Sleep to Escape

Monday

It was one of those dreams you wish you could remember, a fantasy fabricated by the mind so desirable, so enticing, and so vivid, that reality is rendered dismal by its memory. But I was awake, and the dream was gone, whatever comforts offered in such subconscious creations forever lost to my awareness of being. My mind, distracted in the futile effort to recover what it had been so occupied with just a moment ago, took some time to remember where I was. My body began to stir, and the soreness of my legs and stiffness in my back served as ample reminders.

I was in the basement of a local church, resting my head against a rolled-up sweatshirt, wrapped in a Walmart brand sleeping bag. It was the second day of a 110-mile hike through southern Colorado into New Mexico that was my spring break, and I was already exhausted. Anxious to fall back asleep, it became quite impossible to do so, and I was left to the whims of my panicked thoughts. If I had only declined the offer to participate in this excursion, surely, I would’ve been warmly tucked away in my own bed, free to sleep to my heart’s content. Deeply regretting having made proactive friends, I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours. The tired mind is an annoyed one, and an irritated mind is a restless one. I rolled over and tried to focus on my breath, an old trick my dad had taught me to calm myself. “Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, exhale in eight.” It wasn’t a science. Holding my breath, I heard a footstep; our guide was walking towards the light switch.

I can say with utter certainty, up to that point in my life, I had never loathed someone more. My mind screamed in defiance, spewing profanities I had recently learned, but could never say aloud, as I pulled the sleeping bag over my head. Despite my tantrum, Mr. Cooper remained resolute in his determination to ruin my morning.

Soon enough, my unsounded complaints were substantiated by several audible groans, originating from various mounds of angry teenager and makeshift bedding scattered across the room. Mr. Cooper chuckled to himself, and walked back to his belongings. One of these mounds, whose name was Aaron, mustered the sheer strength of will to reach above his head and hit the other switch, returning the room to its rightful, dark, state.

Good kid, that Aaron.

Our triumph was short-lived, however, and seconds later the room was again bathed in a harsh, fluorescent light.

“C’mon, you lazy shits, it’s 8:30 already! We should’ve been on the road a half-an-hour ago; I let you sleep in! We’ve got some ground to make up, so let’s get moving” Mr. Cooper roared, clapping his hands to emphasize the urgency. The earlier I interact with adults, the more unbearable they become.

No way in hell it’s 8:30.

I reached over to my phone and it was dead. Happening to glance at my wrist, I discovered that I was wearing a watch. To my chagrin, the hour hand was half past 8, and the minute hand was defiantly planted on 7.

Ok, well, it doesn’t feel like 8:30.

Groggily, I came to grips with reality.

This was the first morning on the hike, which entailed that it was the first time I was forced to repack everything that had been so perfectly situated not a day before. This took some doing, however. My dad was probably the only human alive capable of getting all my clothes back into my bag, and for some unknown reason I had forgotten to pay attention when he had explained how to mimic him. After several failed attempts to zip it closed, I abandoned the pursuit, and made a donation of my sweatshirt to the church in which we were staying. Fortunately, the other 6 members of our group were experiencing the same difficulties, and in no time at all we had enough discarded enough clothes to fill out a rack at Goodwill.

There’s my good deed for the day.

I shouldered the awkward assortment of canvas and twine onto my back and headed upstairs.

Breakfast was an interesting array of home-cooked foods, provided by a few parishioners curious enough to meet the eclectic group of young strangers who were using their church as a hostel. It seemed, to all of us, quite rude to not fully appreciate the meal that they had so generously provided, and with Mr. Cooper breathing down our necks, we started out well after 9:30.

The church doors opened to a beautiful scene. The sun was just beginning to peak over the clouds lining the horizon, and the road ahead dipped into a valley, offering a stunning view of the surrounding countryside. In the distance, the Rocky Mountains towered into the sky, their grandeur nearly distracting me from the 22 miles we had yet to walk that day.

The peaceful reverie, inspired by such natural magnificence, quickly dissipated as the morning chill won out against the church’s heaters, and forcefully reminded me of the stiffness coursing through my lower body. While the calendar had insisted said that Spring had come, it appeared its predecessor had other ideas, and as we set off down the gravel path into the road, wayward thoughts of desertion became more and more feasible. I longingly turned back to the parishioners waving us goodbye; I was sure I had enough cash in my wallet to pay one of them to take me home.

As it was much too early in the day to engage in conversation, I found myself walking alone between two groups of my friends, and soon we had developed a steady pace along this south-eastern interstate. There were a few cars that passed, some honked, and all looked equally confused as to what these people were doing, rambling down the side of their road.

The morning wore on, and with the sun and ample exercise came the desire to change out of the heavy clothes I had donned in the chill of the waking day. Mr. Cooper must’ve had a similar notion, and to my relief he led us off onto a nearby hill to rest and regroup. I caught up with Aaron and Greg, interrupting an involved argument over how many miles we had already covered.

“Five,” I said. “That’s my guess, although it feels like we’ve been walking forever.” Greg nodded his head in agreement and shot Aaron a smug look.

“There’s no way we’ve walked more than three,” he answered determinately. When we posed the question to Cooper, he informed us that we had only covered a mile and a half. I wasn’t convinced he was right, but his words made my stale granola bar taste a whole lot more depressing.

Once we changed into more appropriate clothing, we set off again. This time, I stayed back with John and Warren, whose pace better reflected how I felt about spending the rest of my day walking. Begrudgingly we carried on, discussing topics ranging from the upcoming 8th grade dance to which one of our group would be best prepared to survive a zombie apocalypse. The prospects of either event were equally terrifying.

“Greg’s house has like six guns. If it ever happens, I’m headed straight there,” John insisted.

Warren rolled his eyes. “And you think Greg has even so much as touched one of them? Doubt it. There’s no point in having a gun if none of you know how to use it.”

“No! He told me he’s been shooting with his dad.”

“And I told you I’ve slept with my girlfriend.”

I laughed, it was much more feasible that Greg knew how to use a rifle than Warren knew where to put it.

“Besides,” Warren added, “have you seen his family? It’s not like there’d be a lot of extra food to go around. You’d be screwed, John.”

With much effort, we concluded that while most of us would be fucked, Aaron would end up the leader of a cult-like post-apocalyptic society, Warren might survive on living as a nomad, and that if it came down to it, we could live with ourselves if we were forced to eat Mr. Cooper.

Our conversation wore on, as did the road before us, and we walked ever further out of the last remnants of the Rockies, into the fringe of the New Mexican desert. While the surrounding country was breathtaking, I found the trash littering the side of the road a better distraction from the pain every step now caused me.

