The Fort, A Short Story By Lara Slabber’21
Everyone in Salem knew to stay away from the fort in the woods behind Pickering Point. Not to be confused with Fort Pickering, which had been open to tourists for some years now, the lesser known fort was entirely overgrown with weeds and hadn’t had any visitors. At least, none that were still alive to speak of it. Or who would speak of it.
And yet, stories about the fort continued to emerge. Felicity had spent countless afternoons at her grandmother’s house begging to learn more about mysteries that surrounded the fort. There was the one about the necklace inlaid with real amber that someone had found outside the fort and sold to the antique shop for a meager ten dollars because they believed it caused the jewelry box they had kept it in to catch on fire. It was still on a dusty pillow in the front window of the shop, the amber winking at passersby as if daring them to wear it.
There was another one about a cat that went missing one Halloween, only to be found curled up outside the door of the fort looking well-fed and neatly brushed almost a decade later. The cat had lived for another ten years after being returned to its original owners, unable to tell them where it had been all that time.
But the story that really haunted Felicity was of a teenage girl, two hundred odd years before Felicity herself started high school, who went into the fort and came out changed. She became something like a siren, tricking the boys who tormented her into drowning themselves by the Pickering Point lighthouse. She had made her grandmother, Sarah, tell her that one more times than she could count.
That was where Felicity was now; sitting on her grandmother’s porch, a glass of her grandmother’s homemade iced tea on a little round table between them. The air had a distinct crispness to it, the first taste of fall, but her grandmother had still insisted on using her small silver tongs to drop a few ice cubes in Felicity’s glass. Felicity was so focused on her grandmother’s words that she didn’t even notice the condensation seeping through the fabric of her fingerless gloves and drawing a dark ring in her grandmother’s floral tablecloth.
“What happened next?” Felicity breathed, leaning even further over the table so as not to miss a word that came out her grandmother’s mouth.
“Honestly, Felicity,” her grandmother said, taking Felicity’s glass out of her hands so she could slide a wooden coaster under it. Felicity’s grandmother wasn’t the kind of woman who would have bothered with things like coasters and napkins if it weren’t for the fact that she felt Felicity needed some parenting. Felicity’s parents were largely absent due to work, and Sarah thought a little fussing was necessary to instill character. Felicity didn’t mind.
“I went home,” her grandmother continued. “Even in my youth I knew better than to break into the fort on the dare of a cute boy. Even a boy as cute as Howard Barkley.”
The Howard Barkley that Felicity knew was a balding older gentleman that her grandmother had tea with occasionally. She couldn’t picture him as the trespassing rogue her grandmother described. But, on second thought, he did always have something like mischief in his voice when he took her grandmother’s hand and greeted her with a low, “Evening, Sarah.”
Felicity sat back, tipping her head so that she could watch the wind chimes hanging off the porch glitter in the dappled sunlight. “And here I was hoping that you’d been holding out on me all these years and you just forgot that you’d been in the fort.”
Her grandmother laughed, patting one of Felicity’s hands. The gesture made a clinking noise that was just as comforting and familiar as her grandmother’s touch. Sarah had worn a handful of rings, each of them set with large stones in a range of reds and purples, every day since before Felicity was born.
“I’m not that old. Yet,” Sarah said, standing up to take her empty glass to the kitchen.
Felicity’s ice cubes had melted by now, and she took a careful sip of the diluted tea as she looked out at the woods around her grandmother’s house. Sarah’s house was tucked into a corner of the woods and completely secluded, so Felicity couldn’t see anything but a sea of red-orange leaves around the property.
Felicity’s grandmother had always lived alone out there. There weren’t many places a single mother could feel welcome in the community back when Sarah was young, and moving to a cottage in the woods had suited her just fine. The whispers of “witch” that followed Sarah around as a result didn’t bother her either. In fact, she had leaned into it, growing her own herbs and providing small enchantments like whispered words of encouragement and a strong cup of tea to anyone who asked. Bridget, Felicity’s mother, had tried to get Sarah to move closer to town on more than one occasion, but Sarah had simply laughed and said that she preferred the company of ghosts to people anyway. And Salem Woods was full of those.
“Go on,” Sarah called through the house, clearly audible with the front door propped open with a large stone gargoyle. “I know there has to be something else for you to do on a Friday evening other than talking to your grandmother.”
