A Memory: Time's Playground
I'm not sure when I wrote this one. 1995, I think. I'm pretty sure I wrote this one for a college course. For three years in elementary school, a bunch of us had fictional lives during recess, and we would play them out with all the gravitas and high drama that one could expect from young children.
I walked the length of The Wood yesterday. That's what we called it at my elementary school, although it was anything but. The pencil-thin line of trees that separated the playground from the street seemed much larger back then. It ran from the playground to a basketball court, past a field in the middle where a new plastic jungle gym had just been built. A small hill divided the field and its plastic playtime monstrosity from the playground, where the old metal installments still stood: a merry-go-round, monkey bars, swings, a climbing wall made out of chains. Where The Wood ended, a gigantic clump of trees grew. The Fortress made its home there.
The Fortress was only one tree. It curved in a half-circle, forming a round room that could house three or four kids. I could only just fit in it now. The Fortress was forlorn, forgotten. It seemed like an abandoned toy, cast away in the corner of a child's play chest. The trees drooped around me, and where once stood a palace of laughter now grew a cell of solitude, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Initials cut jagged brands into the bark. E.J. and B.R. will love each other forever. A.A and M.D. will be friends forever. I still wonder just how long forever really is.
I sat in the crook that once served as my throne, and ran my hands over the rough skin of the tree. Close to the dark brown earthen floor, a symbol hid: a jagged lightning bolt blasting its way through a circle. That one was mine. I had carved that myself, staking my claim to the Fortress. I pressed hard on it, almost expecting to see the playground forest transform into my old science-fiction control room, the home of the Time Bandits.
We were the protectors of the universe. Every day for years, we'd save time itself from the machinations of our arch-nemesis. Down in that field below the small hill supporting the Fortress heroes rose, heroes fell, whole dimensions exploded, and the gods themselves joined in our escapades.
I leaned back against the sturdy tree and closed my eyes. Suddenly I was Blue Thunder, once more leader of the Time Bandits. With me was my loyal team. I don't know why they followed me, but I was the unspoken leader. Greg was second in command. Rory specialized in heavy weapons. Adam served as our engineer. Mike was pointman, the faceless specter who always infiltrated the target's location before we did. Candace - I don't remember what role Candace served, but she joined us later, eventually falling into the requisite Love Interest slot. O'Neil, as always, stood ready as our arch-nemesis to destroy us. None of us knew why we were at war - I don't even remember how he became the bad guy or why he wanted that role - only that O'Neil wanted to rule the universe and we had to stop him. Who O'Neil's henchmen were has been lost to me. They changed frequently. I think I was even one at one point in time.
There I stood, in the Fortress, organizing the Time Bandits for our final assault. Fifth Grade was almost over. The Last Battle had been creeping closer all year, and it was finally here. The conflict had escalated to the point where the Fortress itself had taken heavy damage. Imaginary walls were reduced to rubble, and the only fictional computers that still worked were with us in the control room. The timecycles had been destroyed, and our supplies had just about run out.
Candace stood at my side, her arm entwined in mine. Greg leaned against the central post of the Fortress. Rory and Adam sat by the throne, making diagrams in the dirt. Mike was already in O'Neil's stronghold, pretending once again to have defected to the enemy.
"All right," I sighed, "you all know how dangerous this mission is."
"This is our last mission, isn't it?" Greg asked.
I nodded. "Some of us may die. All of us may die. I will not force you to come along. It is your choice." We all knew the outcome of today's episode already - like a TV show, the script had already been written - but we went through the motions anyway. We needed to go through the motions in our game of pretend. This was our Ritual of Childhood, and the way we carried ourselves through the game was far more important than its end.
"Hell, I'm in," Greg said with his customary half-smirk. Growing up in the Star Wars age, we thought of Greg as our Han Solo.
"Me too," Rory said, looking at me with a seriousness never to be found outside of our playground world.
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away," Adam smiled.
We all looked at Candace. "I can't let you get yourself killed," she sighed, and winked at me. Mike was already in position, waiting for us, making it unanimous.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" I asked, and we all poured out of the Fortress. The assault on O'Neil's stronghold had begun.
The battle itself passed in a blur, but was suitably cataclysmic. Mike had sacrificed himself to destroy the stronghold (the iron monkey bars). O'Neil had killed Adam in the battle to take the hill. Somewhere along the way, we had dropped our guns, and O'Neil and I ended up on the hill between the playground and the field, rolling and grappling, having no choice but to kill each other with our bare hands. We tumbled down the hill like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty going over the falls, shouting and throttling each other. When we reached the bottom of the hill, O'Neil had died, and I had suffered a mortal wound myself.
The other survivors gathered around me. Greg and Rory helped me back to the Fortress, where Candace cradled me in her arms as I lay there, my life flooding from me. It was as heroic (and melodramatic) a death as any in our favorite cartoons and movies. Then the final Lunchtime Recess bell tolled, and the Time Bandits were no more.
I opened my eyes and the tears in them surprised me. I glanced around the Wood once more as I regained my feet. How many other children had played out their epic sagas here, I wondered. Surely we couldn't have been the only ones. Would my children form friendships and become legends as we had? Would the Fortress again house another legion of heroes?
I sighed and started my walk back home.
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