It’s a long story, but one you’ve never heard before. This story is about a place that dwells on the mountain; a place where bad things happen. And you may think you know about the bad things, you may decide you have it all figured out but you don’t. Because the truth is worse than monsters or men.
At first I was upset when they told me we were moving to some little town out in the Ozarks. I remember staring at my dinner plate while I listened to my sister throw a temper tantrum unbefitting of a 14 year old honors student. She cried, she pleaded, and then she cursed at my parents. She threw a bowl at my dad and told him it was all his fault. Mom told Whitney to calm down but she stormed off, slamming every door in the house on the way to her room.
I secretly blamed my dad as well. I’d heard the whispers too, my dad had done something wrong, something bad and the sheriff’s department had reassigned him to some little out of the way county to save face. My parents didn’t want me to know that, but I did.
I was nine so it didn’t take me too long to warm to the idea of a change; it was like an adventure. New house! New school! New friends! Whitney, of course, felt the opposite. Moving to a new school at her age is hard, moving away from her new boyfriend, however, was even harder. While the rest of us packed up our things and said our goodbyes, Whitney sulked and cried and threatened to run away from home. But a month later when we pulled up to our new house in Drisking, Missouri she was sitting right next me texting viciously on her phone.
Thankfully, we moved over the summer and I had months of free time to explore the town. When Dad started his new job at the sheriff’s office, Mom drove us around the city commenting on this and that. The city was much, much smaller than St. Louis but also a lot nicer. There were no ‘bad’ areas and the entire town looked like something you’d see on a post card. Drisking was built in a mountain valley surrounded by healthy forest land with walking trails and crystal clear lakes. I was 9, it was summer and this was in heaven.
We’d only been living in Drisking a week or so when our next door neighbors came to introduce themselves: Mr. and Mrs. Landy and their 10 year old son Kyle. While our parents talked and drank mimosas, I watched the Landy’s lanky, red-headed son hung out in the doorway, shyly eyeing the PS2 in the living room.
“Uh, do you play?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Not really.”
“Do you wanna? I just got Tekken 4.”
“Um…” Kyle glanced at his mom, who had just been handed her third mimosa. “Yeah. Sure.”
And that afternoon, with the ease and simplicity of our age, Kyle and I became best friends. We spent the cool summer mornings outside exploring the Ozarks and the hot afternoons in my living room playing the PS2. He introduced me to the only other kid in the neighborhood our age: a skinny, quiet girl named Kimber Destaro. She was shy but friendly and always up for anything. Kimber kept up with us so well that she quickly became the third wheel on our tricycle.
With my dad at work all the time, my mom consumed with her new friendships, and my sister locked in her room all day, the summer was ours to take and take it we did. Kyle and Kimber showed me where all the best hiking trails were, which lakes were the best (and most accessible by bike), and where the best stores were in town. By the time the first day of school rolled around in September I knew I was home.
On the last Saturday before school started, Kyle and Kimber told me they were going to take me somewhere special, somewhere we hadn’t been yet – the Triple Tree.
“What’s a ‘triple tree’?” I asked.
“It’s a totally awesome, totally huge treehouse out in the woods.” Kyle said excitedly.
“Pfft, whatever, Kyle. Come on, you guys, if there was a freakin’ treehouse you would have showed it to me already.”
“Na-uh, we wouldn’t’ve,” Kyle shook his head. “There’s a ceremony for first-timers and everything.”
Kimber nodded eagerly in agreement, her dark orange curls bouncing off of her tiny shoulders. “Yep, it’s true Sam. If you enter the treehouse without the proper ceremony you’ll disappear and then you’ll die.”
My face fell. Now I knew they were making fun of me. “That’s a lie! You guys are lying to me!”
“No we’re not!” Kimber insisted.
“Yeah, we’ll show you! We just have to get a knife for the ceremony and we’ll go.”
“What? Why do you need a knife? Is it a blood ceremony?” I whispered.
“No way!” Kimber promised. “You just say some words and carve your name into the Triple Tree.”
“Yup, it takes like one minute.” Kyle agreed.
“And it’s a really cool treehouse?” I asked.
“Oh yeah.” Kyle promised.
“Okay, I guess I’ll do it then.”
Kyle insisted on using the same knife he used during his own ceremony but we paid a price to get it. Mrs. Landy just happened to be home with her youngest son Parker and despite Kyle’s many objections his mother insisted he take his six year old brother with him.
“Mom, we’re going to the treehouse, it’s only for older kids. Parker can’t go!”
“I don’t care if you’re going to see an Exorcist movie marathon, you’re taking your brother with you. I need a break, Kyle, can’t you understand that? And I’m sure your friends won’t mind.” She flashed Kimber and me a challenging look. “Right?”
“No, not at all,” Kimber said and I nodded in agreement.
Kyle made a loud, dramatic sigh and called his brother. “Parker, put your shoes on, we’re leaving now!”