Every piece of trash had its own history, and the more notable items were given stories by my wandering mind. As we walked along the median, I saw a plethora of unwanted items that had been carelessly tossed out of car windows: cigarette butts, Big Gulps, and even a scratched copy of Ironman 2 on Blue-Ray that I hastily snatched up and stored away in my bag. I would later discover that the disc was far worse off than I thought, and I’ll always remember the look on my dad’s face when he realized that there was no salvaging the DVD player.

But the impending tirade this movie would cause was far from my mind, and I pondered over who would ever be senseless enough to just throw away such a great piece of entertainment.

Morning gave way to afternoon, and evening was fast approaching as Mr. Cooper finally veered us off the highway, onto an old service road that ran perpendicular. This new route led us straight into the local terrain, far and away from the paved freeways we had been upon. The change in scenery offered a revitalizing energy, the sounds of nature softly spurring me along. Although we still had miles to cover, my outlook on the day was significantly improved.

Following our leader, we cut through a local state park, passing other hikers along the way. Some of the more elderly park patrons were quite drawn to our little travelling troupe, and we shared stories as we shared the trail. I was thrilled to discover that one was Canadian, and it was hard to tell whether she noticed us trying to imitate her accent. She was probably more concerned about a group of 8th graders who had decided to blindly “hit the road” for a week.

For a while after, we strode alongside the banks of a peaceful stream, and headed onto the hillside as its tributaries formed a river. From our lofty view, the water stretched far into the distance, a beautiful reflecting blue cutting through the dark and bare hills of northern New Mexico. Still we travelled further, winding our way into the hillsides, losing sight of the river, but gaining a greater appreciation for the hidden beauty of our current setting. Every corner we turned, each hill we conquered, the land revealed the resilience of nature, from a lonesome and defiant tree jutting out of a rocky hillside, to paths of bushes with blooming white flowers, whose petals remained unremittingly outstretched despite the scorching desert sun.

Others had fallen behind, and I found myself walking side by side with Mr. Cooper.

“Holding up alright Heath?”, he asked, as I drew closer.

“Yeah, fine.” I had little desire, must less the energy, to hold a conversation.

We continued in silence for a while, a strained lull punctuated by the scuffling of boots along the dusty path.

“Hey,” he took up once more, “what was it that made you want to come with us on this hike?”

The allure of spending an entire week away from home.

With six siblings, I had learned to treasure time alone, and this fostered a fierce desire for any semblance of independence. The few times I had previously left the house alone had always been for varying church and school excursions, and neither had offered the freedom I craved. I wasn’t about to share this sentiment with an adult, however. Adults seldom understood things the way I did.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I think Aaron was the one that first told me what the plan was, and I guess it sounded like fun.” I had since reconsidered the amount of enjoyment offered by sore, aimless, wandering for days on end, and Mr. Cooper was sure to have noticed this in my tone, so he decided upon another line of questioning.

“What do you want to do with your life?”

Find an un-insulting way to retreat from this conversation.

Seriously though, who asks a question like that?

As I was still unconvinced I would survive the day, the last thing I wanted to discuss was an uncertain future. I recognized Mr. Cooper’s expression, however, as one which adults often adopted when they anticipated a real answer and would accept no substitute, so I answered the question.

“I honestly haven’t really thought about it”, I said, lying. In truth, I thought about my future more than what was likely healthy for a kid at my age. I simply hated the uncertainty of it all and couldn’t stand not knowing. The quandary never failed to stress me, despite being years away from any significant life decisions. Mr. Cooper’s eyebrow rose in dissatisfaction.

“Fine, fine. I guess I’ve always dreamed of becoming a politician. But there’s no way it’s what I’ll actually do.”

Childhood dreams seem exceedingly childish when discussed with those who are no longer children.

I was remiss to admit my dream career to most, because the more I said it aloud, the more foolish it felt to say.

“How come?”

“Doesn’t seem possible, with all those kids who have the same goal. And I mean, most have a lot more going for them in their lives to help them get there. The only political connection I have is my uncle, the county clerk for a county of like 4,000 people.”

Cooper pondered this for a moment. “Well, why do you want to become a politician?”

“It’d be cool.”

People who have made their own life decisions always wanted to talk about other people’s careers, but I wanted no part of it. I found such discussions discouraging, especially after my father had unequivocally destroyed my NFL ambitions years before; I had never recovered, emotionally.

I looked around. My friends were far behind, so I allowed my thoughts to venture deeper, and voiced my inner discovery. “I think, deep down, I want to be remembered when I die. I don’t want to be forgotten by the limited people who might know me. I want a statue. I guess being someone important is an easy way to achieve that.”

While it felt ridiculous to say, Mr. Cooper simply looked over at me, understanding in his eyes.

“That’s all anyone wants, Heath, and people will go to pretty extreme lengths to achieve a legacy. You should remember something, though. It’s not about the amount of people that you can know, interact with, become a part of their lives. It’s about how you choose to carry yourself around those people, the relationships you have with them, and the memories cherished together. One true, solid friendship is worth more than a thousand superficial ones.”

“So, quality over quantity?”, I inferred.

“Exactly. Life isn’t about who you know, it’s about how you choose to know them.”

Silence returned as I absorbed his advice, but its presence was hardly felt.

The sun was low in the sky now, but the heat remained, unwavering. I struggled to loosen the twine that was keeping my water bottle attached to the great chaotic bundle upon my back, so Cooper offered his own.

“Have you ever seen the show The West Wing?”, he asked.

“No, what’s that?”, I replied after a generous swig, water spilling down my shirt.

“It’s a show about a president and his cabinet. Really good, especially if you want to know more about politics and get an idea as to how it all works.”

“I was hoping it’d be like a House of Cards-type environment”

He laughed. “Let’s hope not.”

We walked along, discussing Josiah Bartlet and Frank Underwood as we went. Our conversations distracted me from the ache in my legs, but I felt a greater relief to have shared a little of what I always tried to keep hidden. I guess if we had to have a chaperone, I was glad it was Mr. Cooper.

As the sun’s foremost rays began to hide behind the distant hills, he gave a jubilant shout and pointed to a church steeple in the distance, jutting out just beyond the hill in front of us.

“That’s our destination for the night, we’re nearly there!”, he yelled to the group spread out behind us. No more than two heard him, the rest were insignificant black silhouettes against a path of unending tan and gray. Nevertheless, I knew we were almost done hiking for the day.

Whether this knowledge led my mind to fabricate a greater pain in the light of impending relief, I am not sure, I only knew this last half mile was the most difficult I had ever walked. My feet were lead, my legs had a will of their own, threatening to overcome my mind in their refusal to comply. Every step was a sheer act of will, a grueling triumph over my body, but fleeting triumph as I urged myself to keep moving forward. I don’t quite know how I made it up, or how long it took to get there, but I will, forever, remember the view that graced me as I reached the summit.

