"And what adventures do you have planned for this sunny day?" Will's mother asked.
Will gulped a spoonful of corn flakes and shrugged. "Joey's at vacation Bible school," he said nonchalantly. "Maybe we'll do something later."
But Will was thinking of sneaking to the underground fort by himself. His older brother Ken and his friends had built the fort, and Ken had warned Will to stay away. However, Ken was mowing lawns this morning, and wouldn't know. Chances were good that Ken's friends were also busy.
"Gracious," his mother said, putting her hand on her protruding house robe. "She's very active this morning."
Will looked at his mother's amusing cartoon-like stomach and her warm smile and nodded.
"That was a big kick," she said.
"Are you okay?" Will asked.
"Oh, yes," she said. "Your sister's just telling us it won't be much longer before she arrives."
Will was concerned for his mother because recently he'd had a couple sharp pains in his abdomen and hoped it wasn't the same for her. But he didn't want to mention his pains because that would mean a trip to the doctor.
"Do you have any questions about it?" his mother asked and bit into her wheat toast.
"Nah," Will said. "That picture book you read to me explained it." The book had been as sunny and happy as the sunlight-filled kitchen, and kind of babyish, if you asked Will.
"Well, if you do, just ask me or your father." Her eyes widened at more fetal movement. "Maybe you could help me around the house before you make yourself scarce." She sipped orange juice and added, "Just stay away from that construction."
"Sure," Will readily agreed. It was almost as if she were giving him permission to go to the underground fort.
An hour later, Will left his back yard with his bedroom flashlight hidden in his shorts and traversed a former farm field that was graded and marked into housing lots with red tape. Will had wanted Joey along, but now he'd have one up on him. To the left of the field were the woods where the neighborhood kids had lots of imaginative fun. The woods were to be leveled for the new housing tract; Will read the billboard announcing Phase II of Meadow View Estates, but it was hard to imagine that the woods would not be there, even though hammering and bulldozing sounds droned from the construction site on the far side of the trees. Will would miss them.
At the end of the field, out of sight of his house and just inside the shady woods, was the underground fort. The entrance to it was marked by several stones that his brother and friends had piled up.
Will stomped on the sod-covered plywood roof and waited, his legs tensed and ready to run. After nothing happened, he cautiously stuck his head through the entrance to the dark pit and shone his flashlight around. It was a lot cooler in there, and in spite of the above-ground heat, Will shivered as he noted a cardboard box, some debris. No snakes or animals. He extracted his head and swung his legs around and through the entrance, but before he descended, grimaced and held his abdomen. The jab in his side was almost like another warning from his brother to stay out, and he hesitated.
But Will was no chicken, and he'd come this far, and he was just going to look, so he slipped through the hole, grunting when he landed. The fort was deeper than it seemed, and he looked up at the luminous snatch of pale blue sky through the entrance overhead and fretted about how to get out, but then saw footholds dug into the dirt and relaxed.
Will sliced the dark with his flashlight, looking at the shovel-scarred walls and floor, the two pieces of 4x8 plywood roof. He gripped the 4x4 post that provided a support for the roof and marveled at how solid Ken and his friends had built the fort; it would make a good tornado shelter.
"Wonder what they do down here," Will mused aloud, his voice muffled and odd in the earthy chamber. He and Joey would have to sneak up on them and find out.
Will remembered the box and beamed his light on it. Scattered around it were a couple empty plastic soda bottles, a crumpled cigarette pack and cigarette butts. He smiled; so, his brother smokes down here. What else?
He opened the box and held his flashlight over it, and it was several seconds before he realized what he was looking at. He glanced at the crack of sky, then lifted a comic book; on the cover was an enormous two-legged vagina about to gobble a small man. Will muttered the title, "Attack of the Giant Poontang!" He wondered what that was, and giggled at the hapless expression on the running man's face.
But he flushed as he thumbed through the next magazine. It had high-quality photographs of a real naked man and a pretty naked woman in various positions; some of them looked like they were angry and fighting. Will wondered whether they were a father and mother, because they looked like they might be doing that reproduction thing that Will's mother read about. In other pictures, they were doing things that his mother hadn't read about, and which were gross.
Will thought these might be the pictures that his parents didn't want him to see on the Internet, and he did and didn't want to see more, but it made him queasy to think of his mother and father doing those things. As he put the magazine back and shook his head to rid the graphic images, he heard laughter and hooting.
Will panicked and clawed up out of the fort, dropping his flashlight and getting dirt in his mouth, and sprinted in the opposite direction of the voices.
"We'll get you!" one of them shouted.
Will ran the entire way home in a loop through the woods, trying to outdistance the troubling images in his mind more than the older boys.
As he breathlessly approached his house, he saw his mother at the kitchen sink waving to him, her face obscured by the reflecting windowpane.
Will didn't want to see her just then, and detoured to the side of the garage where he sat to catch his breath and rub the pain away. And to think.
