Katherine Cook's : The Shack

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
our boyhood friends meet up for an annual camping trip to remember a friend who was lost when they were all children. This year as they revisit the shack, they finally discover the truth of it all and have to chose what comes next.

Submitted: May 22, 2011

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Submitted: May 22, 2011

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An old mid 90's station wagon bumped and bounced over the trail that lead back past several trees dotting the grounds and through wildly growing greenery that just barely stayed back far enough for the vehicle to make it over the worn dirt tire trails cut into the grass.

The sporadic canopy of leaves and branches blocked some of the sun that was only just beginning its decent into the mid afternoon sky. Shadows were cast in all directions between the rays of sun as the car maneuvered its way into the sparse woods.

The driver let a wave of relief roll through him as he finally saw the clearing that had been an annual camping site for he and his cohorts since they were teens in the brink of adulthood. As usual he was the first to arrive which meant he would be setting up alone.

Andrew didn't mind though, not with all that he and his friends had been through. It was like that with pals you'd grown up with and known your entire life. Even the most annoying habits could be thrown aside because when you measured up those bad habits with the past those agrivations just didn't matter.

Giving the empty campsite another forlorn look the brunette man stepped out of his car and walked to the back, keys in hand. Piece by piece he began the long process of unloading the items he'd brought along for the two night stay. It took more trips than it would have if even one of his friends would show up but Andrew didn't want to wait and even if he did most of the work, the activity would make the waiting go faster.

Before he was done carrying the fourth load of gear he heard a motor echoing off the trees and coming closer. From the sound of it he thought it was most likely Paul. Only he would still own anything that made that much noise and most likely got about 8 miles to the gallon. A bold choice, especially in this economy.

Andrew's suspicions were confirmed as the bright yellow Hummer came into view. The over sized vehicle pulled up beside his modest station wagon with a final burst from the engine as the blond in the driver's seat threw it into park. Andrew looked up as the driver gave the man still loaded down with a sleeping bag and a lantern a salute which Andrew could just barely see through the glare the sun made off of the windshield.

The blond threw open the door without a care and jumped down from the raised perch of his seat. “Andy! We the only ones here?” Paul asked and strode to his friend.

Andrew set his things on the ground next to the rest and yelled back. “So far. Vince should be around pretty soon though.”

Paul nodded as though he approved of the arrangements even though he had no real say. He was more than a little obsessed with being in control of whatever situation he was in. It was part of his control freak and car-salesman personality, but it was also why he was so good at his job as a Pharmaceutical Rep. and could afford to drive a vehicle that most would balk at.

Andrew smiled to himself as he continued emptying his tailgate with Paul halfheartedly helping. “You do know that Heath is going to lecture you most of the night about that little truck you drove up in, right?”

Paul chuckled as he dropped the heavy blue pack tied closed with twine that held a tarp they would be placing around camp for the sleeping rolls so they could keep off the wet ground. “Yeah probably. I'll just tell him I donate heavily to Save the Whales or something.

“You already tried that last year when you told him about the stock you bought in that company that ended up destroying, what was it, 200 acres of protected nature preserves?” Andrew couldn't help but take a small amount of pleasure in Paul's missteps but there was nothing malicious about his teasing. It was just that occasionally the charismatic blond needed to be reminded that he was only human like the rest of them.

The two were enjoying the banter and didn't see the third of their party peddling up on a refurbished 10 speed he'd gotten on his birthday years ago. “I can not believe you came to commune with nature in that monstrosity of a conveyance.”

Both men turned to see the red head who could have used a hair cut sometime in the last 5 years, but otherwise looked well. Unlike Andrew and Paul, both in old jeans and t shirts, Heath wore cut off khakis and a flannel that had its sleeves hacked off just below the shoulder.

The nature loving red head set his bike against a tree and took off the tightly wrapped cloth roll from behind the seat. “You do realize that you are only helping destroy your own home with that thing?” He continued telling Paul and added his roll to the growing pile of camp equipment.

Andrew cut in on his friend's rant as he looked down at the meager bedroll and back up to Heath. “That's all you brought with you?”

“Andy, how many times do I have to tell you? The Earth provides what we need out here.” Heath explained gently.

Paul started walking towards the offending Hummer and pulled open the passenger side door before replying in a sarcastic tone. “Well until nature starts providing 3 ply toilet paper I say we come prepared.” And pulled out a large plastic black trunk that landed on the ground with a thump despite the hold the fit blond had on it. With a flip of a clip on the side the large case seemed to suddenly grow wheels on its outer bottom that rolled with some effort over the earth.