Below, tucked into a valley with the river from before splitting it in two, was a magnificently antique town, perfectly picturesque in its abandonment. It was a ghost town straight from a movie, and it had been deserted for over fifty years.

The power of nature to retake what had once been colonized was shocking to behold. Left unchecked, she had all but returned this semblance of civilization to the ground. A once prosperous railroad station, now in a state of utter decay, stood resolute as we made our way down the hill. The old and forlorn tracks wove their way towards the town and we walked upon them, following a path that countless others, long past, had once taken. Lonesomeness permeated the air, and there was not a sound save the rushing of the river current. It was quite beautiful in its disarray, yet I found my mind drawn to the lives that had once been led in this place. It was a haunting sensation, to walk where so many once did, and will now, never again; to peer into the desolate houses that had once been homes; to see, in my mind’s eye, this town as it once was. Ancient storefronts glared uninvitingly as we passed, standing guard over an overridden path that had once been the village’s main causeway. At the end of this road stood a church, whose towering steeple rose high above the remnants of this crumbling village. This structure had best endured the test of time, the chipping paint the only testimony to its destructive advances. It was here we would stay the night.

Inside this church, the evidence of neglect was made far clearer. Dust layered everything in sight like a fresh frozen powder on a winter morning. Pews that had once sat many a worshipping man and woman were now home to an assortment of arachnids. The floorboards creaked with every step, and the musky aroma was near-stifling.

As we let our bags fall from our exhausted shoulders, it was all we could do to remain standing, and one by one we stumbled back out into the waning sunlight. Some in our group went straight for the food Mr. Cooper was preparing, others were content with lying face down in the soft grass, and I immediately set off in the direction of the river.

Athletes took ice baths, and I reasoned that immersing myself in the frigid mountain run-off would offer the same results, particularly since my liver would shut down before I would ever come close to taking enough ibuprofen to numb the pain.

When I arrived, however, the idea lost its original appeal. The frigid rapids rushed past, and I stood on the riverbank for quite some time, my toes stretched towards the water like a tongue anxiously awaiting the first sip of a hot drink. Despite a tendency to abandon ambitions, I eventually mustered up enough courage, and threw myself into the beckoning current. The words “instant regret” took on a whole new meaning as I high-stepped back onto the bank.

The sun disappeared over a hillside as I crawled back up to the church, the brief respite the numbing water had provided was immediately followed by a burning, crippling, sensation. Mr. Cooper chuckled and grabbed me a towel, John wisely called me an idiot.

A feeble meal of baked beans and beef jerky awaited me, which I tore into heartily. Not a word was spoken while we ate, rather, the incessant slurping of five hungry kids. As the darkness settled, the utter exhaustion set in, and we spread throughout the church, finding what space we could to lay out our sleeping bags. I discovered a cozy little spot tucked underneath a gutted pew, and within moments was fast asleep.

“Heath! Heath! Wake up man!”

It was Aaron. Despite my rather secluded sleeping location, he had managed to find me and was now shaking me awake. My immediate fear that it was already morning was instantly replaced by frustration as I realized what time it was. He had a flashlight in his hands, its beam was the only thing illuminating the darkness.

“WHAT???”, I yelled, in an peeved whisper.

“You have to come see this.”

“See what?”

“Just follow me.”

“If you’re gonna show me that the outhouse with the wooden toilet seats, I’ve already seen them.” I turned away from him.

He rolled his eyes and shined the light in my face. “Dude, just come.”

In a pure, selfless, and trusting act of friendship, I crawled out of my bag and pulled myself onto the pew. After an initial struggle to stand erect, I followed Aaron as he led me out the chapel doors. As we stepped outside into the chilling night air, I knew in an instant why he had awoken me. My frustration turned to awe, and I wanted to say something, but I found myself speechless.

Spread across the heavens, as far as the eye could see, was an infinite multitude of stars, the most majestic entity I have since laid eyes upon. Every time I tried to pick out a singular source of light in the radiant night sky, two stars would take its place. On a normal night, I could identify certain constellations with the brightest stars as guides, but such a feat was impossible, a myriad of stars shone with equal intensity. The only distinct body was the clear arm of the Milky Way, stretching in its lustrous magnificence from horizon to opposite horizon.

I was taken back to a distant and once forgotten memory, of a rainy day spent reading Calvin and Hobbes in my bed, and a quote from Bill Watterson that I will never now forget.

“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently. When you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day.”

In an instant, all the tiredness, all the pain I was feeling, all the suppressed sense of foreboding that I felt for my future, vanished. I felt insignificant, and limitless. It was sobering, and at the same time, inspiring.

I do not know how long I stood on the footsteps of that abandoned church, neck craned upward towards infinity, eyes captivated by beauty, mind spellbound by eternity, but it wasn’t until Aaron broke the silence that I remembered where I was.

“Pretty cool, isn’t it.”

“I… Yeah, uh, yeah… It’s incredible.” I looked up again. “Thanks for waking me up.”

How could I even think of sleep now?

I ran back inside with Aaron in tow. We woke up everyone in the group with no remorse, I knew that they all needed to experience what was waiting for them in the night sky. Once they were all outside, Aaron and I grabbed our sleeping bags and ran to join them, and before we had even made it back through the church doors, any complaints our company gave as to the lateness of the hour, were lost in the reverie of what lay before them.

The rest of the group followed our lead, and soon enough we were all arranged across the cold grass, each of us lost in our own contemplation of the universe that shone above us, and pleasantly oblivious to the presence of mountain lions in the surrounding hills.

Tuesday

We awoke unscathed. A chilling morning dew blanketed the land, pervading every nook and cranny of warmth that our sleeping bags had offered, and forcing us all to retreat into the church in an attempt to fall back asleep. After an hour of uncomfortably damp and patchy rest, Mr. Cooper began his morning routine of cutting short our dreams and ruining our lives. Dazedly, we all began to prepare for another long day of hiking.

It was a grey day; the overcast sky a bleak contrast to the beauty it had held not hours before. The sun’s rays filtered through the translucent clouds, and the light that shone forth was rife with melancholy.

We walked down from the church, descending further into the valley, and set out along the riverbank. A chill crept through us, our exhaustion compounded by nature’s pervading gloom. Even Mr. Cooper did not seem immune to the day’s sluggish overtones, and we weaved our way unhurriedly through the countryside.

Such a morning encouraged a longer stay in bed, movies, and a warm cup of tea, but the road ahead offered no such pleasures.

With my mind caught up in a yearning for a more indolent day, we trudged on through the terrain. Here and there we saw remnants of the nearly-forgotten route, sections of track that had been assimilated into the natural surroundings. Straying from the crumbling rail-line, we cut through a forest that had sprung up alongside the river. The pine needles coated the ground and muffled our footsteps, aggrandizing the soft churning of the water and the ceaseless cries of the wildlife overhead. There was little conversation, the group seemed content with nature’s acoustic accompaniment.

