“Can I see it?” Aaron glanced at his friend’s bandaged hand.
“It’s kinda gross, but yeah, I guess.”
Tim lifted the white gauze and showed Aaron his hand. A gash tore across his palm, starting under his middle finger and running two inches toward his wrist. The wound was a day old but still looked wet in the midmorning sun.
“I told you!”
The two boys ducked and weaved through snarling branches as they made their way deeper into the woods. The trees cast long and tangled shadows across the forest floor.
“I can’t even remember the last time we were out at the Fort. What made you come here yesterday?” Aaron asked.
“I dunno,” Tim said. “Maybe with school starting back up next month, I just missed it. Missed hanging out here with you.”
Tim gently shoved Aaron and then winced.
“Still hurts, huh?” Aaron said.
“Yeah. My mom said it was just a big splinter, but it was more like a wooden dagger or something. Stupid cabin door. And she was pissed I ruined my shirt to wrap it up. So much blood, man.”
“Your mom needs to chill. It was just a T-shirt.”
“She’s always yelling at me about how much stuff costs. Like I don’t know we’re broke? Helloooo?” He gestured to his cut-off jean shorts and faded Star Trek T-shirt.
“Too bad it’ll heal before the start of freshman year. You would’ve looked like a badass at your new school. Chicks dig wounds.”
“That’s so stupid,” Tim said. “High school girls want football players or whatever, not dweeby boys who still play in the woods.”
Aaron turned and presented his outfit, Tommy Hilfiger shorts and a T-shirt worth five times the one Tim ruined the day before.
“Speak for yourself. I’ll have the ladies swooning.”
Tim froze in his tracks.
“That stunned, huh?” Aaron laughed before he turned and saw it too.
The cabin stood in a small clearing a few feet ahead of them. The Fort, with a capital F. The dilapidated wooden structure was falling apart, shouldering decades of dust, overgrowth, and neglect.
The rotted roof dipped in three different places but hadn’t broken completely through. The windows weren’t as lucky. Nature shattered the first few, strong winds blowing tree branches against and occasionally through them. The boys took care of the rest with rocks and BB guns over the years.
But the door. The door had always been a splintered wooden pallet barely clinging to the face of the cabin. Today, the old wooden door was gone, and a polished white panel stood in its place.
“Did you do that?” Aaron asked.
“Was it here yesterday?”
“No, I told you, that piece-of-shit door is what shredded my hand.”
Tim started moving again. Aaron surveyed the clearing, then followed Tim down the last of the grassy hill leading to the Fort. This was the right place, the right cabin, their cabin.
They’d laid claim to it years ago, not that they’d had any competition. The cabin was half a mile deep in the woods behind Aaron’s house and looked long-abandoned when they’d stumbled upon it.
Tim once admitted he was a little jealous. His mom’s crappy apartment only backed up to Glendale’s Groceries and their parking lot. Aaron’s house, which had three levels, backed up to miles of forest.
They stepped onto the creaky old porch. There was no trace left of the dry-rotted door Tim tore his hand open on the day before.
The new chrome door handle shimmered in the warming sun. There wasn’t a speck of dust on it or any part of the new door.
Tim reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Aaron said. “We don’t know who did this. What if they’re inside? What if the owner, like, came back?”
“Dude, we’ve been coming out here since third grade. No one else has ever been here.”
“Well, someone put this new door up.”
“Right, okay, and don’t you want to find out who?” Tim’s eyes were wide and pleading. As usual, Aaron relented.
Tim tried the handle, found it unlocked, and opened the new door.
They took a step inside. The air was stale, tinged with the faint smell of decay the boys had come to ignore in the Fort. No one else was there.
Tim turned his attention back to the door. It’d been hung perfectly, attached to the crumbling structure with polished chrome hinges.
Aaron walked cautiously into the main living area. It was dark, lit only by the sun cutting through the busted-out windows. There was a small kitchen in the back, home to a wood-burning stove and a few cabinets. Most of the cabinet doors hung askew and paint had peeled off the worn faces in large flakes. Through a slumped doorway lay a small bedroom. Aside from an old outhouse visible through the kitchen window, those three spaces were the extent of their hideout, their domain.
“You think the Stash is still here?” Saying it out loud made Aaron cringe. The Stash, with a capital S. He was embarrassed at how bad they were at naming things back in third grade.
Tim didn’t respond, running his hands over the smooth white surface as he studied the door.
