The Fortress of Solitude
“You really shouldn’t be talking to strangers.” Binny lectured her younger sister as they walked into the house. “It’s dangerous, and Mom and Dad would be very upset if they knew.”
“Stop bossing.” Cassie wasn’t screaming quite yet, but she was clearly on her way.
“What’s she bossing you around about?” As the girls walked into the house they encountered their brother, back in his prone position in front of his videogame. The only thing capable of tearing his attention away from his game was the prospect of messing with Binny.
“She was talking to a strange man and petting his dog. And the man was weird and scary.” Binny reported.
Zach popped up from the floor, assuming the role of investigator. “Were you talking to a weird and scary stranger?” Zach asked Cassie, hand stroking his chin with mock seriousness.
“No! I wasn’t!” Cassie yelled, and then in a more conciliatory voice added, “And the dog was very nice.”
“Well Binny, she says the dog was very nice. Maybe you should stop bossing?” Zach knew just how to get a reaction from his eldest sister. Cassie added a “Yeah, you’re so bossy.” which didn’t help matters.
With a fresh supply of righteous anger in addition to her concern for her sister, Binny responded acidly, “Fine, you know what? I’ll go tell Mom and Dad that she’s been talking to strangers and petting strange dogs, and we’ll see what they have to say.”
“Don’t do that. They’re busy.” Zach suddenly turned serious.
“So what? They’re not too busy for this.”
Where Zach had been the tormentor a moment earlier, he now tried to be the peacemaker. “Look, we can handle this ourselves.” He turned to face Cassie, “Cassie, you know, Binny’s not really being bossy, she’s just worried about you. Tell Binny what the rules are for you when you play outside.”
Cassie recited as if she’d heard them countless times, “No crossing the street. No going more than two houses away from our house. No going anywhere with strangers or taking anything from strangers, no matter what they say. And use my brain.” The last sentence she added proudly but she didn’t seem entirely clear on what her parents had meant by that.
“See?” Zach gestured to his baby sister, who was trying to look responsible.
Sensing the tide of the conversation was not going her way, Binny changed the focus: “She doesn’t know how to use her brain. I’m not even sure she has one.”
“She knows the rules. And technically, talking to a stranger and petting his dog isn’t against the rules.” Zach paused and lowered his voice a touch as if he was about to say something important. “I guess what I’m saying is, Cassie’s no dumbass.” Zach folded his arms and smirked, his stint as the helpful older brother was over. Zach refocused on his favorite pastime – irritating Binny.
It worked. Binny was enraged by Zach’s reference to the dumbass detector from the previous night. “Number one, you’re a JERK. And number two she’s a jerk. And, she STOLE my mirror – AGAIN! You two can go…” Binny was already storming off before her last sentence was completed.
As Binny headed upstairs she barely heard her brother’s parting advice. “Don’t bother them, they’re busy.”
Zach then turned back to his youngest sister with a look that said, ‘What’s with her?’ Cassie was happy to get some positive attention from her older brother. She realized it was at her sister’s expense, but given her sister’s bossiness, that seemed appropriate.
The Jay and Julie’s room was on the third floor of the house. It had been the attic at one time, and had been converted into a large bedroom with a balcony. The balcony overlooked the neighborhood and the lake above which Madrona sat.
Binny was on a mission. Dispensing with the usual formality of knocking on her parents’ door, Binny went straight for the handle, about to launch into a diatribe on her sister’s dangerous behavior, and her brother’s general awfulness. But the door was locked, and made a lot of noise as she angrily twisted the knob.
“What is it?” her father barked from behind the door. He sounded angry.
“What is it honey?” her mother followed in a softer tone.
“Can I come in please? They’re being horrible!” Binny complained.
“Not now, Binny, we’re in the middle of a discussion. Could you please go downstairs. We’ll be down in a bit.” While the firm tone of her father’s request didn’t seem to leave much room for debate, Binny pressed forward anyway.
“Pleasepleasepleaseplease. I just need to talk to you.”
This time it was Binny’s mother who responded: “Sweetie. We’ll be down soon. I promise. We can talk all you want in a few minutes. Just give us a few minutes, please.”
