Quick Warning – this story is about kids dealing with illness. I guess that’s just what’s on my mind.
This short story was written in response to the prompt: Jill pushed the man aside, stepping over his cloak. She rapped on the door three times and said, “Open it now or I burn the whole place down.”
Jill scaled the rope ladder so fast that it began to spin as she climbed. The motion made her dizzy and added to the rage-induced pounding in her head. The second she’d found her phone missing, she knew exactly who had taken it and where it was. She was sick of their stupid games, and this time they’d gone too far.
Pulling herself up on the wooden platform, she looked for something to grab ahold of to help her stand, but there was nothing. Carefully, she eased from her stomach to her knees, and then to her feet. She hated that there wasn’t a railing. Someone was going to fall off and kill themselves. She cursed Andy under her breath. He hadn’t even stuck around long enough to be counted among their “step-dads,” but if he ever came back from wherever the hell he was, she promised herself that she’d yell at him for building this death trap of a treehouse. The whole thing felt like it could fall at any minute, but she guessed that’s the best a structure could hope for when its architect was always drunk.
Moving toward the door of the house, she stepped on Ben’s action figure and yelp with pain. Its sharp plastic edges stabbed into her foot and sent a jolt up her spine. She kicked it to the side and it slid to the edge of the platform but refused to fall.
She could hear them inside, laughing to themselves. She wished they’d just leave her alone. It wasn’t her fault they were bored. She wasn’t responsible for this mess.
Hoping to scare them, she grabbed the door handle and yanked on it as hard as she could. The horizontal two-by-four that served as a lock held and the door didn’t budge. The boys laughed inside and then shushed one another. Jill gritted her teeth at the sound. Banging on the door as hard as she could, she yelled, “Give me back my phone you little jerks!”
Cameron, trying to make his middle-schooler voice sound deeper than it was, replied, “Hark! Who goeth there and what-eth is-ith the password?” As the sibling closest to her in age, he irritated her the most. Every stupid word he said was like a knife in her temple.
“I’m not in the mood, Cam. Give me my phone back. I know you took it,” Jill yelled.
“There is-ith no Cam here. There is-ith only the knights of the Swallow’s Glen,” Cam replied.
“Yeah. We’re knights!” Benjamin, her ten-year-old brother called.
“Yeah!” Michael, the youngest brother joined in.
Cam’s smile was so big Jill could hear it in his voice. The image of it in her mind was like gasoline on the fire burning in her chest. She didn’t need this. She didn’t deserve this. That Cam had pulled the younger two in it too only added to her frustration. Mikey was only five and didn’t know how much it would annoy her to have her phone stolen, but Cam knew. He knew exactly what he was doing.
She banged on the door again and screamed, “Give me the phone, Cam! I mean it!”
“We shan’t speaketh further until we haveth your name, wench!” Cam yelled back in victory.
“That’s a bad word,” Ben muttered.
Breaking character, Cam said, “No. I said ‘wench.’ Not ‘bitch.’ ‘Bitch is the bad word. Wench is okay,” Cam explained.
“What’s a wench?” Ben asked.
“The stranger at the door! She’s a wench!” Cam proclaimed, gleefully returning to character.
“Yeah, wench!” Ben agreed.
“Yeah! Bitch!” Mikey called, his voice filled with excitement.
“Arg! Just give me my phone, Cam! I mean it!” Jill yelled, stomping her foot so hard it shook the treehouse.
“I know not what this phone item is you speak-eth of,” Cam called back.
“Isn’t this game a little immature for you? Shouldn’t you be playing with kids your own age? Or do none of them want to play with you?” Jill mocked.
“Your mind tricks won’t work on me, wench! Giveth us your name and the password and we shall allow you to enter and discuss this phone you speak of,” Cam declared.
“Besides, nobody’s home. We tried to knock on their doors. They weren’t there,” Ben said, trying to match his brother’s gusto.
“They’re home, bud. They just can’t come out right now,” Cam said, breaking character again.
Jill put her back to the door and scanned the neighborhood. From where they were in the tree, she could see the whole block. Ben was right. It was painfully silent. Three weeks ago they’d gotten off the school bus with over twenty kids, and like every other Friday afternoon in the neighborhood, their street had filled with their friends riding bikes and playing ball and hanging out, but then they canceled school, and then all the news was filled with talk about the virus, and then people started getting sick, and now everything felt empty.
Jill sat down on the platform and sighed. She was so tired. She just wanted to go back to her room. She wanted to get under her covers and watch YouTube on her phone and pretend like none of this was real. Closing her eyes, she used the only threat she could think of, and pleaded, “Come on, Cam. Just give me my phone. Don’t make me go and get mom.”
“Mommy’s sick,” Mikey said.
Jill’s breath caught in her chest and a rock formed in her throat. She tried to speak, but no words came.
“It’s okay, bud. She’ll be okay. She’s going to get better,” Cam said.
Tears formed in Jill’s eyes, but she wiped them away with the back of her sleeve.
“Mark’s mom didn’t get better and the ambulance had to come and get her,” Ben said.
“Yeah. But. But our mom’s going to be okay. She’s going to get better,” Cam said.
More tears came and Jill caught them with her sleeve again.
“But Mark’s mom,” Ben said.
Cutting him off, Cam snapped, “I know, Ben. But. But mom’s going to be okay. She’s not as bad as Mark’s mom was. We just have to wait a couple more days.”
“I don’t want people to take Mommy,” Mikey said.
Jill hit the back of her head against the door and let the tears run freely down her cheeks.
“No one’s going to take Mom, okay?” Cam said. Jill could tell he was crying too. He sniffled and took a deep breath. Then he begged, “Let’s just play the game. Alright? We’re knights. And this is our castle. Okay?
Jill wiped the tears from her eyes and stood. Looking out at the quiet neighborhood, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Reaching toward the edge of the platform, she picked up the cloaked action figure and looked in its masked face.
Moving slowly, making sure her footing was secure before she let herself down, she began to climb down the rope ladder with the action figure in hand. Once she was a few rungs along, she yelled triumphantly, “Knights of Swallows Glen! I am the Wench of the East and I have taken your small masked friend as my captive!”
“No!” Cam screamed in mock agony.
“She’s got Captain Shadow!” Ben yelled.
“Bring me an offering or I will boil him in fires of my cave!” Jill yelled as her feet touched the ground.
The door of the treehouse burst open and Cameron stepped into the light. “Knights of Swallow’s Glen! We must save the Captain!” he yelled.
Ben and Mikey emerged from the treehouse and stood next to their older brother. “Give us back Captain Shadow, Wench!” Ben yelled
Jill grinned. Holding the action figure high, she called back, “You have to catch me first!” and she turned to run.