“The Fountain of Truth?” Pete asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s a legendary fountain discovered by Ponce De Leon,” replied Chuck. “Whoever drinks from it will learn the truth about everyone around him. Ponce De Leon saw it from far off, but never pinpointed its exact location.”
Pete had learned to be wary of Chuck’s ideas. At the beginning of the school year, Chuck had decided to become a knight and had gotten himself beaten to within half an inch of his life by the entire high school football team.
“If it’s that good,” Pete said, “how come no one else has ever found it?”
“Because,” Chuck said, “the fountain only spouts intermittently like a geyser. It reveals itself only to those worthy explorers who seek after it with a humble attitude and a quiet heart.”
“Oh,” said Pete, “I’m usually pretty humbled and quiet by the time I get off the toilet.”
To say that Pete pooped a lot would be an understatement. Pete spent so much of his day on the toilet that the kids in school, and even the adults around town, often referred to him as “The Eliminator.”
For a while he had believed that he could read the future in the skid marks on his underwear. Now he was convinced that an alien race was trying to communicate with him using the marks as a sort of “fecal hieroglyphics.”
“My dad just installed this new toilet in our house with a power flusher so I won’t plug it up so much anymore,” Pete continued. “It saves me a lot of time plunging, so I’ve got some free time right now. Maybe we can be as famous as that Ponce Delicatessen guy and discover the Fountain of Truth.”
“Then it’s decided,” said Chuck, squaring his shoulders and puffing out his puny chest. “We leave at once on our great journey of discovery!”
Chuck and Pete made quite a pair as they strode off together toward adventure. Chuck was slightly taller than most other boys his age, but made up for his height by being wiry and rather small chested. He had bright red hair, which was cut short in a crew cut. A thin line of light red fuzz adorned his upper lip in what he considered a mustache. His long arms hung limp from his puny shoulders and jostled strangely to his irregular, lanky gait.
Pete, on the other hand, was somewhat shorter than Chuck. His shoulders were wide and strong from lifting weights, but his belly was round and loose from overeating and slouching. He did all his weight lifting lying down. He had dark brown hair, not too long, parted on the right side. His steps were shorter than Chuck’s, but with years of practice getting to the bathroom on time, Pete had learned to walk faster than normal boys and had no problem keeping pace with Chuck.
“I’ve brought along a box of stationery to keep a log of our adventures,” Chuck was saying, “but can we stop by your house and borrow your dad’s axe? I don’t think we can be explorers without an axe.”
“Sure,” Pete replied, “I want to pick up a roll of toilet paper anyway, just in case.”
After stopping at Pete’s house for the axe and toilet paper, Chuck and Pete made their way toward the wooded lot behind the town water treatment plant.
“It’s no vast unexplored wilderness,” Chuck said, as they entered the wood, “but it will have to do until we can find a new continent to discover.”
It was a warm, sunny, fall day with only a hint of coolness on the light, occasional breeze that tousled Pete’s hair and rippled Chuck’s oversized T-shirt. Chuck led the pair as they tramped their way through the fallen leaves of maples, oaks, poplars, and pines. The path they followed grew steeper, and their steps grew slower as they panted for breath. A gray squirrel startled them as it rustled through the leaves, bounding to the relative safety of a nearby dogwood tree. At the top of the steep hill, they forced their way through a thick stand of small sumac trees until they saw the large, fenced-in expanse of the water treatment plant’s aeration pond spread out in the distance below them.
“Why is it fenced in?” Pete asked.
“They’ve obviously got something to hide,” Chuck answered.
A narrow, rushing brook surged past the aeration pond just outside the fence. At one point, the brook’s path changed course as it flowed around a small peninsula of land bordered by the fence. This point of land was dotted with thick bushes, tall grass, and various small trees, all of which were towered over by a large oak growing close to the fence line.
Chuck studied the landscape before him and then froze.
“Do you see that!” he said, pointing.
Pete followed Chuck’s gaze and took a second look at the large oak tree.
“Oh,” Pete said. “I see it now. It’s a tree clubhouse.”
