Now we call it “the back room.” It occupies the basement corner next to the boilers, a small, unfinished room, blanketed by the stench of my father’s hockey gear. As I remember, it had two desks, ten chairs, the top of a dining room table, an old TV cabinet stuffed with unfilled notebooks, and whatever else was too big for the family to fit in the upstairs junk drawer. The air tasted like the word spare. A stranger might have described the room as “odd,” or “cold,” or even, “defensive.” It was dangerous to sit on the floor. The mangy beige carpet was half-installed and didn’t cover all of the concrete and the extra carpet left a huge roll along the back wall, a bulge like scar tissue, that pushed up under the chair legs as my best friend and I sat those summers ago and tried to write. This was the room I spent most of my time in from ages eight to twelve and, last winter, was the room my parents asked me to spend a few hours in, organizing the Goodwill piles.
For the years that the back room was mine alone, it was a different place. The walls were bare. There were no tables set up but the top of one, oak and polished, laid in the back corner on a bed of creased plastic. The overhead lights—two exposed lightbulbs nestled among the piping—were unreliable. At least once, unable to make them work, I sat there in the soft grey light, which no one was around to tell me would ruin my eyes.
I came down to the back room for more land, especially land of my own. I was an architect. Out of chairs, stools, and stackable white baskets, I built elaborate cities for my Webkinz and Beanie Babies. Feudal villages with disproportionate castles and steampunk garbage-ridden Victorian labyrinths and futuristic totalitarian military academies all littered the carpet. The back room was not large, so buildings were multiple locations at once. On the table top, I built different castles, mansions, Academies of High Magic, hospitals, fortresses, apartment complexes, army barracks, and once, a shopping mall. Sometimes, these changes occurred within the same story. Sometimes, within the same afternoon.
I found, when clearing out an old notebook for salvage, the remnants of construction-paper advertisements I had drawn for the shopping mall. I don’t know what I had intended to do with them. It wasn’t as if the table had actual walls I could hang them on. But I can see in my mind how it happened: I was arranging the mall. Halfway through, I thought of the ads and picked across the room to the art box, so I could make them before I forgot. Halfway through, I thought of the wedding invitations I had stolen with the intention of cutting tiny wings out, and scrambled to find the scissors… Safe to say, there was never a building in the back room I ever completed. This did not bother me. I saw the world halfway between an architectural blueprint and a finished city. And moreover, I had an odd memory, like grey kneadable eraser, that just didn’t stick— In the back room, what I did not remember I could always rebuild, maybe on a different chair with a different stuffed animal, but similar enough to go on.
Then my chairs were swapped for the kitchen chairs, which had grown creaky-jointed. The Webkinz and Beanie Babies were sold at a garage sale when I was eleven. Everything had grown too old. I had grown too old. The back room had changed.
In fact, when I trusted my best friend enough to let them come downstairs, it was no longer the back room. We called it “the haven” or sometimes just, “Haven.” Posters hung on the wall: movies we hadn’t seen, middle school art projects with discarded aliases, and post-it notes with terrible quotes. We added two tables, a lamp, and a blue mini-trampoline, on account that our neighbor’s actual blue trampoline—our previous den of plotting—had broken. We had also been banned.
It was on the mini-trampoline that I sat for three hour shifts while Hazel got the desk. We alternated chapters. When we were done, we would push the laptop at each other and say, triumphantly, “Your turn!” I would inevitably get up mid-chapter and wander around and close the door and bounce on the trampoline while Hazel—steadier Hazel, medicated Hazel—watched and rolled their eyes.
I remember the door being a big deal for me. I remember insisting it always be shut, because the walls of the house were thin, and the hallways were short. Everything said in my bedroom was heard in the master bedroom, even with the door closed and the TV on. On sleepovers, I insisted we hang out in Haven until we went to bed. There we could yell “FUCK!” with a hope of plausible deniability. We could talk about our novels or questions of sexuality, gender, depression, and attention-deficit disorder, which Hazel, who was diagnosed, just called ADHD. Having ADHD meant Hazel needed to take notes when we discussed our novels, because they wouldn’t remember the next day. It meant I walked with them to the kitchen in case they forgot they went for a glass of water. The notes that Hazel sometimes took kept their memory steady. It was a place to come back to where everything was left the right way, understandable even to tomorrow’s new eyes.
Even now, I cannot define the fear that made me seek thicker walls and longer distances. It reminds me of our post-Narnia stories, when Hazel and I were convinced a different world could exist within an object, and we named the giant pear tree in their front yard “Cascadia,” for the world hidden behind a knot in its bark. I can see why the idea appealed to us so much. To disappear somewhere no-one else could know. To build a home within a home and only let in those you can really trust, whose word you can believe.
There is little left of that back room now. The trampoline has moved. The old toys have been divvied up, the tables swapped out, the posters rolled up for the dumpster. The light does not flicker when I pull the string too hard. The concrete is cool and grimy on my bare feet.
I spend several hours separating the blocks of my cities into various trash bags. The work is pleasant drudgery. Sitting there, on the carpet where I built my childhood, I cannot differentiate between the stories I tell about the place and my memories of it. Which are real? Did my kneadable memory stick to facts or just emotions? It is all so vague. I wish I could walk back in time and know for certain what happened or, at least, have another pair of eyes more trustworthy than mine to tell me how time passed in this one room, which I am still not capable of capturing.
Perhaps it never existed. Perhaps the back room I remember is entirely reconstructed, details arranged and mangled, out of time and context and emotion, because my mind decided it was easier to remember that way. Perhaps it was not two weeks before the big trampoline broke when Hazel and I sat on it—that is all I know. It was not yet broken. My face was scrunched up in thought.
Then I said, “Yeah, I’d die for you.”
“Cool,” Hazel said. “Me too.”
Hazel looked, as always, too serious for their age. It had not yet occurred to me that we were ten and we should not have felt the need to make that promise. That perhaps other kids didn’t ask their friends that and didn’t forget about weeks as soon as they had passed and didn’t worry about a nameless, imminent danger that seemed always outside the door, the danger that we would look away and no longer remember what we had built.
Later, I tell Hazel about this. I ask if they remember that time we sat on the trampoline and promised we would die for each other.
“No,” they say. “But I believe it.”
Moe Kirkpatrick is a queer writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Currently, he is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His work has received multiple Scholastic Writing Gold and Silver Key Awards and can be found in Artemis.