Felicity didn’t actually have any plans, but the fading daylight and ribbons of sunset orange coloring the sky gave her the urge to visit the fort. She had read a book in the library on the fort, they had a whole section on the history of Salem, which told her that this time of day was when most of the strange things had happened around the fort. So, naturally, she had gotten into the habit of swinging by as soon as the sun started to sink.
Sarah came to stand in the open doorway, her hands fidgeting with something that Felicity couldn’t see. She didn’t think much of it, stopping to kiss her grandmother on the cheek before jumping down the porch steps. Her bicycle lay abandoned in a patch of her grandmother’s wildflowers, and a few of them stuck to the wicker basket when she righted it. Her bag was still in the basket; it was a satchel that her grandmother had knitted for her last Christmas, and she threw the stray wildflowers into its depths. Sarah had told her that if flowers wanted to stick to her then she should let them. “Remember,” she often said, “nature knows all sorts of things that we don’t.”
Felicity threw a wave over her shoulder, not looking back. Maybe if she had she would have noticed the look on her grandmother’s face. Or the fact that her hands were now empty.
Felicity couldn’t cut through Salem Woods all the way to the fort as there was a stretch of town between her two favorite places. She couldn’t help the instinct that came over her to put on the hood of her coat and pull it low over her face soon as the dirt under her wheels turned to asphalt. She hoped that would make her anonymous enough that none of her classmates would recognize her and tell their parents they had seen Felicity rushing off to hang out with ruins and cobwebs again. She didn’t care what her peers thought of her, but their parents would tell her parents and then she would get another lecture about hanging out with “kids her age.” Apparently being best friends with your grandmother wasn’t normal teenage behavior and the woods were “too dangerous for a young girl.” None of them knew that going to the woods wasn’t so much a choice as a compulsion. In the woods and by the fort she felt invincible, like the trees and shadows themselves were protecting her from the rest of the world. Being around people, all of them analyzing her as if she was something they could take apart and dissect, made her wither.
It took about twenty minutes for her to get to the patches of trees that hid the fort from the prying eyes of clueless tourists and shoppers. Somehow, knowledge of the fort never really reached outsiders, and the space remained untouched even though it was right next to a picnic ground. Felicity clambered off her bike, wheeling it the rest of the way to the tree line. Now that she was there she wasn’t in a hurry, and she enjoyed the sensation of all the other sounds being sucked from the atmosphere that she always felt when she stepped through the trees. It must have been some kind of geographical phenomenon, the way the sounds and smells of the nearby ocean and passing cars fell into a vacuum even when she could look back and still see the road.
All that she could hear now were the sounds of something scurrying through the thinning canopy above her and the crunching of autumn leaves under the wheels of her bicycle and her maroon Doc Martens. The salty smell of the sea had been replaced by the sweet smell of the maple trees. It grew stronger as the woods got denser, until the tree line suddenly broke and spilled Felicity into a small meadow.
The meadow that was taken up almost entirely by the fort.
The stone that made up the hulking little structure was weathered with cracks spidering through the rock. Dry vines crawled up its walls and over its roof, almost camouflaging it against the ground. The wooden door had buckled from years of water damage, but that hadn’t stopped someone from stringing a thick chain through its handle, anchoring it closed with a heavy padlock. It was all rusted now, but the times that Felicity was brave enough to tug on the metal told her that the chain still wouldn’t give way.
All of this was familiar. But Felicity was so startled by what she saw next that she dropped her bike. She didn’t even feel it landing on her foot, her mind completely overtaken by the sight before her.
“What are you doing here?” she sputtered, not bothering to pick up her bike and choosing, instead, to cross her arms tightly over her chest.
The thing that had so surprised Felicity was a figure leaning against the fort, a cigarette in hand despite the dry foliage the two of them were standing in. Felicity couldn’t remember the last time she had actually bumped into someone at the fort, especially not when the orange in the sky started to give way to purple and the shadows around the fort turned to nightmares in other people’s eyes.
If someone told Felicity to guess who else would go to the fort this late on a Friday, Winnie Sharp wouldn’t even cross her mind. Felicity was about to tell her that, but what came out of her mouth instead was, “I didn’t know you smoked.”
Winnie was leaning against the side of the fort, seemingly unconcerned that her shoulder-length blonde hair was pressed against the powdery stone. She was wearing a pale blue blouse that was only half tucked into her pink skirt with matching flats. It made the embers in her cigarette look even more out of place.
