The Door is Always Open—to Leave

I went through a lot to get those hot dogs. It turns out that I was going to go through a lot getting rid of them too. The hot dogs themselves were a problem. The only thing I got from that 7-11 was toxicity. I woke up at four AM vomiting. Then came the diarrhea. Then it was just drive heaves. I puked up any water I tried to sip. I was so thirsty, but I knew I was just going to puke up anything I attempted, so I refrained to conserve the water. I had some, but I didn’t have a lot. I knew it was rather hot outside and even so, I felt cold—shivering cold.

The beaten path, M-46, was not that far away—on any other day with agreeable conditions, that is. I could hear its traffic. It was within a mile. But I was in no condition to traverse that path. There really wasn’t even a path to speak of. In the prior evening’s twilight, I was just looking for a very temporary and private place to crash. I found a decent place down in a valley and I pitch the tent. I knew I put it right in sun’s field, but I didn’t plan on being there much past sunrise anyway. No fire. A tent and a blanket was enough for this particular June evening in 1992. I can have the tent up in less than ten minutes and I did. If it keeps one mosquito off you, it is worth it. Of course, it pretty much keeps them all off you. I figured I’d get pretty close to a full eight hours of sleep. I’d wake up with the sun and go. That was the plan. I walked through a series of clearings at twilight to arrive at this place. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere, nor should anybody just happen to be walking by, unless they’re doing the same as me and what are the odds of that?

There I was—so close, yet so far. I needed help. I needed medical attention, but there was none to be had. I had not prepared for this. I had a first-aid kit, but nothing in there for this. I was doubled over in pain—the fetal position. My head was pounding. All I felt was pain. And despair. I called on the name of Jesus to come save me. I did it aloud without shame. I was literally a lone voice calling out in the wilderness. There were times when I thought I felt comforted. That is how I handled it at first. However, as the illness progressed, I did not always walk so upright. I am ashamed to admit that I got to the point that I just wanted to die. It felt like I was dying. I called on God just to take me. I had never experienced illness like that before. I don’t mean that I wished to commit suicide, only that if I was in the process of dying, then I wish the process would hurry itself up. I know it is wrong. I am just being honest.

It does a lot to you psychologically too. You might not think so at first. I probably consumed some sort of bacteria colony on one or more of the hot dogs and now they are wreaking havoc on my body. It is the body. What does that have to do with the mind? And yet, my mind was affected as well. I started thinking about this thing I was doing. About how crazy it actually all was. I told Boy Wonder, but aside from him, it was a secret. For good reason. I didn’t want to tell other people because I don’t want to listen to their two cents. You always get these people who want to give you their two cents. But they don’t really know you, they don’t know your values are, or what you’re gunning for. I know—I’m just some know-it-all kid. Maybe they’re right. And that is fine. But I want to learn it for myself. Everything. I don’t want to take anybody’s word for anything—for the most part.

But now I was having my doubts. I was in a real dark place. The full late spring sun was shining down on me. We weren’t but a week or two from the longest day of the year—the Summer Solstice. Yet, these were my darkest hours. I felt like I needed redemption. I begged for forgiveness. Pride! Hubris! Haughtiness! I cried out time and time again. I wailed and beat my breast. I was suffering. Yes, it was brought on by my own illusions of grandeur, but I was nonetheless suffering. And I couldn’t go home. There wasn’t a home. The place I knew I had been banished from me. No queers allowed. Where was I to go? Where? I wailed and I pleaded—God, please don’t forsake me!

I was in and out of consciousness. I was delirious. I would be laying there looking off into the bush and suddenly I’d see a swing-set with a mother and child at play. Then it would occur to me that I needed people. They were people. So I would start yelling at them only to realize moments later that it was merely a couple of slanted trees and a couple of bushes. My body was cramping up so bad from dehydration. I couldn’t sleep. There was just too much hunger, too much thirst, and too much pain. I just wanted out! I said as much to God or whoever was listening.

Suddenly, I felt a hand upon my forehead. I opened my eyes slightly to see a woman looking at me. There was a group of people behind her all looking down at me. Behind them was the light. I had died and passed over. These people were here to see me through. I didn’t know who they were, but I knew this was Heaven and that they were servants of Jesus Christ. I mumbled to the woman, “Where. Grandpa?”

The woman said to me, “Were you out here with your grandpa? He is not here”

“Here?” My grandpa wasn’t in Heaven?

“Do you know what it is that got you sick, boy?”

I mumbled, “Hot. Dogs.”

“How long has it been since you kept something down?”

I sat there and just breathed for a few moments. It was even hard to breathe. I had this constant state of nausea. I didn’t know from one moment to the next whether I was going to hurl or not. Eventually, I managed to get out, “Two. days.”

“Where did this water come from, boy?”

“Gas. Station. Faucet.”

“Okay, well that is probably okay. Why don’t you sit up here a bit and try to take some.”

I shook my head to say no, but she said, “Will you try for me?”

I did as she asked but it was all to no avail. It almost immediately came back up. She set me back down and put a thermometer in my mouth. She turned to a man that was observing over her shoulder and told him that my temperature was a one hundred and one. They were alarmed. This all seemed so strange to me. I didn’t think I’d have my body when I got to Heaven or that there would be thermometers. She came back and she said, “Boy, I have something here that will help you, but you’re not going to like it, because we have to give it to you as a suppository. You know what that is, right?”

