And then came the miasma, the pheromonal smog, that swathed the girls’ noses as they entered the fort. It smelled like boy, the clapboard hovel, the hideout Ricky built in the woods. Down back where the development ceased, where firs resumed their earthly reign, where the arboreal shield deflected grownup gaze, there squatted the fort, sub rosa. Ground-bound and tarp-roofed, assembled from found scraps, was the juvie’s approximation of animal architecture: whereby cigarette butts, shoelaces, gum wrappers, do industrious avifauna weave into nests; so did the kingpin, Ricky of the 6th grade, construct a bastion from trash in which to view smut. A floor of hourglasses, centerfold walls. It was supposed to be a secret.
You guys hear about the fort?
Cia at the bus stop, tossing her braid, Cia chomping Bubblicious at 7 a.m. Artificially grape, the wad dyed her lips, glowed her teeth blue. She looked cold. In her early morning hand, a cracked-open can of Coke, sipped between chews. Breakfast.
What fort? said the girls: neon slap bracelets, Hello Kitty backpacks, gelled bangs and Keds, puff-paint festooned. Clearasil faces and Bonne Bell lips, benzoyl peroxide and wand-applied gloss. They attended Hamilton Junior. They split two ages: the girls were eleven, Cia was twelve.
Tell you in a sec—and Cia made the girls wait.
Cia teased the world. She laughed in its face.
The bus pulled up. The girls got on it. Beelined to the back, closest the fumes. They sat opposite Cia, huddled over the aisle. Shoved their backpacks wherever. Cia began.
Okay so yesterday, yesterday after school, this boy comes around with a crumpled piece of paper. I was sitting on my swing, just hanging out, and he floated right past, like he was a ghost. He held the paper out front, like a dowsing rod, you know—that stick witches use to find underground water?
The girls nodded like they knew what a dowsing rod was.
Cia was into that mystical type stuff: wizards and dragons and fairies and crystals. Her full name was Cynthia—Cia for short—named for a Greek goddess by Cia’s cool mom. Cia’s cool mom rocked tie-dyed overalls. Cia’s cool mom rainbowed gems up her ears. Cia’s cool mom ate nothing had a pulse, drank nothing squeezed out an udder, ever. For this reason, Cia ravaged lunch money: on monstrous hamburgers and pints of evil dairy.
So this kid goes back into the woods, back behind my house, looking for something.
Cia expectorated her gum—with bubble still inflated—found a good spot, stuck it under her seat. To add to her collection, her menagerie, of stalactites: mini hot air balloons, ossified, suspended. Gulped the last of her fuel, rolled away the empty, the metallic ricocheting—ping ping ping! Cia perched her Converse on the puke-green bench. They were marigold All-Stars. They left diamond scuffs. NO FEET ON THE SEATS—to Cia did not apply. Cia was Cia. She was her own rule.
So I followed him.
The girls, at this, leaned closer, leaned in. Gnawed ponytails, chewed hangnails, pogoed knees, picked scabs. Cavalcade of habits, nerve-wracks, tics, composed the overture, What Would Cia Say Next? The bus consumed town, metabolized streets. Its accordion maw ingested live children. It belched and it burped. It rumbled dyspeptic. Stuffed itself full. Groaned.
Yeah so turns out there’s a fort back there. Basically it looks like a pile of junk. Ricky was inside, he yelled out ENTER, that kid crawled in—and then came another! One after the other like dumb little ants. I watched them for like an hour. I hid behind a trunk.
The bus farted to a stop.
Its red octagon flipped.
A kid got on.
It was Wey.
Wey’s father died when Wey was in kindergarten. When Wey moved there last year, on his first day at Hamilton, claimed he was from Mars. A saucer-crashed alien. Wey’s moon boots were duct-taped silver. His everyday sweatpants, worn-out diffused black, gaped at the knees, expelled joint bruises. Anarchy was his T-shirt, a scrawled letter A, silkscreened and circled dead center his chest. Wey didn’t eat lunch, Wey sat out at gym, Wey carried a coffin shaped just like a sax. He leaned it against a jammed-open window. The bus driver looked up, rooted Wey in her mirror. Mr. Wang please put that case on the floor. I can’t have instruments hanging out the bus. So Wey laid it across his lap. And the bus driver sighed. They went through this weekly. Wednesdays were Band.
So want to go see it? Today after school? The fort?
When Cia asked a question, she already knew the answer.
That was the thing.
The thing about Cia.
3:30 was backpacks dumped by the swing, the time and the place that Cia said meet. A zippered ziggurat, a monument to forgotten homework: to readings not read, equations not solved. Assignments could wait. They would have to wait. There was a fort to invade—get priorities straight! For situations like these, why kids had excuses. When came tomorrow, blame the dog.
