My maternal grandparents live next door to the old junior highschool for the town school district. The building was old and run down, and closed only a few years after I graduated. The auditorium where we used to put on plays collapsed into the gymnasium. The building sat on a huge piece of land on the edge of town. Back when I was a teenager, there was a section of the field next to the school where all of the brush and other junk was basically just piled together at the bottom of a steep drop off. No effort was made to clean anything up, it was just dumped there. There was even the remains of a concrete shed that had once been a storage unit for the sports teams that used the fields for practice. Mostly it was filled with the dead pine trees they had cut down along one side of the school – the trees had all died off and new trees were planted in their place, but the old trees were just dumped down off the side until they filled up almost all of the space.
Behind this small dump was a large, empty field that was owned by the city. It was supposed to become a park, but the city didn’t have the funds to complete it. Years later they did, and cleaned up the mess behind the junior high at the same time. However, as a teenager, the mass of pine limbs and cast off construction material was a fascinating warren for me to explore. The other kids all called it the deadfall, and no one else would go near it.
It was probably a bad idea that I climbed all over it. I was warned off several times by adults, but with my grandparents house right next door, it was practically in my back yard. I spent almost every evening with my grandparents, so it was always a place I could go exploring. I learned how to be careful, how to choose where to step very cautiously. I also learned all the little paths deep inside the labyrinth of junk and debris.
Nothing scary ever happened inside the deadfall. Quite the opposite; to me, it was practically a sanctuary. It was my secret headquarters, my fortress of solitude. If a bully came after me, I could disappear inside within seconds and good luck finding me down in there. It was my world, and I knew its secrets. I knew all the entrances and exits, all the ways across the fallen limbs and crumbling concrete. There was nothing in the deadfall for me to fear. Adults would sometimes try to warn me out of it, especially if I were walking across the top, but I’d just disappear into the prickly limbs and hide in my little clubhouse.
I say nothing scary ever happened inside the deadfall, and that was true, but there were an incident that happened outside of the deadfall that was a little frightening. It happened on a summer evening, those long summer evenings where the sun seems like it will never set. A softball game had wrapped up about an hour beforehand and they had lost a ball into the tangle of limbs. I found it hanging from a forked branch like a strange white fruit. This pleased me greatly, for I always liked finding cast off goodies, especially ones I could play with. I took the ball and made my way deep into the pile, not really caring that the sun was slowly setting.
It was the noise that made me first realize that it was getting dark. I know that sounds odd, but the noise of crickets and other nighttime insects is pretty noticeable when it’s otherwise silent around you. The deadfall was too far from the street to hear cars and no one ever came back there, so I was alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the creaking branches, and when the crickets began chirping, I knew I’d stayed too long. I was about to make my way out when I noticed the shape of someone walking in front of the junk pile. The deadfall was a perfect blind – there was no way they could see me, but I could easily see the shape of someone walking. I was very quiet, not wanting to get in trouble for being in the trees.
Suddenly it occurred to me that it might be my mother or grandfather looking for me. I climbed quietly out of my little niche to see if I could get a better look. As I got closer to the edge of the fallen branches, I realized the figure wasn’t moving, or rather was sort of pacing away and back in front of the pile. I couldn’t see them, not exactly, more like the indication they were there – their shadow, a glimpse of color and movement through the branches. Something seemed off about them. Finally they moved off, and I slipped out of the side of the pile. I walked around, now no longer fearing reprisal since walking around the field wasn’t unusual or forbidden. No one was there. The open field behind the deadfall was empty, and there was no way they had climbed in while I was in there or in the few seconds from the time I exited. I looked around, but they were gone, as if they had never been there The ground was also muddy near that side of the deafall and there were no footprints.
I decided it was my imagination and went home. I had the feeling I was being watched the entire way, and just before I got to my grandparents’ garage, I heard a whistle from behind me. I turned but saw no one.
I don’t think I went back to the deadfall much after that. My memory is hazy, but I believe the rest of the summer was spent in my own backyard, or riding my bicycle anywhere but back there. Eventually the city cleaned up the mess and hauled all of the trees and debris away to the city dump. I didn’t even realize it was gone until much later, when I walked back there and saw that the hillside was bare, and my hidden playhouse was gone.