Then she turned completely around and said, “Boys, fix me up a washing bowl with soap and water so I can wash my hands after I do this.”

One of the boys said, “What are you giving him?”

She quickly replied, “A drug that causes constipation.”

The boy said, “I know, but what is it called?”

“Don’t worry about it, Bill! Why don’t you boys go for a hike? Go on, get!”

She turned to me and said, “I know this is weird, but you know you are in trouble. I didn’t want to say this while the boys were around but this medicine will ease some pain as well. You need water, but first comes medicine, so you can take the water. Can you relax for me, boy?” Of course, I did anything but! I fought her hard the first time. Then in the second attempt, a man who did not go on the hike with the boys, held me down fast, while she pushed some pill up my anus. I was starting to think that this wasn’t Heaven after all.

Then the craziest thing started happening. Not long after, I started to feel really good. I mean really good. I started feeling a good that I had never felt in my entire life. The wind would blow ever so slightly and it would bring with it these waves of pleasure that would just sweep over my body. I had never heard birds sing so beautifully. I thought about the Creator and how much I loved Him. And all of my doubts that I had been struggling with only minutes and hours ago? Gone! All of a sudden, I didn’t have a care in the world. In fact, I was on top of it. No pain. No discomfort.

Next thing I know I’m coming back to and I am finding myself laying in a river bed with cold water rushing by. It was deep, but I was being held up. I made eye contact with the woman holding me. At first I was startled, but she said with a smile, “It is okay, boy. We’ve got to cool down your blood so your blood will cool down your brain. This is hard, but it will relieve that pressure I’m sure you feel on your skull. We got  break this fever. Your body is doing its work though. Rest. Rest assured!” I couldn’t tell if it were a dream or if it were actually happening. Whether I was officially asleep or officially awake, it did not matter. They both seemed like the same thing. It was like I had a foot in each realm. My mind was very active problem solving, taking stock of my situation—an inventory if you will. The illness appeared to be gone. All was well! I was motivated! I was ready to get back on the road! The only problem was that I was asleep and my body didn’t appear to be taking commands from my mind. Even so, I don’t know what she gave me, but it sure made everything all right, whether she had to stick it up my butt or not, whether she was robbing me blind or not, it really did make everything quite all right!

When I came to, I was back in my tent. Beside me was a ripe banana, a bruised apple, and four grapes. I devoured the banana and the four grapes, but I hesitated with the apple even though I desired it as well. It is a crunchier specimen. I didn’t want to be loud. I wanted to investigate. So I peered out through the cracks in my tent as best I could. I’m sure they moved my tent. I had made quite a mess of my campsite and I’m sure they wanted away from that. There were a series of tents around mine and there was a fire going off a ways. There was at least a half dozen people. I couldn’t hear what they were saying though. They were just too far away. One of them was playing a guitar. I know that much. Then I could see the woman coming back toward my tent, so I laid back down. Through slightly parted eyes I watched as the zipper on my tent began to open. I opened them wearily to her as if I were just waking up. She said, “Hi boy, I figured you’d be needing another round of medicine about now. You’ve been swallowing them well. Ready?”

I nodded. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it cured that which ailed me. It was a miracle! Probably was a cure for a lot of things. Yes, it was that good. She handed me a small blue pill and a coffee cup of water. After it went down the hatch I asked, “What is it?”

“It is a pain killer. The side effect of it is constipation—it stops you up, if you will. You had such bad diarrhea that we had to stop that and you were obviously in horrendous pain, so it seemed like an obvious choice. Sorry about the suppository. I know that it is embarrassing, but I have raised three boys so for me it is just what a mother has to do sometimes. It might have saved your life.” She shook her head in awe and said, “You were right on the brink.”

“Ma’am, will you please tell me what you’ve been giving me?”

“I’m sorry! I’ve been evasive with the boys, but I don’t need to be with you. It was morphine sulfate. But that was your last dose! You don’t seem to need it anymore. I only have a little bit. Just for emergencies. If you still have some residual pain or something else, then I have other remedies for you. You’re alive and you’re going to pull through. Your body fought the food poisoning and won. Now you just need to rest. Okay?”

I shook my head in agreement and then moved to lay back down when she said, “My name is Caring Sue by the way.” She held out her hand.

I actually didn’t care. I was ready to go. I didn’t know they were drug addicts. Nonetheless, I took her hand and said, “Piper Applebee.” Then I asked almost immediately, “Ma’am did I hear you say Care-ing Sue?”

“Well, I am glad you picked up on that, Piper! Most people don’t and almost no one gets my name right until they get corrected. Yes, my first name is Caring as in caring for babies. Even these guys drop the ‘g’ more often than not and just call me Carin Sue.”

I shook my head to indicate I understood. “Ma’am, do you know where my pack is?”

“Yes, it is just outside the tent here. We didn’t touch it. I mean, we carried it here, as we did your tent and blanket, but we didn’t open anything up. We respected your privacy. It is right outside the tent here. You can pull it in with you if you’d like.”

“Thanks, ma’am.” Then I began to ease my way back to a restful position. I heard her say, “Yes! Rest! You need rest more than anything! I’ll leave you be. When I come back, I am going to leave it up to you to open your tent since you’re not ill anymore, okay? So it was nice to meet you, Piper.”