Binny turned the handle a couple more times in frustration.
“A few MINUTES, Binah!” her father was yelling now.
“Fine.” Binny tramped back down the stairs, making her steps extra stompy. If her parents wouldn’t listen to what she’d been through, then at least she would make them listen to her going down the stairs.
She got to the bottom of the stairs, just out of her parent’s view, and slumped to the ground. She heard the door upstairs open, a pause, and then her father say “she went downstairs” to her mother before he relocked the door. Her parents’ voices went back to being unintelligible murmurs. Defeated, Binny went back to her room.
It was well after two in the afternoon before Binny emerged. Her skateboard no longer functional, she was reduced to watching skateboarding videos. She’d ignored her father’s call to eat something, and banished Cassie from her room when she came by wanting to play “pop star”. She told her mother that she’d rather go to summer school than play a game of chess. Not that anyone but Binny was counting, but it had been way longer than a “few minutes” until her parents had seen fit to seek her out. But after a while, all this sitting and ignoring everyone was pretty draining. She needed to get away. Binny needed to get clear of her insanely annoying family.
Like many relatively modern cities, the greater metropolitan area in which the Jordans lived was laid out on a grid, making navigation and maintenance easy. But the people who settled the Madrona neighborhood at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century realized the value of the lush natural vegetation, as well as the beautiful views of the lake and white-capped mountains in the distance. The neighborhood plan was laid out mimicking the ebb and flow of the natural landscape — paths through Madrona to the lake were dotted with teardrop shaped parks and large expansive wooded areas. The lake, the opposite shore, and the mountains gleamed in the distance on clear days.
While some of these nature spots were no more than small patches of green with a convenient bench or two, there were swaths of woods where you could lose yourself if you really needed to. When Binny’s strenuous and frequent efforts to find peace by getting justice from her parents would inevitably fail, the woods gave Binny their own form of peace. Needless to say she was a frequent visitor lately.
Binny snuck out of the house to avoid seeing her family. She made it all the way out to the front gate, but immediately regretted glancing up the street: Cassie and the girl from across the street were now playing together on the sidewalk. It wasn’t that Binny was dying to play with either of them. But why was the neighbor girl always inserting herself into Binny’s life? Cassie might be an annoying little sister, but she was Binny’s annoying little sister and therefore Binny’s private domain. And what was a ten-year-old doing playing with a seven year old anyway? That was pretty weird. And speaking of weird, did that girl not own a pair of shoes?
Her wooded destination temporarily set aside, Binny walked over to where Cassie and the girl next door were playing. Apparently Cassie had convinced the neighbor girl to pretend to be her chauffeur. They were standing next to a parked car with Cassie reciting the various destinations where she’d like to be driven in her “limousine”. Binny reflexively ran her hand over the front of her pants pocket to feel for the outline of her mother’s mirror. It was still there; one small thing that was still hers.
“And then I’ll need you to drive me to my sold out concert this evening,” Cassie issued her instruction in an offhand but serious tone.
“Yes ma’am”, the girl responded, equally serious.
“You know she’s not allowed to go too far from the house.” Binny interjected, feeling it was her responsibility to remind Cassie and the neighbor girl of the rules.
“Ma’am, it’s one of your fans.” The girl said to Cassie, staying in character.
“Oh driver, you know I love my fans, but I just don’t have time to sign autographs right now.”
“I’m sorry, but she can’t sign any autographs right now. Perhaps I could offer you a free ticket to her concert this evening? It’s sold out you know.”
Binny was incredulous. “I don’t want an autograph. And I don’t want tickets to her concert. And you know why? Because there is NO concert, she’s NOT a star, you’re NOT her chauffeur, and this ISN’T a LIMOUSINE!” Binny shouted, hands on her hips, her face filled with indignation.
“Give her a backstage pass as well.” Cassie waved her hand towards the neighbor girl, signaling her to take care of it.
