It was dark. The sky was buried in the deep blue-black that comes just after midnight. Shadows covered most areas of MacArthur Park in Central Los Angeles. Many of the few feeble lampposts that dotted the interior of the park were not working, their lights having been knocked out by one of the gangs that intermittently claimed the park as their territory. What few lights still worked cast an eerie, yellowish glow on the ground at their feet, chasing the shadows only a short distance back into the trees. Their light did little more than tease a sense of normalcy out of what everyone knew was deadly territory between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. (and wasn’t too safe even in daylight!)
A teenage boy was walking across the park. His hair was long and unkempt, and his clothes were shabby. He wore a scowl on his face, and his eyes were dark. He held a knife in his hand.
He was not alone. Shadows moved beneath the trees. Whispered voices consulted, and many pairs of eyes watched his progress. As he reached the central lamppost in the north part of the park, he stopped and looked around. He could see no one, but knew they were there. He could sense it. He could feel them.
One by one, they slowly melted out of the darkness. They came from all directions. Some carried knives, others carried clubs or nunchucks. A few carried guns.
One among them stepped forward. He was a blond youth, in his early twenties. He had a scar stretching from his left ear to his mouth, a relic of a gang fight seven years earlier. His eyes were cold, and shone with contempt for the new arrival. He was carrying a single club in his hands.
“You!” he said, calling to the newcomer. “Who are you, and what do you want? What gang are you from? You’re in Raven territory, so talk fast before you find a knife between your ribs.”
The newcomer just looked back at him. “I’m not from any gang,” he said simply. Then he added, “So, this is Raven territory …” He looked around at the dozens of young hoodlums who were now surrounding him on all sides. “The ravens, eh?” he repeated. Then he looked back at the leader. “I thought I smelled an odd stench when I entered this park!”
There was a collective gasp of anger, and several in the group stepped forward, their knives and clubs raised to cause lethal damage. “Wait!” cried their commander, the blond, scar-faced youth. He looked at the newcomer with open disgust. But his look held something else as well. Curiosity.
“You realize,” he said slowly, as he walked toward the newcomer, “that words like that are likely to lead to a very painful experience for you tonight?” He raised an eyebrow at the intruder. “It looks like you’re alone. Why would you come here at this hour and say something like that? Who are you?”
“Maybe he’s with the police,” said a squat, muscle-bound boy to the leader’s left. “Maybe he’s got a hidden microphone on him, transmitting everything we say!”
The blond leader looked at the boy who had spoken. “Could be, Spike,” he said simply. He looked back at the newcomer, then looked past him. With a nod of his head, he said simply, “search him.”
Three of the hoodlums rushed up to the newcomer to fulfill their leader’s command. They were not gentle about it either. One of them cuffed the boy across the face with the palm of his hand. Another slugged him below the heart. The third ground his boot heel down the newcomer’ shin, a tactic that usually brought screams of pain from even the toughest of opposing gang members.
The newcomer made no sound, although tears of pain started up in his eyes. The three searchers quickly checked all of his pockets and potential secret hiding places. They quickly disposed of the knife that was in the newcomer’s hands. They found nothing else.
“Nothin’,” said one of the searchers to his leader, shrugging his shoulders. “He’s clean.”
The leader advanced until he was only a foot away from the younger boy. “Let me repeat,” he said slowly, “who are you, and why are you here? Who sent you? What were you supposed to find out?”
“Nobody sent me,” responded the newcomer. “And my name doesn’t matter. I just came to find out for myself if the rumors are true.”
“Rumors?” said the blond leader curiously. “What rumors?”
“That the leader of the Ravens has a rare kind of smell,” replied the younger boy. “Kind of like a skunk and a three day old diaper rolled into one!” Then he spit in the leader’s face.
A collective gasp went up from the gang. NO ONE had done anything like that to their leader and lived to tell about it. Some of them started to smile cruelly. They were about to watch someone die. They leaned forward in anticipation …
“Well, well, what a night for a picnic!” sang out an unexpected voice behind them. Shocked, the gang turned as one to see who had spoken. A man had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He looked to be around 50 years old, with grey hair surrounding a bald patch in the exact middle of his head. He wore a colorful Hawaiian shirt, and Bermuda shorts. He carried a picnic basket in his hands, which he heaved onto a table that was set directly beneath one of the park lamps.
The man looked up, blinking through his glasses at the boys all around him. “My goodness! I didn’t realize there were so many of you! I hope I brought enough! Do you all like potato salad?” He reached into the basket.
The blond leader of the gang was still wiping the spittle off his face. The veins on his neck were pulsing with barely contained rage at what the newcomer had said and done. But as leader he was smart enough not to start beating the boy with this newcomer watching. That is, not until they found out who HE was, and whether he was with the police—and of course, whether there were more around like him.
“Who are you, old man?” said the blond leader softly, walking slowly over to the picnic table.
“Name’s Pete,” said the man, producing a chicken drumstick from beneath the cloth that covered his picnic basket, and taking a bite. “You like chicken? I’ve got another drumstick here if you want.”
The blond leader brought his club down hard on the table, making the picnic basket jump. “I said, who ARE you, old man?! Don’t play games with me! Nobody comes here at this hour for a picnic in the park!”
“They don’t?” said the man in genuine surprise, blinking at the leader. “Why not? This looks like a perfectly good spot to me! Is there a better park around?”
Just then, two boys came running up to the leader. “There’s nobody else with him,” reported one. “Just an RV parked out at the street. No fuzz in sight.”
Blond leader looked back at Pete. “You got a hidden transmitter on you, old man? You working for the cops?”
“Cops?” repeated Pete dumbly. “Why would I be? I just came here for a picnic. Thought you fellows might like to join me.” He started to rummage around in his picnic basket again. “Oh blast it all!” he said, still rummaging. “Now where did I put it?” The leader took a quick step forward and was about to use his club on the old man when the old geezer pulled a very unexpected object from the basket.
It was a grenade.
“Here it is!” said Pete happily. “I thought you might like this for starters.” He pulled the pin and held it out to the blond leader. “Try it! It’s very tasty!”
There was shocked silence in the park. Everyone present could hear the grenade ticking. Blond leader seemed frozen, a rather goofy look of surprise on his face. He obviously did NOT reach out to take the grenade.
“Don’t like this kind?” said Pete in surprise. “No matter.” With hardly a glance, he tossed the grenade in a nearby metal trash can and started rummaging around inside his basket some more. “I think I’ve got another one in here that’s a lighter shade of green. Maybe you’ll like that one better.”
Before blond leader could respond, there was a deafening explosion from the trash can as the grenade blew up. The can disintegrated and shards of metal flew through the air. Several in the gang cried out, looking in surprise at bloody gashes that had appeared in various places on their bodies from the shrapnel.
“Here we are!” said the old man, completely unmoved. It seemed he hadn’t heard the explosion at all, nor had any of the shrapnel hit him since the corner of the table was between him and the garbage can. He pulled another grenade from his basket, pulled the pin and held it out to the leader. Everyone could hear it ticking. “Care to try this one?”
Never since their founding did the Raven gang move as fast as they did then. Even their blond leader didn’t swagger slowly like he normally did—a habit intended to send an arrogant message of total control. He ran like his life depended on it.
As the gang ran, an instant transformation came over Pete. Snatching up the basket, he raced to the newcomer that had spit in the face of the Raven’s leader. Grabbing his hand, Pete said one word.
Then, with amazing strength for a man his age, he fairly yanked the young hoodlum off his feet as he sprinted madly for the side of the park where he’d left his RV.
The boy resisted at first, but Pete’s pull was too strong for him. “What gives, old man?” asked the boy through ragged breaths. “Where are we going?”
“No time,” gasped Pete, glancing back at him, clearly winded. “They’ll be on us soon.”
In less than thirty seconds they had reached the RV parked at the curb. Pete wrenched open the door and shoved the kid inside, tossing the picnic basket on top of him. Then he dove in himself, slamming and locking the door behind him.
None too soon. Members of the Raven gang could be seen popping out of the dark like ants whose hill had been stepped on. Several threw their knives, aiming for the tires. They were converging on the RV fast.
“Come on, baby!” said Pete, turning the engine on and stomping on the gas pedal. The RV responded with a surprising amount of power, screeching away from the curb like a banshee. The Ravens were left with the stench of burned rubber in their nostrils, angrily watching as the RV disappeared down the street. One of them with a gun took a shot at a tire, but missed.
“Boy, that was close!” panted Pete, glancing anxiously in the rear view mirror. Roaring down the street, he turned the wheel sharply at the corner of 6th and Alvarado. The RV darted down the road like a race car, with the distinct sound of various glass items falling off shelves and breaking somewhere in the back. “Still in danger. Got to get some distance between us.”
The boy sat silently in the passenger seat. The picnic basket still rested on his lap. Curiously, he lifted the cloth that covered it. The basket was mostly full of fried chicken. But there were three grenades inside, including the one whose pin Pete had pulled in the park.
The boy held up the grenade without a pin, staring at it curiously. It was still ticking. Pete glanced over at him, and smiled.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he said. “Got it at an army surplus store. Looks just like a real one, but doesn’t go off. Too bad, huh? I only had one that would actually explode, which I used. It’s awful hard to buy the exploding kind, for some reason.” He paused, looking over at the boy. “I don’t know what I’d have done if my little trick hadn’t worked. Guess you and I’d be back there getting the wallop of our lives. And by tomorrow, we’d be pushing up daisies!”
The boy still did not respond. He just looked at Pete blandly, then tossed the grenade back in the basket.
“Course, that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?” said Pete, in a softer voice. “To end it all. Why else would you go up and insult the leader of a gang in his territory, at night? Besides,” he said, while turning onto a freeway onramp, “I saw you earlier this evening by the lake. Looked like you were trying to test the depth. It was obvious to me what you had in mind. Although why you chose being stabbed over drowning is beyond me! I mean, if ya gotta go, drowning is a lot less painful!”
The boy stared at him with wide eyes, amazed that his dark secret was so easily visible to the old geezer. He opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. His face darkening over like a storm cloud, he turned to stare straight ahead at the midnight traffic on the LA freeway.
“Hungry?” asked Pete, reaching over to the basket on the kid’s lap and rummaging around the contents inside. He pulled out a hunk of chicken and took a bite. “Go ahead and have all you want. I can’t eat it all, and those boys back there didn’t want it for some reason.”
The kid did not respond or take any chicken. He sat rigid, staring straight ahead. He had no idea where he was going or who this old man was, or why he had suddenly appeared like he did in the park. But it was obvious he didn’t care anyway.
A cell phone rang suddenly. It was stuck to a piece of Velcro on the dashboard. Pete picked it up.
“Pete here,” he said. He smiled suddenly. “Hello, Tad! How goes it?” He listened for a minute, his face turning somber. “That bad, huh? Well, listen buddy, things always seem bad at night. Tomorrow morning I’m sure—“ He listened again. “What do you mean you won’t make it? You’ve always made it before! Remember what the Doctor said? You were supposed to die two months ago! But you’ve made it through every night since then! Here it is June, and you’re still kicking!”
The kid jerked his head to look sharply at the old man. What was this all about?
“Right,” said Pete, nodding his head. “But I don’t believe it. You’ve got fight in you still, or you wouldn’t have called ME. You’ll still be moaning and complaining come tomorrow morning, just like always.” He listened some more. “Look, I’m in L.A. and I just picked up a passenger. I don’t know if I can make it tonight.” More listening. “All right, that’s enough, old boy. Give the phone to your nurse and let me talk to her.”
Pete listened to the nurse for a minute. Now his face grew even more serious. “That bad, huh?” he said, then whistled. “The Doctor said that?” He paused. “O.k., I think I know what to do. Put Tad back on, will you?” A pause. “Tad? Hey, I get the message. So you’re really not exaggerating this time. I’m on my way. I’ll be in Phoenix sometime right after sunrise. Hold on ‘till then, o.k.?” Another pause, then a rueful smile. “No, Tad, I DON’T do funerals, and especially not viewings. It’s only your body that dies, anyway, and why go nuts over that? You’re spirit keeps on living.” A pause. “And just how do you know it’s NOT true? Where’s your proof? Look, I’ll be there in the morning, o.k.? You’ll make it. I know you will. See you then, Tad—ALIVE!”
Pete clicked off the phone and stuck it back on the Velcro. He shook his head and whistled. “Poor Tad. Smoked all his life and ruined his lungs, but decided at the last minute he didn’t want to kick over. Rough go.” Then he added. “Time for a prayer.” The kid stared as the old geezer kept driving, his eyes glued to the road. But his lips moved silently as if he was talking to someone who could somehow hear him.
Then suddenly, he was done. Turning to the kid, he said, “Looks like we’re on our way to Phoenix. You don’t mind, do you?” Pete didn’t expect an answer and didn’t get one. “I didn’t think so. Anywhere’s as good as nowhere for you right now, I suspect.” He jerked his head toward the back of the RV. “Go back and get some sleep. Plenty of beds back there.”
The kid didn’t move. He sat stoically, staring straight ahead, only one thought drumming through his mind. The escape he sought had eluded him once again. He’d have to keep putting up with life for just a little bit longer …
It was the dawn of a new day. Traveling east on I-10, the RV had a fantastic view of the sun creeping up from where it lay buried under a range of dirty brown mountains.
The kid was asleep. He was still sitting in the passenger seat, but was slumped over with one hand in the picnic basket and the other flopped back over the top of his seat. Every once in awhile a snore escaped his lips.
It had been a fitful night. Three more calls had come in to Pete, all of which had woken the kid up. From what he could gather of the conversations, each caller was facing a crisis of life and death proportions. And after each call, Pete always said the same thing: “Time for a prayer.” Then his lips moved silently for a minute while he gazed unseeing at the road.