“That’s not just any clubhouse,” Chuck said, straightening as he spoke. “That’s an impenetrable fortress just waiting to be conquered. Long ago a great explorer, perhaps Ponce De Leon himself, built that fortress to protect some hidden treasure. Now its current occupants, worthy or not, doubtless hold the key to some great mystery.”
“I don’t like it when you talk like that,” Pete said. “Whenever you talk like that, we get into trouble.”
“It may even be that this fortress was left here to guard the secret location of the Fountain of Truth, itself!” Chuck concluded, ignoring Pete’s remark.
“If I get hurt, I’m going to turn your nose into a fountain,” Pete replied.
His face radiant, Chuck turned his back toward Pete and started his descent toward the peninsula. “Let us investigate!”
“Alright,” Pete said, following. “Let’s go see if we can find your old fountain and get it over with. I’ve got an ache in my belly, and if I don’t hurry home soon those aliens are going to start conversing again.”
Their path led them to a fallen tree, which lay across the gurgling stream and onto the grassy peninsula in front of the large oak tree. The wind picked up again and ruffled the dry leaves of the tall oak, filling the air with an almost mechanical noise that heightened Chuck’s sense of adventure.
“Are you sure this thing is safe?” Pete asked, giving the fallen tree a shove with his foot to see if it would move. It rocked slightly, but settled back into place.
“An explorer is interested in discovery, not safety,” Chuck replied, approaching the tree. “I wonder how deep this moat is,” he mused aloud, stepping onto the tree. The stream was at its narrowest at this point, and Chuck could not make out the bottom. “Perhaps the secret guarded by yonder fortress is hidden in the river itself.”
Chuck continued boldly out onto the tree trunk, slowing his pace only when the tree rocked under his steps.
Pete, who was stuck carrying the axe as well as his toilet paper, ventured out more cautiously. “You would think such a great explorer could at least build a little bridge,” he muttered.
The stream made the pair somewhat dizzy as they watched it rush by beneath their feet. They made use of old rotten limbs that protruded from the decaying trunk to steady themselves as they progressed.
As they reached the other side and stepped onto solid ground again, Chuck was the first to regain his composure. He stood straight, surveying the fortress before him.
Pete stood panting, hugging the roll of toilet paper to his chest. To look upon him in this posture, one could tell just how dearly he valued this treasure.
Staring up at the clubhouse, Chuck had just enough time to catch a glimpse of a drinking straw pointing out a window before the spit-wad smacked him in the forehead and startled him off balance. He dropped his stationery box as he grabbed his forehead. Taking one step backward, he tripped, and fell into the river with a big splash.
“That’s one way to find out how deep it is,” said Pete. “Are you looking for the river’s secret?”
Pete gazed up to where Chuck had been looking. His eyes fixed upon the clubhouse window, and then grew wide with surprise. Two football players inside the window were steadying a balloon catapult. Drake Wilcox, this year’s star high school quarterback, was pulling back a water balloon aimed at Pete’s midsection. Pete had time only to mutter, “Uh, oh,” before the balloon impacted against his chest with a “ka-sploosh!”, which toppled him over into the river. He erupted to the surface next to Chuck, floundering violently and gasping for air.
“No secrets in here,” Pete said, after spitting out a mouthful of water. “I think I may need some of that toilet paper I brought along. But I’m afraid it won’t do me any good now.” He raised an arm out of the water and tossed the completely soaked roll of toilet paper onto the grassy ground in front of them. It landed with a dull thud and settled in place right where it had landed. With his other arm Pete raised the axe above his head and, grasping the handle firmly with both hands, he sank the blade deep into the grassy bank above him. He used the handle to pull himself out of the water, then rolled away from the bank’s edge, sloshing onto shore.
Chuck was still struggling to get out of the water, so Pete grabbed one of his arms and helped pull him up onto the grassy bank. When another water balloon exploded nearby, they scrambled into some thick bushes for cover. Chuck, having regained his still-dry box of stationery, was now hunched down under a bush scribbling furiously on one of the sheets of paper.
“What are you doing?” Pete asked, crawling closer to him.
Chuck answered without looking up from his work. “I am making out my last will and testament.”
“What are you doing that for?” Pete asked.