I’d met the youngest Landy several times before and found that he was as unlike his older brother in looks as in disposition. Where Kyle was a wild, excitable fireball with hair to match, I found Parker to be an anxious, fidgety boy with small eyes and dark brown hair.
We got on our bikes and made our way to a lesser known hiking trail a few miles away. I’d asked before where the trail led when we’d ridden across it several weeks before and Kyle had given me the underwhelming answer of “nowhere interesting”.
We pulled up to trail head and leaned our bikes against the wooden sign post which read “West Rim Prescott Ore Trail”.
“Why are so many trails around here named Prescott?” I asked. “Is this Prescott Mountain or something?”
Kimber laughed. “No, dummy, it’s because of the Prescott’s. You know, the family that lives in the mansion up on Fairmont. Mr. Prescott and his son Jimmy own like half the businesses in town.”
“More than half,” Kyle agreed.
“Which ones? Does he own the Game Stop?” The only store in Drisking I really cared about.
“I don’t know about that one,” Kyle wound a lock around the 4 bikes and clicked the bar into place, then spun the numbers on the dial. “But like the hardware store, the pharmacy, Gliton’s on 2nd and the newspaper.”
“The Skinned Men,” Parker answered. “And the Shiny Gentleman.”
“Did they start this town?” I asked.
“Nah, mining started the town. I think they-“
“I want to go home.” Parker had been so quiet I’d completely forgotten he was there.
“You can’t go home,” Kyle rolled his eyes. “Mom said I had to bring you. Now come on, it’s only like a two mile walk.”
“I wanna take my bike.” Parker answered.
“Too bad, we’re going off trail.”
“I don’t wanna go. I’ll stay with the bikes.”
“Don’t be such a wussy.”
“Kyle, be nice!” Kimber hissed. “He’s only 5.”
“I’m 6!” Parker objected.
“I’m sorry, 6. You’re 6.” Kimber smiled at him.
“Alright fine, he can hold your hand if he wants. But he’s coming.” Kyle turned and started up the trail.
Parker’s face fell into an undignified frown but when the charming Kimber stuck her hand out and wiggled her fingers at him, he took it.
Kyle was right, it wasn’t a long walk – only a half mile down the trail and then another half mile hike on a well tread path up the mountain. It was a steep climb though, and by the time we got to the treehouse, I was winded.
“What do you think?” Kyle asked excitedly.
“It’s…” I studied the tree as I caught my breath. “It’s pretty awesome,” I smiled. And it was. They hadn’t lied to me, the treehouse was the biggest one I’d ever seen. It had multiple rooms and there were actual curtains in the windows. A sign above the door said ‘Ambercot Fort’ and a rope ladder hung below the threshold, missing several planks.
“I’m going up first!” Yelled Parker, but Kimber caught his arm.
“You have to do the ceremony first or you’ll disappear.” She reminded him.
“That’d be fine with me,” Kyle grumbled.
I was eager to get into the fort myself. “Give me the knife.” I held out my hand and Kyle smiled and dug the switchblade out of his pocket.
“There’s some space in the back to carve your name.”
I opened up the knife and walked around the tree looking for an empty spot. They were so many names on the trunk that I had to crunch down and look search near the bottom since I couldn’t reach any higher. I spotted both Kyle and Kimber’s carvings on the tree and I found a spot I liked near the latter. I bit my tongue and carved Sam W. into a blank piece of bark underneath someone named Phil S. Parker went next but had so much trouble with the knife that Kyle ended up doing it for him.
“Alright, let’s go,” I ran over to the rope ladder.
“Wait!” Kyle yelled. “You have to say the words first.”
“Oh yeah. What are they?”
Kimber sang them out. “Underneath the Triple Tree there is a man who waits for me and should I go or should I stay my fate’s the same either way.”
“That’s…creepy.” I said. “What does it mean?”
Kimber shrugged. “No one knows anymore, it’s just tradition.”
“Okay, can you say it one more time, slower?”
Once Parker and I had managed to recite the poem without forgetting the words we were ready to go. I climbed the rope ladder first and took stock of my new surroundings. The treehouse was more or less empty, just a dirty rug here and there and some trash: old soda cans, beer cans and fast food wrappers.
I went room to room – four in total – and found nothing of real interest until I entered the last one. An old mattress lay in the corner and piles of musty, ripped clothing scattered the floor.
“Did a hobo live here?” I asked.
“Nah, this room has been like this for as long as I can remember.” Kyle said from the doorway behind me.
“It smells gross.” I said.
Kimber walked up to the threshold but refused to go any further. “It’s not the smell that freaks me out – it’s that.” She pointed up to the ceiling and I raised my eyes to read what was written there.
Road to the Gates of Hell
Mile Marker 1
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s just older kids being dicks,” Kyle said. “Come on, I’ll show you the best part of the treehouse.”