One call seemed to be from an old lady in Kansas who said she kept seeing ghosts in her pantry. Pete suggested they might be hungry and maybe she should feed them. It took twenty minutes before that call ended. From what the kid could gather, the next call was from some guy in Colorado. Pete’s conversation with him was nothing short of bizarre, but by the end of the call the kid gathered that the man was trying to overcome a drug habit, and felt like he was about to submit to his weakness. Pete kept urging him to give in and just do it, but the man resisted, finally shouting “NO!” so loud that even the kid could hear it over the road noise from his passenger seat. Then the guy hung up.
The third call was from a hospital in Texas. “Hello,” said Pete, still seeming to be as wide awake as he had when he first met the kid, even though it was after 3:00 a.m. “Yeah, this is Pete Morley. Oh, I see. How is Little Mickey?” A pause. “That bad, huh? How much longer does the Doctor say he has? I see. Well, I think I can make it by Tomorrow. Tell him to hang on, and Uncle Pete will be there soon. Thanks. Bye.”
“Poor little fella,” said Pete after he switched off the phone and hung it back up on the Velcro strip. Then he said, “Time for prayer,” and did the lip moving thing again. But he didn’t say anything else. After his prayer, he seemed lost in his thoughts, worlds away from where the kid sat observing him. Finally, the kid had drifted off to sleep again.
Now as they entered the outskirts of Phoenix, the early morning rays of sun tugged playfully at the kid’s eyelids, teasing him to wake up. He did. With a stretch and a yawn, he looked around as if he didn’t know where he was or how he got there. Which in fact he didn’t, for a minute at least.
“Where are we?” he said, speaking for the first time since he’d entered the RV.
“Coming across the ‘arid zone’ of Arizona,” said Pete. “We’re almost out of gas. Gotta stop at the next station.”
There was silence in the cab for a minute, as they passed a station and Pete didn’t stop. The kid seemed to have perked up some from his silent attitude of the night before. “How am I going to get back to LA?” he asked.
“What’s there to go back for?” responded Pete. The kid shrugged. He couldn’t think of a good answer. More silence.
“Where are we going?” the kid asked a few minutes later. Traffic was starting to increase as they drew near to the Phoenix City Center.
“Hospital,” grunted Pete. “To see Tad.”
The kid just looked at him, but didn’t ask any more questions.
They stopped for “petrol,” as Pete called it, at a little gas station down the street from the hospital. After filling up the tank, Pete got in and drove the short distance to the hospital. “Petrol, bonnet, lolly, torch—all Aussie words,” said Pete for no apparent reason. “Petrol is gas, a bonnet is a car hood, a lolly is a candy, and a torch is a flashlight. Weird, huh?” He looked at the kid and smiled, not expecting an answer.
He didn’t get one. The kid just looked out the window, thinking that the only really weird one around here was Pete.
“Coming in?” said Pete after he’d parked the RV, and opened his door.
The kid didn’t respond. He just sat unmoving in the passenger seat.
“Look, if you want to rob me before you take off and try to find a gang to kill you here in Phoenix, all my money’s in that little box back there next to the mini-fridge.” Pete pointed back into the RV. “Probably about fifty dollars is all you’ll find there. Of course, you could try to pawn my TV and other stuff here, but you won’t get much for that.” The kid’s eyes grew wide, but he still didn’t respond. This guy was nuts!
A sudden idea seemed to occur to Pete. “Hey, I’ve got it! Steal my RV!” He tossed the keys to the kid. “You could get a good chunk of money for it. Hope you know how to drive! Course, maybe that doesn’t matter if all you’re gonna do is drive it into a wall so you can kill yourself. Well, gotta go.” Then he turned and walked into the hospital without a backward glance.
The kid stared stupidly at the keys in his hands. That guy was completely off his rocker. Did the old geezer really think he WOULDN’T steal it just because he had told him to go ahead and do it? Like the drug addict Pete had talked to during the night, who he kept telling to just give in and use drugs. Did he really think telling him to do it or not made any difference? After all, people will do what they’re going to do. At least that’s what the kid had always observed.
He dropped the keys on the seat, and opened the door. He didn’t want the old goat’s RV, or his fifty dollars, or his stuff to pawn. He just wanted to be rid of him, and to go out and find his own way. Slowly he sauntered away from the RV, back toward the road. He’d seen a park a few blocks back. He would go there and decide what to do.
The kid was hungry. He hadn’t touched any chicken in the picnic basket all night, mainly because Pete kept telling him to do it. Was the old goat trying to goad him, to make him NOT eat?
The kid stopped suddenly, then smiled ruefully. What if Pete had encouraged him NOT to eat. Would he have eaten? Like that drugie in Colorado …
The kid started walking again. Although it was early morning, it already felt hot. And dry. The kid wasn’t used to this kind of desert. He’d never been to Phoenix before. In fact, he’d never been outside the LA area in his life.
Except the trip to Tijuana in Fifth grade.
Unbidden, the memory came flooding back, forcing its way to the front of his mind. “Mr. Dawson,” he heard his fifth grade self saying to his teacher, “I can’t go on the field trip to Tijuana. My mom doesn’t have enough money.” The little boy in his mind looked up at Mr. Dawson and his carefully clipped mustache. The little boy was close to tears.
“No problem,” said Mr. Dawson without any hesitation. “You’ve been paid for—you can come.”
“But who paid for me?” his little boy self asked, eyes wide with surprise.
Mr. Dawson just smiled. “A friend,” he said simply.
It had been years before the kid realized the ‘friend’ had been Mr. Dawson himself. He was an unusually caring teacher for inner city LA. A lot of ‘loser kids’ attached themselves to him, drawn to his unusual gift of kindness which some of them had rarely felt from anyone else.
The kid shook his head, trying to clear it from a fog. That was a long time ago. He hadn’t seen Mr. Dawson in years. He’d never had another teacher like him, or even one that cared enough to learn his name. And since he’d dropped out of high school a few months ago, he hadn’t had any teachers at all.
The kid was almost at the park now. He saw the usual drunks and street dwellers on several of the benches. A few of them had shopping carts parked next to their bench, containing all their worldly belongings. One oddball with a long scraggly beard talked to the kid as he walked by, calling him ‘Jedediah,’ and telling him he was destined for tragedy.
“Big deal,” responded the kid. “Aren’t we all?”
The kid took a seat on a bench as far from other park people as possible. He stared up at the cloudless sky. Did it ever rain here? From the barren looks of the hills they had passed while driving in, it sure didn’t look like it.
He closed his eyes. In spite of having slept a little in the RV, he was dead tired. A small smile played at his lips at the unexpected pun. He was tired but not dead. If he had been allowed to achieve his goal last night, he would be dead instead of tired—which in his mind was clearly the preferable of the two. Minutes ticked by. The kid kept his eyes closed.
There was a sudden clunk next to the kid. Startled, he opened his eyes with a jerk. The sun was far up in the sky, and its rays were hot. He must have slept for hours.
“Have some Australian vegemite!” said Pete. The clunking sound had apparently been him sitting down on the park bench. He held out a sandwich toward the kid, smeared on its insides with a brownish mixture of some kind.
“How’d you know I was here?” asked the kid in surprise.
“Wasn’t hard,” said Pete. “I saw you eyeing this park when we drove past it earlier. You sure like parks! Maybe you should major in forestry at college and become a park ranger.”
The kid looked at him as if he was totally deranged. Which apparently he was.
“Will you just go away and leave me alone!” he said suddenly.
“Can’t,” said Pete, taking a big bite of the sandwich. His eyes watered involuntarily. “Vegemite tastes pretty disgusting,” he said through a horrific grimace. He smiled unexpectedly and took another bite. “Darn good stuff!”
“Why can’t you leave me alone?” yelled the kid, ignoring the garbage about vegemite. He was beginning to get really annoyed now.
“Because you won’t let me,” said Pete simply. He was chewing in a distasteful sort of way, as if even his mouth couldn’t believe it was being forced to eat vegemite.
“What do you mean I won’t let you?” cried the kid. “I WANT you to leave me alone! I don’t even know who you are! And what’s more, I don’t care! I just want you out of my life!”
“Can’t,” said Pete, trying hard to swallow. He grimaced. “Oooh, that’s bad!” he said gleefully, finally succeeding at getting it down. “You should really try some.”
The kid got up suddenly and started to walk rapidly away, across the park. This was nuts. What was WRONG with that old geezer? Didn’t the old coot have enough brains to see he just wanted to be left alone?
But when the kid reached the edge of the park two minutes later and looked up, he was shocked to see Pete’s RV right in front of him! The old man had apparently raced around the park while the kid was walking. Pete was standing by the driver’s side door.
“Want a lift to nowhere?” asked Pete casually, tossing his keys up and down in the air.
“Will you just leave me alone?!” screamed the kid. He darted back the other way, running across the park. Looking back, he saw that Pete had gotten in the RV again and was driving around the park, watching for where he would come out. The old geezer wasn’t going to give up! He was trying to trap him in the park!
The kid reversed direction, and lurched into a full sprint. Pete couldn’t possibly get back over to this side of the park in time to head him off.
Wrong again. Pete popped the RV in reverse and skidded backward at an alarming rate, causing several cars in his lane to honk and swerve out of the way.
The old guy was positively nuts!
The kid looked around frantically. He wasn’t going to put up with this! There! A police car! Whoever was in it must’ve been blind not to see Pete’s backward driving stunt. But no matter. He would go tell the police that the old coot was stalking him. So what if they started asking questions about who HE was and why he wasn’t in school, and ended up throwing him in youth detention—he didn’t care. At least he would be rid of the old man!
“Officer, that old guy over there won’t let me alone!” said the kid, as the officer slowly got out of his car. Looking back, the kid saw that Pete had parked and was rapidly walking up to them.
Incredibly, the officer ignored the kid and spoke directly to Pete. “Do you know this kid?” said the officer.
“Sure do!” said Pete pleasantly. “He and I just drove in from LA this morning.”
“I have no idea who this man is!” said the kid frantically. “He won’t bug off!”
The officer turned on him sternly. “That’ll be enough out of YOU. Or shall I call a truant officer?”
“Yeah!” said the kid. “Do that. Do anything! Just get me away from this guy!”
“So is this your son, then?” the officer asked Pete.
“No, just a good friend,” said Pete. “He wanted to come on this little trip with me. Well, come on,” he said, reaching out to the kid. “Let’s go.”
“Officer!” pleaded the kid. “I am NOT going with that guy! We don’t even know each other! He doesn’t even know my name!”
“Sure I do, Kelly,” said Pete. “Why wouldn’t I know your name?”
The kid stared at Pete in shock. “How did you know that?”
“Look,” said the officer, taking Kelly’s arm and leading him toward the RV. “Just stop wasting my time and go with him, o.k.? I’ve got enough punks here causing me trouble, without more of you coming in from LA.”
Pete had taken Kelly’s other arm, and together they escorted the unwilling teen to the passenger seat of the RV, and rather roughly shoved him in.
“But I don’t want to go!” cried the kid. “I want to get away from this nut!”
The police officer just closed the door and waved. Pete quickly climbed into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and took off.
The kid tried to open the door. This was nuts. He was getting out of here, whether the car was moving or not!
No such luck. Pete just smiled at him, pointing to the buttons on his driver-side door. “All the door locks are controlled from over here,” he said with a pleasant smile. “And the window controls too.”
“Look!” screamed Kelly angrily, “You can’t take me like this! It’s kidnapping! You’ll get arrested!”
“You mean by that policeman back there who helped me kidnap you?” chortled Pete.
“No! By the next policeman we meet! And nothing’s going to stop me this time! I’ll tell him you’re taking me against my will. You’ll see!”
“Vegemite sandwich?” said Pete unexpectedly, grabbing a sandwich that was lying in a little baggie on the floor, and holding it up to Kelly.
“NO!” said Kelly, angrily swatting it out of his hand.
“Hey good move!” said Pete. “You ever play basketball?”
Kelly just glared at him. Then he turned to stare out the window. “You’re taking me back to LA, right?” he said hotly.
“Sorry,” said Pete. “I’ve got an appointment in Texas.”
“Texas!” said Kelly, turning on Pete. “I’m not going there!”
Pete chortled again. “Sure. Whatever you say. Right. Absolutely. You’re not going to Texas, even though you’re being kidnapped by me and taken there. Yep. I believe you.”
Kelly just shook his head angrily. Suddenly he got up and headed back into the RV.
“You’ll find plenty of milk and cookies in the fridge!” called Pete.
Kelly yanked the little fridge door open and grabbed the bottle of milk. Upending it, he poured it sloshing all over the floor.
That should do it! Now the old geezer would stop and let him go! Old people always lost it when you started ruining their stuff.
Wrong again. A bizarre look of glee had come into Pete’s eyes. “I always wondered what color my carpet would turn if I poured milk on it! Why don’t you try some orange juice, and see what happens then?”
Kelly kicked the milk jug angrily, sending it spinning and sloshing against the RV wall. Then he flopped down on a bed next to the tiny table. “I’m getting out of here, old man!” he called. “Next chance I get!”
“You betcha!” sang out Pete. “Whatever you say. And by the way, did you ever wonder about the spots on your fingernails? Lots of people have them. No one quite knows why. Some say it’s a sign of a calcium deficiency! What do you think?”
Kelly didn’t answer. He was NOT going to get sucked into this old coot’s weirdness again! He rolled over on his side, his back towards Pete. But as he did so, almost involuntarily, he glanced at his fingernails. Were there any white spots?
From the front of the RV, he could hear Pete laughing.