Sounding annoyed as he paused to glare at Pete, Chuck replied, “I am about to embark on a dangerous assault of yonder impenetrable fortress. If I do not return, I want all of my worldly possessions to go to the one person I love the most.”
Pete grinned. “You’re leaving everything to me?”
Chuck frowned. “I’m leaving everything to Charlene.”
The smile left Pete’s face. He knew all about Charlene. She was the cause of all Chuck’s problems. He was completely infatuated with her, and she completely despised him. It was her honor Chuck had almost died defending when he challenged the whole football team to a duel at the beginning of the school year. Chuck did not believe he could live without her. Pete did not believe Chuck would live much longer anywhere near her.
As Chuck finished his last will and testament, he had Pete sign as a witness and then kissed the paper before putting it back in the small stationery box. He tied it shut with a ribbon, wrote Charlene’s name on the outside, and hugged it briefly against his chest. He then turned toward Pete.
“I entrust this to you for safekeeping,” he said, holding out the box. “If I should meet my end in this endeavor, please give it, and my love, to Charlene.” Chuck bowed deeply and reverently as he said this. Then he turned away from Pete and peeked cautiously from the bushes to assess the fortress for weaknesses.
“How do you know you are really in love with Charlene?” Pete asked, not too impressed with the package he was holding. “You two don’t even get along.”
Chuck placed his hand over his heart and sighed. “When you are in love with someone,” he said, “you will willingly endure more abuse from that person than you could ever conceivably hope to receive from your worst enemy and still keep coming back for more, on your very knees if necessary.”
“I guess I must be in love with my English teacher then,” Pete said. “She yells at me so much her face turns purple, but I still keep coming back to her class every day for more. Do you think I should buy her some flowers?”
Chuck shook his head and resumed his silent vigil on the clubhouse.
Pete, getting no answer, glanced at Chuck, shrugged his shoulders, and tossed the box deep into the bushes. He was then startled by a crackling noise in the brush nearby. He tapped Chuck on the shoulder and motioned for him to be quiet, then pointed in the direction of the noise.
Emerging from the bushes on the other side of the small clearing was Norman Weaver, nicknamed Dozer, the fullback of the high school football team, and the largest boy in school.
Although Norman feared no other high school student, his knees went weak whenever he was in close proximity to Chuck Helmsey. In the fight, and consequent melee, that had taken place between Chuck and the football team at the beginning of the school year, Chuck had beaten Norman so severely with a rubber hose that Norman still woke up sweating in the middle of the night whenever he happened to dream about it. Chuck may have been small, but Norman considered him a madman. Even worse, he was a madman with no thought to his own personal safety. In Norman’s mind, this made Chuck more dangerous than any number of boys twice his size.
“Yo, Up-Chuck,” Norman said, backing away slowly and waving his hands in the air, “no time, long see.”
Seeing Norman was one thing; Chuck passed him in the hallways at school several times a day. But, after just having taken a plunge in the river at the hand of his adversaries, to hear Norman use the derogatory nickname the football team had given him was more than Chuck’s overzealous sense of justice could handle. Here was one of his enemies, alone and unprotected in the woods, and Chuck would not waste the opportunity!
Chuck grabbed a tall, sturdy, dry weed, and pulled it from the ground, roots and all. He held it before him like a lance, a large clod of dirt still clinging to its roots, and smiled at Norman.
Norman did not wait for a challenge. He was well aware that Chuck, plus anger, equaled pain. He took off at a run, weaving around trees and thundering through bushes, screaming at the top of his powerful lungs.
Chuck followed at a breakneck pace, eager to have his revenge. Pete, emboldened by Chuck’s display of bravado, gave chase as well. The three boys scattered across the island, racing pell-mell toward oblivion.
Chuck lost track of Norman for a second, but hearing movement in a nearby bush, he lowered his lance and charged straight toward the bush, laughing madly. He tightened his grip on the lance and gave a final burst of speed as he closed in on his prey. Driving himself into the bush, Chuck impaled the target with his clod-covered lance. As the weapon sank home, Chuck could swear he heard Pete screaming somewhere close at hand.
“What have those devils done to my fellow explorer?” he wondered aloud.
