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158 The saplings stood in neat rows along the winding avenue, each leafless maple growing from a dark hump of soil that resembled a small grave. They rose six, seven feet above the sidewalk. With flashlights and a trowel, we uprooted the shortest one we could find and carried it off to our plywood fort in the desert. I was fourteen that year, and so was Kilburg. It was late on a Sunday—warm and arid, though summer was still two months away—and I’d left my house in the middle of the night without permission. Surrounded by catclaws and schist rocks, the rickety fort sat stark and uninviting in the middle of a dried-up arroyo . Kilburg had said that all the outside needed was a little greenery, a few trees. fiction David Philip Mullins Arboretum 159 Earlier that evening, I’d learned that my father was going to die, and I was glad to be out in the open, away from home. Kilburg had convinced me to sneak out my bedroom window and meet him at the end of our block at a quarter past eleven. Now he had me on my hands and knees, scooping rocks and hard-packed dirt, baked solid after a rainless winter. The drought that had begun in December had yet to subside. People joked that their faucets might soon run dry. Out at the fort, a twenty-minute walk into the desert that bordered Las Vegas to the southeast, the air sometimes smelled of the chlorinated swimming pools and freshly mowed lawns that were partially at fault for the city’s water shortage. Beside me, Kilburg massaged his aching stump. He could stand for only so long before he had to remove his prosthetic leg, a hollow plastic thing, a mannequin’s appendage. He had diabetes, and had lost his leg at the age of six due to a blocked artery. “I don’t know about you,” Kilburg said, “but I sure could use some action.” The leg, which had once matched the color of his skin but had faded to an unnatural ivory, lay beneath him in the dirt. He sat crouched on it as though it were a log next to a campfire. In one hand he held a flashlight, and with the other he kneaded his stump in a slow figure eight, avoiding the spot in the center where the skin had been knotted together like the end of a sausage. “Action?” I asked, tossing a clump of dirt over my shoulder. “What kind of action?” 160 ecotone The sapling was balanced against the overturned paint bucket we used as a bongo drum. Behind us, the fort stood at an angle, leaning westward, undeserving of its name: it wasn’t fortified in any way, and appeared on the verge of collapse. But deep in what seemed to us an uncharted region of the Mojave—there were no trails, no cigarette butts or empty beer bottles—and concealed by the arroyo’s high, crumbling banks, it was at least unknown to the rest of the world. Building the fort had been Kilburg’s idea. We spent an entire Saturday wrestling with the sheets of plywood we’d found in his father’s tool shed. We shaped a door frame with his ancient jigsaw and dragged the sheets one by one through the desert to hammer them together, but in the end our construction was nothing more than four unpainted walls and a low, flat roof, less complex than your average doghouse. Kilburg shook his head at the ground, the way he did whenever I asked him a question. “Action,” he said. “Chicks. Jesus, do I have to explain everything?” “Oh,” I said, and lowered my eyes back to my work. Travis Kilburg was tall and muscular, with long earlobes and a wide, open face. He wore a military buzz cut, and it seems to me now that his complexion always had a greenish tint to it—like the patina of an old bronze statue—his eyes dark and serious. He liked to talk about sex, about the many girls whose virginity he’d taken, though I knew he was...

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