Aaron walked to the corner where the living room met with the bedroom wall. There, next to a splintered and faded couch, sat their Stash in a hole in the floor: five water-damaged issues of Playboy, two packs of matches, an assortment of fireworks, and a few silver dollars in a small tin. The life savings of their youth, items stolen over the years from friends-of-friends’ dads’ garages and basements.
Aaron knelt to pick through the Stash, but before he could reach down under the floorboards, he felt a pinch in his knee. Warm bolts of pain rushed through his thigh.
“Ah, shit!” He jumped back to his feet.
“What happened?” Tim rushed over, floorboards creaking under his weight.
Aaron looked down at his knee. He was bleeding onto the hem of his Hilfiger shorts, and red lines ran down his pale shin. He saw drops of his blood on the floorboards and a small congregation of broken glass.
Three cuts spread out from his knee in radial lines. So much red seeped out, he couldn’t tell how deep the cuts were.
“Dude,” Tim said, “that is so much worse than my hand. It's not a competition, you don't have to scar yourself.”
“Shut up. It’s so dirty in here, it’s probably infected or something. Oh, God.”
Tim sat on the edge of the old couch to examine Aaron’s knee.
“I think we’re gonna have to amputate.”
“Shut up, dummy,” Aaron repeated and sniffed, hot tears on his cheeks now. He turned and wiped at his face.
“It’s okay,” Tim assured him, holding up his bandaged hand. “I cried too, yesterday.”
Tim unwrapped his hand and started winding his bandage around Aaron’s knee.
“Dude, your hand. Don’t you need—”
“It’s fine. Mom only wrapped it again to keep it clean. I won’t play in any dirt until I get home, Scout’s honor.” Tim held up the traditional three-finger salute, then dropped all but his middle finger, flipping off Aaron.
“And this will be fine too,” Tim said, tucking the wrap in on itself and getting up from the couch. “But the walk back to your house is going to suck ass. Here, lean on me.”
“So, is the Stash still there?” Tim asked.
“Good! Then whoever put up that door must not have come in. Or they didn’t appreciate your taste in reading materials. We can come back tomorrow instead and, as a reward for your bravery today, you can look at all the tits you want.”
Aaron managed a laugh through his tears, but his stomach soured at the thought of coming back. The idea of returning didn’t feel like a reward.
“Get in here!” Tim waved Aaron inside the Fort. “Hurry up!”
“What is it?!” Aaron picked up speed, limping as best he could with his bandaged knee. Tim’s used gauze had held up for most of the walk home yesterday, but Aaron’s dad had since cleaned and dressed his knee properly. Dad never really approved of the Fort when they had a perfectly good finished rec room in the basement, but he hadn’t forbidden it, either.
Aaron made it onto the porch and stopped, leaning against the door frame. He didn’t have to go inside. He could see past Tim, and it was obvious whoever had put up the new door had returned.
The cabin’s floor, once a jigsaw puzzle of loose boards and knots of wood, was now a gleaming checkerboard of marble tiles, each one perfectly aligned and buffed.
“What the hell,” Aaron said.
“Yeah, and that’s not all. The Stash?” Tim walked across the marble to their hiding spot next to the ragged couch. “Look.”
Aaron stepped in. It was difficult to see in the dusty shadows of the cabin.
An air vent. The hole in the wooden boards had been replaced by a metal air vent in the marble floor. Aaron half expected AC or heated air to burst up from the vent, even though the cabin had neither.
Tim slipped his pocketknife out of his jeans, flipped it open, and used the blade to turn and remove the screws on the vent. The metal cover popped off, and in the vent sat their Stash, all of it accounted for.
“Alright,” Aaron said. “I’m getting out of here.”
“What do you mean ‘what’? There is something seriously weird going on here.”
“Yeah, but...” Tim stood and walked back over to Aaron. “It’s also kinda cool, right? The Fort is getting all these great upgrades, better than the crap back at my apartment even. And whoever’s doing it clearly doesn’t mind we’re here. They saved and re-hid the Stash!”
“I don’t care. This is just too…weird. I don’t know why you came back out here after all this time, but I’m done with it.”
“I came back…I came back because this is it. This is the end,” Tim said.
“The end of what? You’re not making any sense.”
“Of us! Of everything! I’m going to Cellar High next year. You’re going to Northeast Prep.”
