by Mark Bruno
I had these two friends once. Back when I was living in Revere going to Immaculate Conception Elementary School, Dan and Nick and I were inseparable. We hung out every day; playing video games, playing baseball and basketball and football in the park down the street from the school. We played Manhunt and Off the Wall. We were out until the sun went down. But the thing we loved most was going on adventures into the woods by Dan’s house. It was in those woods that everything changed.
When I think about it today, those woods were so small. If you stood at one end, you could see right on through to the other side. It was almost impossible to get lost in there. But lose ourselves we did. We thought it was the coolest place. It was away from the busyness of the shopping plaza in the square. The sound of the cars whizzing by on Main Street disappeared in there. But the biggest reason we loved those woods was because it was the perfect spot to build forts and climb rocks. It was our own little world that we filled with imagination and adventure.
I remember one time in particular when our parents actually let us camp overnight in there. Since it was a stone’s throw away from Dan’s house, they felt safe enough to let us do it–after weeks of begging that is. “Ah, what the hell?” my dad said. “I remember doing things like this with my friends back when I was your age.”
We had a clearing in the middle of the woods that we had been working on for almost a month. Loose twigs, rocks, empty soda cans and candy wrappers were tossed aside. We climbed high into trees and cut down these big branches and stuck them into the ground. With rope, we tied the pieces together, creating a makeshift hut. To provide walls and a roof, we brought a big blue tarp from Dan’s garage and draped it over the branch frame. For twelve year olds, we were pretty handy. That hot July night listening to the Red Sox game on the radio and telling ghost stories underneath the stars will forever be one of the best nights of my life.
That summer had come and gone and with that passing came a harsh fall. Getting back into the swing of school was brutal. The workload was significantly heavier than the years previous. Homework that used to take fifteen minutes suddenly turned into an hour-long affair. I missed my favorite after-school cartoons because I was too busy focusing on social studies and science. The sun was falling very early and darkness at four o’ clock became the routine. Dan, Nick, and I had also noticed that our classmates were very different. Something happened to them over that summer and we weren’t sure what it was. Ashley was taller and wore makeup and the boys started paying attention to her. Joe had little bumps all over his face and his voice sounded like my dad’s. Chris stopped arguing about who the best superhero was and started arguing about who the cutest girl was. Everything was different.
“Did you guys see Melissa and John holding hands during recess today?” Dan asked to Nick and me, as he bit into his Snickers bar.
“What was up with that? It’s like they…like each other or something,” Nick replied in a mix of disgust and disbelief.
But for the next few weeks, we began getting used to everyone’s strange, new behavior. It was still weird, but at least a little less unexpected. Everyone was changing except us. We were the constant. And there was comfort in this.
One blisteringly cold Saturday afternoon, we decided to head into our woods. “You guys,” Dan said to us, as we reached the dirt path entrance of the woods. “We’re going to have a lot of fun today. I’ve got a little surprise.” Nick and I weren’t sure what Dan had up his sleeve, but we were excited to find out. We went to our tarp-and-branch fort to see what it was he had in store.
“OK, guys. Check this out,” Dan said, as he reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out three cigarettes and a little book of hotel matches. “Swiped them off of my dad’s bureau this morning.” My jaw dropped to the cold hard dirt.
“Oh man!” Nick shouted with the excitement of Christmas morning.
I said nothing.
“I can’t believe you got away with it!”
I said nothing.
“Here, you take this one. And here’s the matches. I think you just slide it across this part right here,” Dan said to Nick, pointing to the rough patch of the matchbook.
Still, I said nothing.
“What’s wrong, Mark?” they finally asked me after what felt like an eternity had passed. I didn’t really know what to say. I was shocked. I had so much to say and I wanted so bad to find the words for it but I just couldn’t.
“You look like you’re going to faint, dude.”
I needed a minute. I needed to know that I was still on Earth. That I was still me and that I was still in my woods. I walked a few steps away from them as they fumbled with their matches and cigarettes. As I paced nervously around, I looked at the ground with new eyes. The woods were so damn dirty. The trash that we had cleared, those wrappers and cans, I started to really look at them. The pile of cans we tossed to the side had Budweiser and Coors written on them. Those wrappers I assumed were all candy actually said Trojan and Skoal Chewing Tobacco. Those woods were a dump. A wasteland of rebellion and angst and reckless abandon. It wasn’t some magic forest filled with adventure.
I looked around to the parts of the woods where we would play. I could see memories of us, playing like a movie reel from my mind, jumping from one rock to the next. We were throwing a rope over a tall branch, swinging from it with the wind blowing our hair and hitting our teeth. Those images, those memories of us, they were fading away. I remember standing there and watching those fun times desert me, leaving me alone and cold. The wind whipped my face and I turned back towards my friends.
“Are you going to try one?” Dan asked me.
I paused for what felt like ten minutes. I finally opened my mouth, unsure of what was going to come out.
“I’m going back.”
Dan and Nick stood there, cigarettes hanging on their lips with little streams of smoke dancing up into their faces. They didn’t say anything. And I left the woods, not looking back.
This was the moment when I discovered that things eventually change, that people change. I don’t talk to Dan or Nick anymore and that hurts. Because they weren’t just childhood friends. They were a time and a place. They were a feeling that I will spend my whole life trying to feel again. I won’t ever forget what I lost in the woods that day.
Mark Bruno is a graduate of Salem State University, Salem, Massachusetts, with a degree in English. He lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he also works at Ebsco Publishing. He is working on t
he script of a graphic novel.
Photo credit: Forest. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Mar 2016.