Binny couldn’t sit through another minute of Cassie’s make-believe. It was bad enough that her sister lived in her own warped world. But to have the girl next door pretending with her…
“You know what, I was just trying to make sure you didn’t get hurt. But now, I don’t care. Do whatever you like. Break all the rules. Go wherever you want.”
Then Binny added to the neighbor girl: “She’s your problem. I’m leaving!” Binny turned her back on them both and resumed her original course down the hill to the woods.
Technically, the city owned the Madrona woods, having purchased the land from nearby homeowners in the early 1900s. But for as long as most of the current residents could remember, Caleb Adams – a neighborhood fixture – had tended to these woods. Caleb had owned Madrona Bouquets. By virtue of his flower shop, Caleb knew everything about everyone – birthdays, anniversaries, and even when spouses were having fights and flowers were required to smooth things over. It was one measure of how much Caleb was respected that his neighbors trusted him with their wishes for their loved ones.
Caleb didn’t appear to have a family. Nobody had ever remembered him being married. So even when he was busy running Madrona Bouquets, Caleb had plenty of spare time on his hands and a need to keep those hands busy. When he retired and closed his shop the previous year, he had even more time to focus on his favorite hobby – taking care of the neighborhood forest. Dogwalkers, parents with small children, and couples out for a romantic stroll, would invariably run into him, his battered milk crate filled with tools and a large black garbage bag he would use to remove anything he found that didn’t belong.
Caleb was even taller than his silhouette made him appear, as his long arms seemed to weigh down his shoulders, giving him a bit of a stoop as he walked. A faded blue baseball cap with an embroidered white “S” set in a baseball diamond sat on top of his close-cropped tight almost white curls. The emblem on the cap didn’t appear to belong to any particular team – even the most ardent baseball fan couldn’t identify it. Under the cap, the dark skin of Caleb’s face was etched with what seemed like a thousand lines.
To the kids in the neighborhood, Caleb seemed both ancient and ageless, like one of the trees in the forest. While the nearby families flowed in and out of the official and unofficial capillaries of the Madrona woods, Caleb was rooted there, unmoving and dedicated to his mission.
It was really entirely too much. Was it not enough that her brother was a jerk, her sister was annoying, and her parents were locked in a room with each other, ignoring her? Ignoring their job as parents! Did they even care that Cassie was making friends with strangers and their strange dogs? If only her parents would get more involved. At the very least they could punish Zach and Cassie for being so rude. That would certainly be a step in the right direction.
But while Binny’s parents, her brother, and her sister were all avoiding their responsibilities, that girl next door, with her strange piles of rocks, and her dirty feet, was forcing her way into Binny’s life. Binny had spent countless hours playing Cassie’s butler, chauffeur, and all manner of servant, manager, agent, and fan. Binny said no just this once and all of a sudden the neighbor girl was taking her place? It made Binny want to –
“Ruvh Ruvh Rrruvvvh.” A dog barked at Binny. There was one last lone house at the end of the street before the woods swallowed any additional pavement. It was built in a “modern style”. She knew that because her father would always complain about it when they walked by it on the way to the woods. He would say “who thought our neighborhood needed all this glass? It doesn’t belong. Why would someone put this in the heart of Madrona?”
She wasn’t sure whether it belonged or not, or what the heck her father was so upset about, but she did finally see where the barking was coming from. It was that dog. The dog that Cassie was petting.
And then it struck Binny – this was where that man with the dog lived. Great, Binny thought, another house in the neighborhood I need to avoid. She wasn’t sure she could tell the difference between an angry bark and a playful one, but it kind of seemed to her like the latter. Binny wasn’t about to test out her theories – she picked up her pace and headed straight for the entrance to the woods. The dog’s barking faded behind her.
Caleb looked up slightly, taking note of Binny winding her way on the path through the woods. Binny storming past him wasn’t exactly a new sight. Caleb was used to giving people their privacy, and Caleb knew very well that Binny liked hers. He kept working, never missing a stroke in digging out a root that was threatening to upturn one of his raised wooden paths.