A half hour had passed. Kelly could still hear the sound of trucks and other vehicles from surrounding lanes, so he knew they hadn’t yet left Phoenix. He kept his back to the old man, staring aimlessly at the wood panel siding next to the bed.
But many nagging thoughts kept tugging at his mind. How did the old coot know his name? Why was he so determined to take him along? What was the point? Was the guy daft?
Other thoughts came too, unbidden. Kelly quickly dismissed these thoughts as soon as they came, telling himself they were irrelevant. Who was Tad? Why had the old geezer wanted to see him at the hospital? Was he still alive? And what was all this nonsense about spots on a person’s fingernails?
Finally the kid couldn’t take it anymore. He knew none of these things mattered, since he was going to try and make sure he was dead before nightfall. But he couldn’t seem to quell the curiosity that kept welling up inside him.
He rolled over and sat up. He saw that they were on the freeway, headed out of Phoenix. There were still four lanes of traffic on each side of the freeway though, and plenty of cars and trucks all over.
“Hey, old man,” called out Kelly. “How’d you know my name?”
“Eh, what’s that?” said Pete. “Did you say something nonperson?”
“What do you mean, nonperson?” said Kelly. “How’d you know my name’s Kelly?”
“I pinched your wallet while you were sleeping and looked in it,” said Pete simply. “’Pinched’ is the Australian word for stealing.”
Kelly pulled the wallet out of his pocket. The old geezer must have put it back after he ‘pinched’ it. Sure enough, there was his old high school ID card, telling his full name. Kelly Savalis Cord.
“Why’d you take me out of that park last night?” asked Kelly. Slowly he got up and came forward, taking the passenger seat again.
“Didn’t you want me to?” asked Pete in surprise.
“Of course not!” said Kelly hotly. “I wanted to end it all. Why would I want you to save me?”
“Painful way to end it all, if you ask me,” said Pete. Kelly didn’t respond. Suddenly Pete added, “I suppose you thought death wasn’t quite enough of a punishment, eh, for someone as worthless as you? So you needed to feel some agony too, before the end. Is that it?”
Kelly turned wide-eyed on the old coot. How had he known? Was he a mind reader?
“Your kind of self-destructive lunacy takes guts, I’ll give you that!” said Pete, shaking his head. “Now, if I was going to kick the bucket, I think I’d let time do it for me …”
“Time?” said Kelly in spite of himself. It was hard not to get sucked into the old coot’s weirdness.
“It’s the greatest killer there is!” said Pete with a sadistically gleeful smile. “Time kills millions each year! Like Tad, last night. Died ten minutes after I got there. His time was up. Time takes all of us, sooner or later.”
“So, he died, huh?” said the kid. “Lucky him!”
“Say, what’s so bad about living, anyway?” said Pete. “Most people think it’s rather pleasant to keep breathing.”
“It’s all pointless,” said Kelly, throwing up his hands. “If every day just brings trouble and pain, why bother?”
“Hmmm … good point,” said Pete frowning. Suddenly he swerved the wheel wildly and the RV skidded across into the other lane, nearly hitting a car.
“So, should I end it now for both of us, since it’s all pointless?” he said happily.
Kelly didn’t answer. His knuckles were white from where his fingers had dug into his seat. His heart was racing. “Are you crazy, old man?” he yelled. “If I’m going to cork off, I want to do it MY way, and at MY time!”
“Right, right,” said Pete. “I forgot, it’s all about you. After all, it’s YOUR life, so if you want to throw it away, why not? Nobody else can say anything about it.”
“Exactly,” said Kelly, raising in eyebrow in surprise at how well Pete had summarized his own thinking. How had Pete known that, anyway?
Pete suddenly got a huge smile on his face, and stuck his hand out toward Kelly as if he wanted to shake hands. “Hello, God,” he said simply. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“Huh?” said Kelly, staring at the hand.
“Only God plays the ‘who should live and die’ game. Only HE has enough smarts to know who deserves death or life.”
“That’s nuts!” said Kelly. “If there is a god in control of this world, he’s messed up bad. Look at all the people running around hurting others. Why does he let them live?”
Pete’s hand was still extended. “My point, exactly, God Kelly. I see you’re still playing the game.”
“What game?” retorted Kelly.
“The ‘I’m smarter than God’ game!” said Pete. “After all, you know best. You know who deserves to live or die because of how they act. So, either you’re God or you’re smarter than him!”
Suddenly, Pete’s hand shot down to a bottle sitting on the floor between their seats. He held it up to Kelly. “Want a chocolate pickle?” he asked excitedly.
“What?” said Kelly, confused.
“Taste’s great!” said Pete, taking both hands off the wheel while he opened the bottle and removed a dark brown blob that looked sort of like a pickle. Fortunately, the RV kept going in a straight line down the road.
Pete put one hand back on the wheel, then took a bite of the brown thing and began to chew. His face screwed up in distaste. “My, that’s sour! But the chocolate gives it just the right zing! Try one!”
He held the bottle out to Kelly. The kid turned up his nose in disgust. “You’re sick, old man!” he said simply.
“Aren’t we all!” sang out Pete cheerfully. “You want to die in agony, and all I want is to destroy my taste buds with disgusting food! What’s it to you? What do you care about my taste buds?”
Kelly just stared at Pete. Finally, he got up and went back to the bunk next to the table. He rolled over with his back towards Pete and closed his eyes. And soon he was fast asleep.
The RV came to a sudden stop, causing Kelly to open his eyes. Turning over he saw Pete coming toward him, yawning and stretching. “Haven’t slept in 36 hours,” he said with a goofy smile. “I’m going to get some shut eye. By the way, if you want to murder yourself in an agonizing way while I sleep, just step outside and start walking. Or better yet, run as fast and far as you can!”
Pete went past him to a bed at the very back of the RV, flopped down, and was snoring almost instantly.
Kelly got up and approached the window of the van. He was astounded to see that they were literally parked in the middle of nowhere. They were on a dusty dirt road, far out in the Arizona desert, without a sign of civilization in sight. The freeway had to be miles behind them.
The old coot was obviously still trying to keep him from running away!
There was a temperature gauge glued to the left rear view mirror outside. According to the gauge, it was 112° out there! Kelly hadn’t noticed the heat since the RV air conditioner was humming madly away.
How long would a person last out in that heat? Would he even last a day? Probably what would kill him fastest would be lack of water. What would it be like to die of thirst? Would it hurt?
Kelly sat in the driver’s seat of the RV, looking out at the desert. Should he do it? Should he take the old man’s advice? It probably WOULD be an agonizing way to go. After all, he deserved it, didn’t he?
Kelly opened the door. Instantly a blast of dry heat seared at his face. Stepping out, Kelly was amazed at how merciless the sun felt, smashing its heat waves into his shoulders. It was so hot, it even hurt to breathe!
He closed the door and took a few steps forward, watching as the dust rippled up noiselessly at his feet. There was a slight breeze, but not a cool one. It felt like air being blown straight out of an oven and tore mercilessly at Kelly’s eyes. He kept walking. He didn’t follow the dirt road, but walked straight out into the desert. Sage brush and cactus were scattered about as if tossed casually there by the wind. The sandy soil gave way a little with each step Kelly took.
After a few minutes, Kelly turned to look back at the RV. He was surprised to see that it was little more than a speck in the distance. The heat was scorching. Each breath burned his lungs. Sweat trickled down his back.
Kelly turned and continued his walk across the desert. The old man had done him a favor. This way, no one would find the body for days or weeks—maybe never! No one would be blamed, which was only fair. It would be the sun and the heat that killed him, not any human hand.
This may have been the way his father died. If it was good enough for Dad, it was good enough for him.
The memory again came unbidden, shoving its way mercilessly into his mind. He suddenly saw his Aunt Loretta, the one with the pinched, perpetually red face. Kelly could hear her shrill voice as if she were present with him in the desert.
“Your daddy was SUCH a loser! I’m sure you’ll be just like him! He simply couldn’t do anything right. Nothing at all!”
Little five-year-old Kelly, looked up at her, his mouth quavering. He already regretted having asked her to tell him about his Dad—the Dad he had never known.
She kept prattling on. “He couldn’t keep a job, couldn’t keep sober, couldn’t stop beating your mom—he couldn’t butter a piece of bread without letting the knife fall out his hands and make a mess on the floor!”
“What … happened to him?” asked little boy Kelly.
Loretta shrugged. “Who knows? One day he was just gone. Never came back. Your mom called up the company he worked for, but they didn’t know where he was either. His job at the time was to take big targets out into the Nevada desert for the air force planes to shoot at. I guess he didn’t come back from putting down a target. Must’ve got lost out there in the desert and died. He never could find his way anywhere. What a loser!”
It had been years before Kelly realized Loretta was probably lying about his father getting lost in the desert and dying out there. More than likely he had just left town, never to return. But in the back of Kelly’s mind, there had always been a slight, nagging suspicion, the ‘little boy’ wondering if maybe it still wasn’t true …
Kelly was startled back to the present by a rustling in the sage brush to his right. Turning, he saw a lizard staring up at him with beady eyes. Kelly didn’t know much about lizards. Were they poisonous? He didn’t want to die THAT way. He wanted it prolonged, a death from thirst and scorching heat.
Not taking his eyes off the lizard, Kelly continued to walk forward. The lizard didn’t move, but just kept staring at him with those black, unmoving eyes …
Suddenly Kelly’s foot failed to touch ground. Looking around quickly, he saw that he had come across an unexpected ravine, five or six feet deep. Kelly waved his arms wildly, trying to catch his balance. Then he tumbled headlong into the ravine. His head hit a rock at the bottom, and for awhile there was nothing but blackness.
When Kelly opened his eyes, he was intrigued to see a strange, tiny creature staring at him. It was very light brown, almost transparent in color. It had eight legs and a fat body, with wide claws or pincers sticking out on both sides of its face. Its tail was raised straight up in the air. Apparently this was some sort of defense mechanism, since the creature danced slightly to Kelly’s left, still waving its tail in what it must have thought was a menacing way. The very tip of the tail seemed to have a hook on it of some kind.
Kelly brought his hand up to brush the sand out of his eyes. Quick as lightning, the creature struck, sinking the pincer in its tail deep into Kelly’s hand.
“Ow!” cried Kelly, lurching to his feet. He shook the creature off, then stomped it into lifelessness with his shoe. He looked at the bite mark on the back of his hand. Blood oozed out of it slowly. It hurt considerably. What WAS that creature?
Kelly, spit sand out of his mouth, then stumblingly made his way up the side of the gully. Waves of heat seemed to dance in front of his eyes. With a considerable amount of struggle, Kelly finally succeeded at making it to the top of the gully on the other side from where he had fallen in.
He looked around him curiously, swaying on his feet. Why did everything shimmer so much? Why did his head feel like it was swimming slowly through a sea of molasses?
He looked down at the bite on his hand, and noted with mild interest that it had already swollen almost to the size of a golf ball. “That’s odd,” he mumbled to himself. “It’s starting to tingle …”
He turned to go. But before he had taken two steps, he pitched forward and fell into blackness.
It was the ring of the cell phone that woke him up. He heard Pete pull it off its Velcro fastener and answer it.
“Hello? Yes, this is Pete. He’s been asking, eh? Well, if he’s still able to ask, he must not be too far gone. Yes, I know it’s very serious. Tell him I’ll be there first thing tomorrow morning. I would have got there sooner, but I had a little delay.” A pause. “I know, but I think if you tell him I’ll be there for sure tomorrow morning, he’ll hang on. After all, I originally told him I’d be there Tuesday, and tomorrow’s Tuesday. I expect he’s geared himself up to last until Tuesday in any event. O.k. I’ll see you soon.”
During the entire conversation, Kelly had kept his eyes tightly closed. There was an odd throbbing in his head. He was obviously lying on the bed next to the table in the RV. But how had he gotten there? Why wasn’t he out in the desert? Why wasn’t he dead?
Kelly felt a hand suddenly touch his face. “Boy,” said Pete, “you sure did take my advice! That’s the trouble with giving it—people just might take it!”
Kelly tried to open his eyes. They felt puffy and unnatural. He found himself suddenly looking up into Pete’s concerned face.
Pete smiled. “You’re not dead! Glory be!” Then he forced a frown. “Of course, I realize you have a different opinion. But think of it this way—now you have the satisfaction of finding a whole new way to kill yourself all over again!”
Kelly tried to sit up. His head swam with the effort, and he slumped back with a groan.
“There now,” said Pete, tucking Kelly’s pillow back under his head. “Just lie still for awhile. From your hand I could see you had a pleasant little conversation with a scorpion! Poisonous, you know. But in this case, not a big enough scorpion to kill you. Just big enough to make you feel like he almost did. By tomorrow morning, you’ll be back to your normal self-destructiveness, although still a little woozy.”
“How did you find me?” asked Kelly in a weak voice.
“Wasn’t hard,” replied Pete. “Just followed your tracks across the desert until I found you slumped over a sagebrush. They are nice little bushes, but most people don’t hug them like you were doing.”
“I don’t get it,” said Kelly, his voice sounding small. “Why didn’t you leave me out there? Why did you come looking?”
“That’s what you wanted me to do!” said Pete. “Can’t turn down such an urgent request.”
Anger flushed through Kelly, giving more strength to his voice. “I did NOT want you to find me! I just wanted you to leave me alone!”
Pete just looked down at him sadly. “My boy,” he said slowly, “you’ve been pleading for me to help you from the minute I saw you in MacArthur Park. It wasn’t with your mouth, but it was pleading just the same.”
Kelly just stared at him, confused and angry. The old coot must be totally deranged. He probably wasn’t even safe to be driving!