“Likewise, Caring Sue.” I did make sure to pronounce it fully.

I watched her fasten the zipper back shut. Then I watched her silhouette get small and disappear from my tent face. I was anything but relaxed though. Morphine! She was nice enough—for a drug addict! Here I initially thought I had died and gone to Heaven and that I was being tended to by one of the Lord’s angels. Heaven knows I cried out for the Lord—both Father and Son! And yet, quite to the contrary, I appeared to have arrived in Hell and I am being tended to by some of Satan’s minions! Narcotics! Good Lord!

All of a sudden, I was in the same place all over again—going all the way back to my early childhood. There I was laying in bed and wondering—how was I going to get out of this situation? If it were a matter of just slipping away quietly into the night, then it would be easy. However, I had a tent to take down and roll back up. I couldn’t just leave it. I mean I could, but I didn’t want to. Fortunately, I didn’t unpack the pack when I stopped a few days back. How many days was it? It was supposed to be an eight hour nap, but what was it—four, five days now? I wouldn’t know until I found civilization. A gas station clerk would know the day and time. Well, I knew the time. 10pm, but I had no means to tell the day though. My watch was a very simple digital display watch. It was given to me when I was a child by my grandfather before he passed. It was actually just a Ronald McDonald watch that came out of a Happy Meal. So it wasn’t valuable, but it was sentimental. And maybe I was now too old to wear it, but it still worked! Been ticking since 1984! Well, not ticking since it was digital, but you know what I mean.

There I was lost in thought when suddenly a thought slammed into my consciousness like a 2×4 to the head—my pack! It didn’t matter what day it was. I need to check my pack! She said they didn’t touch it except to transport it, but trust is something that has to be earned. I unzipped the tent. If I made eye contact, I would do all the polite things. But I didn’t, so I just quickly grabbed it and pulled it in. There were a half-dozen people at a fire. Tents obscured my view for the most part, but I managed a headcount. I went unnoticed. I pulled the pack in and zipped the tent back shut and then took inventory. In particular, I was worried about my money. I got lucky with this one. I was able to account for every penny. I had three hundred and ninety-two dollars and some change, just as I had expected. I did buy a pager and some provisions to set me back off the original five sixty-six. The pager! I went to make sure I still had it with me and also to check my calls. It was still there and it was clear.

So I took a deep breathe and I relaxed. I was still alive. I didn’t get robbed. Well my bike got stolen, but that was a matter of indifference for me. I had been set back a couple of days because of illness. Maybe a few. I would find out soon enough. At any rate, it wasn’t much and it ultimately didn’t matter. Yeah, after I took stock and saw that everything was still intact, I started feeling good. I really was feeling good. I was feeling really good! Then it was almost as if I wasn’t in my body anymore. It felt like one side of me was fast asleep and dreaming in my tent and then the other side of me had gotten up and began wandering the campground. Incidentally, this other part of me was not earthbound, it somehow hovered over and looked down from above. I saw the fire and its devotees. The faces were not vivid, but I had the distinct feeling it was them. In this dream, it was almost as if I were ironing out the details of what I was going to do with them. There was a struggle. This was clear. This was vivid.

I will not lie. I did enjoy the effects of morphine sulfate. It was very pleasurable. I do know that it is evil to seek pleasure from such things though. You might be happy to know that in the last instance, I wished it would just hurry up and wear off. I wanted to hit road. I knew I was drugged. I was asleep having a dream and in this dream I wished the drugs would just wear off so I could hit the road. I had worked out all of the details of my escape while in the dream state actually. It wasn’t complex. Just a series of tasks and I kept going over them in my head. Like generating muscle memory in baseball practice. First, I would fold my blanket and get that put away. Next, I would step out and quietly go around the circumference of the tent and pull up any stakes and throw them in the tent, zip it up, and then just carry the whole thing away with me quietly into the night. I would dismantle it further on down the road where I could afford to make a little noise. Although I don’t know where they had taken me after I lost consciousness, I was hoping the the terrain was consistent with what I already knew. So that was that, now I just needed the morphine sulfate to lose its grip. Then I was going to fly away for real.

I could see Homer’s rosy pink fingers and I knew the time was nigh. I was still a bit out of it, but I needed the darkness for cover. So I stepped out. Put my pack on. The fire was low. Everything was quiet. Everyone seemed to be in a tent. I walked the circumference. It was not staked. They were still bagged next to the entrance, and so muscle memory began. I picked them up, threw them in, zipped it shut.

I was just about to pick the tent up and begin slowly walking away, when I heard a voice from behind say, “You’re up early! I’m just now going to sleep now myself. I don’t think anyone else will be up for…” At this point, I had picked up a limb that was handy nearby and I had began wielding it in his direction, “…whoa, whoa, whoa!”

“I don’t want any problems, sir! I just want to be on my way!”

His arms were up and he began backing up. “That’s fine! You are not being held against your will. Your stuff is all together. Just grab it and go. You don’t even need to collapse the tent—just grab it and go!”

“That is what I planned on doing.”

“Then do it. We were just helping you out. You were sick. That’s all.”

