“What do you wanna be when you grow up?”

That was the question he used to ask me. It was the first thing I’d hear every Saturday, when we’d meet by the swing set just before 6, as the Sun would begin painting the sky with streaks of fiery gold. I still remember those days, and how warm they were. I miss hearing that same old question every week, taking a moment to choose my response while he repeated himself as if I didn’t hear his words.

“So… what do you wanna be?”

I gave a different answer each and every time.

I recall one particular day, where I stood up and saluted firmly as I replied, “A knight. Or a soldier, ’cause I’m brave, just like them.” Upon hearing my answer, the boy doubled over in hysterical laughter.

“You?! A knight?! A dragon would eat in you in less than a second!”

I pointed out that dragons aren’t real, but he was too busy miming the battle cry of a mystical beast to listen. “If you’re a knight, then I’m a princess,” he continued, before entering a second bout of uncontrollable giggling.

I bowed down, keeping a completely straight face as I proclaimed, “Your majesty. I apologize for being so rude, but I think you’ve turned into a toad, I’m afraid we cannot -”

“Isn’t it a frog in the story?” he interrupted. Caught off-guard, I stared blankly at him. “Eh? I’m pretty sure it’s a toad.”

“Frog.”

“Toad,” I insisted.

He smiled coyly. “You can’t read.”

“You think dragons are real.”

“They are, they’re just going instinct.”

“I think you mean extinct.”

“Walking dictionary.”

I stuck out my tongue, just about to correct him (I was a walking thesaurus, not a dictionary) when the unmistakable ring of bicycle bells signaled the arrival of our other playground pals – the twins. Noisy little brats, as I mostly recall. But then again, so were we.

“You guys, guess what I got for my birthday!” announced the brother.

Putting up her bicycle against a tree, the sister glared at him. “Our birthday, you mean?” This launched yet another argument over who was older and, by extension, the rightful owner of their latest toy. To this day, 20 years later, I still have absolutely no clue as to which sibling preceded the other.

As I did on almost every occasion, I broke up the fight. “Soooo… what did you guys get?”

Both siblings answered simultaneously, “Guns.”

The two of us blinked in confusion, wondering why two children – especially the crazy twins – would be in the position to possess firearms. “Is that even regal?” the boy beside me asked.

“Legal,” I corrected him.

The twins chuckled as they reached into their bags. “No silly, they’re those water pistols, perfectly safe,” said the brother, reassuring me despite the fact that their definition of perfectly safe included hockey sticks and firecrackers (that night would be a story for another time). They pulled out four translucent objects, each one about as large as a bottle. The twins passed 2 to the both of us, beaming as if they had just handed out million-dollar bills.

I studied the object in my hand, attempting to figure out how it worked. My pal ‘Princess’ on the other hand began jumping enthusiastically as a proverbial light bulb flickered above his head. “Hey hey hey, I got an idea. We can be pirates, and try to shoot each other. Last man standing gets the treasure,” he said.

“What’s the treasure though?” I inquired, and he looked around, searching for whatever precious object we could use. His eyes landed on the double-storied playground set that was situated a few metres behind us, complete with 3 slides, a monkey bar, and a web-like contraption that I could only describe as ‘fun’.

He pointed at the set. “Castle. Last pirate standing gets to rule the royal castle of Genevieve!” I opened my mouth to say that he meant ‘Guinevere’, but the three children had already left, racing to the ‘castle’ with a water pistol grasped tightly in each pair of hands.

After slipping the water pistol into my pocket, I took off – running until my white shoes joined the pink sandals, red sneakers, and blue slippers of my friends.

The grass smelled of rain and dew, each blade crumpling under our feet. By the time we reached the playset, my previously clean shoes were stained brown by mud and sand that had been kicked up as we ran. I didn’t care then, even though I knew a lecture from mum would be the inevitable outcome.

The ladder leading up to the playset’s second platform was taller than a man, and it felt cold and smooth to my hand just as how a metal spoon would feel to the tongue. When I reached the top, my right hand swiftly whipped the weapon out of my pocket and pointed it at the other 3 as I attempted to pull off the most terrifying face I could.

In no time at all, I became the heroine of a cheesy action movie.

“Don’t move. This pirate’s the meanest in town.”

The twins gasped, hands held up away from their guns. There was only one boy who dared step forward to face the menace in front of him. He narrowed his eyes and aimed his weapon at me, putting a finger upon the bright orange trigger.

“This pirate’s gonna evaporate you!”

I snickered menacingly. “I think you mean vaporize.” And with that, I shut my eyes and pulled the trigger, eager to see the 3 pirates soaking wet. I imagined them falling over dramatically, howling in agony as I stood triumphant upon the castle.

“……….Ummm, nothing happened.”

I opened one eye to check if what the girl said was true. She was right. In our haste, we had forgotten to fill the pistols with water.

“Seriously?” I sighed, as the others began laughing uproariously. The twins gathered the four toys. “Well, we can get water from our bottles, but they’re with mum and dad all the way at the bench.”

I nodded as I told the twins, “We’ll wait here, you two can go and get our ammo.”

The sister giggled. “Don’t marry each other yet, we still haven’t finished this game.”

I glared at her. “Nobody’s getting married.” He agreed, “Yeah, I don’t even have a car.”

“I don’t think you need a car to get married.”

“Don’t question my logisms!”

“You mean logic. You really have to learn grammar.”

“I think you mean vocabulary, dictionary,” he corrected smugly. I pouted, before turning to look at the twins. Wait. They weren’t there anymore.

We suddenly realized that we were alone. The twins had already began cycling back to the other side of the park to meet their parents. I sighed, looking up at the evergreen trees that stood surrounding the playground, dwarfing the both of us immensely. I felt tiny and naive when I thought about the years these creatures had been through. It was amazing to think that these structures, the true castles of nature, were living and breathing things.

“How old do you think the trees are?” the boy pondered aloud, as if reading my thoughts.

“I don’t know… I’ve read in my encyclopedia that big ones like these can be more than a century old.”

“Century? Isn’t that some kind of man with a horse head??”

I giggled at his confusion. “No, century means a hundred years.”

“Cool… if they’re so old, maybe they’ve met the president!” I didn’t even bother to ask what he meant by that statement, and instead posed another question.

“How long do you think the trees will last?”

“I dunno… forever?”

“Hmm..forever’s a very long time.”

“I know.”

Forever. I wish that’s how long that moment lasted.