As we journeyed further into the forest, the trees grew denser, the air, sultry, and I was brought back to summer days, when my brothers and I would wander aimlessly in the woods that had once comprised our backyard.

We had spent countless hours under the canopy of those trees, building forts on the hillsides and dams in the creek bed, sledding down the ravines, or simply setting off with the sole intention of becoming lost, motivated by the hope of discovering a hidden paradise deep within the forest.

My family had since moved away from that house, but I always maintained a certain affinity for the apparent endlessness of a deep woodland. Others in our group, however, seemed eager to return to a more cleared pathway. Chief among them was Greg, who had already managed to stumble over two tree roots that had been hidden by the underbrush.

After some time, the trees began to thin, and the murky blue of the river we had lost sight of was stretched out before us once again.

“Finally,” Greg mumbled as he threw his walking stick away.

Mr. Cooper did not appear so thrilled, and increased his pace until he arrived at the clearing. He was well ahead of us in a few moments, yet despite our lack of proximity, we all heard him swear. Hearing such an exclamation from our guide never boded well, and with nervous glances all around, we rushed to see what the fuss was about.

When we reached him, the reason for his expletive became clear: the river had cut across our path and now lay at the bottom of a deep valley. Mr. Cooper’s frustration meant that he intended us to proceed to the opposite bank, but the hill leading to the water seemed precarious, and the river was now far too wide to consider swimming across.

“There’s supposed to be a bridge here,” he said as he scanned the far bank, his brow conveying an unnerving sense of worry.

Up to this point, our guide had been infallible; we had all placed complete faith in Mr. Cooper. The rest of us hadn’t any idea where we were, and could only serve to increase the pressure felt by a hesitant guide.

So, I sat down to eat a banana while he struggled to ascertain our next move. The group followed suit, exchanging nervous glances.

“What was that book we read about the kids who got lost in the woods?”, Greg asked as he reached for a piece.

I pulled the fruit away. “Fuck off, you should’ve thought ahead.”

“Wait, are you talking about The Goonies?”, Warren asked.

John hurriedly corrected him, “The Goonies never got lost in any woods.”

“Yeah I know that. Besides, The Goonies is a movie.”

“No, the one we read in class, where the kids go looking for a dead body.”

“You mean Stand by Me?”

“Yeah.”

“They never get lost, you retard.”

“The whole book is them lost in the woods!” Greg insisted.

John shook his head. “They go into the woods to look for a dead body, they’re never lost.”

“Alright, fine, whatever. They were in the woods, I was close enough.” John almost seemed disappointed that Greg had not continued the argument. I found myself hoping we might come across a corpse of our own. Aaron agreed.

“It’d make all this walking worth it.”

“We’re not lost!”, Mr. Cooper butted in, obviously annoyed by our choice of topic. A pause followed, no one was quite reassured by his guarantee, but we also dared not express our doubts.

We followed him as he paced back and forth in front of us, and I thought about how long I could ration my banana.

“If it comes to it, we’re eating Greg first.” Greg, the largest of our young group, scowled at John. The rest of us laughed, nervously.

My mom would be furious if she could see us now.

When I had first posed the trip to her, she wanted none of it. Ever-protective, she was quite opposed to the thought of her son roaming the New Mexican wilderness with minimal adult supervision. My dad had been keener to the idea, under the impression that such a hike would be very formative, in my current prepubescent state of being. They went back and forth for weeks on the issue, run pseudo-background checks on everyone involved with the planning of the event, and had even had Mr. Cooper over for dinner, vowing to withhold her decision until she knew the man well enough. Once she consented to let me go, there were several visits to the chapel to ensure God’s protection for me before I was finally out the door and on my way south.

I made a mental note to leave this part out when I retold the stories of my travels.

If I ever actually made it home.

Our circumstances seemed far more promising when I shook away from my daydream. Mr. Cooper, on a hunch, was leading us alongside the river away from our original path, and despite the unlikelihood, he inadvertently led us directly to an old railroad bridge. How this rusted-out construct had withstood the test of time, I did not know, but its withering length still spanned the river and suited our purposes perfectly.

Our fearless leader went first, as he always did, carefully treading the antique tracks as the metal supports groaned under his weight. Next went Aaron, who traversed the bridge in half the time it had taken Mr. Cooper, then myself, John, Warren, and lastly, Greg.

This last attempt to cross turned out to be quite eventful, as Greg inelegantly missed a railroad tie and fell face-first onto the bridge. As he stared, frozen, at the drop below, it was all we could do to refrain from laughing. A few of us ran out to help him back to his feet, but in the process, I regrettably dropped my half-consumed banana into the river. Yet as I watched that yellow sustenance swiftly float out of my reach, we were across the river now, and I had far less cause to go diving after it.

“I hope you got your tetanus shots Greg,” Mr. Cooper chuckled, and we began the hike once more.

Wednesday

Once we made it out of that forest, the remainder of our trip allotted to the day seemed rather bleak in comparison. We emerged on the outskirts of the Navajo Indian reservation and found a land exactly like our previous setting, save for a few inhabited homes now scattered throughout the countryside.

We made arrangements to sleep in an old barn which belonged to a particularly hospitable retired farmer, named Kitchi. His family had dwelled on this land for generations, and speaking with him offered a glimpse into our nation’s past.

He was as interested in our story as we were in the legends of the Navajo people, and we spoke as a group beside a soft fire. For hours, he entranced us with stories of his people’s history, and saddened us with those of their dying culture.

After we were prepared a late dinner, we retired to the barn. The hay felt softer than anything we had ever experienced, the moonlight soon shining over our peaceful slumber.

I woke up refreshed, with a confusing desire to get on the road again.

Humming the classic Willie Nelson tune, I repacked my backpack and headed into the main house, where our host had bacon and eggs ready for us. Thanking him, at Mr. Cooper’s behest, the group tore voraciously into the meal. I felt right at home, eating breakfast among my friends as if we had all just woken up from a sleepover.

Ahiga was a brusque resumption of reality.

Initially, he remained unnoticed; we took no heed of his presence until his hand appeared in front of us, reaching into the plate of bacon resting in the middle of the table. I looked up to see who it belonged to, and the illusion of familiarity was destroyed.

In size and stature, the figure before us could be no more than ten years our elder, suggesting an individual in his late teens or early twenties. Yet at a first glance, and conceivably even upon further inspection, Ahiga was incompletely disguised as a man well into his thirties. The lines embedded within his face, the hollowed eyes that conveyed an expression of all-pervading internal turmoil, his was a face that had known pain beyond his years. He wore a soiled sweatshirt and a pair of torn-up jeans, and his unkempt hair completed the emphasis of disarray. Although he appeared clean, he carried with him a certain soiled aura, and in my mind’s eye, he was covered head to toe in grime. His father accosted him.