There was an immeasurable, long. awkward, rather drawn-out moment of silence after I set down the limb at the base of the fire and stood there defenseless. He wouldn’t have been able to put up much of a fight anyway. He was an elderly old man. Loose skin. Old yellow teeth. Hardly a hair on his head. I turned toward my tent and had already picked it up and began walking away when I heard someone yelling from within one of those tents.

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” I turned and watched as one of the tents in particular began to rustle about. Then I saw the tent’s zipper began to circle its track and Caring Sue emerged from the tent. If looks could kill, then…well…I’d be dead. She was pissed! She looked right at me. Then she just started to charge me with eyes of fire and fury. She got right up in front of me. She was shorter than me by maybe even as much as a foot, but since she was so pissed this gave her an additional two feet easy, so the net result is that she was taller. She began poking her fingers right into my chest. She said, “We helped you! You would be dead if it wasn’t for us! And this is how you thank us? You don’t even need to thank us, that is not what this is about, but then to have you turn on us in such a way! We helped you just because it was the right thing to do. No repayment necessary, or even and thank you, but this? This is what you have to offer in kind? Are you kidding me?” Remember, all the while she was poking me in the chest with her index finger.

I was both shocked and ashamed instantaneously. All I could do was pick up my tent and begin walking away from the camp. It was twilight now. The sun was not yet up, but objects were beginning to take shape out of the darkness. It didn’t matter though. I didn’t need the darkness. I was the darkness. I couldn’t shake the shame. I couldn’t shake the guilt. I came upon a parking lot and some outdoor restrooms and it became clear to me that I was in a state park of some sort. I set the tent down and pulled out the poles. The tent was damp, but it didn’t concern me. I would be putting it back up within a day I was sure. I rolled it up tight and bundled it with the collapsed poles and strapped it to the side of my pack.

I pulled out the map and came to the conclusion that I must be in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. I wasn’t exactly sure it was even legal to camp here. Of course. these people were obviously not interested in the law and what is and what isn’t legal. It also meant that I was about eight miles south of M-46. They sure took me on a journey! I didn’t walk it! It is probably a good hour and a half to two hour walk. It meant that perhaps my river dream was real after all. The Shiawassee Flats host three rivers—the Flint, the Saginaw, and the Dead. It was actually a pretty cool place, but I wasn’t on vacation. I was on a mission and I almost seemed to be stuck in some sort of vortex, like in a whirlpool, just unable to reach escape velocity from this place in central Michigan.

So I began walking north so I could hook back up with M-46, but it occurred to me at some point along the way that I was missing something and that something was rather important to me. I didn’t want to go back, but I had to. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to offer a few apologies. I probably just left the thing sitting on the ground next to my tent. They probably haven’t even noticed yet. So I retraced my steps and by the time I got back there it was ten AM. It took me awhile. I wasn’t moving too well. I had something gnawing on my mind.

When I arrived, they were up. At least most of them were up. I approached their camp. Caring Sue was the first one I saw. She looked at me, studied me for a moment, but went on as she was before, seemingly paying me no mind one way or the other. There were four other young men situated around the fire with her. The elderly gentleman who I had threatened the night before was not present. But the object I was after was in their possession. One of the young men was wearing it.

I approached their fire and without even introducing myself I said, “Excuse me sir, that helmet you’re wearing belongs to me. It doesn’t look like much, but it has a lot of value to me so if I could please have it back, I’d appreciate it.”

“Well, it does have your name on it, doesn’t it Let us see here…yes…Trooper Kris Majicknoski. What is your badge number…” He cleared his throat, “…Officer Majicknoski?”

Caring Sue said, “Give him back his helmet, Bill.”

I quickly replied though, “You do realize that you are in possession of police property, right? When you get busted with that thing, you are going to have to explain yourself to the police. Can you? Can you? Cause I can. It isn’t a piece of stolen property when it is in my possession. I’ll look right at the police officer, no matter the rank, and I will tell them to call him! Call Officer Kris! Call him! Tell him Piper Applebee says hi. Tell him all is well and that he hasn’t got anything to worry about. Then he’ll tell you, or any legit police officer that happens to call that number, that the helmet belongs to me. It was something he wanted me to have. For my own safety. He told me he actually hopes that I get detained by the police from time to time so he can get a check-up on me because he knows I’m a good kid.”

The young man took a drag off his cigar and said, “That’s a good story, boss. I can make up a song with my geetar at the drop of a hat just like you did there. You told it to me like it was the truth. You didn’t flinch or even bat an eye or nothing.”

“I didn’t tell you a story. I told you the truth.”

“Whatchu need a helmet fur?”

“Well I used to have a bike?”

The man smiled, “It got stolen didn’t it?”

I nodded, “Yeah.”

“You deserved it.”

“Bill!”

The man turned to Caring Sue and said, “Now darling, just allow me to explain.”

“Bill! What have I told you about calling me darling?”

The man didn’t apologize or back step in regards to Caring Sue. Instead, he turned to me and said, “It is a jungle out here. It is every man for himself. If you don’t want someone to take your stuff, then you should nail it down. If you don’t do that and someone takes your stuff, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Like I said, it is a jungle. Live accordingly. I do.”

“That might be the most cynical outlook on life I have ever heard.” There was laughter from this remark. In particular, Caring Sue seemed most amused.

“You made friends with the police?”

“Trooper Kris is my friend, I would say that, yes.”

