no sweat, Nancy.”
Wait, hold on a dang minute. Mr S Berensin is Mr Simon Berensin?