Even Andrew had to stop laying out the gear to look and ask, “What the hell is that thing?”

The hard black case gave no real indication of what was hiding inside. Even the sound of a set of tires and a much more reasonable sounding engine didn't brake through the shared curiosity of both Andy and Heath. This is when Vince pulled up beside the banana colored gas guzzler in his blue Prius he could only get out and try to see what had his friends so enthralled.

He stood beside Andrew and peered towards Paul who was unhinging the closure of a large plastic box. “What's going on guys?”

Paul crouched down and lifted the top off setting it aside before pulling out what looked like a small propane tank. “This thing is great. When I saw it I just knew we had to have one from now on.” He sounded so prideful and excited while he set up the rest of the contraption. It was an outdoor grill, but it was nearly as elaborate as one you might buy for backyard barbecues.

This wasn't the first time Paul had brought something a little over the top to their camping trip. It wasn't as bad as the portable toilet that, after a full weekend of use, no one wanted to volunteer to empty. Which was why that was the only year that particular amenity was taken advantage of. Not that Paul wasn't trying to be helpful or kind in the one way he knew how, by buying it.

No, his intent was always good but for the rest of the men this was a way to get away from all of the reality of today and get back to the simplicity of just hanging out with old friends and relaxing. It was why they didn't bring tents. If it rained they pulled up the tarps and kept dry. If it really stormed they would huddle in the station wagon. The less convenient the better as far as most of them were concerned, except for Paul.

With a few shared glances the other three men came to a decision, they had already learned their lesson from the toilet incident. When it came to Paul's handy items it was usually best to leave it be and just stick with what worked in previous years.

Heath took point on this argument and Vince soon jumped in with scenarios in which they accidentally blew themselves up from the portable propane tank, even though he highly doubted such a thing would happen.

In the end it was Andrew who convinced Paul to forget the grill. “It's cool, I'll give you that hands down. But I've already unloaded the wood and set up the site, Paul. I'm having my fire. I earned it this year.” He said with resolution.

It was the only point of contention with the four as they worked together to finish laying out the tarps and putting up the low laying netted enclosure in which they kept their coolers and cooking supplies.

With all of them working together the set up went much faster and before the sun touched the horizon the fire was lit, the bedrolls were laid out and the men were seated comfortably with a beer in each hand.

The trip usually started out like that every year. Separate arrivals with moments that cemented the relationships that had been forged through years of knowing one another and learning that each of them, though separated by life and miles of road for 362 days a year, were still the best friends any of them could have.

They fell into a routine easily setting up and their conversations went the same. Even the disagreements and differences of opinion were taken to heart and respected but in the long run none of them, not even Heath, would change any of the others.

They were friends to the core. There were just somethings that could not change, and their bond was one of those vital things.

Andrew took a satisfying drink from his can and eased himself back against a rock that he had used on almost each of their excursions. It was a very suitable backrest and let him enjoy the bit of downtime they were being treated with before someone decided it was time to grab some hot dogs and start cooking up food. Right now sitting sounded like a much more inviting idea.

So they lounged in a comfortable sort of silence while the sun continued its slow fall down to earth, the moments growing darker and causing the slow appearance of tiny stars high above.

Vince stretched out on the other side of Andrew with a fallen log at his back while Heath sat across from them and Paul sat between the fire and the netted eating supplies. That only left the empty space directly across from Paul. The space was always left empty for the fifth and final member of this childhood group, but they didn't talk about Michael at the camp much these days. It was too hard to remember the exuberant rather geeky kid that had gone missing one night more than a decade ago.

Not that any of the men weren't thinking of him. He was probably the only reason that even after taking such different roads in life, from Vince's foray into just about any get rich quick scheme to Heath's obsession with fixing everything that seemed to be wrong with the planet, that they met up like clockwork at the end of every summer.

The truth was that after Michael vanished nothing was the same for the four left behind. The parents in the area became frantic and paranoid. Probably for good reason at the time, but their very normal lives became extremely restrictive in Vince's case, overly indulgent in Paul's case and overly sheltered in Heath's.

For Andrew he found the worst backlash his parents would give him was the need to ask him if he was alright, especially his mother. She would ask him after he bit his tongue or stubbed his toe like any normal mom, but then she would ask him at the most ridiculous times as well.