“I could never do that. Well, it comes part and parcel with who I am and what I’m about to be at odds with Johnny Law. Perhaps you have heard of me. I am rather infamous.” He looked to me as if the still-glance was enough to give it away, but I merely shrugged. So he said “I’m Outlaw Oklahoma Bill!” He expected that to ring a bell, if not an alarm, but it did neither. It was as if he thought his name was mentioned nightly on the evening news. Then he said, “Well suffice it to say someday you will hear my name and when you do, then you can say, hey I met him once.”

Caring Sue said sternly, “Give him back his helmet, Bill.” You could tell she was annoyed.

“I was going to mama! Relax!”

“What did I tell you about calling me mama?”

“Aw, I keep forgetting. You got so many that are off-limits it is hard to keep track.”

“Why don’t you just stick with calling me Caring Sue then? You’ll never go wrong with that one, Bill. Now give him back his helmet.”

“You know I can never go right. Some people were just born to be bad.” Then he turned to me, “Yeah, I don’t have much use for police property anyway. That was a good story though. I really believed you. For a moment or two, I thought you might even have had Johnny Law with you in your back pocket. Some sort of sting operation on yours truly. You got any more like it?”

I was confused. Anymore what? But before I could even answer, Caring Sue interjected. “Never mind any of that right now, Bill.” Then she turned to me, “Piper, where are your parents? Were you out here camping with your grandfather initially?”

“No, no. I’m just out here on my own. My grandfather?”

“You were calling out for him.”

“Oh no, well must have been talking in my sleep. I’m backpacking it alone. I’m of age.”

“Come on, Piper! You can’t be but thirteen or fourteen.”

“I’m seventeen!”

“First of all, that is hardly ‘of age’. Secondly, then show me your driver’s license.”

“I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one? I raised four boys. They were ready to drive when they were twelve. We’re standing with the statistical one percent of teenagers who is unenthused about having a driver’s license. What are the odds?”

So I said, “Show me yours!”

“I don’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“Because I am a transient. I don’t have a residence anywhere. I was born in Wisconsin. I spent about a decade and a half there, but it isn’t home. I don’t live anywhere in particular. I live everywhere. Plus, I don’t want to drive. Getting back to the subject at hand, I don’t really care how old you are. It is about capabilities. My point is that you don’t appear to me to have enough experience to be out here like this without a safety net. Where are you headed anyway? Or are you just some local who lives out of his backpack?”

I shook my head, “I am not from around here either. I am heading to the Upper Peninsula, ma’am. I hope you are not offended by me calling you ma’am.”

She nodded, but didn’t immediately say anything. Her brow seemed kind of furled, but not of irritation, more as if she had something nagging her mind. Eventually she said, “Me and the boys were just about to sit down to some breakfast. We’ve got scrambled eggs, sausage, toast, and a little bit of jam. We’ve got some honey or you can dip your bread in the sausage grease if you’d like. There is plenty of everything. Well, except jam.”

I looked around at my surroundings. The boys were sitting around the fire looking at me as if anticipating my answer. Was it a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on breakfast as if the rest of their itinerary depended on it. They seemed almost eager for me to join.  “Sure, I can eat. Thank you.” The boys all stood up and began to rearrange themselves around the fire to accommodate me.

Before sitting down, a big burly man with long brown hair and a long brown beard stuck out his hand, “Bear Bacchus. Pleasure.” He was what you could call “big-boned”. He was really tall, but not with a skinny and lanky build the way most are with his height. He had some meat on the bone. He walked with a bit of a gait, not a limp, but a gait.

I shook his hand, “Piper Applebee.”

I sat down at a place made especially for me as Bear went on to say, “This here is Machine Gun.” I stood up and shook his hand and with his hand still in mine and with our eyes connected, I asked with an inquisitive expression, “Machine Gun?”

He nodded once in the affirmative. “You heard it right.”

Bear continued, “And this is Brother Stephen.” He took my hand with both of his. While the others had firm handshakes, Brother Stephen’s was more gentle. He bowed as he took my hand. Then sat back down. He just seemed so gracious. He was wearing a robe and sandals. His head was almost clean shaven, but his beard was really long—black with streaks of gray.

As for Machine Gun, as you might expect, he had the look of a soldier, but he wasn’t dressed in fatigues, combat boots, dog tags and mirror aviators. Just the same, there was something about his build, his black t-shirt and work boots look that gave him the air of military. Both arms were covered in tattoos or what is known in the underworld as “sleeves”. He kept his hair short in a crew-cut.

Caring Sue brought a mismatch set of coffee cups to the fire. “That pot ought to be ready soon, huh? Bear? What do you think?”

“Yeah.”

Caring Sue continued, “Okay Bear, you are in charge of sausage. I am going to pass that to you to get started now. Outlaw and Machine, you two have got eggs, okay? Each of you ought to do a pan of scrambled.” They nodded and she continued, “Give Bear a little bit of a headstart. I’m going to leave toast to you, Stephen. It is about all you’re going to eat anyway. I’ll get us some plates and utensils ready. Now Piper, you are a guest and I’m not going to give you anything to do, but I am going to ask something of you.”

Hesitantly, I said, “Okay.”

