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It was the best cheeseburger I’d ever had. It left greasy translucent stains on my paper plate and lended my fingers an un-natural sheen. It released my lips from the numbness of the past hours. And it probably filled my calorie intake requirements for a week. Time after time the thought of those five grills grouped together in front of the peeling ticket shack just so, and five picnic tables warped with age, inviting in their sheer normalcy, makes my mouth water. I decided long ago, however, that it was the people who surrounded me, also consuming cheeseburgers, and the glorious stretch of stalks and leaves and well-worn dirt trails behind us that made it so.
To escape life’s routine with the intention of spending two hours navigating a corn maze was, without a doubt, one of the best choices I ever made in middle school. Standing on that field, the cuffs of my pants taking in water greedily, I carefully allowed my excitement to build. The smell of mud and must and evergreens was so very tantalizing. Breezes hinting at coming temperatures stirred my nostalgia for winters past. Glancing at my sister with an impish grin, I burst into a run.
“Last one to the cornfield is it!”
The gleeful shouts of friends, which rang out freely over the field, were smothered as I crashed into the maze. The domestic canopy absorbed the sound as if it were sunlight. In here I could see my breath flirting with cobwebs and resilient flies amidst the dense, papery blackness. Pure bliss.
The scent of mud was stronger, as was the need for camouflage. Secretly, I felt no empathy whatsoever for those that had unthinkingly donned white sweatshirts or grey coats. In the moments between dusk and dark, when the stadium lights flicker to life and the scent of the grills wafts through the stalks, their disadvantage would become clear. I was grateful, however, for the security and camaraderie they provided. Seventh grade had been an especially difficult school year, and these friends, who loved me and laughed with me, were a breath of fresh air.
Calmly, resolutely, I found my way to the center of the maze. I emerged with a rustle, attracting the attention of a dozen girls, who welcomed me with quiet smiles. Their cheeks glowed pink. Joining them without speaking, we waited until not one girl was missing from the clearing. Simply being with them, though each of us separately contemplated a strategy, filled me with warmth. I lowered my scarf from my mouth with a sniffle.
Their cheer reverberated through the plants, showily sending dying leaves to the ground. A moment later, a decidedly lower-pitched cheer rising from an adjacent clearing alerted us to the boy’s presence, and we scattered in groups of three and four. I grinned. The real experience was about to begin.
My three companions and I filed through the rows one at a time, abandoning the main trails in an attempt at subtlety. Unfortunately the wind was against us, unceasingly undulating through the leaves.
After only minutes of silence, we succumbed to the urge to speak. I think our whispers, which we imagined to be mere fractions of our speaking voices, gave us away. Right on queue, five boys materialized from the stalks, hurling rotting ears of corn and balled leaves in our direction. We screamed as a unit, and fled. The leaves, which were quite beautiful at night when streaks of emerald shone brightest, covered my face and hands in tiny cuts as I slammed through them.
I exploded onto a path, breathless, to find my pursuer had vanished. Unfortunately, my comrades had as well. I turned round and round, calling quietly. “Sasha? Sydney?” The wind’s whistle, once so ordinary, became eerie, alien, sinister. “Maria?”
The giveaway rumble of approaching footsteps raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and I darted into the nearest clump of stalks. The boys were back.
Agony overtook me. This was it.
I struggled to slow my breathing, forcing myself to glance at my surroundings. Somehow the moon’s beams, though traveling across thousands and thousands of miles, blanketed the corn maze in a beautifying light. Dirt motes and dandelion seeds swirled along the ground. Quite suddenly, I felt a part of the plants around me. The chance to scare those boys silly was all mine. I was invincible.
I nearly laughed.
A grin played about my lips as I observed Tim, Justin and Zak turning the nearest bend, crunching through leaves in careless triumph at their latest victory. Totally oblivious.
Just as they fell silent for a moment, I shifted impatiently, causing a painfully loud rustle. They stopped, looked around, glanced at each other. I watched Tim’s throat bob as he swallowed. His blond hair took on a peculiar glow amidst the shadows of the stalks, and fear had sapped his eyes of their color. The other two were in a similar state. The tendons of Zak’s scrawny neck stood out as he tensed at each new sound. Justin sucked on his lower lip like a child. Unable to wait any longer, I exploded from the bushes just then, a grotesque look plastered on my face and a shout ripping from my throat. Three shrieks were my reward. Each jumped but just managed to stay in place, determined not to shatter any manly façade they’d successfully created thus far. But it was too late. My laugher rang out among the corn stalks until my sides hurt. Needless to say, they were significantly less amused.
To this day I’ll remember the corn maze not because of the greasy cheeseburgers or moonlit cornstalks, but because of the friends. My friends. And though the experience has probably slipped from many of their minds, and they’ve re-visited the corn maze many times over after I moved away, and thus made new memories many times over, I’ll never forget how they breathed life into the experience. How they made the memory.