"BOO!" Whit screamed.
I jumped and nearly dropped the camera.
"Don't break your baby!" he said and laughed so hard that specks of caramelly peanuts splattered across our notepad.
I grabbed a stick and flung it at him. "This camera costed me twenty-five allowances and a Christmas. Don't be a jerk."
"It's just too easy!"
I finished my ritual by running an automatic tape cleaner for precisely ten seconds, then I zipped the bag, mounted the camera on my shoulder, and pressed my eye against the viewfinder. The world dissolved into a glorious black-and-white palate for my imagination. I pulled the zoom, then scanned the trees for the perfect location.
"Who's gonna be the army of bad guys?" Whit asked and noshed another chunk of Snickers.
"Mom and Dad said they'd help," I replied. "Then there's Livy, the twins--"
"I thought your sis was gonna be The Girl?"
"Livy's just a backup."
"'Cause she's black?"
"'Cause she can't act."
"The twins, maybe my cousins... and any other kids Mom has runnin' around when the time comes."
"The twins are six years old and your cousins live in Ohio. I thought you wanted the army to be humongous!"
"We'll invite friends."
"We have friends?"
"Mom'll order pizzas and we'll make it a party. We'll figure somethin' out. It's gonna be killer!"
"If we want friends, I need to grow legs and you need to lay off the Butterfingers. I thought your parents were gonna buy you a Super Nintendo if you lost fifteen pounds by summer?"
"Two weeks left, seventeen pounds to go."
"So much for all-night Super Mario sleepovers."
My camera panned a lumpy mound of dirt that I had dubbed "The Great Divide." The ridge was as tall as my Dad and cut through the forest as far as I ever had the courage (or permission) to travel. Using my free hand as a third leg, I bounded ten steps up the bluff and grabbed a sapling at the top to secure my footing. On the back of the ridge, trees descended a gradual but impressive incline into a vast, uncharted territory.
I focused my camcorder and scanned the valley of trees. These woods were mine. I knew every fork and downed oak like Whitney knew parts on the space shuttle. Whit was just about the only person I invited to my domain. Sometimes, I gave haunted-forest tours to new foster kids as temporary initiation into the family. My sister Livy claimed she was "too mature" for forts and rope swings, but I knew she was just afraid of poison ivy. Two summers ago we went hunting for buried treasure and she blew up like an Oompa Loompa. Her eyes swelled until she looked Asian instead of African, and the doctor gave her steroid shots so she wouldn't die. After the Livy disaster, I deemed my woods a "girl-free zone."
A rickety deer stand caught my attention and I steadied my camera to inspect the distant intrusion. The stands looked like boring tree houses. They were popping up everywhere along with salt licks and corn feeders. "Buttheads," I muttered. The forest would be paradise if it wasn't for A.J. Griffin, the dumbest kid in class and faithful stooge to Danny Bompensaro, Bully King. A.J.'s parents owned twelve acres of land that butted against my kingdom and A.J., Danny, and Trent (the Bizzaro Three Musketeers) dropped by weekly to do things boys only do under cover of trees. Alone, A.J. wasn't too bad of a guy, but Danny made him into a jerk.
If Danny B. were alive as I write this in 2004, he'd either be in prison or selling meth from a stolen trailer. A scar ran from the lobe of his right ear to the bulge in the back of his head, creating a ribbon of flesh where hair could no longer grow. He claimed that a shark bit him when his grandparents took him to the keys. Mom told me shark bites are rare, and Danny got the scar from petting a stray dog. (Did Mom really know? Or did she use the bully's mangled head as an illustrated life lesson? Probably the latter; I'm still afraid of strays.)
Danny was so rotten that his real parents sent him to live with his uncle in Grand Harbor. Rumor was he went swimming in the neighbor's pool with his baby sister and--for no good reason except he was pure evil--held her head under water until she drowned. "He laughed the whole time," Trent explained to a group of wide-eyed boys, "and that's why they sent him here." Whether or not Danny was as evil as I believed in elementary school, the eight-ball eyes of a gasping little girl still haunted my childhood. To this day, I can't prove the rumor false.