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The Hideout March 30, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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The writing prompt said, “Describe a hideout.” This is my attempt to do just that. 

Four boys stood bunched together at Jonno’s back gate, silently contemplating the expanse of bushland that beckoned them from the other side of Mr McGinty’s paddock.

It took the minute or so of a lifetime to feel the resurgence of bravery in their midst.

Then Jacko, the oldest of them, gave a nod. “Let’s do it.” And as a man, they trod the drought-baked ruts of McGinty’s Lane, and eased themselves between the jagged teeth of McGinty’s barbed wire fence.

The newly liberated forest almost vibrated with the energy of shaking off its winter coat, and allowing all the potential that had been incubated throughout winter to emerge wide-eyed and bursting with excitement. All around, greenery shot forth from otherwise dead-looking twigs, and newly formed wild-flowers blinked themselves awake into the sunshine.

It is possible, too, that the air was alive with piercing bird sounds, and that the creatures of the forest floor were scuttling about with the same eager energy. Sometimes, however, when you are on a mission, the beauty that surrounds you, no matter how overt or flamboyant it may be, would only be a distraction if you allowed it your attention.

The small troupe of boys who wordlessly trod the familiar paths of the colour-laden forest weren’t particularly mindful of any beauty. All they knew was that it was the first weekend for months and forever that their mothers had allowed them to venture out amongst the trees to return to the fort where so much of their last summer had been played out.

Somewhere between the back gate and the depths of the forest, each boy had found himself a suitable stick. It wasn’t a conscious thing – none of them needed any help traversing the paddocks or the paths – but a stick in the hands of a boy seemed a completely necessary thing, deep in the psyche of each one who trod the path.

Somebody whacked at a bush with their stick, and Jacko, in the lead, turned briefly to glare in the direction of the offender.

This approach to the hideout, the first for the spring, was sacred.

Something made a nearby bush rustle, and Dink, at the back, squeaked. He hastily stifled the sound, not wanting Jacko’s glare turned in his direction.

“What if there’s a bear?” Buddy voiced suddenly, high pitched and frightened.

“There’s no bears around these parts,” Jonno shot back scathingly.

“Shut up,” Jacko ordered.

Abruptly, he stopped. The others gathered around him. There, across the rocks of the dry creek bed and up the slope a bit, it was.

It didn’t look quite as it had done in summer, when vines entangled themselves with the boughs and sticks and old palings that the boys had used to enhance its camouflage, and the canopy of trees hung low around them. The structure seemed intact from a distance, and fresh foliage and blossom was beginning to emerge on the vinery.

It was Dink who broke rank first, and began to scramble over the rocks and up the slope to their hideout, his hiking stick abandoned where he’d stood.

Ducking behind the prickly bush at the entrance, he fell from habit to his knees and crawled inside. Blood from the angry jab of a jagged rock smeared with dirt down his shin as he moved, but it didn’t matter. The ground beneath him was dry, but the shroud above him smelled damp and sweet, almost acrid in some places, but breathtakingly familiar.

In the back corner, he found the remnants of their last meal from the end of summer. The rusting baked bean tin, an empty soft drink can, and a soggy chip packet all seemed to say, “Remember?”

Behind him, Dink heard the others arrive, not quite as breathless as he had been moments before.

“It’s smaller,” he called out to them.

“You’ve grown, you idiot!” Jonno called back.

One after the other they crawled inside, looking around, tasting the atmosphere in their breath, the urgency for fun almost palpable. This year, though, they could not heed the call.

The four of them unconsciously took up their designated posts from last summer and sat in silence. Dink was at the back; his big brother by a year and a bit, Jonno, to his left; Buddy to his left and Jacko straight in front of him, their guard at the doorway.

This summer wasn’t going to be like last.

This summer, Jacko and Jonno were going away on a cadet camp.

This summer, Buddy’s family was moving to the other side of the country.

This summer, Dink would be the sole custodian of their sacred place.

He brushed the still-trickling blood away from his knee and wordlessly reached into the corner to scrape the debris from last summer into a pile between them.

He picked up the baked bean tin first. Handing it to Jacko, he said, “You looked after us all. Keep it, hey? Remember.”

Jacko took it, but didn’t reply.

Dink picked up the chip packet and let some stagnant water drip out onto the dirt below. Holding it towards Jonno, he said. “You didn’t want to, but you shared. Remember?”

To Buddy, he handed the coke can. “You refreshed us all, buddy. Remember us.”

Summers fade, boys grow, and mostly, life goes on.

The hideout never again saw all four boys together.

Jonno brought his girlfriend there, but didn’t come again until she was his wife, and pregnant. When it was subdivided, they bought the land from Mr McGinty that had the hideout in its back corner, and Jonno’s sons played there as they grew.

Buddy came once to visit Jonno, healthy and hearty, with a tribe of rowdy children and a face streaming with tears.

Jacko visited sometimes, and he came when Buddy did, stony-faced and unbelieving.

“You wouldn’t think that one annoying kid could leave such a mark on a landscape, would you?” he said to his old friends, surveying the scene of their childhood revelry.

Jonno finished hammering the cross into the ground outside the fort. Beneath it, along with the ashes,  lay an old coke can, a dried and smoothed out faded chip packet, and a rusty baked bean can. The cross itself read: Dink won, cancer lost.

“Or a heart,” he said quietly.