Binny’s parents used to take walks in the woods with all three kids when they were younger. On particularly lazy days the Jordans would pause their walk and chat with Caleb. Binny’s mother Julie, would try and talk baseball with Caleb sometimes. Periodically he would bounce Cassie on his knee, gently reciting nursery rhymes they hadn’t heard of before. When the family continued on their trek, Caleb would return to his seemingly never ending list of horticultural tasks.
It wasn’t that Binny didn’t like Caleb. She did. Everyone did. But Binny didn’t come to the woods for companionship. Especially not today, when the whole world seemed to be against her.
People didn’t listen. And they didn’t do what they should. And the people that were supposed to tell them to follow the rules weren’t doing their job either. Who did you call when the people in charge weren’t being in charge properly?
Binny’s accelerated pace took her quickly past the spot where Caleb was working. He hadn’t seemed to notice her, lost in some task of his. There were multiple paths through the Madrona woods. Despite how windy and confusing they could be, Binny knew them all. Binny liked how the woods could swallow you up.
As she branched off a couple of times onto lesser and lesser known tracks, the branches of nearby trees seemed to intertwine and create a sort of canopy for her, almost a tunnel. Binny could still make out the shimmer of the lake through the trees to the east, but the sights and sounds of the houses past the edges of the woods were now gone. Binny had arrived at her destination.
To the casual observer, usually an adult observer, Binny had arrived at an old rusted out shell of a car. In fact, some adults might see this as less a car than a guaranteed trip to the hospital with its numerous rusty pieces of metal sticking out at various spots. But to Binny, this 1946 Chevrolet was a treasure – a secret hideout.
The path Binny used to get here had petered out to the point where it was probably only her footsteps that kept it from completely disappearing into the forest floor. And the car itself was not much more visible. The vegetation was thick here and had enveloped one entire side of the car. A tree had grown inside it, coming up through the floor and growing through the window behind where the driver had sat. The forest had claimed the car just as Binny claimed this part of the forest.
The car’s front seats were nowhere to be found, as was the windshield and all the glass for that matter. The radio, the steering wheel, the mirrors – all gone. Anything that could be removed, had been. The back seat remained in place but pretty much all the fabric had been removed or destroyed by the elements many years earlier. What remained was really a car-shaped shell with a rusty roof.
There wasn’t really much to do in her secret spot. She’d brought the occasional book once in awhile. But coming here wasn’t really about a particular activity. It was just about being here at all. In a place that nobody knew about. In a place that was hers. In a place where there was nobody to argue with her. Here, Binny was in charge and everyone followed the rules.
How the car got here Binny didn’t know, but she was pretty sure Caleb hadn’t made it too far in this direction yet or he would have cleaned it up. Maybe not the car itself, but certainly the pieces of junk Binny had dragged over to complete her sanctuary. She had laid two wooden boards across the springs of the back seat, making it a reasonable place to sit. An old tire made for a good place to rest Binny’s feet or lay her skateboard on when she had it with her.
It was at this point that Binny would usually take a long sweeping look around her to make sure that she hadn’t been followed. What was the point of having a secret place if someone else found out where it was? She would part some of the branches she’d laid across the spot where the passenger front door was missing – the back was rusted shut – and then enter backwards, keeping her eyes peeled for strangers. On this day Binny entered in just the same way.
The crunch of the can under her foot as she crouched backwards into the car, was her first signal that something was wrong in her little corner of the universe. Between the cans on the floor of the car, and her backward momentum, Binny lost her balance. She was going to be landing on her rear end for the second time that day. But somehow the usually hard boards felt slightly softer, and perhaps wetter(?) as she landed. She wasn’t hurt exactly, but something didn’t feel quite right.
And then it hit her. The smell. Oh no. Was it… Yuck. Dog poop. She’d sat in DOG POOP. Looking down at the floor she realized that she had lost her balance walking on a sea of empty beer cans. Tall silver beer cans. They hadn’t been here a few days earlier on her last visit. Oh my god, Binny thought, someone’s been here. Someone’s been drinking beer here and letting their dog poop all over my secret spot. My spot isn’t a secret anymore. And I’m sitting in dog poop. Her thoughts rushed at her like a dam had suddenly burst.
Binny started to cry.