Norman, appearing ten feet away from Chuck, as he exited some altogether different undergrowth, upon seeing Chuck lodged in a bush, reversed his direction and headed full speed for the large oak tree, pleading for its occupants to let him in.
A trap door in the bottom of the tree clubhouse dropped open. Three slat steps nailed to the back of this door had a sturdy rope ladder attached, which was lowered to Norman by Drake.
Norman, never very good at the rope ladder, grasped furiously at Drake in his hurry to clamber up the ladder into the appealing safety of the clubhouse. His flailing arms caused Drake to drop the water balloon catapult, which fell to the ground below. Norman shimmied the rest of the way into the clubhouse, and pulled closed the trapdoor behind him, latching it shut.
“Nice going, Numbskull,” Drake said, upset at the loss of his catapult. “Now what are we going to blast them with?”
Norman, still shaking from his close encounter with Chuck, could only shrug his shoulders and whimper.
Chuck, giving up his fight with the bush, took a peek around it, and was surprised to find Pete’s talking end hanging out the other side.
“What are you doing there?” Chuck asked.
“Get that thing out of my caboose!” Pete screamed at him.
Chuck dislodged his lance from Pete’s hinder parts and then dislodged Pete from the bush. Almost at once he wished he hadn’t.
Pete had a look on his face that Chuck had never seen before.
“Let’s talk this through logically, Pete!” Chuck said, already running. “We may still discover the Fountain of Truth, or perhaps even a new continent.”
“I don’t know about any continent,” Pete said, “but when I catch you, I’ll beat you ‘till you’re incontinent!”
As he ran from Pete, Chuck tried to duck under a log, but ran head first into it, and dropped in his tracks.
Pete stood over him, about to bloody his nose, when he caught sight of the balloon catapult.
“What’s this,” he said, leaving Chuck’s inert form and walking over to the fallen sling. He picked it up. “It looks like a giant’s jock strap,” he said.
“That’s no sports device,” said Chuck, struggling to recover himself. “It is a noble weapon which fate has cast into our hands. Now we have the means to wage war on yonder fortress!”
Inside the lofty walls of the fort, Drake looked around him for something to use against Chuck. He still had plenty of water balloons, but it just didn’t seem as appealing without the catapult. Then his eyes fell on the many cans of paint the boys had been collecting for the clubhouse. Three different colors of exterior weatherproof paint. They had picked dark brown, green, and sandy brown to camouflage their fort, but Drake had something different in mind now.
“Help me out!” he shouted. “Get this paint loaded into as many water balloons as possible!”
“But aren’t we painting the clubhouse with these?” Troy Beacon asked.
“Forget the clubhouse,” Drake said. “I’m going to paint Up-Chuck Helmsey!”
Drake was tall and well-built, with brown eyes and dirty-blond hair. Although he was only a freshman and the youngest of the team, his superior ability in sports of any kind had already earned him a place on “The Knights,” Camelot High School’s football team, as their new quarterback. The respect he had earned inspired others to follow him.
Working as fast as possible, Drake and the other team members got their barrage of paint bombs ready. Charlene Connolly, Drake’s girlfriend and Chuck’s bane, watched on with mild interest as she pet her new dog, Pumpkin.
Charlene was of medium height and very slender. She had a delicate face set with bright blue eyes and framed by long beautiful blond hair. Half the school was jealous of Drake for having her as his girlfriend; the other half wanted to be his girlfriend.
Charlene’s new dog, Pumpkin, was a pug. He spent most of his time eating or sleeping. The rest of his time was devoted to licking his hindquarters. He was busy at this endeavor as Charlene pet him. She thought it was cute.
Drake climbed onto the roof of the fort to gain a better vantage point for his attack. As he waited for the balloons to be filled with paint and passed up to him, he watched as Chuck busied himself below.
Chuck buried the posts of the captured weapon deep into the ground, and then loaded the sling with the sopping-wet roll of toilet paper. With Pete’s help, he pulled back on the device and took aim at the window of the clubhouse.
They used so much force pulling the sling back that they both fell over when they let it go. With a great “whoosh” that sounded almost like a rocket being launched, the heavy, waterlogged toilet paper “missile” surged through the air straight for the clubhouse.