When he was scratching his nose or blowing his nose or if he yawned or if he hiccuped the words followed him, “Are you alright, dear?”. It was as if his mother was sure that if she missed some sign he was not doing just fine that he might break and it would be all her fault.

Now as an adult Andrew knew that his mother's suffocating presence was simply caused because of worry she could do nothing about. At the time he wished his mom would somehow accidentally glue her lips shut so that for just one day he could go without being asked, “Are you okay, sweetie?”

The crackling fire was fine entertainment for the silent evening that turned into night while Vince ripped open the packaged hot dogs and Heath instructed everyone on the dangers of plastics in food. It was almost unnoticed as he slipped in his own version of a Public Service Announcement whenever one of the others at the campsite did something that went against his values, but he only informed. Heath never was the type to be pushy about things. He simply felt that if other knew what he did they might eventually decide to make a few changes.

In no time at all their conversation turned to catching up on the events of the past year. “So they're going to set me up on the North side for the next month and see if we can get some improvement there.” Paul was eagerly telling the others who were just barely able to pretend they had some idea or interest in what he was talking about. They all loved Paul like a brother, but sometimes speaking with a Business major who could get excited about the new Office software because it made transferring spreadsheets over to pie charts and Power Point presentations a snap could get tiring.

For Paul sales and numbers were the reasons for waking in the morning and getting a good rest at night. But no matter how you cut it, he was a good guy who just so happened to be in the perfect job for his abilities and he didn't mind the perks either. “Whoever can get the highest rate of increase gets 2 weeks at the villa the boss owns just outside of Waikiki.” He said with a devious grin. “I figure a 42% increase over the last quarter with about thirty or forty new clients in the first month should do it.” His grin only spread as he explained before taking a breath which it seemed he hadn't done in some time.

It was then that the blond read the blank stares and confused looks of his friends. “Plus there's this little brunette signing up . With luck I'll get the villa and maybe see if she'd like to join me.” All three of the men perked up as the mention of something of real interest. A girl.

“Donna-” he paused and seemed to search the stars for a moment. “Donna Something. I forget the last name but I talked to her for a few minutes at the orientation. She's a slow runner.” He said as if that explained the whole thing. Noting once more his friend's confused faces he went on. “Not the kind of girl you can fully appreciate on a one night stand. We'll be working the same area so I figure a few lunches, some chance meetings and I've got a date for vacation.” If pride could be an illness, Paul would be terminal. He had it all planned out. Except for one minor detail.

“What if you get there, to this great villa for two weeks, and she turns out to be a snorer, or a kleptomaniac?” Heath asked once again fulfilling his position as educator of the dangers in the world.

Instead of causing some amount of forethought for Paul, Heath's question only made Vince and Andrew share a look before starting to chuckle.

“Or maybe she sleep walks nightly while singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Andrew offered with another round of chuckles that started rolling into all out laughter when Vince added his own postulation. “Or maybe she's really a he.”

Paul threw them both dirty looks. “Trust me, she's not a he. She's a she, she is.”

With that statement Heath joined in with the laughter and Paul was left throwing him a look as well. “Well she is!”

He stood his ground and ignored them as he sipped at his can slowly. Eventually his comrades decided they'd had enough and the laughter died down into small bursts before dying out all together.

Still catching his breath, Andrew turned to Vince. “What about you. Last time we talked you were seeing someone. Amy, wasn't she?

Vince shook his head as he swallowed the now flat beer in his hand. “Emma. Yeah. But no.”

“That clears that right up.” Paul said, happy to be able to get in a small jab of his own.

“Well, we were seeing each other but it didn't work out.” Vince explained running his hand through the short dark curls covering his head.

They didn't really need to ask what that meant. Not one of them had even gotten to the point of considering engagement or living with anyone. For some reason none of them could really voice why, but they knew that kind of life wasn't part of any of their futures. It was never spoken of, it just simply was.

The uncomfortable silence was the one thing they couldn't ignore because the elephant in the room had been there for over a decade and it wasn't bound to leave any time soon. They were all in their twenties and as of yet not a one of them had ever had anything that could be defined as a long term relationship.

It was Paul who finally let his voice cut through the tension. “What about you Andy? Still living in the cubical?” He took a look back at the old station wagon. “We know you haven't upgraded from the car your dad gave you pre-frosh summer.”

