This Secret for Us

by Will McMillan

“Come with me,” says my brother, motioning me to follow him into the wilderness. I move, then stop. After all, this is the person who lures me in with a hug only to pin me down and spit in my face. Is the smile he’s offering friendly or savage? I should know the difference by now, like knowing fair weather clouds from swirling storm ones, but sometimes I can’t tell which way the wind’s blowing. “There’s something I want you to see.”

What was it the witch said to Gretel? Creep in, and see if it’s properly heated, so we can put the bread in. Bread, or a child. I look at the woods in the distance, a sprawling, wild kingdom. The sky is as blue as sapphire, the sun a shining yolk in the center. Suspicion radiates like heat from my skin because that smile of his is so wide, and my brother throws his hands to his hips. “What? Do you have something better to do? C’mon, or I’m leaving you.”

That trick always works. Even if there’s nothing to be left for, the threat of being left out concerns me. We’re three years apart, Chris and me. Just enough space for us to hate each other. I’m always growing into what he’s growing out of, always trying to embrace what he wants to cast off. The moments we’re not engaging in battle are precious. Shooting stars in the sky. I try to notice them as they go racing by, and on the chance I see one, I follow.

Chris never walks if he can run, so we run. He can leave me behind in a cinch, his legs like pistons sprouting from his body, but he stays by my side.

In the woods, he stops running, walking instead in an exaggerated, zigzagging pattern. “I don’t want there to be a trail,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to be able to find it.” He points at his footfalls. “Try to walk where I’m walking.”

Mosquitoes buzz, song sparrows scold us. The trees crowd around like moss-coated strangers, stealing heat from the air with their pine-needled branches, turning the sweat on our skin into ice water. My feet thud where my brother’s feet thud, tiptoe where he tiptoes.

Chris slows, then stops. When I’m beside him, he points. “Do you see it?”

I see a cluster of lady ferns. I see an explosion of fronds, clump after clump of triangular branches. I shake my head. “Do I see what?”

He starts moving again. I follow, and then all at once, yes, I can see it. Maybe four feet high, a moss-coated hut sprouting out from the ground. Perfectly blended with the ferns that surround it, the hut’s roughly the size of a schoolyard merry-go-round. On the side there’s a hole, a doorway.

“All I used was branches, moss, and string,” Chris says when we’re inside, squatting next to each other, our arms embracing our knees. “I wanted it to be natural. No nails. No hammers. No cheating.” The hut’s cold, wet and glorious. Thin strips of sunlight slip through small cracks in the roof, where the moss has fallen away from the branches. Chris’ face beams in this light, so proud of this thing he’s built. “This could be just for us if we wanted. A secret.”

My brother and I know about secrets. For a year we’ve been homeless, our family wedged in a camper that rests on an ancient dirt road. No running water, no electricity. No food except for what our mother picks up from donations, no clothes except for what our father swipes from Goodwill—worn t-shirts and jeans crammed under the armpit of his oversized coat. He insists his children never let on, that we go to school as if we hadn’t spent the night freezing, that we face the day and the people around us, with their full stomachs and store-bought shoes, as if we weren’t reeking with a thin film of dirt.

“Come here as much as you want, even if I’m not with you, but never come the same way twice. I’ll show you a couple of routes, c’mon.” Damp forest earth is freezing my butt, yet I don’t want to move. I want to hold still in this moment. With nothing more than branches and moss, Chris has provided what our parents could not.

As he shows me secret ways to his fort, I can’t help but look for other footprints, for other trails we both might have missed. A snapped twig on the ground, a plant bent at its center. Signs of possible footfalls, of secrets awaiting discovery, paths that might lead to more than fortresses tucked between trees, that might lead us out of our lives and into another, wide enough to hold us both as we run, side by side, keeping pace with each other.

Will McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he continues to work and write. He’s been featured in The Sun, Sweet, Hobart, and The Citron Review literary journals, among others. He prefers being deep in the outdoors, exploring, walking and talking his way through whatever story’s coming together in his head.

Artwork by: Juan Pablo Rodriguez