Their aim was off and they missed the window, but achieved a spectacular and satisfying result. The toilet paper “bomb” exploded against the side of the thin plywood wall, tearing a large hole in it and covering everyone inside with shredded globs of wet toilet paper, and not a few splinters of plywood. The splintered plywood had the added effect of ripping apart most of the paint-filled balloons and covering everyone inside with camouflage markings.
Chuck and Pete cheered at the damage and Chuck shouted, “Take that and wipe your dreary bottoms, you diuretic freaks!”
Drake climbed down off the roof and stood on a platform outside the clubhouse window. When he saw the damage done to his fort and the mess inside where the rest of his friends were still screaming, he turned toward Chuck in a rage.
“Up-Chuck, you homicidal maniac!” he shouted. “You could have killed someone! Besides, do you know how much that plywood cost? When I catch you I’m gonna rip your guts out and patch that hole with your carcass!”
Chuck, still laughing, picked a new clod-covered lance in answer to what he perceived as a challenge.
“Climb on down and do your best to keep your promise, vagabond!”
Drake did not respond to Chuck’s taunt, but remained on the platform and surveyed his options.
Chuck turned to Pete. “Get me another projectile” he said. “I don’t suppose you could find a fresh cow pie in the vicinity,” he added, an evil grin forming on his face.
“Sorry,” Pete said, “I don’t know what a vicinity is, but we’re all out of meadow muffins. I did just narrowly avoid stepping in some fresh deer doodles a moment ago, though. Give me a moment and I’ll gather them up.”
Pete used a couple of leaves to deposit the still moist deer droppings into the sling.
“That’s just nasty!” Chuck said, examining the new warhead. “Although they do say that all is fair in love and war.”
Drake, from his vantage point on the platform, could see the whole, ugly operation unfolding below. He decided to beat a hasty retreat back into the clubhouse, but tangled instead with a mass of forked tree branches. The more he struggled to free himself, the more firmly he lodged his head and neck in the process. In his distress, he began to kick his legs, which now dangled a full six inches above the platform.
“Help,” he managed to choke out. “Get me down from here!”
Seeing such a promising target for Pete’s new projectile, Chuck couldn’t help but gloat. “Hey there, Absalom,” he crowed, “up to your old trick with tree branches I see. Perhaps your donkey is around here somewhere? Well, I won’t be as kind as Joab. I’m going to strike you through with something deadlier than any number of spears.”
Still struggling, Drake worked all the more furiously to remove his head from the branches. In doing so, he managed to rip his shirt and tear some hair off of his scalp, but only made things worse with the branches.
Chuck leered up at Drake with a malicious smile as he reveled in anticipation of his impending victory. Perhaps after this, Charlene would see him as the hero he was, rather than just some weirdo.
Pete pulled back on the sling containing the unholy projectile while Chuck stood below the deck of the clubhouse still gazing at his target in a rapture of delight. When Pete had the catapult as far back as he could possibly get it, he aimed directly for Drake’s face. Then, with a “slosh,” he slipped in some mud. The catapult dragged him along behind it through the muck until Pete had the presence of mind to let go. His angle of trajectory changed, the missile launched through the air, and almost immediately it slammed into the back of Chuck’s head with an appalling “splat!”
Drake, having finally ripped himself free from the tree’s stranglehold, lowered himself back onto the platform. Looking down at Chuck, he almost fell off the platform as he shook with laughter.
“Up-Chuck, my man!” Drake shouted. “You are too much! You have just invented a stylish new hair gel there, buddy! Now we just need to name it and patent it, so we can all be rich!” He paced back and forth on the short platform, scratching his chin. “What shall we call it? Hmmm, let’s see, how about Death from Above?” He shook his head, then stopped and snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it! We’ll call it Dippity DooDoo!” He broke into another laughing fit and had to hold on to the window frame to keep from falling.
Chuck started to shake, first his hands, then his chest, and then his whole body. He grabbed a handful of the substance from off the top of his head and flung it at Drake, just missing him. Drake stopped laughing long enough to climb back through the window into the clubhouse. He’d rather be painted than pooped on.
