It wasn’t like I planned to break the law.
I’m a Nationally Certified public educator for Christ’s sake but… sometimes, my inner “I Love Lucy” mixes with my former “Punk Rock Persona” and creates some type of alter-ego that I imagine has a name like, Frankie Smith, who sports wild red hair, drives a 1969 Fastback Chevelle, and has a tattoo of a large sacred heart branded across her chest with the slogan, “Jesus loves you but he’s still working on loving me.”
It was a school night, probably what is referred to as Indian Summer on the East Coast and “Santa Ana Wind” weather on the West. Amy and I were walking in the park after hours. This is something that people are allowed to do but, the Nature Center, a sort of wild life preserve within the park, home to coyotes, opossums, bunnies, snakes, and a slew of water turtles, is gated and locked and off limits after five pm every evening.
We were on the road that meanders next to it… the wind blowing warm… the street lights every hundred yards or so punctuating the silhouettes of the big beautiful trees as they swayed wildly in the wind.
Amy and I were prattling on about something when one of us… I’m not sure who but I would bet money Amy would say, “It was you dork.” Thought it would be a good idea to climb the six-foot chain link fence, break into the Nature Center, and walk the trails through the forested area at night, alone, believing that it would be lovely to have the paths all to ourselves.
Actually, now that I’m writing this… I can say with 100 percent surety that I was the one that came up with this idiotic plan.
But we have been friends for many years and Amy knows how persuasive I can actually be…. and our antics do always end up as really great stories later, so… there’s my justification.
We wandered off the road and walked into the brush by the fence that borders the flood canal. We started to climb the chain link several times but stopped each time we heard a small group of bicyclists passing by us.
Maybe we were paranoid.
Maybe we were having second thoughts.
But by the fourth time of jumping down and squatting in a bush I finally shouted, “Fuck it,” and hustled my ass over the fence and landed cleanly on the other side.
Amy’s face registered a mix of admiration at my clean climb and complete despair when she realized we were actually really going through with this. I stood and waited for her to climb up and over all the while feeling a childlike sense of glee. I had ALWAYS wanted to break into the Nature Center since I was about thirteen-years-old. So many of my friends had already done it in junior high or high school. Some… to make out… some to get high… and some to actually fish the ponds. I felt as Stephen Chbosky once wrote “Infinite” not taking into consideration that I was NOT 13 and “Infinite” but 40 and “finite.”
As soon as Amy jumped safely to my side of the fence, we ran through the brush to the trail and giggled like idiots at our stealth sneakiness. We were criminals. We were law breakers. We were suburban commandos. Seriously? We were idiots. Who the hell does shit like this in their 40’s?
We walked the back path, the one that takes you by what we call “the lake” but actually is about the size of a large pond and watched as the sun began to set right before we came up to the area we called: the pine forest.
Now, the pine forest area is actually quite creepy even during the day time. There is something about it that is reminiscent of the 70’s slasher movies where young “stupids” are often ambushed while walking, or skipping, or chattering lamely through the brush.
Amy and I were no different than these characters. Actually, I think we even commented on how we “felt” like characters in Friday the 13th as we passed the lake and headed to the forest.
We were just turning the bend in the path, that would lead us right next to the woods, when we saw something that will forever stick in my memory as the moment when I thought I would actually die of a heart attack just from viewing something. A large man, dressed entirely in black with a ski mask on, stepped out of the woods, stood firmly on the path, and stared us down before… without a word… he took one step back into the treeline and disappeared.
I’m surprised Amy and I didn’t just simultaneously shit our pants and then pass out.
My mind instantly calculated how fast we could get to the front gate and the security phone and would we be fast enough to defeat our attacker.
I mean come on…. no one survives in the slasher movies. They believe all the way up until the bitter end, even gloat about it, which we all know is the kiss of death, that they got away and then next thing you know Kevin Bacon’s throat has an arrow sticking through it.
It took me barely a split second to look at Amy and scream, “RUN!”
We booked it down the service path, cut across by the bramble bush tunnel, ran past the meadow, over the two bridges to the front gate in what seemed like a moment. Our breathing was rough and raspy, our hearts pounding, unable to keep up with our bodies. Even when we arrived at the well lit, neatly trimmed area by the front office, we still couldn’t stop from turning around and watching our backs sure that we would look across the front pond and see… well… the iconic photo of Jason emerging out of the woods of course.