Suddenly Pete held up an onion and a jar of honey. “Look at my new creation!” he said in a frenzied voice. “All you do is pour a little honey on top like this—“ and with this, Pete poured some guey honey onto the onion—“ and take a bite out of it, like this!” Pete took a big bite out of the mess.
His eyes began to bulge, then to water profusely. He made a sudden dash for the garbage pail, where he emptied out his mouth. Then he looked up at Kelly smiling ruefully. “That was so good, my taste buds just couldn’t take it! I’m going to have to try that again … a little later.”
Kelly just closed his eyes, trying to shut out Pete and his onion-honey creation, and scorpions and his failure at killing himself, and—
His breath stifled in his throat. Loretta had been right! He was just like his father. He couldn’t seem to do anything right—even die!
The RV pulled into the El Paso Regional Hospital just as the sun rose over the eastern horizon. “We have arrived!” sang Pete at the top of his lungs to no one in particular.
Kelly stirred from his bed next to the RV table. He’d only been half asleep anyway, having one of those half-awake dreams where he knew he was dreaming and therefore wasn’t scared or worried about what was going on, but he kept dreaming just the same. He’d been back in MacArthur Park. Only this time, the entire Raven gang were eating onions with honey on them, and counting the spots on their fingernails. When Kelly went up to the various gang members and insulted them, they only laughed at him and told him they were too busy to kill him at the moment, but to make an appointment and come back next Tuesday. Then Pete showed up and handed out grenades to everyone—grenades that turned into chocolate covered scorpions when they exploded.
Kelly’s dreams had always been pretty wild.
“Well, Kelly,” said Pete in a surprisingly somber tone, “you are about to see one of God’s own ‘angels on earth.’ A little boy dying of Leukemia, named Mickey.”
“What makes you think I’m going in with you, old man?”
Pete looked surprised. “That’s why you came, isn’t it? To help me when I talk to him about what’s about to happen to him!”
“Help? How am I going to help? I don’t know anything about Leukemia!”
Pete smiled. “This isn’t about leukemia. It’s about dying! You’re an expert!” Pete opened his door, then looked back in the RV. “Come along,” he said simply.
To his own amazement, Kelly found himself getting out of the RV and following the old coot into the hospital. His legs felt a bit like jelly, but he was able to walk. ‘What am I doing?’ he kept asking himself. ‘I don’t want any part of this! Now’s my chance to get away from this insane old man forever!’
Yet, still he followed. He had no idea why. Glancing down at the back of his hand, he was surprised to see that the swelling was mostly gone. Although there was a nasty red gash in the flesh, it didn’t really hurt anymore. He had recovered, for the most part.
Pete first went over to the hospital’s patient intake desk. “This’ll only take a minute,” he said to Kelly. “It’s to fulfill a promise to a little girl in Wichita.” Then, turning to the nurse in charge, he asked, “do you happen to have any men in this hospital with no identity? That is, patients that you don’t know who they are?”
“Yes, we do have some,” said the nurse, starting to search through her lists. After a minute she said, “actually, we only have one at the moment. We call him Mr. A.”
“Excellent!” said Pete. “Does he have a tattoo of a wilting flower on his left arm?”
Kelly rolled his eyes. What was going on? He never knew what this crazy old coot was going to do or say.
“No, I’m afraid not,” said the nurse. “He doesn’t have any tattoos.”
Pete looked disappointed. “It can’t be him, then,” he said. “Thanks just the same.” Then he turned and walked away.
As Pete and Kelly got on the elevator, Pete explained. “My little friend Lisa in Wichita lost her father. He just disappeared. She’s sure he would come back under normal circumstances, so she believes he’s lost his memory.”
Kelly rolled his eyes again. “She’s crazy,” he said simply. “Probably her old man just got tired of being around, and ran off.”
Pete smiled faintly. “Lisa is not the type of seven-year-old anyone would run away from. I think she’s right!”
They got off on the fifth floor. Kelly followed Pete down a corridor. The old man seemed to know right where he was going, and had obviously been there before. As they passed various hospital doors, Kelly was surprised to see that they were all occupied by children. Many were wrapped in bandages, or had a variety of tubes connected to them. Most of them were asleep.
Suddenly Kelly found himself distinctly wishing he had never come. He stopped abruptly, turning to leave. But Pete had found the room he was looking for, and was motioning Kelly to follow him. Slowly, unwillingly, Kelly advanced to the door of the room.
A small boy lay in the tilted hospital bed. His parents were seated on either side of the bed, their backs toward the wall. They were silent, their faces white. But at the appearance of Pete, both of them smiled. They obviously knew him, and were grateful that he had come.
Although the bed was not large, the body of the boy inside it looked tiny, swaddled like a little cocoon in the middle of the covers. As Pete and Kelly came in, the boy—who was awake—looked at them and gave a huge, toothy grin.
“I knew you’d come,” he said in a barely audible whisper. “I just knew it!”
Pete cracked a huge smile himself, and went over to the boy, gently taking his hand. “I always keep my promises,” he said simply. “It’s Tuesday, and I’m here! How are you, Mickey?”
Instead of responding, the boy started to cough. The sound was like a rock being dragged over a metal grate. The little body shook violently with each cough. Kelly stared at the boy in fascinated horror.
And then the memory came, unbidden once again. This time he was 13, and had just got home from school. His stepdad wasn’t drunk for once, or inclined to start hitting him like usual. Something was definitely wrong.
“Where’s Mom?” his 13 year old self asked Clyde, his stepdad.
“At the hospital,” grunted Clyde dispassionately. Then without any preliminary, he said bluntly, “Phil just died.”
Thirteen year old Kelly just stared at the older man in horror. Phil, his eight-year-old little brother who was so full of life, was … DEAD? It couldn’t be!
“Got hit by a car while riding his bike,” said Clyde. “First time I ever seen your Mom cry.” Clyde abruptly left, heading for the refrigerator to get a beer. Thirteen year old Kelly stood rooted to the spot, his already dismal world lying shattered around him. Then he dropped his books and ran from the house. He didn’t know where he was going or what to do. He only knew one thing—he had to keep running! He simply could NOT go to the hospital and see the lifeless little body of his brother …
“Who did you bring with you, Pete?”
The voice brought Kelly back from the past. In anger, Kelly rubbed the moisture from his eyes. He had to get out of here!
“This here’s Kelly,” said Pete with a flare of a smile. “I brought him because he’s the bravest boy I ever knew!”
Little Mickey looked up at Kelly with widening eyes. Kelly just stared back, part of his brain screaming for him to run, while the other part numbly could do nothing. It was as if he was somehow trapped, his legs incapable of movement. Everything seemed completely out of his control.
“Yep,” continued Pete, “just yesterday, Kelly here swatted a scorpion out in the desert just like you’d swat a fly. And that poisonous scorpion bit him! But did Kelly care? Not on your life. He just laughed at that scorpion and walked away.”
“Wow!” said Mickey in sheer admiration.
“Show him your hand, Kelly,” said Pete. Kelly looked at them dumbly. Then he held out the back of his hand so Mickey could see it.
“See that?” said Pete. “That’s where the scorpion bit him! But Kelly here didn’t even flinch. And know what else? Kelly here stood up to a whole gang of bad guys back in California. They had knives and guns, and they looked mean. But Kelly didn’t care. He wasn’t scared of what they might do to him.”
Mickey’s eyes were already so wide they looked like hubcaps. “Golly!” he said again.
Kelly felt himself turning red. What was the old man doing, with all that garbage about facing a gang? He wasn’t going to tell this kid WHY Kelly had done it, was he?
Apparently he was, at least in a way. “But you know the real reason I brought Kelly?” said Pete softly. Mickey looked at him inquisitively. “Because he’s the first boy I’ve ever met that wasn’t afraid to die.”
Mickey looked back toward Kelly. His lower lip started to quiver. “You’re not?” he said in a tiny voice. He held up his hand, beckoning Kelly to come and take it.
Slowly, agonizingly, Kelly stepped toward the outstretched hand. His legs felt like lead, his chest like it was filled with cement. His heart was racing, but his hand reached out toward the little boy …
… toward Phil …
… toward Mickey …
He took the hand. It was cold and clammy. “Why aren’t you afraid to die?” asked Mickey. “I am.”
Kelly sunk to his knees next to the bed. His eyes started to blur. This was all wrong! He shouldn’t be here! This wasn’t his place! He had nothing to do with this helpless little boy!
A boy so much like his brother. Small. Trusting. Looking up at him with eyes of wonder.
Pete filled the gap that Kelly was unable to fill. “Because he knows death is just another adventure!” he said gently. “Just like that time we went with your folks a few years ago, to McDonalds. And you wanted to play in the playplace even though you were sick, so I went all the way inside of it with you even though I wasn’t supposed to, and I got stuck, and they had to call the fire department to come get me out, and—“
Mickey was laughing. Laughing! It was the memory Pete had sparked that did it. A good memory. A happy one.
Why weren’t any of Kelly’s memories like that? Memories that would make him laugh, instead of hate his life.
“I drew a picture of it,” said Mickey faintly, trying to point. Both Pete and Kelly looked up. Only then did Kelly notice that there were dozens of crayon drawings on the walls all over the room. One of them showed a fat man with glasses—obviously meant to be Pete—being carried out of McDonalds by some firemen.
“Look at these wonderful pictures!” said Pete, letting go of the tiny hand and going over to have a closer look. “Fantastic! You’re such a good drawer.”
He was studying the pictures, all the way around the room. “Look! There’s your dog Rusty. And there’s Maggie, your sister. And that must be the time I talked you into trying a bite of Australian vegemite—look at your face!”
More laughter. It tinkled around Kelly’s ears like a touch of the gentlest, golden sunshine.
What was it that Pete had said before they entered the hospital? Something about how they were going to meet one of God’s angels on earth …
“Pete,” rasped Mickey from the bed. “Do they have crayons in heaven?”
Kelly couldn’t take it anymore. Without a word, he dropped the limp hand and ran from the room. Ran from the horror and the pain and the useless feeling of being totally, absolutely and completely helpless. Ran from an innocent life being snuffed out by the callous hand of death.
Hardly noticing the startled nurses, he raced for the elevator. When it didn’t come fast enough, he dove down the stairs, taking them four at a time. When he reached the bottom, he darted out the hospital door.
He felt almost blinded. Something wet was in his eyes. Stumbling, he made his way to the RV and cast himself inside. Hastily locking the door, he dropped on the bed and sobbed like he hadn’t sobbed in years.
Hours passed with no sound and no movement. At times Kelly stared straight ahead with bloodshot eyes at the ugly paneling of the RV next to the bed. Other times he simply closed his eyes, willing the blackness to take over his mind and shut out his memories, his consciousness, his reality.
Time ticked by. Shadows grew longer, stretching across the RV floor. Still there was no movement or sound from the teen.
At long last, Kelly heard the key grate in the door of the RV. He heard Pete get inside. There was a moment of silence. Then he heard the engine turn on, and the RV slowly began to move. Pete said nothing. The old man’s unusual silence was louder than words.
Mickey was dead.
The RV drove slowly through the streets of El Paso. After fueling up at a ‘petrol’ station, the RV headed out onto the freeway once more. This time it was headed west. Mile after mile receded behind the RV, as if the vehicle were eating up the white lines in the middle of the road, then turning around and spitting them back over its shoulder.
The shadows lengthened further as the RV moved along the freeway. Kelly stirred slightly. But he remained on the bed. He was famished, but knew he couldn’t eat. He lay staring at the wood paneling, his mind empty, his heart unfeeling. Pete didn’t say anything or look at him. More miles passed.
They drove all afternoon, and into the night. As dusk was falling, Kelly finally got up and opened the refrigerator to see what food he might be able to have. He tried a piece of turkey meat on a roll. It tasted good, but felt like sawdust in his mouth. He left most of it uneaten. Somberly, he lay back on the bed. As night fell, he dozed.
His dreams were fitful. They came in snatches. Sometimes there were images of little boys … Phil … Mickey … other little boys and little girls who Kelly didn’t recognize, lying in hospital beds with bandages over their arms or legs …
But most of his dreams were so fleeting they were like wisps of fog, snatched away by the blackness in his mind just as they started to take shape. It was a sleep mostly without dreams, without restfulness, without purpose.
At some point during the night, it seemed that Pete stopped the RV and slept too. But only for a short while. Then he was up again, and the RV was moving once more. Where it was going was unknown. Where it had been could never be erased.
Finally, as the dawn of a new day came to the world, the RV stopped. There was total silence for a moment. Then Kelly, restless after such a long time of confinement, sat up on his bed. He looked around stupidly.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Pete didn’t answer. He simply got out of the RV and walked away. After a moment, Kelly followed.
At first he didn’t recognize the place. It was clearly a wilderness area, apparently part of a national park from the few trail signs Kelly saw. But as he came up to join Pete at a protective railing, he instantly recognized the place. Not that he had ever been there before. He recognized it from pictures he had seen.
It absolutely took his breath away. It was the Grand Canyon.
They stood leaning against the rail for a long time, staring at the massive sight before them. A man and a boy, like two tiny insects, surveying a massive ditch dug by giants. Its depth was breathtaking. The very blueness of the air above the canyon seemed to dance, as if it knew that this was someplace special, someplace unlike anywhere else.
Kelly stared at the canyon, breathing it in as if it was a flavor to be smelled. Was this canyon alive … or dead? Or was it both? It looked still and lifeless, yet its glory seemed so vibrant, so very much alive.
What was life, anyway? And what was death? Were they really very different from each other?
Finally, after what must have been an hour, Pete turned. Not looking at Kelly, he said softly, “There’s a little bacon in the fridge, and a few eggs. Think I’ll mix up some grub.”