“Oh, don’t worry! All we want from you is entertainment while we work. We want you to tell us a story about where you came from, your parents, your hometown, your dreams, so on and so forth, okay? You’ve hinted at your abilities as a storyteller, so now we’ll give you the floor so to speak, give us a story. You’re getting a hearty breakfast—four eggs, a decent size piece of sausage, as much toast as you can stomach. We got coffee here. It is the second time around on these grounds, but we can make a fresh pot. So give us a story and make it good!”

“A story?”

She had a gentle look on her face. It was as if she was of the verge of smiling, but she never just let it flow. She kept it there, on a razor’s edge. “Yeah…start at the beginning.”

“The beginning?”

She nodded in the affirmative. I looked to the boys and they were looking at me as if to say—we’re waiting! Why haven’t you begun already? I knew what she was doing. She was the concerned adult who was trying to fish some vital information out of me—probably so she could turn me in and reunite me with my family, so on and so forth.

I said, “Anybody from Michigan?”

They all commenced to look about. Outlaw Oklahoma Bill said, “Obviously, I’m not.”

Machine Gun said. “No—where is Prof from?”

Caring Sue said, “New Jersey.”

“Well it doesn’t matter for the story, I was just curious because of course it begins her in Michigan.  Is this all of you in your group? Or is there just one other? Prof. Is that…is that the fellow that…” I didn’t know how to finish my sentence so I struggled to find the words.

Bear Bacchus was glad to finish my sentence though, “You mean that poor old man you senselessly shook down last night! Holy hell! I was right on the edge of my seat, boy! You wouldn’t have gotten far and you would have been sorry. I was about to get up, but then…”

At this moment Brother Stephen interjected,  “Alright, Bear. We all heard it. I think everybody wished it didn’t happen. Yes Piper, that was Prof. He’s alright. He was rattled. He just came in contact with your primal self that is all. The animal. We all got that in us. You were fixin’ to vanish into the night. You had some adrenaline going. It is fight or flight. You picked fight.” He shook his head. “There isn’t a person on the planet more adverse to violence than Prof though. In your defense—you had no way of knowing that.”

It was no consolation though. I wanted it off my conscience. Brother Stephan continued, “A chicken farmer is real good to his chickens day in and day out. He feeds ’em. He even feeds ’em well. Spoils ’em. He protects them from coyotes and raccoon. He gives them a heated coop. Fresh bedding material. He is real good to his chickens. Taken out of context, you might even think it was love. It all looks selfless until one day he looks at the calender and finds out it is harvest day. He goes out, grabs a chicken, takes a corner, lops off its head with an ax, and then goes back for another.” Then he shrugged, “We might be chicken farmers for all you know. Just the same a sincere expression of contrition would go a long way with Prof If you see him…you know.”

I nodded. I didn’t let it be known, but I was hopeful that I would see him. The startled look on his innocent face was haunting my mind.

Then Caring Sue clapped her hands, “Boys! Breakfast! Piper! Story!”

I took a deep breathe. Their eyes were on their work, but their ears were on me. I could only think of one way to start and that was at the beginning. So I started at the Garden of Eden, then I just made it up as I went along. I started by saying, “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; from thence it was parted, and became four heads. The name of the first is Raisin: that which flows through the south, where there are wild grapes; and the grapes of that land are good. And the name of the second river is Rouge: encompassing the land of Detroit. And the name of the third river is Clinton: that which goeth east of Pontiac. And the fourth river is Huron. This river has its source in a marsh in the North Country. It is a natural spring that feeds ten thousand lakes. It is from here, the Huron, that I have come. Before I was human, I was simply fish. I had no name except fish. My brothers and sisters, well they were all fish too. We were all fish. I was born in the seventh hour, of the seventh day, of the seventh month, of the seventy seventh year, of the twentieth century. Then again, so too was about ten thousand of my siblings. My father is of the sky. My mother is of the earth. I come from the world in between where Heaven touches the Earth. In her watery bosom I gave glory to my father and my mother with every flap of a fin. Together they loved me along with my brothers and sisters with all of their heart. It was one heart after all. They loved us all the same. We flitted about in a sea of eternal love.

It is a secret desire of every fish to return home, to somehow be closer, to somehow be one again with Father and Mother. Just like every moth makes a futile bid for the moon each night, so too does every fish make a break for big water. Of course, the mother of all waters is Ocean. And Ocean reflects the sky. It is the only thing that really can. It is a human construct that there are seven oceans. To fish, there is only but one ocean and it is not the ocean—it is Ocean with a capital ‘O’. And like the sky, Ocean knows no bounds. It is just as infinite as the sky, so you see, for fish eternal bliss simply lies beneath the waves of Ocean. While in school, the minnows would strut back and forth blowing air bubbles about this, that, and the other thing. Most of the bubbling was just nonsensical bravado. Minnows will be minnows. Some of it might have had some basis in reality though. I’m even sure of it, but you see, there really is no way to tell. A minnow might blow bubbles about being spawned from one whose brother made it to Ocean. The thing is—a trip to Ocean is really a one way deal. Going to Ocean for fish is like going to Mars for humans. You see? You will go, but you will never return.