“Why can't you just say after high school like a normal person?” Heath asked Paul, who just shrugged smugly and made a show of looking back at Andrew awaiting his answer.

Ignoring the two and their forever bickering Andrew told him the news. “Got a promotion a few months back. Now I've got 5 people working under me but I'm still in the same cubical, I just have to fit more file folders in the cabinet under my desk.” He answered plainly and then remembered. “Oh, and I got an extra IN BOX as well. So I also lost some desk space but at least I got a raise out of the deal.” He finished with a little less enthusiasm than the rock he was leaning against.

“Well I spent the last four months in Washington. It was stellar, in every way. I spent nights studying the stars through the breaks in the clouds and days working towards the safety of a tribe in Zimbabwe that was in danger of being displaced by a manipulative firm out for profit.”

It was Vince who had to ask. “Zimbabwe?”

Heath then went into a long and intricate description of the agonies that were being forced upon the innocent. It was an old story for the nature boy. He would find the most unknown and insignificant cause, like making 30 people move 2 miles east, and devote every second of his life to it.

They were good causes, there was no doubt about that, but it was easy to see that more often than not he was running an un-winnable race. Or in Heath's case, several races. One after the other. To date not a single one of his obsessions had won the battle. His latest being no different. “And so the decision was held up and we were out of choices. I hate to say it but by now that tribe is already moving onto new lands with no choice in the matter.” He was forlorn and obviously done talking for the moment.

“Aren't those tribes supposed to be nomadic or something?” Vince asked out of nowhere.

Heath gave him a confused look. “Uh, I don't think so.” He thought again. “Are they?”

“Oh brother.” Paul wanted to ring Heath's neck on a regular basis, but sometimes he also thought Heath just wanted to help everyone and couldn't tell the difference between being taken advantage of and doing some good work. One of these days he was going to follow his friend to one of his save-the-world gatherings and find out if someone without permission, which meant anyone not him, was deliberately taking advantage of his friend's generosity.

For now what they needed to do was stoke the fire and get some sleep. It was well into the night and they had some hiking to do tomorrow. It was the whole reason for coming up here every year.

One by one they settled in for the night and let the fire die down as the sounds of the outside surrounded them. The crickets in the tall grass and the few owls that perched in the trees were making themselves known now that the men's voices had quieted. Occasionally a breeze would catch the leaves above and make the branches creek with movement. They were familiar sounds. Lulling background noise that let them all fall into an easy slumber after a day of setting up camp and staying up much too late. It reminded them all that it could be fun to relive one's younger years but it was much easier when you had the use of your younger and more energetic bodies.

In no time flat the owls, crickets, and the trees as well were joined by the snores and breathing of four slumbering campers.

The hours of rest passed with little stirring from the four prone sleeping bags. They were oblivious of the small boy who passed between the old station wagon and the shining new hummer without a sound. He slowly walked towards the few glowing embers left from the campfire that had been burning low for quite some time before finally going out.

The boy stared at the men as he came closer. Then one by one he stopped to look at them and smiled. He stepped carefully around the camp looking over the equipment. He lifted the netting and reached in to lift the lid of one of the coolers of food. A grin spread across the young boy's face as he recognized some of the delicious snacks and treats he had not seen a very long while.

He lifted a can, cool from floating in the water that remained of the melted ice. The can was sprinkled with water dripping down its sides as he closed the lid, taking care not to make too much noise and stole off with the cola towards the cars again.

Before he disappeared from the camp he stopped and looked back once again. He somehow knew they would be there. He knew all four would would be camping on this night and he knew they would also be expecting to stay for another.

A snap sounded through the silence as he popped the tab on the grape flavored drink. It had been his favorite once upon a time. A different sort of time. But time was a strange sort of thing. He knew that as well.

He knew quite a bit for a boy wearing a simple shining metallic ID bracelet, tattered cut off jeans and a worn button down shirt that had at one time had sleeves but only the frayed edges were left of them. The remaining three buttons of the shirt kept it closed but only from mid chest to navel. Despite his clothing's state he was clean and as far as any outside observer could see, well cared for and fed. He was not a scrawny left over or abandoned child.

He watched while the four men remained ignorant of his presence. And they didn't notice when he gave them another wide grin and walked off back the way he came.

The night continued on with no more surprise visitors or unwanted interruptions until the morning sun began to make itself known and the light of a shining new day broke in past the night waking Vince.