Kelly didn’t answer. Slowly Pete walked back to the RV, and disappeared inside. Kelly remained, staring at the canyon.
Strange that Pete hadn’t made some quirky comment about how Kelly could just hop over the railing to fulfill his death wish. But somehow, such a comment was completely unnecessary.
After another hour had passed, Kelly turned and slowly made his way to the door of the RV. He found a plate on the table of bacon and eggs. Slowly he ate, savoring the taste. It was very good.
Pete was sitting in the driver’s seat, looking at a map. “It says here you can take a mule ride down to the bottom of the canyon. Hmmm…” He paused. “I guess we better not. Someone might try to hop on me and ride down.”
Kelly didn’t laugh. But he didn’t roll his eyes either. He simply took another forkful of eggs.
“I know an easier way to see the bottom of a canyon like this than riding a mule,” said Pete, folding up the map and putting it in the glove box. “Zion’s Park.” He turned on the RV, and started to drive, without another word.
Once again, they drove through most of that day. They passed through Las Vegas shortly before sunset, and witnessed the glory of its man-made lights brighten the desert sky. They didn’t stop. Continuing to head north, they soon crossed the state line at Mesquite, then climbed up the gorge. They camped that night in Springdale, Utah, gateway to Zions’ Park.
There had been little conversation throughout the day. There were no phone calls. Kelly only realized why as they were going to bed, when he noticed that Pete had turned the cell phone off.
The next morning, as Kelly stepped out of the RV, his breath was once more taken away. Never had he seen anything like this! While they had gazed in wonder from the top of the Grand Canyon yesterday, today they found themselves surrounded by sheer, towering red-rock cliffs. The little town of Springdale where they were was indeed at the bottom of the canyon this time. And as they entered Zion’s National Park and drove slowly up the canyon in the RV, the sheer walls closed in on them, drawing closer and closer.
It was a magical day. Never had Kelly dreamed that there was such a place! The absolute power and beauty of the towering rock walls made him feel about the size of an ant. And as he and Pete walked up the path leading to ‘The Narrows,’ he marveled at how the massively tall walls kept drawing closer and closer together. If someone were to somehow reach the top and drop a coin, it would be too far away for them to hear it splash in the creek far below. But it would leave quite a bump on the head of anyone at the bottom it landed on!
By the time they left the park and they made their way back to St. George, Kelly was famished. It was a healthy kind of hunger, the good craving for pizza or burgers or ANYTHING that he couldn’t remember feeling for a long time. Somehow, food had lost its appeal over the last few weeks, and especially over the last few days. Now its allure had mysteriously returned.
The canyon was a great healer.
“So,” said Pete as they traded the emptiness of their stomachs for an empty pizza tray, “what did you think of Zions’ Park?”
“Awesome!” was all Kelly could utter, between mouthfuls of delicious pizza.
“It is an amazing place,” said Pete, a faraway, dreamy look in his eyes. “It just sits there in all its simple glory, looking exactly like it did 500 years ago. Yet somehow, without lifting a finger, it has the power to restore the soul.”
Kelly didn’t answer. He simply took another slice of pizza.
Pete looked at him. “Have you ever been to a play before?” he asked unexpectedly.
“A play?” repeated Kelly dumbly. He never had. That was something the geeks in high school used to put on for each other and their parents, since no one else bothered to go to them.
“They’ve got a fantastic stage here for plays,” said Pete. “It’s called ‘Tuacahn.’ I thought we might go tonight. It starts when it gets dark.”
Kelly just shrugged his shoulders. It sounded dull, but after the canyon and the pizza, maybe he owed the old man something. “Sure,” he said simply. He made a mental note to himself to fall asleep as soon as the play started.
But the minute he walked into Tuacahn, he knew that was impossible. The entire theater was outdoors, situated in another red rock canyon. While the red cliffs were not quite as high as Zions’ Park, they were still an incredible background for any kind of a production.
The play itself was surprisingly good too. It was about a nun in World War II who temporarily served as a nanny for the six children of a rich sea captain. It was a musical, in which the nun and sea captain ended up falling in love. Pete said it was a famous show called ‘The Sound of Music.’ Kelly had never heard of it before.
After leaving Tuacahn, they drove for forty minutes, back down to Mesquite. Kelly had no idea where Pete was going. To his surprise, he realized he really didn’t care as long as it wasn’t back to L.A. just yet … or back to El Paso.
Kelly slept soundly that night, a dreamless sleep that was truly restful. He awoke to the delicious smell of bacon and hotcakes, which Pete was stirring up on the tiny RV stove. Kelly smiled and stretched. And then he frowned.
Why was he happy? What was there to be happy about? Did the fact he went to Zions Park yesterday and Tuacahn erase what had happened (and what he wanted to happen) in LA? Had his goal changed?
More significantly, did it erase what had happened in El Paso?
“This morning I want to take you to see some friends of mine,” said Pete as he served Kelly a swimming plate full of hotcakes and bacon. Kelly looked up sharply at the old man. “Another hospital?” he asked guardedly.
Pete responded with a certain degree of evasion. “Not exactly …”
“Are the people we’ll meet going to die?”
Pete laughed. “No. At least not for a good many years, when time claims them—which probably will be long after it claims you and me.”
Kelly just shrugged. After El Paso, he didn’t want to go to another hospital. It didn’t matter much where else they went.
Or so he thought, until he arrived at the Children’s Amputee Center in Las Vegas two hours later.
“You can’t be serious!” said Kelly, looking at the sign. “Children amputees?” He stared at Pete pleadingly. “After El Paso … you’re coming HERE?”
“I have friends here,” said Pete simply, opening his door. Kelly folded his arms and frowned. “I’ll wait here for you,” he said. “You won’t be long will you?”
Pete just looked at him with a slight smile. “I think you’ll like these friends,” he said softly. “They’re sort of like the Grand Canyon and Zion’s Park rolled into one.”
Kelly looked at Pete blankly. “I don’t get it,” he said blandly.
Pete’s smile broadened. “They’re more of God’s scenic wonders! Only they’re even more beautiful to behold …”
Kelly just stared at him stubbornly.
“I think you’re afraid of these kids!” Pete said suddenly.
“You mean afraid they might die on me?” responded Kelly. “Yes!”
Pete laughed. “They’re not going to die. They may be missing a few arms and legs, but I’ve never seen more alive little people in my life. Come and see!”
Reluctantly, Kelly opened the door and followed the old man into the center. He couldn’t believe what he was doing.
As soon as they got in the door, there was a shrill chorus of little voices. “PETE!!” cried half a dozen little people, who until that moment had been busy playing in a large playroom right next to the entrance. The children came running—or in some cases dragging themselves across the floor if they had no legs to run with—and gave Pete a huge embrace.
Kelly just stood and stared. Many had no arms, no hands, no legs, no feet. One little boy in particular had lost both arms, and tried to hug Pete with two little stumps that stuck out oddly from the top of his chest. But each of the children had one thing in common. Their faces turned up toward Pete in sheer, innocent joy at seeing their old friend.
“What did you bring us?” they fairly all shouted at once. And magically, as if from nowhere Pete produced half a dozen small toys from his pockets. They were nothing too special—a yo-yo here, a tiny little doll there. But to the children you would have thought they were sheer gold. How had the old guy been able to shove so much stuff in his pockets?
“This is my good friend Kelly,” said Pete, pointing toward where Kelly was still standing, rather uncomfortably, just inside the entrance. The children looked up at him with shining eyes. “Did you bring us anything?” one asked.
Pete just laughed. “He just brought the wealth of his personality!” he said. “Oh, and something else!” Pete walked unexpectedly over to Kelly, reached up—and pulled a quarter out of his ear!
“How about that!” said Pete, tossing the quarter to a boy who was missing a foot. The children laughed in glee. “And here’s another!” said Pete, producing another quarter from Kelly’s other ear and tossing it to a girl with a stump of an arm. “And another!” he said, pulling yet another quarter from Kelly’s ear and tossing it to the boy with no hands or arms. The boy reached down with his foot and amazingly picked up the quarter deftly between his toes.
Pete then went throughout the entire room, pulling more quarters out of kids’ ears and tossing them around until everyone had one.
Kelly suddenly felt a nudge at his side. Looking down, he saw a little girl, probably only 6 years old. She was on crutches because she was missing a leg. But her face was smiling. “Wanna see my pictures?” she asked simply.
“Sure,” said Kelly, not knowing what to say or do. He followed the girl over to a small table, covered with crayon pictures, showing kids throwing balls or running with dogs or riding motorcycles. Kelly noticed that most of the kids in the pictures were missing an arm or a leg.
Crayon pictures. Unbidden, images of Mickey’s crayon pictures around the walls of his room shoved its way into Kelly’s mind.
“Which one do you like best?” asked the little girl.
Kelly just stared at the pictures for a minute, through moist eyes. “That one,” he finally said, pointing to a picture of a little girl, who was very much like the girl on crutches. She was riding a huge, brown horse.
The girl snatched it up and held it up for him. “You can have it,” she said merrily.
Before Kelly could respond, he felt another tug at his leg. He found himself looking down into the eyes of a little boy who was missing his right hand. “Wanna play cars?” he said.
Kelly followed the boy over to where half a dozen well-worn toy cars were scattered over a battered toy track. “That’s your house,” said the boy pointing with his only hand to an empty ‘Happy Meal’ box sitting on the floor. “This is my house here,” said the boy, proudly pointing to a Big Mac sandwich holder (also empty) that had probably been purchased at the same time as the Happy Meal.
The boy picked up a scuffed purple car and scooted it along the trick with his good hand. “I’m going to the store to get something boring for my Mom,” he said. He looked up at Kelly. “Which car are you driving?”
Kelly dropped to his knees and picked out a little red sports car, equally battered.
The boy smiled. “Wanna race to the store?”
They raced to the store. The boy won, of course. Then they went into the ‘store’ which happened to be a lamp shade that looked suspiciously like it should be covering the naked light bulb suspended in a nearby lamp. (How had the boy taken it off with only one hand?)
They raced back to the Big Mac box of course. This time the boy let Kelly win. He looked up and smiled. “Are you Pete’s boy?” he asked.
“No,” said Kelly. “Just his friend.”
An hour passed. Then two. Kelly played astronaut with a legless moon walker, went jungle exploring in Africa with the armless boy who held the gun in his teeth, and had a tea party with three little girls whose dolls (also in attendance at the ‘party’) collectively had more arms and legs than their owners.
Finally, Kelly heard his name being called. Looking up, he saw Pete beckoning to him from the side of the room. “We’ll have to finish off zapping these Martians later,” he said to the boy he was playing with. Then he rose and went over to where Pete was waiting.
“This is nurse Theresa,” said Pete, nodding toward a rather plump nurse standing next to him. “She has a few other children she’d like us to meet.”
Kelly followed Pete and the nurse down a series of corridors. Looking in the doors, Kelly saw that most of the rooms were occupied. The atmosphere in the rooms was markedly different from that of the playroom however. Each contained children, missing various arms or legs. But these children sat quietly, often with frowns on their faces, watching TV, fiddling with their lunch, or sometimes simply cradling their stumps and crying.
“The children we saw in the playroom are the Center’s success cases,” explained Pete as they walked. “They’re the children who’ve adjusted amazingly well to their circumstances. Most of them lost their limbs long enough ago to grow used to being without them, and have moved on. But many of the children in these rooms have suffered a more recent injury. They’re going through a bit more of a challenging time.”
The nurse suddenly stopped at a room at the end of the hall. She nodded for Pete and Kelly to go on in. With a mounting feeling of dread, Kelly followed Pete through the door.
The room contained a little girl lying in a very big bed. She had bandages on stumps on her left leg and her left arm. She was crying. A doll was lying lifelessly on the bed in front of her. Kelly noticed that the left arm and leg of the doll appeared to have suffered some damage, as if someone had been trying to rip or cut them off.
“Hello, Crystal,” said Pete as he walked in. “My name’s Pete. And this is Kelly. I’m so glad we could meet with you!”
“Glad?” said Crystal, looking up at Pete through her tears. “Why?”
“Because I saw a Snarf run into this room just a second before we came in, and I was sure you’d keep it here and not let it get away!”
The girl looked worriedly at the floor. “A snarf?” she said in a voice of concern. “What does it look like?”
“Well, he has no arms and no legs,” said Pete. “He just wiggles along on his belly.”
“You mean a snake got into my room!” said the little girl, now truly alarmed.
“Not a snake,” said Pete. “A Snarf!” Suddenly he cried out. “There it is!” He pointed down below her bed.
She gave a little shriek, and pulled the covers up to her chin with her good hand. “Keep it away!” she cried.
Pete reached down as if he was retrieving the snarf. When he straightened up, Kelly saw that he was holding a small stuffed toy in his hand. It looked like a cross between a snake and a worm. It indeed had no arms or legs, but sported a big, goofy smile on its knitted face.
“Here it is!” said Pete, holding the snarf out to the girl. Her eyes opened wide in wonder as she looked at the toy. Pete deftly took the doll off the bed while the girl wasn’t looking, and dropped it on the floor, kicking it under the bed.
The girl reached out for the toy, a slight smile on her face. “He looks very dangerous,” she suddenly said in a serious tone.
“Oh, he is!” agreed Pete. “He likes to trick people into thinking they’ve already had breakfast when they haven’t! Then they go through the whole day wondering why they’re so hungry!”
The girl laughed. “What else does he do?”
“Well,” said Pete slowly. “Sometimes he spits out quarters—like this!” He pulled a quarter from the mouth of the Snarf.
“Wow!” said the girl, her eyes lighting up. Pete handed her the quarter.
