ONCE UPON A TIME
I can't recall many stories from my life before Mara Lynn. From time to time, a certain phrase or smell sparks a moment of nostalgia, but whenever an element from my early childhood was later "touched" by the girl, thoughts of leather-brown eyes and lacy fringe overwhelmed the memory like too much red pepper on a slice of pizza. "Roselyn" is a unique enough name to create an island in The Sea of Mara, and the word still brings me back to the cool breeze of a Michigan May, the forest dunes behind my home, and Danny Bompensaro's mangled scar.
'94 was a good year to be twelve. Star Wars still had two more years as Box Office King, cartoons were still hand-drawn, and the Disney "D" still looked like a backwards "G." Words like "Columbine," "Al Qaeda" and "Y2K" were not synonymous with "terror," and 9-1-1 was an emergency number instead of a date. At twelve years old, summer still mattered. Monarch caterpillars still crawled beneath every milkweed leaf. Dandelions (or "wishes" as Mara called them) were flowers instead of pests. And divorce was still considered a tragedy.
Before Mara, carnivals didn't make me sick.
"Imagine a whole herd of monsters!" I said as branches thwaped my jacket and weeds caught themselves in the wheels of Whitney's chair, creating a rhythmic fip-fip-fip as we barreled through storybook shafts of afternoon light. "Imagine a hundred creepy creatures chasing The Girl through the trees! How cool would that be?"
The path ended abruptly in a patch of wild raspberry bushes so I released the wheelchair at the dead end and plundered the thickening brush. "I wanna get a shot like in Jurassic Park. Remember when the camera is in the back of the jeep and the T-Rex is chasing right behind?"
Whit scraped a fingernail of mud from his left wheel. "Mom's gonna kill me."
I raised my hands to my face, formed my pudgy fingers into a rectangle, and surveyed the forest through my makeshift viewfinder. "Maybe the bad guys should carry lanterns or torches or somethin'. Dad says I can't have too many lights out here without blowin' a fuse." I glanced to the tower poking above the foliage and estimated the amount of extension cords we'd need to reach from the house to the woods.
"It's about fifty yards, dick weed," Whit said.
"How the H.E. double-hockey-sticks do you know that?"
"Maybe you'd learn some geometry tricks if you'd quit tryin' to look down Ms. Conto's blouse."
I shuddered. "How'd you get fifty?"
"Just picture a football field and cut it in half."
"What do you know about football?"
Whit gripped his chair and balanced the contraption on its back wheels. "Dad gets free Lions tickets from work."
"How many cords you think we need?"
"Depends on the length of the cords. Maybe ten." Whit reached in his pocket and pulled out two candy bars. "Butterfinger?"
I slapped a mosquito from my neck and looked from the tower to my best friend. He was swimming in thick folds of a Bugle Boy sweatshirt, his bluejeans were creased as if they were slacks, and black wisps of hair curled from a hat that read, "Grand Harbor: a quaint drinking town with a fishing problem." A notebook sat open on his lap and doubled as a tray for his Snickers bar. His red backpack was cradled in a mesh hammock beneath his seat, bulging with more candy to sell at recess and wads of cash from successful playground transactions. Whit was quite the entrepreneur; that's why I asked him to produce my movies when we moved to Hollywood.
"Yeah," I said. "I could use a snack."
"That'll be fifty cents."
"We're in the middle of the stinkin' woods! And you're gonna charge me? You know I'm good for it."
Whit slipped the bar back in his pocket. "I don't make six bucks a day givin' out free candy."
I scowled. "Penis breath..."
Despite eating boat-loads of candy and sitting on his butt all day, my crippled sidekick was still thirty pounds thinner than me. But poor Whit had the "asking-for-it" double-whammy of a handicap and girly name. I assume his parents chose "Whitney" before they discovered the spina biffida; if not, shame on them. Sixth grade was hard enough as a chubby boy named James.
I unhitched my camera bag from my shoulder and placed it on a log. I brushed ants from the bark, opened the bag, and removed my very own Panasonic Super-VHS camcorder. I huffed on the lens and used a special rag to clear the moisture. A faint chocolate thumbprint defiled the cherry-red record button, so I huffed on it too, then gently wiped it off with the corner of my sweatshirt--