Winnie was in the year above Felicity at school so they hadn’t spoken much, but Felicity knew enough about Winnie to be sure that she had too many friends to be spending her Friday night at the fort. Felicity tried not to think too hard about how she herself had happily spent all her weekends in the woods and took a step closer to Winnie.
The other girl finally turned her head to face Felicity, taking in everything from Felicity’s boots to her curly red hair. Her eyes stopped on the bicycle that still rested in the dirt.
“I don’t,” Winnie said, dropping the cigarette and stomping it out before any leaves could catch alight.
Felicity looked pointedly at the cigarette that now lay, crushed and burnt, in the dirt.
“I’m usually just a social smoker,” Winnie explained, bending down to pick up the butt and tuck it into her purse. “Today is a special occasion.”
Winnie didn’t elaborate, and Felicity had just resolved to get back on her bike and head home when the older girl let out a sigh that rivaled the kind that Felicity gave her economics homework. Compelled by something that she couldn’t explain, Felicity turned back, leaving her bike and her bag where they lay and going to stand next to Winnie.
“Are you okay?” Felicity asked, fidgeting uncomfortably with the twine she wore on her wrist as a bracelet. It was supposed to give her courage, but playing with it had turned into a nervous habit. She told herself that she didn’t want to hear about Winnie Sharp’s problems. She was only staying because she couldn’t, in good conscience, leave her there now that the sky was growing steadily darker. She ignored the part of her that wondered if Winnie was drawn to the fort for the same reasons she was. If someone else was completely consumed by the promise of magic.
Winnie didn’t say anything, she just slid down the side of the fort to sit in the dirt, either not caring or not noticing that her pink skirt was already stained. Felicity sat too, albeit more carefully, crossing her legs under her. They sat in silence for another minute before Winnie spoke again.
“I’ve seen you around school,” she said. “I’m Winnie.”
“Felicity,” she said, taking Winnie’s offered hand. She hoped Winnie didn’t notice how ragged her nails were compared to Winnie’s own manicure.
“You’re the girl whose grandma people at school call a witch,” Winnie said, snapping her fingers. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re the one who found me out here.”
“Those are just stories kids made up when I was in Kindergarten,” Felicity said, going to stand up. Calling the eccentric grandmother living in the woods a witch was all too easy with Salem’s history. Their classmates had latched onto it when they were younger to try and get Felicity to conform. She still sometimes heard whispers at parent-teacher conferences about “that odd girl and her weird grandmother.” She should have known that Winnie was just popular enough, and her parents just important enough in the community, that she would be one of those people who made fun of her.
“No, I’m sorry,” Winnie said, catching Felicity’s hand. “I think it’s cool. Really. Everyone else in this town is boring. Rather have a witch for a grandma than a lawyer.”
Felicity sat back down and Winnie let go of her hand. She surprised herself by how easily she forgave Winnie, the warmth of Winnie’s fingers on her skin successfully distracting her from her annoyance. There was a strange electricity coursing through her arm from where Winnie’s hand had been. It kept her rooted there next to Winnie even though her hand now lay empty in the leaves.
Felicity shrugged, latching on to Winnie’s words to keep from thinking about how soft Winnie’s hand had been in hers. “At least Salem has history, even if you think it’s boring.”
Winnie nodded. “I guess.”
Felicity didn’t really know what Winnie wanted from her, but she also didn’t want to leave. She had come there to be alone, but now that Winnie was there she found that she was glad. For some reason she didn’t mind sharing her favorite place with Winnie who seemed to need the calm of the fort as much as she did.
“That’s kind of what’s wrong,” Winnie explained, tapping her fingers on the ground. “There’s more history here than adventure. I wanted to skip town after high school, but I didn’t get into any of the out of town colleges I applied to. I know it’s just early admission and I still have time, but I can’t help but feel like I’m going to be stuck here.”
“Hence, the cigarette,” Felicity said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She hardly knew Winnie, and she had spent so long learning all of Salem’s secrets that she didn’t know what to say to someone who wanted to leave it all behind.