Cia (being Cia) brandished a staff, twinkling orb at its top, runes carved down its barrel. A souvenir acquired at the Renaissance Faire, where Cia’s mom worked Julys (see: Maiden #10). For thrashing at brush or whacking a boy’s head, whatever obstructed their path, their course of action. Hands in! said Cia, and the girls took hold, fists stacked totemic, grips shish-kabobed. Cia bowed her head, offered a benediction: We ask thee Diana, goddess of the hunt, please be our protector. Booyah on three! Thrice pounded the staff, and the girls booyah’d, a yell could topple trees, could fell the sky.
They released the staff.
And Cia started off.
Into the woods, they went.
Attention first was paid to the hooptie, the rusty old car, vandalized and abandoned. Its windows were shattered, its doors spray-painted, its tires flat donuts—it drove nowhere. Cia’s arm reached in. Well wouldja look at this. A white bra dangled from the hook of her finger. Makeout evidence, backseat artifact. Whose is it? said the girls, and Cia shrugged who knows. Slingshot it back in. Come on, let’s go.
The retinue advanced, forewarned of likely traps, Keds cautioned to step where Converse preceded. With her sorcerer’s tool, Cia tested the earth, prodded at patches, confirmed them solid. Be on the lookout for snakes, they’re everywhere back here, and black widow spiders, their venom is deadly! As could be expected: Serpentine vines sounded false alarms plenty; daddy-long-legs, harmless, misidentified as killers.
At a point Cia stopped. Halted the troops. Directed their attention. Stabbed the air.
Look, guys, look! There it is, see? There’s the fort—can you see it there?
Yes, Cia, yes! Yes yes they could! The girls squealed mice-wise, commenced little jigs, kicked up leaves, whorled the dirt. Hugged each other like they’d been long apart. There it was, guys.
Its tarp roof crinkled, plastic, synthetic; a gust of wind coughed and puckered the drape. The girls listened hard—listened for boy sounds—anything guys? Nothing. A squirrel zipped up a chaga-blackened birch. A hand slapped a vampire in a bright red splodge.
Should we go in? implored the girls, countenances a card hand, fanned splayed arrayed. Cia shot a quick shhh with one vertical finger. You wait here, her mouthed syllables, silent. The girls got down. Squatted. Shushed.
Exited the interzone, did the braid, bold. Ready or not, boy world, here she came! Approached Ricky’s enclave, journeyed staff-first, froze in her tracks. Shoot. Cia surveyed the peril: a poison ivy moat surrounding the fort, a pernicion would fireball uncovered limbs (an Indian summer, Cia wore cut-offs). Knew well its mantra, leaves-of-three let it be, respected its potential. Shoot.
What was it yesterday she saw the boys do? Something they crawled—the big babies—across? A board or a plank? Surely she’d seen it! Well where the heck was it, the gosh darn bridge!
Cia searched and she searched, turned up bupkis. Searched and she searched, nada niet zilch. Yelled what the hell, because what the hell, damnit!—it’s not like anybody’s parents could hear.
Then spake a voice.
It was the forest.
And when the forest spake, it spake way loud.
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING?
Cia spun round. Who goes there?! It sounded everywhere, the bellow, the boom. The girls cupped sprung mouths, startled in a jump. A compound reaction: four bodies, one flinch.
Then it happened, the transformation.
Cia became something not what she was.
Her eyes blazed astral. Her braid whipped like a tail. She copped a Godzilla in stonewash shorts. She pounded her staff, drove it against shale. It clapped stentorian, split the atmos. Cia stood a Titaness, taller than an elm; the crown of her head grazed the empyrean.
Come out, you fiend, show yourself at once!
Nothing at all, no answer, and then—
A rustle, a crunch.
A branch animated.
Out stepped a moon boot.
It was Wey.
Wey? The girls stood up, brushed off their butts. Cia came over, her face like what? The five considered this odd, this most strange, creature. This jinn from the sylvan, this sentient anthropoid, this nerd incarnate slinking, poor postured, sweatpantsed. Pocked with the woods’ detritus, leaf bits and twig smidgens, a spider’s web halo caught about his tresses, his gnarly tangles ignorant of comb. What was Wey doing here? It didn’t make sense. It was Wednesday, wasn’t it—didn’t he have Band? This thing that was Wey said Band had been cancelled, Mrs. Sab threw up again, rumor is she’s pregnant. The girls said oh. Plus he’d heard them talking on the bus that morning. The girls said oh. Oh okay yeah.
Check this out.
Wey dropped a paw into the shaft of his boot. He pulled out a paper plane, sharp and neat. Wey perfected aircrafts serving time in detention. For objecting to dodgeball, or disrespecting the flag, arms limp at his sides, hand not over heart. Wey launched the winged ephemera. It landed on Cons. Cia picked it up. Undid the scamp’s skill.