Now, we knew once we picked up the security phone, the rangers would be there in a matter of seconds, their office we could view across the street but… I didn’t want to call. I could just see the local newspaper headline the next day, “Popular high school teacher arrested for breaking into the Nature Center. Is this the type of Public Servant we want shaping the minds of our children?”
I knocked a large metal trash can over and up-ended it. I shoved it next to the fence and told Amy to hold it while I climbed. Now, to this day, I’m not sure if Amy just didn’t “hear” me say, “Hold the trash can while I climb” or if Amy was feeling a bit passive-aggressive after I convinced her to break into the Nature Center, and then forced her to run from Jason, and now, I was making her wait to be the last person out, expecting her to hold the trash can for me when really… the heroic thing to do on my part was to let Amy climb first, but either way… as I threw my right leg over the fence, Amy did not hold the trash can and the weight of my body pushing up and over, knocked the large green can sideways and sent me tumbling down with it. I was fine until my right ankle, bashed against the rounded rim of the can and then rolled the rest of the way across it as my weight bared down upon it.
I knew immediately that it was broken. It wasn’t broken in the “your ankle is hanging off your foot,” or even “your bone is sticking out of your skin” type of way… but it was definitely inoperable.
I don’t remember if I yelled at Amy… but I probably did…. I was pissed. Mainly at myself but ready to take it out on anyone for that matter… In fact… if I could have walked then… I’m sure I would of picked up a LARGE stick and hobbled back to beat the holy hell out of that guy who scared the shit out of us in the first place.
I had a feeling it was most likely, one of my own high school students anyway, playing paint ball or smoking pot… or forest tag with his friends… and I imagine when he stepped out of the forest, trying to terrify what he assumed to be one of his own cronies and came face-to-face with MY GOD… Ms. Wood my Period Three English teacher… actually shit himself, passed out, and upon awakening ran to the back fence where due to his young age, was able to leap it clean without the help of a trashcan and was probably sitting in the 24-hour Jack in the Box, eating 99 cent tacos and bragging to all of his friends how he got away from “The Man.”
My imagination running wild was actually causing me to become infuriated.
I got up, no help from Amy, (who I shall note one time ALSO let me fall off one of the exercise apparatus at the park stating, “It was too funny not to. You looked just like one of the guys in the Matrix… falling all slow motion and shit”) and rolled the trash can to another gate which had a wide gap at the top and was used as a service truck entrance.
I knew if we could climb up the trash can to the gap, all we would have to do would be to slide through and then use the chain that connected the lock as a foothold on the other side to get down. It worked beautifully and soon we were back in the warmth of the mini-van.
I drove directly to Stephen’s house, my new man at that time, who looked at the state of our clothing, our worn faces, and my ankle which was now twice it’s normal size, completely black and blue and said, “What the hell were you thinking?”
How do you respond to a question like that?
Hey Stephen, well… I was thinking with my 13-year-old brain that breaking into the Nature Center was a GREAT idea!
Or… I was thinking I’m 40 if I don’t do it now… when will I ever do it?
Or maybe.. I was thinking, what a great way to fuck up my friend and my ankle all at once. Hooray for me!
Everything I thought about saying sounded absolutely stupid as I sat on the couch with even his dog looking at me like I was a complete moron before I finally mumbled, “I don’t know.”
Stephen went off to the kitchen to get me an ice bag and Amy started laughing uncontrollably, in that way you do when you know you aren’t supposed to laugh and so you try to hold it in but it just keeps coming out in silent bursts of nervous energy.
I had to go to the doctor the next day of course and yes… I did have a hairline fracture in my ankle which took over two months to heal and about a year and half before it even stopped hurting.
I’m now 46 and yes I still walk in the Nature Center almost daily… and once in awhile as I pass the forest I think of that night where I let myself be deviant and failed.
I can’t lie, it has become a good story… and I feel sorta “outlaw” when I think about it. And I’m glad that Amy was not injured due to my stupidity. But there is something in me that still wishes I hadn’t run… think if I had just convinced Amy to start acting completely insane, and we ran wildly through the forest, middle-aged “Ophelias” gone insane and Mr. Ski-mask could have been the one screaming and running… the idiot falling off the green trash can, in the bright light of the front gate.
It could have been brilliant.