“Now, Crystal, promise me you’ll take care of this snarf until I return!” said Pete in an urgent voice. “He needs someone to look after him, since he can’t grab anything in his hands. All he can do is slither and bite things.”
“And spit up quarters!” said Crystal with a smile.
“That’s right,” said Pete. “I’ll be back in a few weeks to see how you’re taking care of him. O.k.?”
“Sure, Mr. Pete,” said the girl, hugging the snarf. “I’ll make sure he’s o.k. Maybe he’ll even spit up a quarter for you!”
Pete blinked in surprise. “I hope he does,” he answered. “I could use the money.”
As they left, Kelly could see Cyrstal still hugging the snarf. Her tears were forgotten, at least for the moment.
The nurse was waiting for them in the hall. “Thank you,” she said simply. Then she led them to another room, this time of a little boy without a leg. The boy ended up receiving a toy pirate from Pete, who sported a wooden peg leg. Then the nurse led them to another room … and after that another …
Several hours later, Pete and Kelly walked out of the Amputee Center. Kelly could see now that Pete’s jacket and pants pockets seemed much flatter and emptier than when they had entered.
Neither said anything as they got in the van. Pete started it up and drove to a nearby Wendy’s for dinner. They ordered their meals in silence. The casual atmosphere of the fast food place stood in marked contrast to the center they had just come from.
Kelly was half way through his hamburger before he finally asked Pete the question that had been tugging at his mind.
“What good does it all do, Pete? So they get a snarf or a pirate today. By tomorrow they’ll be back to crying. What’s the point? There’s nothing anyone can do to bring their arms or their legs back.”
“True,” said Pete, munching on his salad. “There’ll be more tears. More sorrows. The snarfs and pirates might end up cast aside and forgotten.” Suddenly Pete looked up sharply at Kelly. “Tell me, do you eat all the time?”
“No,” said Kelly, unsure what the old codger was getting at.
“And when you’re not eating, but you’re getting hungry, what do you think about?”
“Well,” said Kelly slowly. “Food, I suppose.”
“What’s a single word that describes that phenomenon?” asked Pete. “It starts with ‘H.’”
“Hunger,” replied Kelly without hesitation. Pete laughed. “That’s actually not the word I was after. The word I was thinking of was ‘hope.’” He went back to eating his salad.
Kelly just stared at his burger for a minute. “I guess I don’t get it,” he said. “Hope for what?”
“Everything and anything,” said Pete vaguely. “A new toy when someone comes to visit. Learning that an old friend is coming and will be there soon. Hope that maybe that old friend will do some more magic tricks. Hope of what can be bought at the Center’s little ‘store’ for a quarter. The list can go on and on. They’re small things. But they all have one thing in common. They’re born of hope. That’s what we live by. Just imagine what life would be like without it …”
Kelly just looked at the old man.
Just imagine … a man gasping out his last breaths in a hospital room in Phoenix, who obviously had no hope for the future … a boy dying of leukemia in El Paso, who didn’t either … a young punk, trying to get himself killed in a park at night by a street gang …
Pete suddenly got up, and headed for the counter. “I think I’ll get me another salad,” he said. “This time I’ll tell them to put more onions in it, and maybe sprinkle in some chocolate chips and ice cream …”
“So, where are we going now, Pete?” asked Kelly. They had left Las Vegas behind them over an hour ago. Kelly had been browsing through a book he found in a tiny bookshelf of the RV, about Zions’ Park. Now however, he came forward and took the passenger seat. The setting sun was to their left. They were still in Nevada, heading northwest.
“Reno,” responded Pete simply. “Get there sometime tonight. I want to visit a friend of mine tomorrow.”
“Another dying friend in a hospital?” asked Kelly suspiciously. “Or do they have an amputee center in Reno?”
Pete laughed. “No, nothing like that. This is Mrs. Hubbard. Mother Hubbard, I call her. She needs her roof shingled.”
“Mother Hubbard?” said Kelly in disbelief. Did people have names like that in real life? And what was this about shingling a roof?
But more importantly, did she have a terminal illness? Or was she an amputee? “So, what’s she dying of?” asked Kelly.
Pete laughed again. “Nothing’s killing her except time, just like the rest of us.” Then he added, “You seem overly worried about visiting dying people. I thought you spent a lot of time thinking about death and dying. Isn’t that a subject you like anymore?”
Kelly didn’t respond. What kind of trap was the old guy trying to spring on him now?
Just then the phone rang, so Kelly never found out. “Hello?” said Pete. “Hey, Mike! How’s my boy?” Pete laughed. “That’s how you know you’re alive, Mike—when the smell of diapers drives you crazy. Hey, you going to be home day after tomorrow? I’d like to stop by.” A pause. “You know I wouldn’t be without one for long. Yeah, he’s young. Teenager. Say, I’ll stop by in the morning. Is that o.k.? Sure thing. See you then.”
What was that about a teenager? Pete didn’t say. But to Kelly’s surprise, Pete didn’t say ‘Time to pray’ and do the lip-moving thing again. This must have been one of those rare non-tragic calls.
He didn’t have long to wait for the tragic ones to come in, though. “This is Pete,” he said to a call five minutes later. Pete’s face clouded over. “How long does the Doctor say you have …?”
Kelly didn’t want to listen to that sort of thing right now. He wasn’t sure why—he just knew he didn’t. So he went back to the tiny bathroom and stuffed cotton in his ears to he didn’t have to listen. Then he went over to the RV’s little book shelf to see what else there was to read. He’d never been much on reading before, but there wasn’t much else to do in this RV.
To his surprise, he found a book called ‘The Von Trappe Family Singers,’ which claimed to tell the true story of ‘The Sound of Music.’ It was an old paperback, obviously purchased from a second hand store. Kelly settled down on his bunk to read. He could see Pete still talking on the phone up front.
He didn’t care what Pete did or where he went. All he knew was he was NOT going to go to any more hospitals to see any more dying people.
It was morning, in Reno. Kelly had devoured ‘The Von Trappe Family Singers’ the day before, reading during their entire trip and long into the night. It was a surprisingly good story of a real family and the problems they faced when they immigrated from Austria to America. Kelly was surprised to find that he enjoyed reading. He had never known reading could be pleasant. Always before it was something to dread from his teachers. He would only read if they forced him to, as part of a school assignment.
After a very satisfying breakfast of fresh hotcakes at McDonalds, they drove to Mrs. Hubbard’s place. “You’ll like Mrs. Hubbard,” Pete said on the way. “Salt of the earth. Lovely woman. Darn good cook too. It’s always hard to leave her place and go back to meals on the road.”
“What’s wrong with her?” asked Kelly, still suspicious.
“Nothing!” said Pete laughing. “Except she has an unaccountable tendency to tell nursery rhymes all the time, for some reason. She’s just a bit old, and can’t handle all the upkeep needed on her house. So you and I are going to shingle her roof.”
“We are?” said Kelly. “What makes you think I’M going to do that?”
“Because I know the type of person you are,” said Pete simply.
Wrong, old man, thought Kelly to himself. YOU can do the roof. I’ll sit in here and see if there’s any more good books to read.
Mrs. Hubbard’s house was gray and drab looking. The roof did indeed look rather shabby and in need of repair. As they pulled up, an old lady came slowly out onto the porch. Kelly stared at her for a minute. She looked friendly, with laugh wrinkles cut like canyons under her eyes. Kelly had never known either of his grandmothers, but the way he’d always imagined them they would have looked pretty much like Mrs. Hubbard.
“Pete!” said Mrs. Hubbard, grasping his hand after he had bounded up onto the porch. “It’s so good to see you again!” Then she turned toward Kelly. She reached out to him, seeking for his hand to grasp. As Kelly looked into her eyes, he realized with a shock what Pete had ‘overlooked’ to mention about her.
This woman was blind.
“Please come inside and have some plumb pie I just made,” said Mother Hubbard. “By the way, this fine young boy’s name isn’t Jack Horner, is it?”
“No,” laughed Pete. “This is Kelly.”
She smiled up at Kelly, creasing her canyon wrinkles even more. “I promise my cupboard isn’t bare!”
They followed her through the house toward the kitchen. Kelly was surprised that she seemed to know exactly where to go without holding out her hands to guide her. Evidently she knew her old house pretty well.
The plumb pie was delicious. Pete hadn’t been kidding about Mrs. Hubbard’s cooking, although Kelly wondered how she could cook anything without being able to see.
When Mrs. Hubbard went out of the room to get them some milk, Kelly asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” said Pete in genuine surprise.
“That she can’t see!” exclaimed Kelly.
Pete just smiled. “I think she can see better than most people I know,” he said simply.
Before Kelly could respond, Mrs. Hubbard bustled back into the dining room, bearing two full glasses of milk. “I’m afraid the dish ran away with the spoon in my kitchen. But here’s two glasses of milk!” she sang. “Drink up, since you’ve got a day of work ahead of you!”
Not me! thought Kelly firmly.
After they were finished, Pete got right down to business. “So, you’ve got the shingles stacked out back, right?”
“Yes,” Mother Hubbard said simply. “Mr. Goodwin from the hardware store was very kind to donate them. He even apologized he didn’t have time to put them on.”
“That’s OUR pleasure!” said Pete, heading out the back door. Kelly followed. He had never done any roofing before, so he was curious to see how it was done. But of course, HE wasn’t going to do any—that was the old man’s job. He was just going to watch.
There was indeed a pile of black asphalt shingles next to the garage. Pete propped a ladder next to the house and climbed up to take a look at the roof before starting the job.
“It’s so nice of you to help Pete put these on,” said Mrs. Hubbard. “I can tell you’re a good boy. Your mother must be so proud!”
Proud? Kelly’s mother? Kelly’s face twisted in a smirk that he was glad the old lady couldn’t see. This lady obviously didn’t know his Mom.
And then the memory came, again unbidden, forcing itself into his mind.
Kelly was now 15. He and Mom were living in a dumpy place in Bellflower. Clyde, his stepdad, had just barely moved out. Kelly wasn’t sorry to see him go. At least the drinking and abuse would now stop.
Kelly had come back from a surprisingly good day at school. He had just begun to discover girls, and a certain LuAnn had smiled at him in the hall. It was a simple gesture, but one not lost on an impressionable young boy who felt like his emotions were constantly in turmoil, and just as constantly fully visible for all the world to see.
As Kelly came into the house, his mother yelled out from the Kitchen, “Don’t slam the door!” Kelly just looked at the door. He hadn’t slammed it. Just closed it like normal. He went into the kitchen. She was sitting at the table, a bottle of cheap wine in front of her.
She looked up at him with bleary eyes. Eyes that suddenly filled with a surprising degree of hate, the likes of which Kelly had rarely seen.
“You scum!” she spat violently. “You drove him away! You did it! He couldn’t stand the sight of you anymore, so he left.”
Kelly just looked at her dumbly. “You mean Clyde?” he asked.
“Yes Clyde!” she shrieked. “And your father! And Phil! You drove them all away! It was you! It was always you!”
Kelly just stood rooted to the spot, his head reeling in shock at her intensity. “But I didn’t do anything—“
“That’s just it!” she spat again. “You didn’t DO anything. You just sat around and let Phil die. Didn’t even go to the hospital. You didn’t support Clyde at all—just criticized him all the time. And your father—“ She stood up suddenly, swaying on her feet. “You’re just like him! A no good, worthless piece of crap, no good to anyone. Why don’t you just go drown yourself. Just get out!”
Kelly stared at her. He’d seen her upset before, and sometimes she’d criticized him, especially since Phil had died two years before. But she had never spoken to him like this!
Surely she didn’t mean what she was saying! After all, she was his Mom! Yet, even though she was drunk, he knew she was just expressing pent up thoughts and feelings that had been brooding in her mind for a long time …
“Just get out!” she cried again, picking up the bottle and swinging it at his head. Kelly ducked. Then he darted out of the kitchen, and out the front door. He didn’t know where he was going. He had no one to go to. He wasn’t in a gang. He had no friends. He only knew he had to get away, to escape, to run, to flee …
And in his heart, he knew it wasn’t his mother he was running from. It wasn’t Clyde or Phil or his father. It was himself. It was his own worthlessness. He had never been any good at anything, never done any good for anyone. She was right. She was absolutely right. He started to run down the street. And as he ran he felt hot tears streaking down his face …
“Do you need a hammer?” a voice said. Blinking, Kelly was suddenly brought back to the present. He found himself staring down at Mrs. Hubbard.
“What?” he said dumbly.
“Do you need a hammer to nail on the shingles? I think Mr. Goodwin left one over there.” Mrs. Hubbard pointed back toward the porch. How she knew where to point was a mystery, but she seemed to have an incredibly accurate perception of where things were in her house.
Kelly walked over and picked up a hammer. Pete was coming down from off the roof. “Looks like it’ll be an all day job, all right,” he said. “But we can do it. First thing we’d better do is remove the old shingles. We’ll need a couple of hammers to get started.”
Kelly didn’t say a word. Seeing the look on his face, Pete didn’t press him. He just picked up a hammer and headed back up onto the roof. Kelly followed. After Pete showed him how to pry off the old shingles, Kelly bent to the task with unusual ferocity. He ripped out shingle after shingle after shingle. It was as if he was trying to rip out the memories, rip out the criticisms, rip out his failings, rip out how useless he was to everyone.
But no matter how many shingles he pulled out, he couldn’t remove the truth of a single word his mother had said.
Pete had been right. Shingling Mrs. Hubbard’s roof had indeed been an all day job. It was now sundown and Pete and Kelly stood in her backyard, surveying their handiwork.
