My skin bakes beneath my clothes. Dusty dry ground crackles beneath our feet. There is a low humming of bugs, and I know that I’ll return home with more than a few red dots blemishing my flesh.
My mind buzzes along with the insects. It’s a live wire near a puddle left over from the rain, and I have a bad habit of splashing. So I continue to walk alongside you, and we continue beneath the shelter of the trees. I keep silent.
You climb branches, you look before you leap, and my loud mind can’t help but focus on the slope of your back beneath that dark T-shirt. I am constantly aware of your movements, as if I am the needlepoint and you are North. I am drawn to you like a moth to a flame, and it takes effort to look away from you.
There’s a ravine behind my house. There’s an oasis. There’s a forest. It’s isolated; it’s “here be dragons.” Whatever you want to call it, even Google Maps couldn’t locate us there. However, these are all pretty words, and if a weed is cloaked with rose petals, well, it is still a weed. In truth, there’s just a simple sewer behind my house. We are following it to wherever it leads…
…It leads to a small shallow pond that could be generously labeled a ravine. There are white rocks that I imagine hide poisonous snakes, ready to snap at my ankles; there are overhanging trees that you climb like a southern Tarzan to the other side. You throw me a Gatorade from your backpack — Good catch! — and you say that you’re going to explore the other side, and will be back soon.
So I sit on a lone wooden post and wait. The metal top warming my thighs, I watch a turtle glide lazily beneath the murky water surface. My hand moves to my pocket, and I recall that my phone is at home, sitting on the desk.
I feign interest in an enlarged hole in my old jeans when I hear your footsteps.
There’s a small stream, and another path that opens up near a street. You report, and I look up. You are bathed in sunlight, as if God Himself is mocking me. Do you think you can make it?
In the end, I accept your dare — which isn’t really a dare, but I view it as such, anyway. I inch my way across a fallen branch that connects my rocky side to your muddy wall. I am a tightrope walker performing for my audience of one, and I must get it right. Clambering up the wall, I accept your offered hand — not exactly because I need to, but because I know your skin is calloused and your palm is warm. I immediately squash these thoughts like the pesky flies they are.
We walk in a sea of thigh-high grass that bows to us as we pass. We’re either young adventurers on a mission or bored teenagers with too many sleepless nights and blemished skin. Right now, we can pretend that the latter isn’t the correct answer. Right now, we can pretend that I am thirteen, you are twelve, and we still play.
A large felled tree towers before the grass. Running, I prepare to leap, but chicken out in the end. I climb over, and you smile at me, good-naturedly. You almost had it!
The stream you mentioned is bracketed by more white rocks. This time I make the jump, sending pebbles scattering, and I am breathless, I am alive. I am almost reckless. Your legs are so long, you don’t have to leap to cross. You join me on the other side.
Nearby, wheels race on pavement. Metal cuts paths in the wind. The vehicles’ existences are almost sacrilegious. Here, it is so easy to forget that civilization is so close. In stories, modern day ceases to exist; instead, it is the young protagonists and their magical companions. Good versus evil — black and white, no grey — with a moral lesson and a return to reality.
I inwardly shrink away from the idea of returning.
The trees bend. Their full branches shelter us like a mother’s embrace. You almost see the dryads welcoming the King and Queen home from a dangerous mission. I almost see the monsters in the shadows waiting, watching.
In the middle of a clearing, there is a raised manhole cover. Let’s sit. Your bookbag falls to the ground. Squeezing next to you, I pretend to not feel your bony shoulder through that shirt. The live wire is dangerously close to the puddle; I swear that I’m going to become undone.
You open your pink mouth. Conversation has always flowed like a babbling brook between us, ever since you approached me in spring — remember? — and this time is no different. No longer do we simply discuss safe topics: favorite songs, pets, school. Now talk is more dangerous. You hate your stepparent; you love your girl. I draw in the dirt.
What are we going to name this place?
I don’t know, but we’ll think of something.
In a moment of silence, I look at you. Staring straight ahead, you see something that I do not. My gaze moves from your multi-colored eyes to your lips, and I blink, my face flushing. I already have someone. It’d be so easy to kiss you, regardless.
The mirage, the illusion, is shattered like a hammer to a mirror. This isn’t a ravine, and it isn’t an oasis; it’s a sewer surrounded by a littered overgrown forest. The only snakes waiting for me are my own demons. The dryads are dying. You are a beautiful boy who isn’t mine, and we are still on the map in reality. There would be consequences if I kissed you, no matter how much I think that time has stopped here, there.
With a shudder, I realize that childhood is growing farther and farther behind: a friend whom I am no longer in touch with, and whose name I only distantly recall. No longer can I claim innocence of anything, anything at all. I look at my hands. I am overwhelmed with the feeling of having grown too old too young too soon, like what Ray Bradbury said.
Meanwhile, you continue to focus on something invisible to me.
. . .
We haven’t been there in a long time. The leaves are probably orange and dead and falling — they were once so green. Remember how the bright sunlight dappled the ground through the trees? The sky is dark and overcast now; we shiver on the walk home, heads bowed.
I lie to myself that that is the reason why we don’t journey there on the weekends. That the cold has frozen your spirit, and you’re in hibernation — didn’t you tell me once that you hate winter? Soon, spring will return with you in its pocket, and drop you off on my front porch.
If you don’t, though, that’s quite all right. Perhaps I’ll go there by myself when it is the middle of January and the frost bites. I’ll stand on the Pedestal like the invincible kids we once were. I’ll bury the hatchet in the clearing. Then I’ll return home, shed you like a snake skin, and be an adult in the end.
In the meantime, I’ll wait for you to return from the other side, but you aren’t going to, are you?