We walked back into the first room and Parker looked up at us and smiled, pointing down to what he’d clumsily carved into the wooden floor.
“Fart,” Kyle read. “That’s hilarious, Parker.” He rolled his eyes and his little brother smiled proudly.
Kimber sat down on the floor next to Parker and I sat on his other side. Kyle took the knife from his brother and then walked across the room and wedged the blade between two planks of the wooded wall. He applied a slight pressure and the board gave, opening up a small, secret compartment in the wall. Kyle took something out and pushed the plank back in until it was again flush with the wall.
“Check it out.” He turned around and proudly held up two cans of Miller Lite beer.
“Whoa!” I said.
“Ewww, warm beer? That’s gross. How did you even know it was there?” Kimber asked.
“Phil Saunders told me.”
“Are we gonna drink it?” I asked.
“Hell yeah we’re gonna drink it!”
Kyle came and sat down in our circle, popped open the first beer and offered it to Kimber. She recoiled as if he was trying to hand her a dirty diaper.
“Come on, Kimmy.”
“Don’t call me that!” She yelled at him and then reluctantly took the open beer. She smelled it and made a face, then pinched her nose and took a small swig. Kimber shuddered. “That was even grosser than I imagined.”
“I don’t want any! I’ll tell mom!” Parker said quickly as the beer passed in front of him.
“Good, ‘cause you ain’t getting any,” Kyle promised. “And you won’t tell mom shit.”
I put on my best poker face and took a long, deep swallow of the warm beer before I had the chance to smell it. It was a poor decision and when I wretched, the foul yellow liquid went all over my shirt.
“Aww man, now I’m gonna smell like beer.”
We spent the next hour and a half drinking the two cans of Miller Lite and after a while the taste seemed to grow more tolerable. I couldn’t tell if I was becoming a man or actually getting drunk. I hoped it was the former. When the last drop of the last beer was consumed we spent 20 minutes trying to determine if we were drunk. Kyle assured us that he was wasted while Kimber wasn’t sure. I didn’t think I was, but I failed all of our makeshift drunk tests.
Kimber was in the middle of reciting the alphabet backwards when a loud, metallic grinding suddenly pierced the balmy mountain air like a gunshot. Kimber stopped talking and we spent a few minutes staring at each other, waiting for the noise to end. Parker curled into Kimber and put his hands over his ears. After what seemed like ten whole minutes the sound ended as suddenly as it had begun.
“What was that?” I asked and Parker mumbled something into Kimber’s t-shirt.
“Do you guys know?” I tried again.
Kimber stared at her Keds as she crossed and uncrossed her feet.
“It’s nothing,” Kyle answered finally. “We hear it sometimes in town, it’s not a big deal. It’s just louder up here.”
“But what’s making that sound?”
“Borrasca.” Kimber whispered without taking her eyes off her Keds.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Not who – where.” Kyle answered. “It’s a place.”
“No, just a place in the woods.”
“Bad things happen there,” Kimber said more to herself than anyone else.
“Bad things.” Kimber repeated.
“Yeah, don’t ever try to find it, dude.” Kyle said behind me. “Or bad things will happen to you, too.”
“But like, what bad things?” Kyle shrugged and Kimber stood up and walked over to the rope ladder.
“We’d better go. I have to get home to my mom,” she said.
We climbed down the ladder one by one and then started the walk back to the trail head in an unfamiliar silence. I was dying of curiosity about Borrasca but couldn’t decide if and what to ask about it.
“So, who lives there?”
“Where?” Kyle asked.
“The Skinned Men,” Parker answered. “And the Shiny Gentleman.”
“Pfft,” Kyle laughed. “Only babies believe that.”
“Like men who are skinned? Like their skin is gone?” I asked excitedly.
“Yeah, that’s what some kids say. Most of us stop believing in that, though, when we turn double digits.” Kyle said and shot an exasperated look at Parker.
I looked back at Kimber for confirmation but she was still staring down the trail ignoring us. That seemed to be the end of the conversation and by the time we reached our bikes the awkwardness had abated and we were giggling as we tried to decide if we were too drunk to bike home.
School started two days later and by that time I’d completely forgotten about Borrasca. When my dad pulled up to the curb to drop me off that morning he locked the doors before I could get out.
“Not so fast,” he laughed. “As your father I get the privilege of giving you a hug and telling you to have a good first day of school.”
“But Dad, I gotta go meet Kyle by the flag before first bell!”
“And you will, but give me a hug first. In a few years you’ll be driving yourself to school, let me be your dad while I still can.”
“Fine.” I said and leaned over to give my dad a quick hug.
“Thank you. Now go meet Kyle. Your mom will be waiting here to pick you up at 3:40.”
“I know, Dad. Why can’t I take the bus like Whitney?”
“When you’re 13, you can take the bus.” He smiled and unlocked the doors. “Until then, I get to drop you off in the mornings. If you think it’d make you look cooler you can ride in the back seat behind the cage.”