But Joey interrupted him. "Hey, I called you from the back door," he said. "Your mom and I were wondering where you were."
"I didn't see anything," Will said.
"I was only out in the field."
Joey looked at him perplexed, then smiled. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I'll bet you were at the underground fort."
"Huh-uhh," Will lied. He no longer wanted to have one up on his friend.
"What'd you see, Will?"
Joey would think he was dirty if he described it, and it would then be Joey who'd have one up on guilty Will.
"Come on," Joey insisted. "Must've been better than boring old Bible school."
Will wished he'd been there instead of the fort. "Just get lost," he snapped.
Joey was offended at Will's grouchiness. "You get lost," he huffed, and vanished around the front of the house.
Will watched him reappear on his bicycle sailing down the driveway and the street out of sight, feeling abandoned, and lost.
The sensation intensified that night when Will awoke in pitch blackness with a stab in his side. He rolled his eyes around trying to see something other than the tiny white specks that seemed to be causing the ringing in his ears. Somehow, he was trapped in the underground fort, suffocating. He couldn't stand; the plywood roof pressed on him.
He began moaning and could then inhale.
Presently, a wave of light spread in the dark, followed by two shadows, one tall, one short, skulking towards him. How did they fit in the fort?
"Ehhhhhhh," Will whimpered.
"Will," his father comforted. "Will." He put a cool, dry palm on Will's forehead, which brought him home.
"My stomach," Will gasped.
"What'd you do, pull a muscle?" his brother asked.
Though feverish, Will knew what Ken referred to, but he was too weak to threaten to expose him and his friends.
"I mean, didn't I see you running sprints earlier today?" Ken quizzed.
"Quit," Will said. "It's real bad."
"Cool it, Ken," their father said. He touched Will's stomach and asked how long he'd had the pain.
Will sensed an association between his pain and the pictures in the underground fort, and he almost blurted defensively that he'd had the pain before the underground fort. "A while," he groaned. "And it's lower."
The overhead light flashed on, and Will's mother brushed past and sat on the bed and leaned over him. "What's wrong, honey?" she asked tenderly.
Will looked askance at her billowing belly and shirked. It was no longer amusing.
"Not sure," his father said. "His forehead's very warm and his abdomen hurts."
"Did you boys eat something this afternoon?" she asked.
"Huh-uh," Will moaned.
"You sure?" Ken prodded. "You sure you don't have a stash of candy--somewhere?"
Will shook his head vehemently, which turned his dizziness to nausea. He tried to sit up to go to the bathroom, but vomited on his bedclothes.
"Agghh," Ken said.
"That's enough," his father said. "Get a damp towel."
His mother examined the mess and commanded, "Alright, he's going to the emergency."
His father hoisted Will and asked his mother to get a blanket. "He's burning up," he said, "but shaking like he's freezing."
Ken met them in the hall and put the damp towel to Will's face.
Will weakly swatted it away. It was Ken's fault that he was sick. If he and his friends hadn't built the underground fort, Will never would have seen the magazines there. And, yes, though the sharp pain had started before Will discovered the magazines, the pain and the discovery were connected somehow. And Will was suffering for it; he was probably going to die for it.
"Hey, Will, you want your flashlight?" Ken asked as they laid him in the backseat.
"Why would he need that?" his father chided.
His mother shushed them and put a pillow under Will's head, and Ken sat and lifted his limp legs onto his lap.
As they sped along the Outer Loop to the hospital, Will watched streetlights and headlights distorting his parents' heads and bringing on the nausea again. He heard them chatting about his appendix, surgery, as if there was nothing to it.
Ken smiled at Will, as if to say, "I told you to stay away."
"How come," Will blubbered at him, "how come this isn't happening to you? It's your fort."
"What's that supposed to mean?" their father asked.
"Ah," Ken said, nudging Will, "he's delirious."
"Will," his mother soothed. "Hang in there. The doctors will fix you up in a jiffy."
As they approached the hospital, she airily mentioned that his sister would be born there. His soon-to-be sister who was also somehow mixed up with the underground fort.
His father talked about maternity leave, how they'd all have to pitch in to help mother, especially when she returned to her job. "That includes you, Will," he said jovially. "You're not the baby of the family anymore."
Will covered his ears to shut out their silliness and squeezed his eyes tightly against the glaring lights at the emergency entrance as they pulled up and stopped. If he somehow survived the surgery, he solemnly promised God that he'd get a shovel and fill in the underground fort, bury those nasty pictures, and if any of the older boys tried to stop him, God, he'd bash their heads in.
"Looks like Will's having a nightmare," Ken observed from afar. "His lips are moving something fierce."
BIO: Rick Taliaferro is a freelance writer and editor (TextPosit). In his spare time, he spends one hour, or one page, or 200 words per day on fiction. He recently had a novel published, Cascades, and is currently rewriting the first draft of a new novel. Before he became the Associate Editor at Bartleby Snopes, several of his stories appeared in the journal.