The roof looked new. Not perfect of course, since some of the shingles looked a little crooked if you looked closely at them. But the newness of the shingles made up for all the crookedness. It looked like a job well done.
And it sort of felt like one too. Although Pete and Kelly were sweaty and grimy, that didn’t seem to matter. They had done it! They had finished the roof before sundown.
Kelly looked at Pete, the sweat stain down the middle of the back of his shirt making him look sort of like a skunk. Not once had Pete criticized him. Not once had he said anything negative to him, not even when he accidently knocked off the rain gutter which took them an hour to re-install. He had just kept hammering away and smiling at Pete, telling him he was doing great and was a natural born roofer.
Kelly knew he wasn’t, though. Most of the crooked shingles up on that roof were ones he’d installed. Pete’s were pretty straight. But Pete hadn’t gone back to correct any of Kelly’s work either. He’d just looked at it and said it was a job well done.
“Come on inside,” said Mrs. Hubbard, appearing at her back door. “I’ve got dinner ready!”
No further urging was needed. Both Pete and Kelly were famished. And what a meal! There was an incredibly delicious potato and cheese dish, fried chicken, jello and fresh cut salad. For desert were little chocolate cupcakes with hot chocolate pudding gushing out of their middles like molten lava from a volcano.
“You boys haven’t eaten enough!” cried Mrs. Hubbard when they pushed their plates back for the last time, their stomachs stuffed to the hilt.
“I promise I couldn’t eat another bite,” said Pete with a smile. “Although I gladly would if there was room in this fat belly of mine! I often wish I didn’t fill up so fast, so I could just keep gorging hours on end. You ever feel that way Kelly?”
Kelly just shrugged. He was so full and so tired, he felt kind of groggy.
“I wish you boys could stay another day or two,” said Mrs. Hubbard, starting to pile up the dishes.
“What? You mean you’ve got another big repair job that needs doing?” said Pete in mock surprise.
“No,” said Mrs. Hubbard. “Just so I could enjoy your company. I don’t often get visitors, you know.”
Kelly was surprised at that. She was so pleasant to be with, he couldn’t imagine why.
“Well, we’d best be taking off,” said Pete. “Have to be in Sacramento tomorrow morning.”
“Oh?” said Mrs. Hubbard. “Going to visit Mike again?”
“Sure thing,” said Pete.
“Mike is such a wonderful boy,” said Mrs. Hubbard with a wrinkly smile. “Just like Kelly here.”
Kelly looked at her in surprise.
“You and Mike did such a good job on my garage,” she said to Pete. “I’ve never had any trouble with it since!”
“Well if you do, you know who to call,” said Pete, pushing back from the table and standing up. “Any garage of yours is a garage of mine. Although I’d appreciate it if you got rid of any black widows before I have to go work in there.”
Mrs. Hubbard just laughed again. “No, the garage is just fine. And now the roof is too! My goodness, I don’t know what more there is for you to do! You’ve already done so much, I can never repay you.” There was a slight touch of water in her eyes.
Pete winked at Kelly. “I don’t know about Kelly here, but I’d say a few of your mumbleberry scones for the road will be a good start on paying us!”
“Oh, my goodness, I’m so glad you reminded me!” She bustled off to the kitchen to get the scones.
“Tired?” asked Pete, putting his hand on Kelly’s shoulder. Kelly just nodded. It was a good tired. A worth-it tired. As if today had mattered somehow, when almost all of his days in the past had not.
Kelly looked down suddenly at Pete’s hand on his shoulder. Strange. Only a few days ago, he would have recoiled in distaste if the old geezer had touched him. Now, he didn’t mind at all.
Mrs. Hubbard returned with a bag full of scones. “Here you are!” she handed them to Pete. “I hope you like them. I’m not that good of a cook, you know.”
“Mrs. Hubbard,” said Pete with a flourish, “I’d rather eat your no-good cooking any day of the week than go to the best restaurant in town.”
Mrs. Hubbard smiled in obvious pleasure. Then she said softly, “Come back real soon, won’t you Pete. And bring Kelly again. I like him. His mother must be so proud!”
They were in Sacramento. They had been so tired the night before, they’d just pulled over in Reno and slept soundly through the night. But with the dawn, Pete was up and driving on. They drove slowly over the mountain range between Reno and Sacramento, so the RV engine wouldn’t overheat. The scenery was fantastic, with wild, jagged seams of rock jutting out constantly between groves of stately evergreen trees.
Now they were meandering through residential streets on their way to the house of someone named ‘Mike.’ And this time, Kelly was sure that—in spite of Pete’s constant reassurances—Mike must have something wrong with him.
“Is he blind, like Mrs. Hubbard?” asked Kelly.
“No,” laughed Pete.
“Well, you’ve already said he doesn’t have a terminal illness, and isn’t an amputee,” said Kelly. “Is he deaf? Mute?”
Pete laughed some more. “I keep telling you, there’s nothing wrong with Mike. He’s a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy family man with a beautiful wife and two little kids. That’s all there is to it! His only problem is that he’s never been willing to try some vegemite!”
Kelly wasn’t buying it. “There’s got to be something wrong with him,” he said firmly. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be coming here.”
Pete just smiled and shook his head.
Pete parked the RV in front of an attractive two level house with a two car garage. Although it looked fairly ordinary compared to the other houses in the neighborhood, it appeared far more sumptuous than most houses Kelly had ever been in. With mounting curiosity, Kelly followed Pete up to the front door.
When the door opened, it was like an explosion. “PETE!” called Mike, a young man who appeared to be in his late twenties. He hugged the old man tightly. “So glad to see you! A little girl darted out the door and latched herself onto Pete’s leg. “Grandpa Pete!” she screamed. What did you bring me?”
Kelly was gratified to see that she was not an amputee.
Pete produced a heart shaped box from an inner pocket. “This is to keep all your treasures in!” he said mysteriously. With a squeal of delight, the little girl grabbed the box and disappeared back in the house to go try it out.
Kelly looked up to see Mike staring at him. There was an intensity in his gaze that startled Kelly. What was he thinking? Suddenly Kelly remembered that Pete had called Mike ‘my boy’ during that telephone call two days ago. Was Mike Pete’s son? Was he distrustful of Kelly, thinking his Dad shouldn’t be travelling with such an obvious troublemaker?
Suddenly a young woman appeared at the door, apparently Mike’s wife. “Pete!” she said happily, giving the old man a hug. “It’s so good to see you again! Please come in.”
As they entered, she said apologetically, “Don’t mind the mess. It’s hard to keep things clean with two little ones around, and one BIG one to boot!” She poked Mike playfully. But as Kelly looked around, the spacious living room seemed immaculate. Not a thing was out of place.
“This here’s Kelly,” said Pete after they had sat down in some fancy looking cream chairs. Kelly suddenly felt very self conscious about his shabby jeans. His clothing was out of place in this clean, organized place.
“Hello, Kelly,” said Mike, with that same intensity in his eye. It wasn’t an unfriendly look, but it still made Kelly’s skin crawl. He suddenly felt a distinct urge to get out of here.
“So, how’s it going, Mike?” said Pete pleasantly. “I guess it’s been almost five months since I was here last, hasn’t it?”
“It has,” said Mike. “Things are going great, Pete. Couldn’t be better. Our mortgage is eating us alive, we’re buried up to our ears in diapers, the washing machine overflowed yesterday ruining the floor, and Mr. Guyers at work is always hastling me. Couldn’t be better!”
Pete just laughed. “Sounds like normal living has captured you, all right.” Turning to Mike’s wife, he said, “Does he give you much trouble? My offer still stands—I’ll pay for judo lessons for you, so you can keep him in line!”
She just laughed. “No, he’s o.k. Just messy. And sometimes late getting home from work. And forgetful. And not very attentive at watching the children. And—“
“Hey, now!” said Mike, laughing. “That’s no fair! If you’re going to tell my faults, I have to tell yours!”
She just looked at him with a knowing smile on her face, obviously waiting for him to begin. After a pause, he said simply, “You don’t have any!”
After a good laugh, the small talk continued. It was obvious these people knew each other very well. Yet, Kelly quickly noticed that Mike never called Pete ‘Dad’ or made reference to any relatives. Was he Pete’s son or not?
After a few minutes, the little girl came back into the room. She was carrying a fuzzy looking doll. She walked right over to Pete and held it up in front of his face. “Mrs. Flip wants you to come play,” she said simply.
“Does she now?” said Pete, taking Mrs. Flip. “This fluffy lady looks familiar to me for some reason,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Was she driving a big truck on the freeway earlier today? I might have passed her on the road!”
“Don’t be silly Grandpa Pete!” cried the girl. “She’s been here in the house all day! You gave her to me! Remember? For my birthday!”
Grandpa Pete! So they were related, after all.
“That’s right, it was a birthday present!” said Pete slapping his knee, then standing up. “All right, Mrs. Flip, let’s go and fight some hotentots.”
The little girl giggled, taking Pete by the hand, and leading him from the room. “There’s no hotentots to fight!” she said. “Mrs. Flip lives in a pink castle, remember?”
“Ah, yes, that’s right,” said Pete as he disappeared from the room. “A castle with a thousand frogs in it, and only one is a prince. Are her lips sore yet?” Then they were gone.
Suddenly Kelly felt very self conscious. Should he go with Pete? Maybe he’d better just go out and wait in the RV.
Before he could do anything however, Mike’s wife stood up and bustled from the room. “I’ve got to go look after baby Tom,” she said. “I’m sure you two have a lot to talk about.”
What did she mean by that?
Mike just looked at Kelly for a minute after they were alone, that same intensity in his eyes. Kelly was on the verge of jumping up to go out to the RV when he spoke.
“There’s times when I’d give almost anything to be out in that RV again, riding the roads with Pete …”
Kelly looked at Mike, clearly startled. “Again?” he blurted. “You mean you used to drive around with Pete once? Is he your Dad?”
Mike smiled. “I can see I’m the first one you’ve met,” he said simply. “That’s quite an honor. Old Pete’s letting me explain it all to you.”
“Explain what?” said Kelly, his confusion growing. Who was this guy? What was going on?
“I was one of Pete’s first ones,” said Mike. “I used to be in a gang in San Francisco. He found me one night on the street, cut up so bad after a fight it’s a miracle I didn’t die.”
Kelly gaped at Mike. “YOU were in a gang?” He was speechless. This simple looking young man with a wife and kids and house—used to be a gang member? The thought was staggering.
“He saved me that night, like I’m sure he saved you,” said Mike. “Took me to the hospital to have my wounds dressed. Then took me with him in his RV when I was well enough to travel.”
Kelly just stared, his eyes wide.
“I traveled with him all over the west for five months,” said Mike. “We went to hospitals, nursing homes, centers for injured children. Every place we went, everybody seemed to know Pete. He was their friend, and they loved to see him show up. Traveling with him was such an amazing contrast to the life I’d had up to that point. The way he lived, the people he met, the things we did—it was all so different from everything I’d experienced. It was like I’d stepped out of a black world into a white one.”
The two stared at each other for a minute. Slow comprehension was beginning to dawn on Kelly. He hadn’t just been accidently picked up by a nice old man. Pete had evidently done this sort of thing before.
“I’ll bet you ten to one you come from a broken home,” said Mike. “Don’t tell me about it though,” he said hastily. “I can describe the details without your having to say a word. A Mom who doesn’t care, a Dad who doesn’t either, or most likely isn’t even around. Brothers and sisters who don’t care either, or are also gone. No money at home. Lots of drinking and fights. Growing up in gang neighborhoods. Am I right?”
Kelly just nodded. Mike continued. “I wasn’t Pete’s first, and I certainly haven’t been his last. His first was a fellow named Joe he picked up in Portland. Suicide attempt. He was with Pete over six months. Then there was Anthony from Boise, and Mervin from LA, then me from San Fran, then Casey from Reno. There’s quite a few more. Each has the same story. A broken home, a pointless life, almost a death wish. Then Pete stepped in and took us around in his RV for awhile, and showed us a world we never knew existed.”
Kelly swallowed hard. “So he’s done this a lot?” he said in a hollow voice. “He does this on purpose?”
Mike responded with a question. “When he first picked you up, did he mention anything about having been watching you?”
The memory leaped instantly into Kelly’s mind. Something Pete had said that first night in the RV, right after they left MacArthur Park. ‘I saw you earlier this evening by the lake. Looked like you were trying to test the depth. It was obvious to me what you had in mind…’
“Yes,” said Kelly slowly. “He WAS watching me!”
Mike smiled gently. “Pete picks his ‘boys’ carefully. Usually he watches them for awhile.” He paused. “Look, I know this is probably a lot to be thrown at you at once. Came as quite a surprise to me too when Joe told me about it. But the last thing I want is to make it sound cheap, or like you’re just part of an assembly line or something. Pete’s loved every one of his lost boys with all his heart. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for any of us, even now. He must care about you deeply to have taken you under his wing. He’s quite a guy.”
Kelly just looked at the floor, not knowing what to say. Never in his life had he talked about caring or love or any of those mushy things that were so obviously silly, yet so essential to life that no one could live without them. He simply didn’t know what to say. He was utterly speechless.
“Anyway, like I said to start with, there’s times when things get rough I almost wish I was back out on the road with Pete. Life was simple then, although it was also hard somehow. I guess the hardness was because something was changing inside of me, but I didn’t know it.”
Kelly looked suddenly up at Mike. “Why did it end? What happened? Did he kick you out?”