He rolled over and tried to ignore the sun's call of morning and the chirping of several birds also coaxing him out of his sleeping bag and into the new day.

He was used to waking up first. It was almost a part of the tradition as was his ritual of checking the left over coals of last nights fire before setting up for a new one for breakfast. They were going to need a decent morning meal for the long day ahead.

Quietly as he could he moved around his still sleeping friends and lifted the net up before picking out what were once frozen sausage patties but now were simply extremely cold ones out of the cooler packed with freeze packs so that ice water wouldn't leak into the meat. He pushed aside the packs and found the rolls that would go with them.

When Vice turned to grasp the pan he saw Heath sitting up looking back. “Morning.” He smiled over at his friend whose hair had apparently had an adventure of its own having escaped the ponytail the nature lover usually kept it in.

Heath nodded back and started to do what had become a morning ritual of trying to find his hair tie while simultaneously attempting to tame his unruly hair. A process that from Vince's perspective would have been much easier if he had a third hand.

Paul was up next just as the sausages began to sizzle and Andrew joined them a minute later and decided to grab a few apples for the meal as well from the supplies. That still left plenty to bring along but he thought a little sugar boost might be a good idea to jump start all of them.

They made short order of eating and cleanup, all too anxious to get on the trail to waste time. Heath took up the job of putting out the fire while Andrew washed out the pan and rinsed of the tin plates. Paul made sure their food stores were secure after grabbing what they wanted to take along since they would be gone most of the day. That left Andrew to make sure the packs were set up properly and that they didn't forget anything.

In only a few minutes all four were ready to go with a backpack firmly strapped into place and their destination calling to them. They headed out past their dormant vehicles and towards a trail that could only be found if you knew where to look.

Locating the entrance to the trail took a little more time than they would have liked. Each year new growth obscured the first few yards but all four had grown up in these woods playing and camping and inventing new adventures like children often did. In time Heath let out a whistle and waved the other three over as he stepped past the edge of the path the cars had taken and into the nearly untouched cloister of trees.

The path was fairly straight with only a few bends to get over a hill or around a large tree. They walked in virtual silence as they concentrated on their footing over exposed roots that had grown too large to be hidden under the earth and long stringy roots cutting across embankments with earth missing from run off that caused new obstacles that appeared each time they made the journey.

The fallen piles of leaves from the past year had settled into the ground and would often hide pits or valleys that could catch boots. The occasional jutting rock did not make the trip any easier either.

All in all it was a difficult trek because the neighborhood that they had grown up in had once housed dozens of roaming children, all who had enjoyed the secrets of these woods. But those children had grown up and very few families with children moved in to continue the explorations and keep the trails fresh. But there were good reasons for that.

Their neighborhood, barely two miles away on bike, had been the kind of place kids remembered in adulthood as the best place to grow up. A park within walking distance, school was close, friends were close and there was a great patch of woods that had mysterious places for kids to play.

Back when they were the children of the neighborhood parents thought nothing of it. It was a quiet part of the world where theft was almost unheard of and all of the kids and parents knew each other. It was the epitome of safe. It was, that is, until Michael went missing. Then everything changed.

At first no one thought anything of Michael being gone as the five boys often came and went while playing to check in with their guardians regularly, but when the four got home for dinner and then the phone calls started coming in from the missing boys foster parents they knew something was wrong. That was when all of the children's parents found out that the kids didn't always stay in that patch of woods when they went camping.

The five boys had found a strange new place one day while playing soldiers. They were looking for the enemy in unknown territory, very unknown. It wasn't long before the kids were lost.

They roamed but stuck together and together they found themselves miles away from their normal area and so lost that even the Boy Scouts, Vince and Andrew, couldn't seem to find the right way out. Something about the moss being all over the trees and not pointing in any true direction for them to get their bearings. The sun at high noon didn't help either, by the time they thought of trying to use it to guide them.

The old unpainted wood shack appeared then and they walked towards it without even discussing any other option. Somehow it drew them in with its wonder and the possibility of finding help. After all, this place was safe. It was all part of their home and no matter how far they went this was still their woods. Except it wasn't.

They had long passed their neighborhood limits and had gone out towards the forest that as far as anyone knew no one owned. Except there stood someone's home. Small as it may be.