“Aren’t you going to introduce yourself to our guests?”

“Who are these people?”, he muttered.

“They’re friends.”

With a downcast gaze, Ahiga shared his name.

Our greetings circled the table, as each of our group hurriedly spoke ours in return. I wondered whether he would join us at the table, but without further word Ahiga hastily retired upstairs.

The conversation hesitantly resumed, and in a matter of minutes, we had forgotten about the incident. Not long after, we found ourselves on the gravel road outside, our bags packed, full of food and restlessness.

Aaron yawned.

“How long is he going to take?”

“I think he said he just wanted to thank him again,” John explained, as Mr. Cooper had when he abruptly ran back into the house.

Greg was fidgeting with the gate in the fence. “That was ten minutes ago.”

“Yeah, no shit Greg,” Warren interjected.

With no intention of listening to them bicker, I began to wander down the road, absentmindedly kicking one of the larger rocks along with me as I went. I propelled it forward, and its ensuing trajectory dictated the direction I took.

After a few minutes of this haphazard movement, I accidentally put a little too much into my kick, and my rock careened off an outthrust and came to rest at the bottom of the ravine running parallel to the street. I gave up on the endeavor, yet as I turned to head back to where the group was waiting, my eye caught a glimpse of a peculiar object lying beside my forsaken guide.

“Guys come check this out!”, I yelled, further along the road than I had realized.

Warren and Aaron walked over; Greg and John had begun trying to pelt each other with pebbles.

“What is it?”

I held up an old syringe.

“Ew, dude, that’s disgusting! Why the hell are you holding that?” Warren looked, aghast.

“Shut up, it’s not like I’m holding the actual needle.”

“Where do you think it came from?”, Aaron asked as I handed it to him.

“I have no idea. Just thought it was weird to find it out here.” We were, for all intents and purposes, in the absolute middle of nowhere.

They both nodded in agreement, as Warren, who seemed to have overcome his initial disgust, held the object up to the sun with an inquisitive expression.

“Doubt it came from a hospital, there’s no measurements on the side,” he concluded.

Mr. Cooper’s voice brought our ponderings to a halt. “Hey! You three! Wrong way!”

He threw the syringe down and we scurried back to the house. Greg and John, having put their differences aside, asked us about what I had found. Before I could relate my discovery, however, Mr. Cooper beckoned us along, and their interest in the matter instantly faded.

I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Sometime later, having reunited with the river from the day prior, we stopped for lunch.

It was a perfect afternoon, the sun maintained a monopoly of the sky, and its rays accentuated the striking hues that lay within our surroundings. The deep blue of the river was contrasted by the bright green of the reeds that grew along its banks, the minnows fighting against the current shone black against the white stone that comprised the riverbed. With the beauty of nature lending its color to my lunch, I question whether Cheetos have ever looked more orange than in that moment.

Mr. Cooper seemed equally content with staying a few extra moments to appreciate our setting. The reverie was cut short, however, for moments after I had licked the last of the cheesy remnants from my fingers, we heard the pounding of feet in the distance, and a yell reverberating throughout the hillside.

“HEY GUYS! HOLD UP!”

Sitting on an outcrop that jutted far past the riverbank, I was the first to discover the source of the commotion. All at once, Ahiga came screaming around the corner and into sight, running as fast as his legs would carry him, a proper Bilbo Baggins coming to join the company of dwarves. As he came to a stop before the group and struggled to catch his breath, I half expected him to complain that he had forgotten his handkerchief.

Taken aback, but ever the chaperone, Mr. Cooper confronted him.

“How can we help you, Ahiga?” It was clear, from the backpack he wore and the sleeping bag tied around it, that he was not there to return something we had forgotten at his house.

“I wanted to come join you guys.”

“Join us?”

“Yeah,” he wheezed, still out of breath. “Like, go hiking with you. My dad thinks it’ll be good for me to get out of the house for a little, might make things easier.”

“Make what easier?”

Ahiga hesitated to expound on the matter.

“Can I come or not?”

Mr. Cooper did not immediately respond, but rather turned towards us to glean our opinion. I was all for the idea, and I made sure to show such in my subtle nod of agreement as Mr. Cooper’s gaze crossed mine. There was something about this Ahiga that intrigued me, and I wanted the chance to get to know him a little better.

Having surveyed our reactions, he turned to face the newcomer.

“We’re happy to have you.”

“Thanks.”

He seemed less-than-ecstatic at the news, but I was determined to befriend him all the same.

“Let’s get going then, we have a lot of ground to cover.”

We fell in behind him, Greg uncharacteristically in the lead, apparently a little wary of our new travel companion. The rest hiked along behind, with Ahiga bringing up the rear, and I fell back to walk alongside him.

He was not great company.

I inquired about his school, what he thought of his family, how he liked living in the area, basically every topic that constituted socially acceptable small talk between two strangers. He answered with a curt response each time, and the only information I gathered was that he was 27 years old. After I had run out of questions, and realizing that Ahiga was not much for talking, I ceased my pestering and walked along in silence, catching faint murmurs of Aaron and John’s conversation. I wanted to catch up to them, but I struggled to concoct a legitimate-enough excuse to leave Ahiga behind. So, rather than risk an uncomfortable interaction, we trudged along in an uncomfortable silence.

We came across an asphalt roadway that intersected our path, and Mr. Cooper turned and led us down the median of this lonely highway. It was not until we had traversed this road for some time that Ahiga finally spoke up.

“See those cliffs up there?” He pointed to a mesa in the distance. His voice was coarse, and distant.

Having been conjecturing the most practical way to burn my hiking boots once I got home, his question startled me.

“Uh, yeah, kinda.”

“They’re haunted.”

“What? Really?”

“Definitely. My dad took me to this ceremony one time where we all camped until late at night, and then sat around a bonfire and talked to the spirits that lived there.”

What the hell is he talking about.

Ahiga noticed my skepticism. “I’m not lying, it’s tradition. All the kids around here go up there when they’re at a certain age. It’s some rite of passage shit.”

“So, you’re Navajo?” I asked.

“I think I’m a quarter. I really don’t know, but my dad was really into it growing up. All I know is that I went back up there a few years ago, and I swear I saw some weird shit.”

Unable to determine whether Ahiga was messing with me, I asked him to describe the phenomenon. He was remarkably thorough in his retelling, and the passion with which he related the story nearly led me to consider that he was telling the truth. That is, until he mentioned that he was with a bunch of his friends, who were all “high off their ass” at the time, and forewent all credibility.

I was annoyed that I had almost believed him.

