A Childhood Razed
I don’t remember much of the in-between. One day there was a forest, and the next day it was gone.
I was part of a ragtag group of kids who traversed the neighborhood on our Razor scooters, with bare feet and scabby knees. We lived on a dead end street, punctuated by an endless and unruly forest that pushed back against the guard rails containing it. We’d disappear for hours. If we walked far enough in the right direction, we’d reach a murky cesspool of water and skirt the edges looking for treasure.
In the fall, we’d return home with rosy cheeks, numb fingers, and a collection of rocks and berries. A variety of animal bones would be cleaned and lined up on my friend’s patio. In the early days of spring, we’d kneel down next to the banks and scoop frog eggs out of the water. They were kept in Glad containers on my back patio until they hatched into tadpoles, and, eventually, sprouted legs. At the height of summer, we’d lift up logs and rocks and watch as frogs, the size of a fingernail, scattered in all directions. We’d catch a handful and keep them in plastic Utz pretzel containers, until our parents forced us to let them go.
Once, we found a wooden hockey stick buried under piles of dead, wet leaves, which we dragged down the street and laid on my back porch. We were convinced it was a murder weapon. It was the fixation of our imaginations, until something else came along, though I don’t remember us ever getting rid of it.
The deer that lived in the forest would often emerge to eat the hostas and impatiens that my mom replanted each year. If she was in a good mood, she’d let us pluck some of the leaves from the bushes and make “salad” that we’d set outside for the deer to eat overnight. Sometimes my dad would empty the containers and paint hoof prints onto our deck to humor us.
In the days when the woods flourished, if allowed to stay up late enough, I could sometimes spot the yellow-glint of a fox’s eye in the moonlight. It would skirt along the edge of our property and under our rusted trampoline. At night, I was lulled to sleep by the incessant drone of croaking frogs and the hum of crickets, and in the morning I was serenaded by birdsong.
This was before we watched the procession of roaring yellow monsters stomp to the end of our street. They devoured the woods. The hollow ghosts of houses appeared out-of-nowhere. We were disheveled, sunburnt kids teetering at the edge of the yellow caution-tape, watching the new tar-black road being laid. My eyes drifted to the dwindling woods, now reduced to a mere island of land among the razed red dust that had once been the forest floor. I started bringing a Ziploc bag of baby carrots on walks and dropping them along the perimeter of the forest. I hoped the deer wouldn’t starve, or run away from the monsters with teeth and claws that had destroyed their home.
An elderly neighbor could recall when our road was red dirt and turned to sludge when it rained. He and his old German Shepherd would frequent the construction site. Their matching weathered gait resembled ghosts from the past, witnessing the destruction of their home. The old and the young members of the neighborhood watched the woods disappear. We had the most at stake; our childhood, and the only world our elderly neighbor had known.
At first, it wasn’t that bad. It was exciting. We sold snacks and lemonade to the foreign construction workers and giggled when they let us try on their hard hats. Then, we rode our bikes over the mounds of dirt waiting for them to leave so we could sneak past the yellow tape and explore the empty wooden bodies of the homes. We pocketed souvenirs—stray nails, screws, sometimes a pair of gloves that had been left behind. In the early days, before the glass was installed in the windows, we’d sprint through the front of a house and fling ourselves out of it, seeing who would jump the furthest.
We got used to the noise in the early morning that drowned out the singing of the birds. And soon, my mother’s hosta bushes skyrocketed out of the ground. That made her ecstatic, although she grew troubled by the dwindling activity at our birdfeeder. She loved her window over the kitchen sink, where she could watch the birds while she prepared dinner. “Come here, quick!” she’d call, and I’d climb onto the counter, peering out at a bright red cardinal, or a blue jay, or — once — a canary that had obviously been someone’s pet. But they didn’t show up as frequently. She bought different types of birdseed to try and attract more birds, but the birdfeeder became more of a decoration than a function.
The first house that was completed was the fixation of our attention for days. When a family moved in, we kids eagerly went over to meet them. They had two girls around our age, who took us inside to show us their huge bedrooms and to listen to their new iPods. In return, we led them to our backyards, where we showed them my rusted trampoline and swing set.
“Our house could fit in your whole backyard, and your house!” one of the new neighbors remarked, simply as an innocent observation. She was right, anyway. Our house was significantly smaller than hers.
My mother quipped, more to herself than to the girl, “Yeah, your ‘backyard’ could fit in ours, five times over.”
Later that night, I heard mumblings between my parents about ‘half a million dollars’ and ‘so much unnecessary space.’ We’d keep inviting the new neighbors to play, but they never seemed too interested in our made-up games and makeshift forts.
Two years after the construction started, my parents put our house up for sale. I was in the fourth grade and I cried for hours until I fell asleep. The prospect of moving held no excitement for me. My parents promised me it would be an adventure, but I thought I had adventure enough where I was. Our house was on the market for double its original price —partly because of a new school being built down the street; another source of my contention. It would split my group of friends in two.
Our new house had a measly side yard and a collection of trees in the back that I hesitated to call “woods.” My new friends resembled the neighbors who had moved into the house behind our old one more than the scrappy kids with whom I’d grown up. We spent our share of time outside, but I got used to asphalt and sidewalk instead of grass and dirt.
When I visited my old neighborhood for the last time, I hardly recognized the road where we dwindled through congested traffic. I had to crane my neck to count the number of new apartment buildings. There was a sign for a new condominium complex which would replace a swim club and a small daycare. The sno-cone stand we used to frequent was now a metal U-Haul, parked on a strip of dead grass. The new school stood tall and bright amongst the yellow buses. It looked nothing like the small brick school in which I’d grown up.
My mom turned down our old street and stopped in front of our house. The car idled and we sat in silence for a moment. The painted shutters and siding that my father had worked to upkeep had faded from a creamy yellow to a dull gray. My mother’s impatiens were gone, replaced by overgrown weeds.
“I wish we never moved,” I shook my head. “I wish we could move back.”
My mother’s hands tightened around the steering wheel. She sighed as we pulled away, her voice mournful, “It’ll never be the same.” She didn’t look at me.
I watched the house disappear in the rearview mirror. The forest I loved, had vanished behind it.
© Lena Fultz
Lena Fultz is currently a senior studying English and Creative Writing as an undergraduate at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. She previously attended Frederick Community College, where her fiction was published in the Tuscarora Review and won the Editor’s Choice award. She plans to attend graduate school in the near future.