Day 5 of 31
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I’ll never forget the forthouse my father built me. On rainy days the raindrops leaked through the rooftop and it was too cold to stay there in winter, but it was mine, and that was all that mattered.
My father had built it for me when I was 13 and it was the highlight of these years. When I was up there I always took a few books and then I let the stories be the spark for my imagination.
I became a sheriff in a dusty old town, a fireman brave enough to challenge the flames, a proud and noble indian leading his tribe, one afternoon I even became the president of the united states. My biggest idol though weren’t Eisenhower and Truman, they were Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe, entertainers much bigger than life than any president could be. The walls of what I called my fort were therefore decorated with photographies of the man my mum swore was the devil and his swiveling hips. I spent countless hours trying to emulate the way he could put teenagers under a spell, but I never quite put it off. There was no doubt in my mind that if I had a guardian angel, it had to be the king.
Who I became week after week didn’t really matter though, I had fun.
And I wasn’t alone.
The fort became something of a local celebrity in itself and it attracted many around my age I wouldn’t have met had it not been for the fort. Many a friendship was struck and ended the way it happens when you’re that age, but I’ve managed to stay friendly with a few of those faces that seemed to come and go in an endless carousel.
The fort mattered a great deal to me. I was a rather introvert boy back then. Very sickly-looking. Because of my frail natureI tried at all costs to not be noticed in the hallways. In the fort though, it was a different story altogether. I commanded armies, I decided over matters of life and death and then I could fall asleep dreaming of my daring feats instead of fearing those bigger and stronger than me who never failed to seek me out.
I have remained shy and I still lack a certain social grace but I like to think having this fort taught me a thing or two. Without the fort, I would never have had a chance with Betty Gabler either.
Betty Gabler was the girl of my dreams, the one girl that had the same place in my fantasy as Elvis did. She was a brightly shining star in a decidedly lackluster environment.
Maybe I thought of her this way because of those blonde hairs and these yellow dresses she used to wear. Or maybe she just mattered to me because she always made a point to be friendly to me, and as a terminally shy boy, genuine friendliness counts for something.
When she hit me with her best smile, my heart would race like an army of wild horses and I would have sworn that beautiful string of pearls was perfection.
Betty was one of the most loyal and enthusiastic fort members and I would regularly make her my second-in-command for whatever I was this special week. She was also always the first one to learn the secret handshake. Because the fort attracted so many people, access had to be limited, and I found the least obstructing way was a handshake. Those who knew it could enter, those who didn’t couldn’t, simple as that.
Betty has been in some of my fondest memories as an adolescent. One memory though will always stick out. It was my birthday party and of course I was celebrating it in my fort with all the friends I had who knew the handshake, and my heart swilled with fear when I saw Betty appear.
Of course I had invited her, but I was sure she would never bother showing up and as a result I was entirely unprepared for how to react. Was I supposed to act cool? Should I shower her with attention like she deserved? Should I play the clown?
As so many times after that, Betty took the decision out of my hands.
When the party got started, she simply cornered me and gazed at me with her indescribable blue eyes. With one of her warm smiles she wished me a happy Birthday. And then she simply kissed me.
It wasn’t more than a light peck that couldn’t have lasted more but it meant eveything to me. And I think Betty knew it too, because that’s the kind of person she was. She smiled at me and went back to her own group of friends but at taht moment it couldn’t have gone better.
Of course, just when I thought I couldn’t get happier, that’s when Stuart McGill had to make his entrance. McGill was older than the rest of us, a spindly redhead with a quick temper and quicker fists. He was older by a few years than the group I was hanging around with and his leather jacket reeked of smoke.
He ruled the halls in my highschool.
“Leave. Now” I told him. “You’re banned”. There was an audible gasp and behind me I felt someone press my hand. I recognized the light perfume she wore. McGill gave me a crooked smile like a razorblade and said “Fine”. He pointed a gangly finger at me and said “Tomorrow. You and I”.
“Me” I said.
“What’s that, ‘’”?
“You said you and I. It’s you and me”. I corrected him.
He stopped smiling, tore off the posters of the King off my wall, threw my birthday cake on the ground with the back of his hand and cleaned it on Betty’s dress.
“See ya, suckers” were his parting words.
After that, it never was the same anymore. We tried to pretend nothing had changed but as much as we tried, we couldn’t deny it. Something had changed for good and it wasn’t just the posters.
The fort had lost its appeal.
After my birthday party, it all dwindled down. Our interests drifted to rock’n’roll, booze and girls. As for me and Betty, we went out a few times but after a few months she fell head over heels with a tango dancer she had met at a dance and since I loved her, I let her go.
Me and McGill though, our story wasn’t over, unfortunately. In the 60’s JFK enthralled me as he did many other young men, and I decided to heed his words.
I decided to ask myself what I could do for my country and after some thoughts I decided I would join the military. Not as a soldier though. My job was to ask civilians for any books they could do without and bring them to the troops for them to read. They were the kind of books I had read as an adolescent, pulps, hardboilers and sci-fi novels but it seems everybody parted with them gladly and I like to think I made a difference in being able to provide soldiers an alternative world they could sink in.
As chance will have it, McGill happened to be one of those soldiers I supplied with books. My hands shook slightly as I gave him the latest ray bradbury novel. His hair was cut short but he hadn’t changed a bit; badness rarely does. He didn’t recognize me, which I guess counts as a blessing.
He just rose an eyebrow and asked “what’s wrong, doofus?”. I shook my head and murmured “nothing”. He took the book off my hands and went away muttering “sucker”. I couldn’t help seeing McGill leaving my fort at that moment, the posters torn off the walls, he cake on the ground, Betty’s dress sullied. He had harmed us that day. I had always dreamt of this moment and how I would finally call him up on what he had caused. I’m just not a brave man.