In his rage, Chuck looked earnestly for a way to get into the tree fort to pummel Drake. Finding none, he stomped the ground and shook his fist at him. “If I can’t come up,” he shouted, “then down you’ll come!”
Surveying the fortress, Chuck found that the trunk of the tree was larger than he could reach around with the full length of his arms. There were no branches for at least ten to twelve feet, but the base of the tree, on the back side toward the fence, had been eaten away by termites and rot, and there was a gaping hole large enough for him to climb inside. Still, the whole thing looked very sturdy and imposing.
Next, he ran his eyes along the base of the fort. He located the trap door that Norman had been pulled through. He also discovered a large, sturdy log about six inches around lying on the ground along the fence line. Finding it sufficient in length, he shoved it under the downward-opening door, trapping his victims inside the clubhouse. Although there was a window on each side of the clubhouse, he saw no apparent way down.
Growing bored, Pete had seen enough of the clubhouse for one day. He sat down behind a bush and studied the stream.
With a look of bold determination, Chuck called up to his hostages, “Either I get a kiss from Charlene, or I’m going to take down this tree with all of you inside!”
Charlene’s eyes popped open wide and she shouted, “I’d rather kiss my dog’s rear-end!”
Drake followed with, “Shut it, Up-Chuck!”
“That’s it!” Chuck yelled. “This whole tree is coming down!”
He began by making a massive pile of leaves, twigs, and sticks inside the termite infested hole. From how deep it went, Chuck was surprised at the strength of the remaining tree. “You’ve been warned,” he said, and set fire to the leaves.
Inside the fort, Norman started to shake again. “That guy is for real,” he said. “We’re trapped in here and he’s going to burn us all down!”
“Get the rest of the paint bombs and whatever is left in the paint cans,” Drake said. “Maybe we can put out the fire with what’s left.”
“OK,” Norman said, “but I don’t think there’s anything that can stop that freak once he decides to do something crazy.”
Thick black smoke began pouring into the sky.
Chuck ran to the bank of the stream and retrieved the axe from where Pete had left it. He raced back to the tree, and with no thought to possible consequences, began chopping away at the front of its trunk. His wild, angry blows sent huge chips flying everywhere, and the smoke from the crackling fire made the hostages teary-eyed as they started to cough and choke. He stopped, from time to time, to gather his chips and throw them into the fire.
“Uh, oh!” Drake shouted. “If he does cut this tree down, we’ll land right in the middle of the aeration pond.”
“Well, what can we do about that now?” Norman yelled. “Even if we could get out, that maniac has an axe!”
From where he was sitting, Pete could hear Charlene and the team members coughing and pleading for help as Chuck worked away in a perfect fury of blows. Pete shrugged his shoulders and continued watching the stream.
The desperate hostages threw all their remaining paint bombs at the base of the tree. Drake dumped the last of the paint on Chuck and even threw the cans at him.
Chuck laughed at their efforts with a dry, bitter laugh that sent chills down their spines. “With what’s already covering my head,” he said, “do you think a little paint is going to bother me?”
Inside the fort, the discouraged hostages held one last council of war. Covering their mouths and noses the best they could, they wiped their eyes, and gasped out their arguments.
“So what if we fall in the pond?” Norman said. “At least we won’t burn to death. So we get a little wet. So what?”
“It’s an aeration pond, genius,” Drake answered with a cough. “It’s full of raw sewage.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Norman demanded, rubbing his eyes.
“It means,” Drake said, “that when you get done doing your business on the can and push the little flusher, all your hard work pops up in that little pond over there.”
Norman’s eyebrows rose an inch.
“Not only that,” Drake continued, after another coughing fit, “but when they finish with it here, they send it back to you as drinking water! How’s that for recycling?”
“Well, I’ll be an Uncle’s Monkey!” Norman said.
“I think you mean an Unkey’s Monkle,” one of the other players chipped in.
The lack of wholesome air was getting to them, and the boys started laughing, at least as much as they could, between gasps and coughing spells.
“Will you idiots shut up!” Drake shouted, in a raw voice. “We’ve got to think of something fast, or we’re all going to take a bath in your stupid Monkey’s Uncle poop!”