“That’s not going to change anything. We barely saw each other at school last year, but look, we’re still friends.”
“Yeah, we only had the one art class together, and we stopped coming out here.”
“Which was probably a good thing,” Aaron said, gesturing around the cabin. “In case you haven’t noticed, someone is fixing this place up now.”
“Next year we’ll never see each other. You won’t have time for me. You’ll make new friends. You’ll have other stuff going on. Your family’s always going away on the weekends and—”
“So come with us.”
“With what money?” Tim said. “Mom can’t afford to send me on vacations every week. And Dad stopped sending cash years ago.”
“We would cover it. It hasn’t been a problem before.”
“I don’t want to go with you. I want us to stay here.”
“Tim, it’s just a stupid old fort.”
“That sounded like a lowercase f.” Tim’s face stiffened.
“Maybe it was, dude.” Aaron immediately regretted letting the words slip out. Tim said nothing.
“Look, it used to be fun, but we can’t keep coming out here. Someone is doing all this. This is big,” Aaron said. He felt scared. Scared for himself, scared for Tim, and scared to admit it. “And whoever it is, they’re gonna catch us in here. That’s, like, trespassing.”
“That’s, like, trespassing,” Tim mocked in a singsong voice.
Aaron swung and hit Tim in the mouth. Tim stumbled back onto the couch, sending a cloud of dust and dirt into the air.
“Oh, shit,” Aaron said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did that.” But he knew. He’d been scared, and his friend—his best friend—mocked him for it.
Tim put his fingers to his mouth, pulled them back, and saw a smear of red. Strings of spit and blood ran from his mouth to his jean shorts.
“Just go then,” Tim said.
“No, man, look, I’m really sorry, okay? It’s just—”
“I thought you loved this place as much as I do, but…just go.” Aaron watched Tim massage his jaw, then wipe his hand on the torn and stained couch. He didn’t know how to make this better. He didn’t know what else to say. Defeated, Aaron turned and walked out into the woods, not looking back until he reached home.
“Okay, deal,” Aaron agreed. He didn’t like it, but it felt right.
Tim stood on the back porch of Aaron’s house. Tim had proposed one last trip out to the cabin. They could split the Stash and say their goodbyes to the Fort. It had been their sanctuary, their home away from home, for years.
The boys walked the well-worn trail through the woods behind Aaron’s house to the Fort together in silence.
Aaron wondered if this is what it felt like to lose a friend. Not just a friend, his best friend. He’d never stood up to Tim before—he couldn’t. Everyone else in Tim’s life always said no. So Aaron always said yes.
Fifteen minutes later, they stood in front of the decrepit old cabin’s pristine white door for what was probably the last time. Aaron found he wasn’t worried about any of that other stuff now. Of course he wasn’t losing Tim, it’d just been a fight. Not even their longest. They once went two whole weeks without speaking to each other. This fight was nothing.
He did, however, worry about what they’d find changed inside. That was probably not nothing.
Tim opened the clean white panel door.
Sitting on the marble tile floor in the main living area, their mildewed, dilapidated couch had been replaced with a plush new leather sofa.
“The couch,” Aaron said.
“Yup!” Tim grinned.
“But none of the other furniture?” Aaron looked around at the side tables, the recliner missing half of its stuffing, and two wooden chairs under the window—all the dusty antiques they’d had over the years. The couch alone stood clean and new.
“Yup!” Tim said again.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“That’s because I saw it earlier. I couldn’t sleep. I rode my bike over, left it behind your garage, and snuck out here at four this morning, and there it was. Then…” Tim’s smile grew.
Aaron was afraid to ask. “Yeah?”
“Then I figured it out!”
“You know who’s doing this? Who’s messing with us?”
“Yeah. We are!” Tim said proudly.
“The first day I came back out here, I got that huge dagger of a splinter in my hand. I didn’t notice, but I must have bled on the door, right? The next day, we came out here and found a brand-new door.”
“Then you knelt on some glass. We both saw the blood on the floor. Next day, brand-new floor.”
“Oh,” Aaron said.
“Yesterday, you sucker-punched me—”
“I said I was—”
“You sucker-punched me. I landed on the couch, got blood on the couch, and now there’s a new couch this morning.”
“But no other furniture was replaced because your blood didn’t get on anything else in the Fort?” Aaron said, trying to follow Tim’s logic.
“So whoever owns the Fort is cleaning up after us?”
