They came back every year to lay flowers at that spot. The wood had been overtaken by the weeds and brush. Each two-by-four plank from the old Fort has sunk beneath dry grasses; the long, star-like tendrils disintegrated under the heat of an angry sun.
Mid-summer, July, and they returned again. The abandoned Fort had been outgrown by its four, formerly 16-year-old members. They came back and brought a different plastic flower from the dollar store. Under the thin layer of grass, they opened the earth with raw hands to putt out the dark brown, wooden box—also from the dollar store. A padlock kept it shut. A plastic bag kept it dry through the moist spring ground and frozen winter dirt.
One of the members—a tall, spindly girl with a thick black braid—produced the scrap of paper with the lock combination inscribed on it. A boy with a bushy blonde beard squatted beside the boxed and pulled off the plastic bag. A short girl with three fingers on her left hand crouched next to him. He held the bag. The girl with the braid read out the combination. The ceremony had begun. As the lock was removed, they settled down on the parched grass and arranged their bags near them. The box was open, sitting with them in their circle.
They each took out their plastic flower and passed it around the circle, pausing over the open box, then continuing on to its original bringer. After each flower made its round, the box was slid into the center. Inside, photographs mingled with dog tags, and the flowers from the previous 8 years covering the bottom. Each was perfectly preserved, none of them having enough money or coming too far away for the luxury of real flowers.
“Wish you were here, bud,” the boy said. He placed the plastic orange rose into the box.
“The Fort gets drier every year without you.” The three-fingered girl kissed her bunch of hot pink forget-me-nots. “You completed this circle. She placed the flowers inside, then shuffled away to let the braided girl get to the box.
She held a neon yellow peony and wordlessly set it on top of the others.
“Ready?” asked the boy. He dove a hand down his pocket and pulled out a fat joint of weed.
The three-fingered girl sat next to the box, her hip pressing its side and her bare legs itching at the grass.
The braided girl sat on the other side and brought her hand to the lid. It felt flimsy against the pressure of her index finger. The boy pulled out a cheap lighter, rigged to produce a longer flame, and put the joint between his lips.
“I…” The lighter clicked and didn’t ignite. The braided girl cleared her throat. “Scott, I don’t want to this time.”
Before he flicked the light again, he looked at her and sat down.
“Why not?” asked the three-fingered girl.
“Beth, this is what we do,” said Scott.
“And what we did.”
“I know, Kim, but… it feels like blasphemy,” said Beth. “Like disrespect.”
“How? We’re smoking in his name,” said Scott.
“Well…” started Kim. “Beth’s got a point about it being blasphemous.”
Beth was standing, her bag between her feet. “We should make a new tradition.”
Kim stood and gazed at the box while she itched her thighs.
“I don’t know.” Beth squatted back down.
Scott returned the joint to his pocket and drummed his palms against his knees. He stared at the grass. “I just got my car,” he said. “We could visit him.”
“That’s still like ten hours away, Scott,” said Kim.
“So? We came this far already.”
“We can all drive,” said Beth, “And take turns.”
“Get a round going?” Kim smirked.
They all huffed a small laugh and, in unison, looked at the box.
“He would’ve liked a road trip,” said Scott.
Kim reached out and quickly closed the box’s lid. Beth knelt down and clicked the lock back in place. The sense of urgency passed between them all until they had bundled up the box again, leaving the hole in the ground, and scampered out of the forest. Beth’s nose and cheeks had started burning. Kim readjusted her shorts before climbing into Scott’s car. He got in behind the driver’s seat, while Beth sat behind him and pulled the seatbelt around the box. The engine ignited and Kim rolled down the passenger side window.