“Well, we can’t stay trapped in here with that fire going, either,” Norman said. “How ‘bout it Charlene? How bad can one little kiss be?”
Tears were streaming out of Charlene’s eyes from all the smoke in her face. “Nobody mentions this to anyone at school. Ever!” she answered. “And tell him to wash his hair in the stream first.”
Without asking Drake what he thought, Norman leaned out the window and screamed down at Chuck. “For heaven’s sake, man! We give up! Charlene will give you a kiss if you just wash your hair in the stream. Now please stop chopping!”
When the plea sounded, Pete decided that this new development was less boring than the stream. He ambled back over to see how Chuck would answer.
Chuck sunk the head of the axe into the tree one last time and left it there. “Did Charlene say so?” he demanded.
Several teammates wasted no time assuring him that she had. Satisfied, Chuck made his way down to the stream.
He plunged his head under the water and rubbed furiously with his hands. The paint was easier to remove than the plastered deer doodles, which seemed embedded in his scalp. Try as he might, he could not get the foul material completely out of his hair, but he got rid of the majority of it.
Taking his shirt off and turning it inside out, he found the cleanest part with which he could dry his face and hair. When he finished he threw the shirt on the ground, never to pick it up again.
He hurried back to the foot of the tree and shouted, “OK, how do I get up?” By this time the frantic and choking hostages had cut the rope ladder loose from the inside of the jammed trap door. They threw one end out the window to Chuck. “Use this,” Drake yelled, as he leaned down to hold the ladder low enough for Chuck to reach it. Four football players held onto Drake’s waist to keep him from falling.
“I don’t trust you to hold it,” Chuck shouted. “I want Pete to be in charge of it.”
The hostages moaned, but searched the smoke-filled clubhouse until they found a length of old frayed rope long enough to tie to the rope ladder. This they threw over a sturdy branch to Pete, who now waited below.
“There!” Drake yelled. “Satisfied? Now get up here before we change our minds and decide to burn to death instead!”
Chuck handed the rope to Pete. “I’m trusting you to hold this firmly until I reach the platform.”
Pete took the rope and wound the end of it around his hands, taking a stance like someone determined to win a tug-of-war. “OK,” he said, “but if I strain too hard it’s going to be alien hieroglyphics again.”
Chuck tugged twice on the rope ladder and began his ascent. As he did so, he said a prayer to the saint of sturdy grips and strong twine, if there was one.
Pete held onto the rope until he thought Chuck was up to the window. It would have been better if he had looked to make sure before he let go of the rope.
Chuck landed on his back and had the wind knocked out of him. When he had regained his composure, he cast a disgusted glance at Pete. “Do a better job this time,” he said.
Pete shrugged his shoulders by way of apology, and tossing the rope over the branch, took his stance once more.
The ladder twisted and turned, as Chuck began climbing again. This made him slightly dizzy, nevertheless he pressed on toward his prize.
When he finally gained the platform and reached the window, he nodded to Pete to let go of the rope. Chuck didn’t want anyone else using the ladder until he had received what he came for. He turned and knocked on the window frame. “It is I,” he said, “Chuck the Brave, conqueror of this fortress and all its surrounding lands. I now demand my kiss!”
“I don’t care if he is an explorer, a knight, or just a plain lunatic,” Charlene whispered to Drake. “I don’t want to kiss Chuck. Not now! Not ever!”
Drake whispered back to Charlene, “Hold on, I read about something like this once. Tell him to close his eyes.”
As Chuck stood on the platform, eagerly awaiting his reward, Charlene clambered out the window and stood next to him. “I agreed to kiss you,” she said, “but it’s on one condition.”
“You have only to name it, my lady,” Chuck replied.
“I’ll kiss you on the lips, but you have to close your eyes. I get nervous when people look at me while I’m kissing.”
“It is but a small condition,” Chuck said with a bow, “I will obey it as a command.”
Chuck moved closer to Charlene, hoping she would not notice the putrid smell emanating from his new hair gel. Then he closed his eyes.
Once Chuck’s eyes were closed, Drake touched Charlene on the shoulder and handed her the pug puppy, which had just finished licking its hindquarters again. He made motions to her, which she grasped immediately.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“I have been ready since the day we met, my lady,” Chuck replied.