The loose leaf, unfurled, revealed dark symbols: dashed lines and squares, triangles and slashes. Crude manifestations, sketched approximations: of a swing, a car, a fort. A route. A trail of dots to a blood-orange decussation, in emphatic Crayola, X marks the spot. In the fat margin, at the top, was writ: MAP TO RICKY’S FORT. TOP SECRET!
Oh my God, Wey! Where did you get this?
The map was legendary among the grade’s boys. Among the grade’s boys, the most coveted thing. To get a map from Ricky, a few things you could do:
- Be funny.
- Be cool.
- Be not Wey.
- Be all three.
Wey said nevermind, there’s something else, too. He’d overheard Ricky, about how to get in. The poison ivy trick. Just follow him.
The girls checked Cia. Cia shrugged okay. Guess he knows something. Let’s follow Wey.
During the last big storm, the inconceivable happened: Centuries-old trees snapped halfsies like twigs, toppled like dominoes, unmoored the subterra. Eroded earth-caves, did the roots, gale-surrendered, cratered dark apertures, dug deep pits. Wey led the girls to such a specimen. He got on his knees, he plunged in an arm—Ew Wey don’t!—ignored their plea. He got a handhold on it, with both arms yanked, leaned back—gah! Can you guys help? Like a chain-gang, locomotive, they resurrected the stiff. It was long and pale. A body wide. Yardstick rigid. And just as wooden.
It was the plank.
The plank was the bridge.
You guys! You guys! You have got to see this!—burst Cia’s decry from within Ricky’s fort. Wey guarded outside, with Cia’s staff stood watch, while the girls squeezed in, they scooched, they crouched. Over bodies like bodies they’d never-before seen. Women who were women but not-women too. Something the girls recognized but at the same time didn’t, in these page-torn figures, scattered, accreted. The girls giggled, they howled, they gasped, they screamed, they tried on reactions as if they were clothes: like mall-jeans strewn on a dressing room floor, none felt right. None fit.
Wey tapped on the bridge—tap tap tap tap. Um hey you guys, he thinks he heard something! Cia went okay, let’s get out of here. But it was too late. Bad timing arrived.
WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING.
It was Ricky. Ricky of the fort. Ricky with a gang of his latest recruits. They were a snicker. They were a spit. They were a pimple, an oozy popped zit. Ricky crossed his arms, pressed his thumbs into flesh, a hack that enhanced his puny biceps. Ricky had a body he was still growing into: dirty-blonde mane and pitch-cracked roar, he was a kid lion. Still growing. Ricky wore a jersey had a devil on it, his favorite team, his avowed tribe. When the pond froze over, Ricky waged war. Bloodlusted on blades, ichor on ice. Any excuse to beat kids with sticks. A lost tooth or black eye, that was a win.
Nice fort, Ricky. Where’d you get the Playboys? Your Daddy?
Engaged in persiflage, Cia caught her staff, to her by Wey tossed, commanded the bridge. Wey leapt into the poison—what did he care?—his legs were covered. Off he ran. The girls emerged squinting, like they’d lost their contacts, reality a blur, a gross misunderstanding. Something squawked overhead. Wings beat raw. Thunder, aways. A storm.
Excuse us, boys. We’ve got to go.
Ricky shook his head.
Don’t think so.
How cats arch spines, pufferfish inflate, lizards frill scruffs to magnify size; so Ricky straddled his stalks, hulked wings of his arms, to hips cleaved his fists, five-jointed bludgeons. The boys formed a blockade, at the foot of the bridge, denied the girls’ egress. Hissed. Cia rapped her staff. She said move it Ricky. Ricky didn’t move. Budged not an inch.
Raindrops fell like spitballs thrown. Tiny bullies, pelting their heads.
Cia tested a step. Ricky poked at her chest. Held his finger there longer, much longer, than he should. It bored to something deep. Something girls know. Cia reared up, raised her staff with two fists.
DON’T YOU EVER TOUCH ME, DICK!
The boys went ooh. The kid lion laughed.
Ricky said what. What’s a girl gonna do.
And Cia landed her staff, in one quick move, cracked wood against bone—thwack! Fractured Ricky’s nose, blood gushing down the aquiline. Red rivulets streaming. A ruptured geology. The Sphinx of Giza wailing, the Sphinx of Giza lost his nose. The impasse dismantled—and the girls fled.
Fled the maelstrom, tripping slipping panting, the sky flashing electric, coruscations incandescent. Rain tumbled in sheets, reamed their hair, sluiced skin. Their drenched shirts clung. Mud ate their shoes.
They ran to Cia’s. They hid in the basement. They lit five candles, sat on the floor.
They asked a Ouija board: Would Cia’s mom find out?
The planchette jerked.
It indicated: YES.
Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories in The Stockholm Review, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, STORGY Magazine, and The Writing Disorder, among others. Recent honors include: Longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18; Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; and Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open March/April 2017.