Paul and Heath lead them up with Michael lagging as he tried to find some sign of a person. His shaggy dark blond hair was starting to get in the way. But he, like his friends, was also getting pretty hot and his hair was beginning to get slick with sweat so he pushed it back hoping that the wetness would help it stick in place.

The yard, if you could call it that, was mostly dirt with random patches of clovers and grass. If the boys weren't in such a bad state they probably would have started to look for a four leaf-er, but as it was Michael resisted the urge to get a closer look and check for one of those lucky little plants.

Instead he climbed up the one step to a porch that creaked as the wood gave under all five boy's weight.

At first they thought it lucky that the front door had a large window pane in its center. Lucky until they saw that it was blacked out with paint and the one front window beside it was covered with a heavy dark brown curtain. They had no idea what to expect when Paul knocked on the wood with a quick but firm fist.

They stayed silent and even a couple of them held their breath as they waited for a sound from inside that indicated someone might answer the door.

They waited and listened but the only sounds they could hear were the leaves above shaking a little in the slight breeze that blew through for a moment. Unfortunately it was not nearly long enough to help lower the temperature and the boys really did want to cool down.

“No one's there.” Andrew announced to the others. It was an obvious truth but Paul knocked again instead. His red t shirt was damp and he really wanted to figure out a way home but he didn't want to let the others know he was worried.

He was the oldest at 13. He would be 14 in two months and didn't want to lose face, but they were five lost kids with no way to get home. He needed some help.

Still no one came to the door after Paul's third try. Out of nowhere Vince grabbed the doorknob and turned it with ease. The door swung open revealing a dark one room space that had been unoccupied for some time. It was dusty and dirty with webbing in every corner and stacks of splinters and bits of dirt that obscured every surface.

They stood in the doorway, unsure if going in to the abandoned building was the best option, but Vince figured that if he opened the door he should be the one to go in first. He gave his friends a fleeting look and was about to walk in when Michael pushed his way past him and started for the one small table in the center of the room.

He looked up at his awaiting friends. “Come on guys.”He said with a wide grin. “Look at all this stuff.” He brushed off a warped magazine and started to laugh. In a quick movement he tossed a it across the short span of space to his friends and Paul caught the flying magazine in one hand.

The blond boy lifted it up and grinned. “It's a Playboy.” He looked over the cover and he quickly calculated how old it was. “It's 17 years old Michael.” He pointed out with annoyance and disappointment plainly written on his face.

“So.” His friend answered shrugging and cleaned off several more of the men's magazined. “There's a bunch here.” He stacked them up on one side of the table and found a bunch of nature magazines as well. It was a strange assortment of reading material to be sure but here it all was.

Eventually all five of the boys were roaming around the small space. With the open door and the shade it was a bit cooler than the outside despite the initial stuffy air when Michael first entered.

They discovered one small stove in the corner still filled with unused wood and a cash of rotted food that had petrified over the years.

The former resident had a cot in the opposite corner of the stove and one chair beside the sleeping space that had obviously been hand made years ago with care but had seen better days. All around on tall book shelves were jars filled with the dead remnants of plants. In some stems or small twigs also remained making it look as though at least a few had once been habitats for small creatures like grasshoppers and fireflies. The place really didn't tell them much, only that whoever lived here left a long time ago and it didn't look like they would be back anytime soon.

Thankfully in their less than innocent search through another person's home they found a very old local map of the town and with the aid of the boy scouts, after some rather heated arguing from the pair, the boys had a good idea of where they were and how to get home.

It was just short of dinner time when they made their way back home after grabbing their bikes and leaving the familiar woods they recognized after a bit of roaming. They didn't get home late and none of the parents knew about their discovery. Not until the youngest of them, Michael, went missing only two months later and it all came out and that was the end of the secret of the shack.

Even after all of the searches of the entire area expanding for miles in all directions, no trace of Michael was found. Nothing but his bike up at the old shack.

Over the years the boys had to let the place go, until they were all 18 that is. Once they all hit adulthood a tradition began and now 10 years later and nearly to the old building that had once been God sent, they went once more to remember an old friend.

It was both easy and difficult to explain why they felt a need to do it. On the one hand they knew it wouldn't accomplish much. The four remaining young men had grown apart in all ways in their lives but still they had a connection through their missing member. Somehow in Michale's absence he kept the group together. So each year they found a way to meet for a camping trip and they found their way to an abandoned building that still held the old bike.