“OK,” she said, “no peeking. Here we go!” She pressed her dog’s lips firmly to Chuck’s and watched wide eyed as Chuck kissed them. Pumpkin licked Chuck’s lips a time or two before Charlene pulled the puppy away and handed it back through the window to Drake.
“Well, how did you like it?” Charlene asked, grinning.
“It was a good kiss,” Chuck said with a sour smile, “but your lips didn’t taste quite like I had expected.”
Pete, who had watched the whole thing in silence, on account of his no longer being able to control the function of his wide-open mouth, regained his composure and said, “I think you just drank a bowl full of goose farts.”
Charlene laughed heartily at this.
Drake held Pumpkin’s rear-end out the window and pantomimed kissing motions. “Want another kiss, Up-Chuck?” he said, “Pumpkin is eager for more!”
The clubhouse full of boys resounded with laughter.
“That was very unkind,” Chuck told Charlene. Then he blew a gasket in his mind.
Enraged by being tricked and humiliated by his one and only true love, Chuck shook the tree without regard to his own safety or even to that of Charlene’s.
As Chuck shook the weakened tree, it swayed wildly even as the fire in the base was still burning and blazing away. Charlene was forced to squat down on the ledge to keep from falling to the ground.
Suddenly, the air was filled with sharp popping noises, one following the other in rapid succession. There was a pause, a groan of wood against wood, and then Chuck, Charlene, and the clubhouse full of miscreants, tilted wildly and rode the falling tree as it crashed down into the aeration pond.
The fall of such a large, heavy tree made a splash as high as a two-story house. Pete, looking at it in wonder from where he stood, still safe on the peninsula, shouted, “Look! Chuck! I see it! You were right, you’ve discovered the Fountain of Truth!”
The football players inside the clubhouse were all plunged beneath the water when the fort went under. Here and there, players could be seen swimming out from under the tree, coughing and spluttering, while Pumpkin popped up and began doing the doggy paddle.
Chuck and Charlene had managed to remain on the front face of the clubhouse, which now served as a floor and the only remaining part of the fort above water.
Charlene had unknowingly grabbed hold of Chuck for extra support while the tree was falling, and was now lying by his side, still clinging to him. Realizing this, she let out a short screech and pushed him away in disgust.
Chuck, heartened by this new turn of events, stood up, placed one foot on the remains of the fallen fort he had conquered, and struck a pose of victory. He was just about to give his best Tarzan yell when he was grabbed and pulled into the water, then ducked under its surface, first by Drake, and then, one after the other, by the rest of the team.
Chuck came up sputtering and coughed out a mouthful of the foul muck. “You reprobates!” he shouted, and then swam farther into the pond, away from the football team.
“I don’t think you needed to drink from that old fountain to learn the truth about those around you,” Pete said. “I knew they were reprobates before we even left your house.”
After retrieving Chuck’s box from behind the bushes, Pete carefully made his way out the tree trunk to where Charlene, alone, was left standing.
“Here,” Pete said, holding out Chuck’s box to Charlene.
“What’s this?” Charlene asked, as she reached for it.
“Chuck wanted you to have it,” Pete replied as she took hold of it. “He said something about it being his last willing tenement.”
Charlene pushed the box away. “I don’t want anything to do with that creep!” she said.
In her haste to be convincing, Charlene pushed the box a little too eagerly. In order to recover her balance, she moved one foot back. But, instead of finding a firm surface, she stepped into the window hole in the face of the fort. She flailed her arms wildly and hopped once in her last desperate effort to keep upright. Unfortunately for her, she hopped in the wrong direction and fell with a splash into the center of the group of boys already splashing around in the aeration pond.
“That’s one small step for a woman,” Pete said, “and one giant leap for Miss Unkind.”
He turned and carefully made his way back across the tree trunk to solid ground. “Where are you going?” Chuck shouted.
Pete shouted back to him, “You’d better get out of there quick. I’m going home to add to this mess, and with the new power flusher my dad just installed, it won’t take long for it to get here, either!”
Copyright 2010, Eric Calderwood
Revisions and additional material Copyright 2017, Eric Calderwood