But she could understand the need for adventure. That aching in her belly that pushed her to visit the fort day after day, just on the off chance that she’d find something a little strange. She didn’t think that Winnie Sharp with her tidy bob that usually didn’t have a hair out of place and shoes that matched her shirt would feel that too. But this Winnie, the one next to her in that moment digging the toe of her flats into the dirt with a dry, orange leaf caught in her mussed hair looked like the kind of person who would search for magic too.
Winnie’s face broke out into a smile at Felicity’s mention of the cigarette. It wasn’t quite as nice as Winnie’s laugh, but Felicity liked the smile just fine. She hadn’t noticed Winnie’s dimples before, and part of her wanted to trace one with her index finger.
“Hence, the cigarette,” Winnie repeated, nodding. She reached into her purse, pulling out another one and a lighter with a Jack-o’-lantern printed on the side. She lit the cigarette, taking a drag before offering it to Felicity.
Felicity shook her head, rooting around in her pocket for something else. Her hand brushed something that hadn’t been there that morning instead of the crinkling wrapper she had expected to find. She glanced at it, making out the telltale silken drawstring bag that her grandmother used to make charms. It gave off a distinct minty smell, like the potted plants Sarah kept near the door to welcome new visitors. She didn’t know when her grandmother had planted it on her, but Sarah had the uncanny ability to know when Felicity might need a well-placed charm. She gave it a pat before pulling a chocolate bar out of her pocket instead and holding that up to Winnie as a reply.
“This is more my poison,” she said, unwrapping it and taking a bite.
Winnie smiled again, but her deep brown eyes looked like they were somewhere else.
“What are you doing out here?” Winnie asked, reaching over her shoulder to tap on the wall of the fort. “You just use your witchy powers to sense someone in need?”
Felicity scoffed, her mouth still full of chocolate. “You intruded on my fort,” she said, pointing the half-eaten Milky Way at Winnie.
“Your fort,” Winnie said, raising an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
Felicity grew a little more serious, thinking about the amber necklace and the vanishing cat. About the woman who drowned men that didn’t leave her alone right off the coast from where they sat.
“You think Salem’s boring,” she said, trying to explain. “But I think we’re due something magical to happen any day now, and I’m going to be here when it does.”
Winnie nodded. “You’re one of those,” she said in an all-knowing voice.
“What do you mean?” Felicity asked, trying to stop the blush from filling her cheeks.
Winnie dragged out the suspense, plucking the Milky Way from Felicity’s hand and taking a bite while the other girl sat, frozen, waiting for her to finish.
“A conspiracy nut,” Winnie finally said, letting out peals of laughter that made Felicity want to laugh along. She managed to resist, but she couldn’t stop the corners of her mouth from curling into a small smile.
“I’m not!” she insisted, taking the Milky Way back. “My grandma was living in Salem when some of those weird things happened! And if there’s that much magic around the fort, can you imagine what might be inside? It’s the greatest mystery in Salem and I don’t know how people can’t be obsessed with it.”
Winnie wiped her hands on her skirt, which was more of a dusty rose color than Barbie pink now, and stood up. For one horrifying second Felicity thought she’d scared her off, but then Winnie held her hand out to Felicity. Felicity stared at it for a moment, not understanding.
“Come on,” Winnie said, pulling Felicity to stand. She led Felicity around to the door of the fort, not dropping her hand. Winnie’s touch made the hairs on Felicity’s arm stand on end, the same electric current as before dancing on her skin.
“Where are we going?” Felicity asked, staring at the same door that she had stared at countless times before.
“We’re going inside,” Winnie said, gesturing to the fort.
“We can’t. It’s locked.”
“No, it isn’t.” Winnie pointed at the padlock which was, remarkably, open. It was still looped through the chains, but the shackle had popped out of the lock.
Felicity couldn’t help but gasp. She had been sure that the padlock had been firmly locked when she got there. Winnie unhooked it from the wall, letting the chain slither to the ground.
“I’m tired of waiting for exciting things to happen,” Winnie said, glancing back at Felicity. There was something in Winnie’s eyes, excitement or recklessness or something else Felicity couldn’t name. “Aren’t you?”
And, Felicity found, she was. She nodded to Winnie, placing the palm of her free hand beside Winnie’s against the wooden door. They pushed against it, expecting the warped frame and rusted hinges to resist, but it swung open easily. The sweet smell of flowers washed over them from the darkness of the fort, inviting them in. They glanced at each other one more time before they stepped into the swirling shadows of the fort together, still holding tightly to each other’s hands.