One of the rumors that circulated through the currents and through the school was that the waters we lived and swam in were in fact connected to Lake Erie. This of course meant we were connected to Ocean! Indirectly by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway, but still, we were nonetheless connected to Ocean! It was something to behold. It was the fancy of every schoolfish to merge and meld with Ocean. It wasn’t only doable, it was right there! It would take some time, probably years, but one could wiggle their way downstream of the Huron, through dozens and dozens of lakes and ponds. In some places, the Huron is almost a half mile across, yet in other places it is hardly a car length. Yes, a fish would have to propel themselves over a dam or two and the way was fraught with danger, but if you managed and succeeded in the arduous journey, then your home would be then and forever—Ocean. You would continually exist in a state of eternity. No past. No future. Just now. There would be no simple place to name as a place in the universe that “you” exist either. As I’ve said, Ocean reflects the sky and like the sky Ocean has no bounds. There is no context on an infinite continuum and so you simply take the shape of eternity and exist everywhere simultaneously. This is the life of Ocean.

I was moving right along. I was in Middle Straights Lake, in the County of Oakland, here in the great State of Michigan, when I spotted what looked like manna to me. It was so dazzling, so sparkling, and so magnificent that I just knew it must have rained down from my Father in the sky. So of course, I just bit down. Lo and behold I am being pulled upward out of the water with so much force—Ascension! I thought I was going to go swim with my heavenly Father in the sky. I had no worries. Yes, I was a fish out of water, but I was being summoned for greater things! Surely, He will give me breathe. As it turns out, this was not at all the case. I was pulled from that lake with a hook, line, lure, and sinker. It was deceit. Lowly self interest. They were a fairly young couple. I think they were a couple of voodoo witch doctors though. I think they pulled me from the lake so they could practice their religion. Their religion seemed to entail repeatedly blowing tobacco smoke in my face and spewing obscenities at me. The woman was more devoted to her religion that the man. But it was all a well meaning attempt to drive out the evil spirits that possessed me. The same ones incidentally that would go on to turn me into a faggot.

What their spells did in actuality though was convert me from being a happy go lucky fish to being a miserable bastard of a little boy. They had to cover up their tracks. They took me in and began calling me Piper. Then of course I took their surname. They already had a few children so they just folded me into the mix. I blended well and nobody noticed. Either that or they just didn’t bother to say anything. However, the woman in particular used to talk about the mistake they made when they hooked me and reeled me in. She always tried to make it out to be my fault, like I was wrong for biting that hook. Not to be disrespectful to her, but that is kind of stupid. I mean they call it a “lure” for a reason. Plus if I had it my way, they would have never caught me to begin with and I would have made it to Ocean eons ago.

Alas though, they did catch me. They converted me. They accustomed me to ways and means of being human. I have given being human a fair shot. I really have. Fourteen full years. But I have to say, and I don’t mean this as anything personal against you guys. I don’t say this to insult you. But humans are my least favorite animal on the planet. They are the very last animal that I would ever choose to be. In fact, I think they are kind of despicable. Generally speaking. I just don’t want to be a part of it anymore. I just want to go back to being a fish. Just a no thrills, no frills, just give me back my gills kind of existence.

So I hear there is a medicine man who lives atop Mount Arvon, in the County of Baraga, here in the great State of Michigan. The mount is up in the Upper Peninsula though. It is quite a hike, but I plan on being there by the end of spring next year. There I will plead with him to turn me back into a fish and to throw me into the Lake Superior. It would be about an eight mile toss, but I am taken to understand that feats such as this are arithmetic to a man of his power and class. Then from there, of course, I go straight to Ocean! So there you have it Caring Sue. I have told you about my home town as much as one exists. I have told you about my parents as much as they exist. I’ve told you about my dreams which are alive and well. And I’ve told you about where I am headed. Is there anything else I can answer for you?”

No sooner did those words leave my mouth when I heard the workings of a tent zipper. I turned to the source to see an elderly man emerging from a tent. My heart began to race, for I had unfinished business with th man. His tent wasn’t far off. The tents were adjacent to fire pit. He approached us and just as he got there Outlaw exclaimed, “Morning, Prof! This here is Piper Applebee! He just told us one hell of a story and you missed it!”

Prof shook his head saying, “I didn’t miss anything, Bill. I heard every word of it.”

I got up immediately and tried to offer the man my most sincere apology but he just waved me off. He did manage to take my hand, but not in the fashion of a handshake. “You’ve already explained enough. How was I to know that you were experienced with voodoo witch doctors?”

Then he picked up a percolator and a one gallon water jug. “Piper, we could really use some water for more coffee and such. There is a water well down there a ways.” He was pointing with his head. “I don’t know—maybe about a quarter mile down. There are signs pointing you all the while. Can you go fill these up? Actually, if you could clean out the percolator first, then fill it up. Make sure the old grounds go in the garbage. Don’t just wash them out onto the ground.”

“Sure. No problem.”

Then Machine Gun offered to accompany me, but Prof quickly nixed the idea explaining that he needed his help with something. I was waiting for someone else to speak up, but it was fairly obvious that he needed all of them to help him fix that something. Maybe they needed water or maybe they just didn’t want me there. At first, I started to get insecure about it, but then I remembered that I really just came back for my helmet anyway. Breakfast was just icing on the cake. And being able to clear my conscience was a cherry on top. Still, there was part of me that wondered—was there something about my story that alarmed him, that caused red flags to get thrown up. Now he was alone with his comrades exclaiming—we got to turn this kid in!