My initial inquisitiveness, however, provoked a garrulousness that I was unprepared for. Over the next two hours, I listened to him recount stories of his life, from the time his friend’s wife cheated with him, to the time he almost killed his friend for beating said wife, to the time he went to jail for that offence, to the time he went to jail for the second time on “shoplifting charges”, to the time he built a house from scratch out of baked clay and lived there for almost a year, leading up to the time he was forced to move back into his father’s house on account of his heroin addiction.

Wait, what?

This steady stream of consciousness I was subjected to was a jarring retelling of a tragic tale, a life too severe to be tangible. Each subsequent account of misfortune, self-actuated or circumstantial, bore profoundly within me, and I found myself speechless at the breadth of his exhaustless misery.

Alone, abandoned by life and the lives of others, here was Ahiga, a product of his environment, and a slave to the whims of that by which he tries to escape his own cruel reality. Yet, despite all that he had endured, as he shared his story, his voice bore a puzzling happiness, a gratitude for the opportunity to speak to someone who would listen.

When he ran out of stories, we returned to the silence we had known before.

My heart ached for the right thing to say, my mind screamed for the words that could provide some comfort to such a troubled soul, yet I found none. I was speechless for a second time in my life, and the second time on this trip.

In an instant, I had been torn from my ignorance, and forced to behold that which I had never thought possible. Here was true pain, a life my mother would allude to in moments when I felt sorry for myself, a life that I had always tried to believe was fictional.

Ahiga’s experiences were profound, in their capacity to shatter my assumptions of what life was truly capable of.

“So, that’s why I thought I’d come hike with you guys.”

I turned to face him, I did not understand.

“I thought that if I could just get away for a day or two, just a couple, maybe get some new perspectives, make some friends, I might finally be able to go home and finish this thing off once and for all.”

He itched irritably at his arm, the addicted mind is a cruel mistress.

“What thing?”

“This thing,” he said, as he reached down to the ground and picked up a syringe.

Only then, I espied several more of them littering the median.

“This addiction, this drug. If I can get away from it, I might be able to finally beat it.” And he flung the object far into the surrounding grassland.

It was heroin. It had to be. Heroin had been a subject in D.A.R.E., a hobby for all the lowlifes on T.V., the end of a notorious path that began with trying marijuana “just once”, but here were the receptacles of that vice, containers that had been used and discarded along the roadside. Here, it was real, and Ahiga, its victim.

I felt an overwhelming sympathy for my companion. He had put his heart on the line, simply because he yearned for someone with whom to share his suffering. In an instant, all reservations I should have felt, being in the company of an addicted man, were dispelled, for he had shown me the life of Ahiga, and not of an addict. I empathized with him, understanding his need for a facade of liberation from the oppressiveness of his callous circumstances. He made me aware of the whole story, and inadvertently filled me with a desire to help him in whatever small way I could.

I promised myself that I would do everything I could to keep him accountable throughout the remainder of our hike.

“How long has it been?” I asked, uneasily.

“How long has what been?”

“Since you last, like, did heroine.” I wasn’t sure how to phrase the question, whether one “did”, or “took”, or even “shot”, heroine, especially since asking an addict about the last time he used is a cumbersome enough question as it is. While intending to maintain an air of nonchalance, my trepidation at the thought of seeming overly-intrusive forced the words out of me in an almost aggressive, and certainly awkward, manner.

Ahiga noticed.

“It’s been long enough.” There was a short pause, then he added, “And as far as the rest of your friends go, I think it’d be better that they not find out.”

As we neared our day’s destination, it seemed a sensible sentiment. I had a growing suspicion that Mr. Cooper would not be thrilled to discover that the newest member of our vagabonding group was a recovering addict.

The few miles that remained were covered in solitude, and Ahiga appeared to have regretted sharing so much with me. We continued side by side until he began to fall behind, and made it clear he meant for me to maintain my current pace. My friends were far along on the road ahead, Mr. Cooper a vague profile on the horizon. I had no intention of catching up with them.

Alone, the natural beauty of the countryside showed itself in stark contrast to the mirthless figure walking to my rear, a dichotomy punctuated by the occasional syringe that I encountered, now purposeless, on this endless median. As the sun lowered, casting the landscape in an awe-inspiring twilight, so too sank my thoughts; I contemplated how a world so magnificent could yield a life so perverse.

It was nearly dusk when I rejoined my friends, busy exploring the elementary school that was to shelter us for the night. It was attached to an old church, whose parishioners had spoken with Mr. Cooper and allowed us to stay. We eagerly tore into the stash of milk cartons we uncovered in the lunchroom, and had soon amassed an impressive array of exercise mats from the gym to use as bedding against the hard floors. Scarfing down the cafeteria food that had been left out for us, we divided up into various rooms.

I quickly set out my sleeping bag and was just getting settled in, when the lights flickered back on in a blaze of white.

“Hey, Sam, I’m gonna need you to give this room to Ahiga here.” Mr. Cooper bent down to pick my backpack from off the ground.

“There’s plenty of room for both of us,” I retorted, annoyed at the prospect of having to reconfigure my sleeping arrangements.

“No, he needs his own room.”

“Why?”

“Not your business why,” he spoke firmly, “just go find another spot.”

Making certain to let out an audible sigh of exasperation, I picked up my bedding and walked to the adjacent room, where I found Aaron and Greg in the midst of a heated discussion over which of them could do more pushups. I rummaged through my belongings until I found my phone and headphones, and the noise of their heavy breathing was drowned out by The Script as I fell almost immediately to sleep.

Thursday

I woke with a start. The windows were dark, and the huddled outlines in the opposite corners of the room were evidence that my friends had resolved their push-up dispute. My phone was dead, so I took the headphones out of my ears and laid my head back down upon my sweatshirt.

Then I heard it.

A low moan broke the quiet, emitting from the very walls of the room. Goosebumps ran up and down my arms and I was frozen to the spot. The silence that followed felt deafening, and I tried to force myself to fall asleep before I overheard the noise again.

While I laid in anxious anticipation, the eerie, painful sound once again filled the darkness, and I shut my eyes in defiance. I had seen enough horror movies to know that the biggest mistake was to go looking for the source of any mysterious nocturnal noise, and I wrapped my head in my pillow and held it tight around my ears.

Please don’t hear it again, please don’t hear it again, …

But it came again and again like clockwork.

I soon knew that if I were to get any more sleep that night, I had to discover its source. Timidly, I arose from my bed, trying to make as much noise as possible in the hopes of accidentally waking up one of my roommates, but they did not stir.

The moan came cascading into the silence, and I froze, my mind begging me to retreat into the safety of my sleeping bag. When it stopped, I ventured forward, careful to avoid the desks scattered about the room.