When the field now covered in clovers and even more sprouting clumps of grass came into view the men slowed their steps. They had once again made it through the walk that had been difficult when they were younger and didn't seem much easier now with a decade's worth of years added to their experiences.

Andrew marveled at the site in front of him. The shack was still standing but it was aging from lack of care. The rotting wood structure had a broken front window and the porch now sported a large hole at the right upper corner. It had just been a crack last year. “Come on.” He said leading them over the greenery. He was ready for a rest.

Just like when they were kids, Paul took the lead in towards the door and carefully took the one step to the front door. Like when they were children it swung open with a turn and the other three followed in after.

The old cot had long ago broken down. All that remained was the padding and blanket. Thankfully the chair was still standing so Paul took a load off while Vince and Andrew split the cot's remains. Heath dropped his pack and sat on a cleared bit of the wood floor and noticed that his friends were relieving themselves of their burdens as well. They opened the packs and began emptying not only their food for their noon meal but a few dirty magazines, some National Geographics and an old map that they boys still had from the day they found this place.

They'd brought a little of everything of what had once been in this strange mysterious building with no occupant. The parents had long ago cleaned the place out. They were stopped before tearing it down by the state. As it turned out the land and property were owned. The man was just missing and the family would not give up any rights to it.

Still no one came here but the four young men. Not now. The neighborhood kids, what few there were, no longer even went to the woods because now in their place was a shopping mall. No one dared go back to the run down shack where a vanished boy's bike was found. The only woods left were a scattering across the last path that lead to the outer edges of the unused property.

Heath didn't say anything but the walk did take them a little longer. They were getting older it seemed. They were almost a full hour later than usual. Granted it took some doing to find the path this year but that only accounted for some of the time. He supposed that it really didn't matter. They weren't on a schedule. Not really.

The plan was to leave in time to make it back to camp before night fell. Their camp was still set for another night of sleep. This was just an excursion. An anniversary of sorts of the first night Paul came back with Andrew after their 18th year arrived. Vince joined them the year after and then came Heath.

Each of them added things to the list of things to bring back to their once secret find. The magazines and the map were just examples. Vince brought a few of Michael's old comic books and Andrew packed Michael's favorite sandwich; peanut butter and apples. He liked the crunch, although he never used crunchy peanut butter. Andrew was looking for a can of soda when he gave up. “Okay, who lost the grape soda?”

Heath shook his head. “Wasn't in there, man.”

“Yes, it was. I put it in the cooler myself. We always bring one grape soda for here. Always!” he said it like the others didn't already know that. Like it was some simple information they must have inexplicably forgotten.

“Yeah.” Heath agreed as if talking to a child. “And I wasn't going to make a big deal out of you forgetting so I don't know why-”

“I didn't forget.” Andrew yelled back at his friend. It was a strange site. Andrew hardly ever fought with anyone, but he was a bit OCD at times and a missing grape soda on an anniversary just might set him off for an argument. This seemed to be more than just a simple difference of opinion though. “I remember it every year! Just like I get here every year before any of you and set half the camp up before anyone else decides to show up!”

The others were taken back. It wasn't like Andrew to get all worked up over such a small thing. Tradition or not.

“Hold up a minute, Andy.” Vince calmly pleaded. “Maybe Heath overlooked it in the cooler. It's filled with melted ice water in there and theres loads of beer and cola still floating around in it.” He looked back at Heath with pleading eyes. “Right, Heath?”

The long haired man wasn't about to argue over it. He wasn't sure what had gotten Andy so riled up. It really was only a a minor point in life. A shared cola for a missing friend. It was just a symbol. It didn't take away from the thought. “I probably did. I was in kind of a hurry to get things going.” He explained.

This seemed to both calm Andy, and make him realize just how upset he'd gotten over such a little thing. “Yeah, sorry. I'm sure it's just in the cooler. Or I might have forgotten.” He had a clear memory of putting it in the cooler. Remembered because he always felt he had to bring one. Every year.

“Good.” A small voice sounded from the doorway. “I'm sorry I took it early, Andy. I just couldn't wait this year.”

All four heads swung around to stare at the young pre-teen that they all immediately recognized, but not one of them could speak to. In fact the only sound that came was the young boys next words. “I know. You guys are freaking out. I totally understand.” Michael sympathized. “It's pretty shocking to see you guys like this too you know. I mean, I know its been awhile but you guys got real old.” he joked and waited for them to join in on his breathy chuckles, but his friends just stared back at him.