“No, not whoever. The Fort itself. It’s, like, feeding off us. It’s growing, improving, whatever.”
“I don’t think—” Aaron started, but stopped as Tim pulled the pocketknife from his jeans.
“I think,” Tim said, “we can prove it pretty easily.” He held up his knife. “We’ll wipe some blood on something super specific, and tomorrow…tomorrow, I bet only that one thing will be replaced. Or upgraded. Nothing else.”
“Shit, dude, are you gonna cut yourself?”
“Technically, it’s your turn.”
“What?! Screw that!” Aaron backed away from his friend.
“I made the door, you did the floor, and then I got the couch...so now it’s your turn again,” Tim said and held out the pocketknife.
“No! Dude, you’re scaring me with whatever this crazy blood-pact thing is. Keep my half of the Stash. I don’t even care anymore. This is seriously messed up.”
Aaron turned for the door. His body tightened at the realization he was turning his back on Tim, who was still holding a knife. But Tim didn’t move.
Aaron walked across the polished marble floor to the white door and stepped back out onto the sun-bleached porch.
“Fine then!” Tim yelled from inside the Fort. The sound startled Aaron, and he flinched. “Don’t think you can just come back when this place is a five-star bachelor pad. All the cool kids will be here. All the hot high school girls you care so much about. But. Not. You!”
“Hey, man,” Aaron started the voicemail, “I know you’re probably still mad at me, but I didn’t see you in church this morning with your mom, and I haven’t heard from you at all the last few days. Just wanted to check in. Call me back or something.”
Aaron hung up the kitchen phone and looked out through the back patio door. Beyond the tree line, half a mile into the forest, sat the Fort. Aaron knew he’d find Tim there.
He kicked off his fancy church shoes and laced up his sneakers.
After making the trek through the woods, Aaron’s knee, which had started to feel better over the last few days, was flaring up again.
He heard something. Something beyond the rustling branches and the birds busying themselves on those branches. It was music. Muffled and distorted, but it was music.
Aaron carefully climbed the last hill standing between him and the Fort. The Fort glowed, even in the midday sun. Every window flared with light from inside. Through the Fort’s gleaming walls, a beat echoed out into the trees.
Aaron limped, his knee getting worse with each step closer to the Fort. Not that he could even identify the structure anymore. The wooden exterior was perfectly sided and painted. The roof peaked tall and proud with new shingles. The broken-out windows shimmered with new panes of glass.
The music, so loud, rumbled from inside, though they’d never once had power in the cabin. Aaron suddenly remembered Tim arguing with his mom after they, in a single afternoon, drained a brand-new pack of C batteries in his boombox two summers ago. Tim was grounded the whole weekend.
Aaron snuck up to one of the windows and peered inside.
The entire structure was replaced, reborn. Aaron took in the sight of glossy stone countertops, perfect little square cabinets, and high-end appliances, even better than his parents had at home. The posters he and Tim hung up years ago—targets for BB gun practice, like New Kids on the Block and Alf—were replaced with paintings he recognized but couldn’t name. He’d seen them in their art teacher’s classroom wall calendar. The swirling blue clouds had marked April, and the one with melting clocks was May.
He saw someone dance in from the kitchen. The dancing boy was almost unrecognizable, but it was Tim, covered in red. Tim, covered in ragged gashes. His clothes were drenched in wet and tacky blood. Tim, skinned alive.
Tim danced over to the loudspeakers and turned up the volume on the stereo, leaving bright red fingerprints on the receiver’s slick aluminum dial. He rocketed his fist into the air, exalted, then continued to dance and flail. Aaron slowly crept back from the window, eyes wide in terror.
Tim was having the time of his life, dripping blood everywhere. And the Fort lapped up every drop of it.
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Alan Lastufka is a Hoffer Award-winning author and the owner of Shortwave, an independent small press. He writes horror, supernatural, and magical realism stories.
His debut novel, Face the Night, received a starred Kirkus review, was a finalist for Best New Horror Novel at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and won the 2022 Hoffer Award for Best Commercial Fiction. It was also listed as one of the 100 Best Indie Books of the Year by Kirkus.
When he’s not writing, Alan enjoys walking through Oregon’s beautiful woods with his partner, Kris.
Copyright ©2020 by Alan Lastufka.
“The Fort” was originally published April 28, 2020 by Alan Lastufka. Reprint rights acquired.
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