by Peter Soucy
I. purple swing
Early visits to Ian and Cullen’s included lifting up pieces of their bluestone walkway to look for stashes of red-backed and blue-spotted salamanders. Your mom never let your brother and you get a dog, so reptiles and amphibians were the only living things you liked to touch. Their slime was like a dog’s drool and their slippery bodies like fur to your hands. The three older boys would take the salamanders, place them on the swings, and push. You placed your salamander on the swing and it crawled into the gap where chain met swing and never came back out.
II. bones of a skunk
The first time you managed to get your three-year-old-self brave enough to walk into Ian and Cullen’s wooded yard, your older brother convinced you everything would be fine. He told you he went into the woods every day to build the fort of mud, sticks, and dirt. You stepped on the bluestone and looked down to see if the salamanders would pop up to give a word of advice before you were swallowed by trees taller than any building you had ever seen. You walked up the path, trudging your feet in the dry dirt, carving paths ants may have used as highways. Staring down at your feet, you barely noticed Ian turn and sprint. Gazelles that never lived in these woods would have been envious of his strides. You pushed your tiny legs into overdrive, fired the nitrous until you were safe on the screened-in porch which was peeling with white paint. Your brother whispered that skunks were supposed to be asleep during the day. You smelled your fingers. Smelled them at least five more times. A habit you fought throughout childhood. The creature crawled out of the depths, the dirt. A matriarch bigger than yourself lying down, waddling from side to side and wheezing. Ian, the eldest, followed it into his neighbor’s yard and called you all over. You left the porch, almost crying, walking close to your brother. Imagine being sprayed. Through gaps in a suburban shrub you watched the creature take its last awful breath, twitch like a demon, collapse. Ian and Cullen’s mom came outside to smoke and asked what happened. The skunk is dead. Above, turkey vultures waited in a black loop.
III. dog collar
No one knew why someone had let their pit bull loose in the woods. After you made a few successful ventures up the path, the dog chased you back out like the mouse your mom chased from the crack under the dishwasher. The dog appeared in your nightmares: a knock at the door with nobody there, then the dog. Your stick arms tried to push him out, but you worried his ear would get crushed by the door. Maybe this actually happened.
IV. wicker couch
White, brand new, and never sat in. When the sun shined on it, it seemed to ask you to take it and turn it into your new fort. The old fort was crushed by boulders and set on fire by the kid across the street. The one who always had matches in his pocket and owned a book of curse words. Ian convinced the four of you to carry it over two yards and a private street until it could be placed in the woods behind his own house. He told you it would be used as protection against the kid across the street and his boulders. You jumped through the thin wicker seat with Ian, while your brother looked at you with your mom’s eyes. When the seats were thoroughly crushed and forcibly ripped out, only one of you could fit inside at a time. After caking mud and leaves over the pure white, you started filling the fort with rocks to be used as weapons against the enemy in case of another surprise attack. As you carried stones toward the couch, a man in a police uniform walked down the wooded path. He told you that a similar couch was stolen from a neighboring yard days before. Ian said that the couch was found in the condition it was in: no seats, covered in dirt, filled with rocks. The man told the four of you to run home because you were trespassing on private property. Ian and Cullen’s mom later asked why you kids were inside playing video games on a warm summer day. A question your own mom would ask all the time.
V. crystals that revive plants
Ian and Cullen’s neighbor planted crystals beside dead flowers and they would grow back. You wondered if she was magic. Your brother once shattered her bird feeder with his skull when his sled launched off the mossy boulder in her yard. She came outside with fluffy gauze and lavender tea for him. When Cullen got angry at Ian, sometimes he would throw him to the ground and jump on his head. You thought maybe the crystals in the ground were the reason Ian’s head wasn’t flattened. The neighbor was never angry. She always welcomed you four kids in her yard. Her cats watched as you sprayed a spider the size of your hand with bug spray until it shriveled like popcorn in reverse and fell to the ground.
VI. small pieces of your left ear
The only hill for sledding behind Ian and Cullen’s house was the path. The one you hadn’t feared in years. You took their tube sled down it and slammed headfirst into their house as their mom smoked a cigarette on the porch. She took you in her gentle arms and hugged your head close to her chest as her straw blonde hair cocooned you. She smelled of smoke and shea butter. The following day the four of you thought going down on the tube sled altogether would make it travel faster. None of you had taken physics. You, the only pre-pubescent boy, were immediately thrown overboard and under the sled and the weight of three boys at least three years your senior. You didn’t focus on the grinding of your left ear on sharp ice and rock. You didn’t think about Ian’s face after Cullen had jumped up and down on it. You didn’t think about the smell of your fingers. You were floating in space. The ice was a mother’s kiss on your cheek. You crossed the bluestone where the salamanders were and stood. Your brother’s face shriveled up, but fear kept his eyes wide open. Ian and Cullen’s mom ran out with a paper towel for you. It looked like someone had spit summer cherry pits all over it.
VII. beer can
Ian and Cullen’s mom talks to you on their screened-in porch, says they’re always smoking and drinking, drinking and smoking. You take a sip of your beer and try to focus on her as her husband digs through mounds of ice to find the last Bud Lite. Your brother asks if you want to smoke and you follow him up the path, now overgrown. It takes less than ten strides to make it to where your fort use to be. It stands no taller than your hip, covered in moss with snow in places the sun hadn’t reached yet. You smoke and sit down in the dirt, while salamanders crawl up your ears and into your head, licking the back of your eyeballs. Licking until you can no longer see what it looked like to stand among the trees. Until you can no longer see what it looked like for something to get crushed or brought back to life. You set your ear to the moss and hear something wheezing.