“This is not going well. How am I going to see if you-” He stopped himself. “ I know.” He said with a smile and picked up the sandwich that had been made just for him. In a bite he was smiling again and enjoying the sticky sweetness of a treat he simply couldn't have these days. As much as his new people tried they could not quite match the taste of apples.

“Damn, I miss these.” He proclaimed still chewing a bite.

It was then that Paul let out a guffaw that filled the small space. Michael stared back at him for a minute before asking, “What?”

“Are you kidding? What!?” Paul yelped back in clipped sounds that sat on the verge of hysterics..”

“Just settle down Pauly, alright?” Michael took a step forward and Paul scooted back in the chair. “You just stay there. Stay.” He ordered and pointed at the child who dare look like Michael. And sound like Michael. And ate sandwiches like Michael.

“This is just too weird.” Vince joined in. “It can't be right.” He shook his head and looked down at the comics he'd brought. Michale had a collection of comics at the age of 12 that would have made most collectors these days weep. From superheroes to detectives and from supernatural to science fiction. He loved them all. Vince brought a few each year, and each year following they would be gone. That might have been why it was Vince who first put it together. Or at least most of it. “You're his ghost! And you come get these things every year?” He sounded almost proud of his eduction.

Michael scrunched up his nose. “I'm not dead dummy. I'm here, eating a sandwich for damn sakes.” He pointed out by taking another bite and waving his sandwich around. “See.” He said with a full mouth. “Completely here. And alive.”

“Well then, what the hell man?” Heath asked plainly. “You're still a kid and where the hell have you been?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “You so sounded like my foster dad there for a minute.” Heath felt a moment of regret. They all knew Michale's life at home was not like theirs. His parents had died when he was practically a baby and foster homes were a way of life. He'd stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Taylor for 2 years, which was a record for foster homes in Michale's experience, even in their small town, but it wasn't the most stable home. Michael always preferred time away more than he looked forward to coming home.

“But where have you been?” Andrew asked this time in a more smooth tone despite his mind's complete inability to believe what his eyes were seeing.

Michael's face fell. He seemed to think it over before starting. “I've been away. I've been waiting to ask you to come too but we had to wait until you might be ready.”

“We?” It was Vince this time as he looked again at the comics and their many illustrated covers of monsters and beings of all kinds.

The boy smiled at his friend understanding what his friend was asking. “The Cazdens. They knew that if I went it wouldn't interrupt much. My friends would miss me but no family would be broken up because of me. So I left. But they let me come back every year. And they let me let you know I'm coming. Even if it is just a feeling. That's what its like isn't it? Kind of an idea. Or a plan?”

The other four exchanged a knowing look. It was exactly what it was like for them. The idea of going camping, what to bring, when to go, all of it was a pull of some sort. Michael again smiled. “And now I can ask. Would any of you like to come with me?”

“What?” Andrew whispered low, not believing his ears.

“Are we going to turn into kids again?” He wasn't sure why that question popped into his head but Paul wanted to know.

Michael rolled his eyes at the silly question. “No, of curse not. Time just works a little different there.”

“You mean up there, don't you?” Vince asked with a small quirk of his lips.

Michael nodded.

The men again looked at each other. It was to hard to put into words for any of them. They felt a compelling want to go, but with what Michael told them none were sure it was their own feeling or that controlled pull which was guiding them.

“Will we come back?” Heath asked. Out of all of them he had done quite a bit to try to help his home. Leaving seemed like a lot to give up. “I mean, I'm not sure why but I'd like to go. I just don't want to leave anything behind.”

Michael became serious. His small features tightening. “It's only an invitation. No one will make you go, but we won't come back. That's why it had to be today. Had to be now. We are leaving this part of space and aren't coming back for at least two centuries.” He tried to explain.

Vince sat back against the wall and Paul let out a long breath he didn't know he was holding.

“You're telling us that all this time you've been flying around with aliens in space but its time to go so you wanted to know if we wanted to come along with you?” It was a flurry of words that almost sounded like one long word it was spoken with such speed by Paul.

Michael shrugged. “Well, yeah. Pretty much.” He was leaving something out though and after thinking it over he decided it was only fair they knew the whole truth.

“Look. We have to go. Or rather I do. They can't return me now. Not after 10 years. They


© Copyright 2019 Katherine Cook. All rights reserved.

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