Whatever it was, I went to fetch the water alone. I guess it is just being insecure but I started think about all the ways I might have offended them with my story. I didn’t know where it all came from, but I had found a clever way to skirt all of Caring Sue’s questions with my story. I did not give her what she wanted, but I gave her what was important. I don’t know if her questins were satisfactorily answered for her or not. Given more time, I’m sure she would still press the issue, but for the time being, I was off the hook. Pun intended! Or maybe I didn’t skirt anything. Maybe they were fixin’ to turn me in. They knew I was a minor and a runaway.

When I got back, everybody was moving about getting breakfast situated, but nobody was talking. And it wasn’t like they hushed just because I was approaching. I set the water down. I put the clean percolator on the grate. Prof said, “Oh! Let me put some grounds in there first.”

We all sat down and began to eat and the quietness continued. It continued all the way through the meal. Everyone just seemed to be busy devouring. It had their undivided attention. As a guest in an unfamiliar setting, I was a little hesitant to just dig in, but I had my fair share. I had a full stomach. Every morsel had been consumed except for a few pieces of toast. Caring Sue was delighted. The extra pieces of toast were wrapped and put away.

For a long time is was quiet after our meal. The seven of us just sat there digesting as it were. Each of us was seemingly alone with their thoughts. The odd thing for me was that I felt completely at ease. I was the stranger there. I didn’t really know any of them. They were all seemingly very close. I could understand their level of comfort, but what explains mine? But there I was situated with them around the fire and I felt no need to fill up the emptiness with dialogue.

Out of the quiet, Prof spoke saying, “Piper, while you were off fetching water, Caring Sue, the boys, and myself had a conversation about asking you to walk with us for a bit. Now I just want you to hear us out. You’re under no obligation. We just think you might be an asset to us and in turn we might be an asset to you—a symbiosis as it were. We’re actually heading in the exact same direction as you. We’re looking for a place to hunker down for the winter. Then we’re going to mine copper in the Keweenaw Penninsula in the spring and summer. Mount Arvon is right there. Last night aside, we like your style. We think we really might be of use to each other.”

Then Caring Sue said, “I’m a woman and a mother so I have a little different view to offer. And Piper, please don’t hate me for saying this, but a little boy out here all on his own just wracks my nerves to no end! I would just feel better if you at least walked beside us for a little while. Let us show you some things. We have been at this for quite some time. Some bad gas station hot dogs…well…there is nothing you can do about that. That could happen to any of us. You just cheerfully assume they’re safe. But there are a lot of things that are foreseeable. There are pitfalls and we can help you avoid them because we’ve fallen in them already. I am a walking encyclopedia of things that can be gathered from the woods for food and medicine. The boys can make sure you’re prepared for hunting and fishing. There are a million little things that we can give to you in just a short amount time. Plus, I think it is rather uncanny that we happened to hear you as we were walking by. There wasn’t a car that was ever going to hear you. You were a goner, but we just happened to be walking by…”

“You heard me?”

Then Bear Bacchus said, “It was actually me! I heard what sounded like someone yelling at God. Then I was like—Shit, God is here! Fuck, I want to talk him too!”

Then Caring Sue said, “Bear!”

Bear smiled and said, “Alright.” But then he continued, “But yeah! I heard some faint yelling. We figured you were a hunter that had fallen out of a tree stand. This time of year that would make you a poacher. At any rate, we didn’t know what you were, but then we followed your hollering. Once we got there, it was like we had come upon a madman. You were delirious. You had no strength. Your mouth and lips were so dry and chapped. Yet you were rambling incessantly. It wasn’t all crazy talk either.”

Then Brother Steven said, “You knew how close you were to dying. You told us about being approached by a being. She offered you a cup. You understood it not to be water, but rather a drink that if you drank of it, then your soul would be set free of your body and she would take you home. I don’t think it was crazy talk at all.”

Then Outlaw Oklahoma Bill said, “He started calling us his little angels!” Then he turned to me and said, “You thought you had died and gone to Heaven and that we were angels there to guide you through the process! That couldn’t be more further from the truth!”

Then Caring Sue interjected saying, “Okay, okay, okay. Enough. He was running a fever well north of a hundred. You can get brain damage—even die. He was close! So yes, your brain starts misfiring under that kind of stress. That is why I cooled you down in the river. As painful and awkward as that might have been, you were in trouble. Your brain was swelling.”

“That was real then?”

“Yes.”

“I thought it was a dream. That wasn’t painful at all.”

She said, “Strangely enough, you seemed like a fish in water. When I laid you down in that current and left only your face above the water, you just kind of laid back and let the water rush over you. I swore there was even a hint of a smile on your face.” Then her manner changed. She began to plead, if not beg, “Please travel with us, Piper! Please! For just a little while anyway If you end up finding that we are really cramping your style, then you can just run off ahead. And you know, whatever you have is yours. We don’t know what you’ve got and we don’t need to know. What do you say? Just for a little while?”

I looked to Prof, Bear, Outlaw, Stephan, and Machine. All of their eyes met mine. There were no eyes darting from mine. They genuinely wanted me around. And they liked my story. Outlaw seemed to like all of them. I wasn’t sure what I had signed myself up for, but they did say the door is always open—to leave.

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