Back in my room with the sleeve, I was able to quickly see the error of my ways. It was not Cal Ripken Jr. which was Charlie’s favorite baseball player, it was Ken Griffey Jr. I was looking at a 90s-hip black guy with a gold chain instead of a guy who looked like a balding insurance salesman who stayed in good shape.
Ken Griffey Jr.
My answer was correct. The skeleton of Jonathan’s crossword puzzle took shape and filled in the first line.
Some endorphins shot through me once the filled line was presented and a new question cued up.
What is written on the door of the playhouse in the woods behind the house?
This threw me through a massive loop. The playhouse in the woods? My brain did a deep archive scan back to the childhood bowels I had tried to purge as much as I could over the years.
It took a few moments, but mental pictures and memories of a rickety playhouse by the dirty creek way back in the woods behind our trailer started to take shape. I do remember playing with Atchley there, trying to turn the dark wooden shack which was crawling with termites into a playhouse for her and her dolls when she was around six or seven. Not long before she disappeared. The place had almost no significance to me so it was strange that Jonathan’s crossword mentioned it.
The path to the playhouse was narrow, muddy and overgrown with thick foliage. I’m not sure one of those murderball guys could even get through it in a wheelchair, but I was determined to try. Jonathan’s mysterious crossword had me interested in life for the first time in years and my more than a decade of building social anxiety had stripped me of anyone who I felt comfortable calling for help.
Armed with a freshly-sharpened machete, a lacrosse mask, baseball gloves and a Louisville Slugger, I looked like a horror movie monster myself when I rolled out the dead grass of the backyard and onto the little dirt path which trickled out of the backyard and into the deep Virginia backwoods. I felt the entire world around me get just a little bit darker once I spun myself onto the path and my seat rumbled on the rocky terrain.
I was shocked to discover the cleanliness of the path just a few wheels onto the thing. The sides seemed to be almost trimmed and the path below me wasn’t overgrown. I thought I saw a couple of boot tracks pressed into the loose dirt as I made sweet time down the path towards the creek where I would reunite with the shack I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. It seemed as if someone had not just used this path recently, but also put in effort to make it user friendly.
The initial ease this realization shot into my blood was quickly replaced with thick fear. Who would have been using this trail? It only went from our backyard to a muddy creek full of mosquitos and snakes. It was not some kind of local swimming hole. There was no reason someone should have been back there…
Maybe tweakers were living in the old shack/playhouse? Maybe this was all some kind of elaborate trap laid by them to get me back there all alone and do something horrible to me?
I pushed the thoughts out. If those tweakers really wanted to do something to me, they could have just kicked in my front door. No need to get this complicated. I pushed on bravely in my wheelchair and the shack started to take shape through the trees just about 25 yards ahead. At least I could confirm that the structure was still standings.
I’m not sure exactly why, but just looking at that little shack we used to use as a playhouse started to stir those long-lost heartstrings which were buried in my cold, grey insides. I fought back tears in the final stretch which led to the front door of the place which swung in the swift breeze of the early afternoon.
I couldn’t believe I was back there. My brain seemed to implant the smell of Atchley into my nose and the sounds of her playing and giggling in that little area all those years ago started playing in my ears. The experience popped up goosebumps on my skin.
I wasted no time looking inside the shack. I was sure it was just an algae-covered mess filled with spiders. I was only focused on the door.
My scan of the door was almost immediately fruitful. Just above my seated eye level was a carving. It looked like the kind you might see scratched into the dirty stall of a rest stop bathroom.
I had to look over the carving three times before I think my body let it register. Cased in a jagged heart were the names Ken and Atchley connected by a plus symbol. The kind of thing a middle school girl would write on her binder and keep prominently displayed on her desk so everyone could see who her boyfriend was.
The text of the carving was not the least bit feminine. It was full of the rugged, sloppy, loose penmanship of a young man. The kind of handwriting usually reserved for the sweaty-palmed responses a boy might give a girl via passed paper note in class which contained just a few inarticulate words of annoyance.