I made my way into the hallway, and heard the sound grow louder as I pressed my ear to the adjacent door. With every ounce of courage within me, I turned the handle, and pushed it open.

There, in the center of the room, with the light of the streetlamp pouring through the windows, sat Mr. Cooper, a look of deep concern on his face, his hand resting reassuringly on Ahiga’s shoulder, who lay shaking on the floor, curled into a fetal position. The moan once more reverberated throughout the darkness, yet this time it did not induce fear, but panic. Ahiga, covered in a thick sweat which shone like blood in the harsh, orange light, groaned in agony. Mr. Cooper sensed my presence in the room, and as our gaze met, I understood what was happening.

He’s relapsing.

I was as familiar with the concept as years of watching crime-related T.V. shows enabled me to be, but they in no way prepared me for the brutal reality of such an event.

All that was Ahiga had vanished, his humanity stolen away as his brain demanded recompense for the ravages of past use. His face turned towards mine, his sallow eyes gave no semblance of recognition, but rather burned with an anguish that dominated his very soul. His entire being had become a cry for help, a beseeching for that which might bring an end his present sorrow. This entity before me welcomed an eternal end to his suffering, and his eyes burned with despair. In that moment, Ahiga craved the mercy of death.

“Go,” Mr. Cooper whispered emphatically, and I went.

I laid awake for some time, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed, to compartmentalize the terrifying image I had just been subject to.

The sounds of Ahiga’s suffering were the only assurance that he still clung to life, but as the night wore on, these became more and more sporadic. Somewhere within the early hours of the morning, concern was at last overcome by my exhaustion, and I passed into a restless slumber.

When I awoke once more, the room was steeped in apprehension. For a moment, I wished myself to believe that it had all been a nightmare, some hellish figment of my imagination conjured up by a chemical imbalance, but such notions were instantly dispelled as I listened to the voices that had woken me up. My friends talked in low whisper, but I had no desire to retell, and thus relive, my experience. I feigned sleep and struggled to ignore their panicked conversations.

The sun climbed into the sky, and Mr. Cooper finally entered the room.

“He’s going to be fine guys, but he is in no state to hike today.”

Warren spoke up, voicing our concern. “Did you know about this?”, he demanded.

“I was made aware of the situation, yes.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Warren shared my disbelief.

“So, you let a known drug addict come on our hike? And sleep right next to us? I mean, he could’ve easily killed us!”

His tone suggested a sense of betrayal, a feeling we all shared. Our trusted guide, our dependable leader, had knowingly put us all in a threatening situation. Even I, who had formed a sympathy for Ahiga, could not believe that Mr. Cooper had been aware of his addiction from the onset.

He did not deny this accusation, but instead explained calmly.

“I have known Ahiga’s father for many years, and have known about his son’s addiction for almost as long a time. When I spoke to him yesterday, he made it clear that Ahiga had made significant steps in overcoming the dependency, but it appears that he was not quite as clean as he claimed. His condition should have been better, and I am sorry that I was unaware of his recent use. That being said, I allowed him to come on this trip with us because he is not a danger. He simply needs help.”

“How?” John interjected.

“I knew that this hike would be a welcome distraction. And having people with you makes getting away a much easier thing to do.”

“Then why didn’t you tell us?” Aaron chimed in.

“I never meant for you to find out on your own, I’m sorry. I couldn’t say anything about it in front of him, if he knew that I had told you it’d crush him. Since we all arrived at different times yesterday evening it was hard to find a moment when I could tell you all together, so I thought better to table it. I promise though, relapse or no, I was going to explain everything.”

Unconvinced as we were by this answer, the tension in the room remained palpable.

Although I understood what Mr. Cooper had been trying to accomplish, there was a pressing issue which I needed an answer to.

“Why didn’t you call an ambulance when he started to get sick?”

Mr. Cooper paused, considered his answer, and then spoke.

“Because I have been in his shoes, and I knew the best thing for him was to get through it himself.”

There was a stunned silence, as each of us realized what he meant.

“But, how…” Greg stammered.

Mr. Cooper sat down in the teacher’s desk.

Slowly, he told us the story of how he had once succumbed to drug use, and how he had fought his own battles with heroine.

“It was a long time ago, in a different life. Towards the end, I came to a crossroads. I knew in that moment, I would either come out a new man, or not come out at all. I made a trip like the one we’re on right now, and it changed my life. It’s why I’ve been organizing hikes through your parish ever since.”

No one spoke, and he added, “I hoped that Ahiga could find the same relief through a testing journey, as I once did.”

Breakfast was a late one, and an intense ordeal. We spoke in a low voice, with opinions, harsh or understanding, flying across the table as we all digested the shocking revelations of the morning.

When we had finished eating, our minds still rife with questions, Mr. Cooper came and rejoined us, having been tending to Ahiga for much of the morning. He spoke further of his past, told us of the individual conversations he was forced to have with every parent of any kid he intended to chaperone, and shared with us his overwhelming guilt and sorrow that accompanied every such conversation. Finally, he apologized, to all of us, and begged us not hold the mistakes of his past against him.

His voice cracked, and his eyes betrayed him; reliving the horrific memories had taken its toll. Then, as we had with our introductions to Ahiga, each of us spoke in turn, and the words rose and fell with each different voice, resonating throughout the room.

“I forgive you.”

Mr. Cooper took his head out of his hands. His relief filled us all with joy.

“Thank you.” He took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

Greg quickly slurped down the rest of the milk in his bowl, then the room grew quiet.

“So, now what?” Warren asked.

“Well, there are two options. We have two days left before the van comes down to pick us up. We either wait for Ahiga to feel a little better and finish our hike tomorrow, or we can leave Ahiga here and finish in Bloomfield as we originally planned. I’ve talked to Ahiga’s dad, and he said that he can drive to pick up his son in either location, so it’s up to you all what you want to do.”

Looking around at each other, Aaron was the first to decide. “I think we should wait for Ahiga.”

“What about everyone else?”

“We should wait,” I said.

Despite some hesitations, we each, in turn, voiced our agreement with Aaron, and Mr. Cooper beamed with pride. Seconds later, all but one decision had been made.

“It needs to be unanimous, Warren.”

All eyes upon him, he finally spoke up. “Yeah, that’s fine. I’m pretty tired anyways,” and a grin crept across his face.

Friday

In the day that followed, the rest of the group came to know Ahiga as I did.

As we sat together in his room, he was incredibly open with us about his past, despite having been nearly destroyed by it the night before. The initial jealously I felt, as my connection with this mysterious figure was shared amongst my friends, progressed into a greater appreciation for the man.

Underneath the aloof exterior, was a sincere and openhearted character with an incredibly unique outlook on the world, who wanted nothing more than to pass on the myriad of his nearly-unbelievable stories and fantastic life theories. We spent the day in conversation, fascinated by his individuality, learning all that we could of a life we would never lead. My friends and I had been raised in wealthy communities, we attended private schools, and we had been sheltered from the reality of Ahiga’s existence, and those like him. He was someone we were sure to never have met in our current societal circle, and someone, the likes of whom, I will never meet again.

Late in the evening, Ahiga mustered the strength to join in on a game of basketball, and when he did nothing but laugh when Mr. Cooper blocked his shot back into his face, any lingering misgivings about our new acquaintance were dismissed.

Dinner was a motley assortment of whatever was left within the cafeteria fridges, and soon after, I fell into a deep, uninterrupted, sleep.

The last distance of our hike went as Thursday had, the only difference being that we now walked together as we pestered Ahiga with questions. The sun shone bright as we discussed everything under it, and as we traversed the beautifully desolate countryside, our spirits soared like the eagles above.

The final day of any vacation has always been my favorite, one last chance to cherish the passing of time, to absorb the beauty of the moment, the destination, and the memories.

I’ve spent many years striving to recall specifics of what we talked about as we hiked that lonesome New Mexican interstate. Try as I might, the only definite recollection I’ve been able to conjure is a piece of life advice Ahiga offered, concerning girlfriends.

“I’ve had a few in my day, and I can promise you, they’re all crazy.” We laughed, and Mr. Cooper nodded in agreement.

“But, if you insist on having one, make sure you remember the rule of three.”

“What’s the rule of three?” It was a tad ironic Greg had asked this, since we all figured he was the one who would be the last to have to worry about things like girlfriends.

“Well, and remember, I didn’t make this up, science did. But the rule of three says that you after the third time you have sex with a girl, then things get emotional.”

A few of us smirked at each other. Mr. Cooper rolled his eyes, but no one noticed.

“After the third time, a chemical release is triggered in your brain that makes you dependent on the other person. You become attached, like chemically. Biologically. And I’ve seen it happen, makes a breakup a bitch to deal with.”

As private school 8th graders, this was as close to a sex-ed class as we were likely to ever come. We ate his words up as fast as he could spew them out; he had done it before, so it was understood by all of us that of course he knew what he was talking about.

That’s it. The one conversation I can distinctly remember us having. The rest are muddled, interspersed, incomplete. The topics varied from time to time, but I do remember that no matter where the conversation went, someone would eventually steer it back to an inquiry concerning birds and bees. Ahiga was much more explanatory than any of our parents had been, and far less awkward about it.

At some point during these discussions, we walked past a parked car, where a woman had pulled onto the median to paint the surrounding desert landscape. As we strolled by and exchanged a friendly, neighborhood nod, I looked at her canvas, the yellow that poured down onto an imposing red mesa, dots of green and the sky awash in blue. I was envious of her, to have an image so tangible and untarnished that the mind may never destroy, and memory will always treasure. How I wish I had but one photograph of our group that day, one that might so capture the journey we underwent, and the joy we shared upon its final afternoon.

In the distance, far upon the horizon, we saw our destination. The image wavered as the evening heat rose from the asphalt, the plaster buildings were hardly discernable against the landscape, yet the sight filled us all with an immense relief; our weary legs could take no more.

We arrived around 6 pm, as the sun had just begun its slow descent into the red horizon.

Our home for the evening, Ghost Ranch was a Presbyterian retreat center located amid the vast New Mexican wilderness. It was a place to escape society, to find comfort in the desert, to film Westerns, or, in our case, a place to end the journey of a lifetime. As this was the last night of our journey, our guide had spared no expense.

As I let my backpack fall from my shoulders onto the floor of my room, the pain, in my shoulders, my back, my legs, my feet, and my mind, seemed to fall with it. A weight was lifted from me; my journey was at its end.

After giving us a chance to explore the grounds, he had us all meet him in the cafeteria for one, final dinner together.

While we ate, we talked long of stories from the road, from an apparent close encounter with a heat stroke, to an incident in which Greg almost led John down the wrong turn and had nearly lost the group. We laughed, we spoke, we listened, we reminisced, and we reflected. No one felt their exhaustion, we were content in each other’s company, and in the satisfaction of a journey well accomplished.

Ahiga was there with us, following along with our stories as best he could, but laughing as hard as anyone when John related the story of Warren’s encounter with a snake. After a while, he excused himself, claiming his stomach was upset. Nodding to Mr. Cooper as he stood to leave, I knew he was being respectful of our group, and wanted to give us some time without a stranger present. Smiling, he said he’d meet up with us later. On the way to his room, I thought he might’ve recognized a face in the crowd, but our eyes were playing tricks on all of us.

At last, the talk began to die down, and we noticed that we were the room’s only remaining occupants. Clearing the table, Mr. Cooper told us of a room we could gather in to close out the trip, for the van was already at the center, and he doubted they would have time to do so in the morning.

So we gathered in the room. Myself, Aaron, Greg, John, and Warren, standing around the piano as Mr. Cooper’s hands danced across the keys, The Piano Man’s melody filling the air.

“For it’s sad, and it’s sweet, and I knew it complete, when I wore, a younger man’s clothes.” Sing him a song, Mr. Cooper, sing him a song.

We sat, each of us to a plush armchair, enjoying the luxury of sitting. Someone, Aaron, Greg, John, or Warren, mentioned that someone should go find Ahiga so that he could join us. I volunteered, his room was adjacent to mine.

Night had long fallen when I left the group and made my way across the compound. The solitude that was at once peaceful, felt unsettling in the dark. A sole lamp lit the pathway that cut across to the building we were staying in. I struggled to find the entrance, and I struggled to remember what floor we were on.

I gave the door a knock. There was nothing. I knocked again, louder, and still, no response. Thinking that he had since left his room, I turned to leave, but just to be sure, I tried the handle.

I should’ve just left, I should’ve looked elsewhere

It gave.

There, sitting in the corner of the room, his head rolled back, his eyes closed, his mouth open, it lay, not Ahiga, but the body that had once held him.

I tried to scream, but my voice would not come, I tried to run, but my legs would not move, I tried to stop my heart from sinking into my chest, but such things cannot be controlled.

* * *

“Heath! Hey, Heath.” Mr. Cooper’s hand was on my shoulder. He looked into my eyes, but I did not see him. “It’s gonna be alright.”

The van sped away from the flashing red and blue; the dessert stretched endlessly underneath the night sky.

“It’s going to be alright, ya hear me?”

I pressed my face to the window. The stars, once they had offered comfort, were now, indifferent, satisfied in their own splendor. A tear rolled onto the window, reflecting their light. I didn’t remember why I cried.

“Heath, it’s going to be alright.”

My friends stared unflinchingly wherever their gazes fell. Some sat behind me, others, in front. They did not talk.

I wish I could remember that fucking dream.