Mike laughed. It was a rich laugh, as if he was laughing at himself and enjoying it. “Not at all. You know, I honestly believe Pete would have kept me with him forever. But I guess I reached a point where I’d changed enough, I started to get itchy feet. I wanted to try out this new world I’d never known before, only I wanted to do it on my own.” He shrugged ruefully. “I guess, frankly I kicked myself out. Once I was ready, I suddenly felt like it was time to go. And Pete let me go—but was always close by, of course, and kept in touch. And then I went to college, and met Angela—my wife—and we got married, and I graduated and got a job and a mortgage and kids—“ He smiled at Kelly. “And I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. Not even to go back out on the road with Pete again. Although sometimes when I have a rough day, I wonder.”
Kelly sat quietly for a minute. The sense of panic in him had died down. For just a minute, he’d almost felt that the idyllic life he’d enjoyed with Pete for the last few days was going to be pulled out from under him—that Pete didn’t really care after all, was just using him somehow, and was just going to kick him out someday. And right at the time when he was starting to feel like there really were people in the world who cared after all!
As if Mike had read his mind, he said gently, “Pete will never let you leave him until YOU want to. If you left him now, he’d search high and low to find you and take you back. So when you go, it’ll be because it’s time, and it’ll be solely your choice, not his. You can stay with him as long as you want—forever, even. And if you ever do leave, he always keeps in touch. With all of his ‘boys.’” A dreamy, far-away look came into his eyes. “You know, I’m glad actually that Pete keeps picking up someone new every once in awhile. I worry about him sometimes, out on the road. It helps to know someone’s with him, that he’s not all alone.”
Kelly suddenly looked up at Mike and smiled. “Thanks,” he said simply. “Thanks for telling me.”
Mike stood up and came over to thump Kelly on the back. “Of course, you’ll meet all of Pete’s ‘boy’s at the reunion in August, at Yosemite. It’s something we go to every year.”
“Really?” said Kelly in surprise. “A reunion? With all of his … well, his …”
“And their families!” said Mike. “It’s getting to be a pretty big family reunion! “We had almost seventy people last time!”
“Wow!” said Kelly, startled. “He’s taken that many kids off the street? He doesn’t look that old!”
“He’s not!” said Mike, laughing. “Like I said, most of the seventy were family. I’d say there’s been maybe about fifteen to twenty of us. He’s been doing this for about twelve years.”
Kelly suddenly looked up at Mike. “Why does he do it?” he asked abruptly. “Where’s his own family? Why would he put himself on the line for a bunch of strays he doesn’t even know? And how can he afford to just drive around all the time, anyway?”
Mike smiled sadly. “There is an answer to all those questions …” he said slowly. “But I don’t think it’s time yet. Let Pete tell you himself, in his own time. I think you’ll know the answers by the time of the reunion in August.”
Kelly just looked at Mike curiously. Was there some secret here? Who WAS Pete? Had he been a gang member himself once? Or maybe a gang leader?
Mike slapped Kelly on the back again. “I heard you were in Reno yesterday. How’s Mrs. Hubbard’s garage holding up? Pete and I put it up, you know.”
“It’s fine,” said Kelly. “She mentioned you.” He paused. “Did you say you ‘put it up?’”
“Yep,” said Mike, leading Kelly toward the kitchen. “It had the audacity to fall down in one of those rare windstorm’s in Reno. Took us all day to put the thing back on its feet again.”
Just then Angela came into the room. “Lunch is ready.”
“Great!” said Mike. “Let’s go tell Pete.” Then he looked over at Angela with a sly smile. “Did you fix his favorite?” he asked.
“Yep,” she said with a brief look of disgust. “A vegemite sandwich dipped in caramel, with a light spread of liverwurst on top!”
Kelly’s stomach lurched. He looked at Mike and Angela in panic. They both laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I only fixed one—for Pete! The rest of us are having regular salami sandwiches.”
Kelly sighed in tremendous relief. He wasn’t ready for the vegemite thing yet … and wasn’t sure he ever would be!
After all, Mike had been with Pete for five months, and HE wasn’t having one!
For the next month, Pete and Kelly drove all over the west. They visited an old folks’ home in San Francisco, a woman dying of cancer in Portland, a man with Multiple Sclerosis in Boise, and children undergoing radiation treatment in Salt Lake City. Scattered in between these visits were occasional diversions to state and national parks, where the two of them gawked at the wonders of nature.
And then it was always right back on the road, going out to help an amazingly large group of people that Pete knew practically everywhere he went. They weeded the massive garden of a man who recently had a stroke in Pocatello, Idaho, helped can the cherries of a widow in Provo, Utah, plastered walls of an elderly couple in Flagstaff, Arizona, and re-planted the lawn of a home for mentally challenged teens in Fresno, California.
Through it all, Kelly never admitted—even to himself—that anything had changed since that night in MacArthur Park when Pete had picked him up. He still felt that he would follow through on what he had tried to do that night. He just didn’t want to do it quite yet. He was curious, he kept telling himself, curious to see what Pete would do next. Kelly was cautiously willing to go with Pete almost anywhere (except to a hospital room where someone was dying—Kelly absolutely refused to do THAT), and was willing to help without too much complaining on the various little work projects Pete got them into.
The old guy was crazy, there was no doubt of it. Sometimes he’d crank up an old CD of ancient-sounding ‘big band music’ as he called it (which Kelly had never heard before) and dance through the RV with a stuffed doll he had been given by a girl in a hospital. He never tired of trying to coax Kelly into eating vegemite, even though he made the most excruciating faces when he ate it himself. He went skinny dipping in the Snake River near Rupert, Idaho, and scared the daylights out of passersby on the highway when he came out and found that Kelly had hid his clothes, and he had to run back in the buff to the RV to get more.
It was an idyllic life.
They were in LA one day in late July, having just visited a man struggling with brain injuries after a fall from a ladder. Pete was cruising down I-5 when he suddenly asked Kelly an unexpected question.
“How about if we stop in and see your mother?”
Kelly just turned to stare at the old man. Pete had NO idea what kind of a person his mother was. “No, I don’t think so,” said Kelly hastily. “She’s not much for visitors. Kind of goes into hiding in the back bedroom. Pulls the drapes over her head.”
Pete smiled. He and Kelly had developed a mild, humorous banter, where they would exaggerate like this. He knew not a word of it was true, and that Kelly was trying to mask deeper issues with humor.
“No, I mean it,” Pete persisted. “I think we ought to go see her. Where does she live?”
Kelly looked at him. The old man hadn’t taken the hint. Or maybe he was determined not to. “I really don’t think we want to do that,” he said quietly.
Pete just looked at him and smiled. “Oh, I think it’s a good idea. You’re not afraid of her, are you?”
Kelly’s face turned flinty. “No. I just don’t want to see her, that’s all.”
“Well, I do,” said Pete. “What’s the address?”
Why was Pete pushing this? Didn’t he get it? Why bring up the hurts of the past? After these last few wonderful weeks away from all that crap, why get back into it?
“1512 Strumond Lane,” said Kelly at last. He sank into silence, staring out the window. A black fog settled over his mind. He knew it had been too good to last. Maybe the time had come to finish what he had set out to do when Pete and he had first met.
Pete said nothing. He just typed the address into his GPS, and followed the directions. In another hour, they were pulling up in front of the house.
Kelly didn’t want to look at it. He didn’t want to be here. Why couldn’t they just do like they usually did—go sweat to death digging out someone’s garden, or go to some depressing hospital room and listen to raspy breathing and talk about whether the occupant would ever walk again? Why did they have to come HERE?
Pete got out without a word, and walked toward the house. He didn’t give even a backward glance at Kelly. He was going to go in there alone! Who knows what nonsense he was going to say! Knowing his mother and her snide tendencies as he did, there was no way Kelly was going to allow that!
Quickly opening the RV door, Kelly raced up the walk to catch up with Pete. “C’,mon, Pete,” he pleaded, grabbing his hand and trying to pull him back to the RV. “Let’s get out of here. There’s no reason to meet my Mom. Believe me. You’ll only be sorry if you do.”
Pete just smiled at him and rang the doorbell.
“Come on, Pete!” said Kelly urgently, pulling on the old man’s hand again. “There’s still time to get out of here! Let’s go to Burger King or something. Let’s go ANYWHERE but here!”
Pete just smiled, but said nothing.
After a moment the door opened. Mom looked just the same. Ragged eyes, downturned, scowling mouth, shabby clothes. From the smell that came to Kelly’s nostrils, she’d been drinking a bit. That was normal too.
Although Kelly had been gone for over a month, she gave no hint of pleasure at seeing him again. Instead, she looked suspiciously from Kelly to Pete, and back to Kelly again. “What did he do this time?” she said at last. “You a truant officer, or police?”
Pete just laughed. “Neither one, Mrs. Cord. I’m just a friend of Kelly’s. Can we come in?”
Mom just studied him for a minute, her shrewd eyes weighing him. It was obvious to Kelly, knowing her as he did, that she was baffled. The idea of just stopping in to chat was as foreign to her as a bottle of booze full of milk.
But finally she let them in. After they had all sat down on the sagging furniture, she asked again, “What’s he done, mister? ‘Cause whatever it is, I don’t want nothing to do with it. I know he’s not 18 yet, but he soon will be and then I’ll be rid of him for good and all. It’s been nice and peaceful since he left a month and a half ago.”
Kelly winced. Her true feelings were surely coming to the surface again.
“I just wanted to meet you, that’s all,” said Pete cheerfully. “Kelly and I have done a lot together over the last few weeks, and got to know each other pretty well. I just thought it would be nice to visit his family. You have a very lovely home,” he added, looking around as if he really meant it.
Mom was startled. Then she started to laugh. “What kind of con man are you? This house is a piece of crap!” Her eyes narrowed, as she studied him. “You been teaching him how to break the law? What types of things you two been doing together? Beating up little kids? Shysting old folks?”
Kelly suddenly saw red. She had no idea what they’d been doing! The world they’d been living in was as foreign to her as Russia. Even the concept of visiting sick people or helping people who were hurting was something she simply could not understand. She had no right to criticize them as if they’d been doing something evil!
“Come on, Pete,” said Kelly hotly, standing up. “Let’s go!”
Pete didn’t move. His mom just laughed again. “Just like his Dad! Can’t face anything. What a loser! I’m surprised you can even put up with the boy!” She laughed some more.
Kelly turned on her, ready to yell. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pete looking at him. The old man’s face was unreadable. It held neither a laugh nor sadness, condemnation nor humor. It was as if he was a total observer, with no agenda of his own. As if he was looking to see what Kelly would do, without passing any judgments at all.
Slowly, Kelly looked back at his Mom. And in that instant, he saw something he had never seen before. He saw an old, broken woman, smashed and disappointed repeatedly by life and by people she had wanted to trust, but who had betrayed her. He saw that innocence had been trampled into cynicism, hope crushed down to something worse than despair, love mangled into disgust and hate.
She was no different really than a blind woman in Reno, or a dying boy in El Paso, or a man with multiple sclerosis in Idaho. What differed were the maladies and the trials. For them, it was physical. For her, it was emotional. Both types of injuries were tragic. And both needed a similar response.
His hands shaking, Kelly sat down again on the couch. He couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t. He wasn’t like Pete. He couldn’t console little children who were hurt or dying. He could play with them pretty good, but didn’t know what to say in the face of pain. Same with the adults they had met and tried to help since they had been together. It was always Pete that Kelly turned to, to handle their pain and their need. He had no idea how it was done. Not with the people with physical injuries, and especially not with people like his Mom.
Pete stood up abruptly. Somehow he knew they’d been there long enough, that the purpose of the visit had been accomplished. There was a smile on his face. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Mrs. Cord. I’m sorry we dropped in unannounced. We’ll make sure we call first next time.” He turned and went to the door. Kelly followed.
Kelly’s Mom followed too, now completely confused. “Who are you, mister?” she said roughly. “Why did you REALLY come here? What’s this all about? You plannin’ to rob me? Because Kelly can tell you, I got nothin’ to rob.”
Pete just smiled at her. Kelly stood behind him, his emotions in turmoil, not knowing what to say or do.
“I know you probably won’t believe me, Mrs. Cord,” he said gently, “but I just wanted to meet the woman who raised Kelly. He’s a fine boy. And that means he must have a fine mother. That’s all.” He nodded, then turned and walked back to the RV without a backward glance. Kelly followed.
As they pulled away, much as he tried to avert his eyes, Kelly saw his mother standing in the doorway as if she were rooted to the spot. She stared at them, her eyes wide in disbelief. She didn’t move in the slightest as they drove down the street, and still looked the same when they rounded a corner and she was gone from sight.
Neither spoke as they drove through the streets of LA. Pete got back on the I-605, then headed up route 91, then got on I-15 heading north. They drove silently for three hours, until they topped out at Victorville. Kelly sat dumbly in the seat, the turmoil in his heart slowly melting away. He was surprised to find that he felt exhausted, as if he had just spent a day putting on another roof for Mrs. Hubbard.
Pete finally turned at an exit. After wending his way through a variety of streets, he came to a stop in front of what looked like a small restaurant. As Kelly looked at the sign, his eyes opened wide in surprise.
“Now you’ve GOT to try some!” Pete said to Kelly, a devious smile on his face. Kelly did not respond. He just looked back at Pete, a slow smile creeping across his face.
The name of the restaurant was ‘The Vegemite Sandwich Shoppe.’
Several more weeks passed. It seemed like Pete was on the phone almost constantly when the two of them weren’t visiting hospitals, nursing homes and children’s homes. He seemed to know people everywhere. He would get calls at all hours of the day or night from people in desperate need, or sometimes who were just lonely and wanted to talk to an old friend. Pete always had time for them, and would spend hours listening to their troubles, their pains, and sometimes just their petty worries.
Yet Pete wasn’t content to merely stay within the confines of his old circle of acquaintances. At most hospitals they visited, he asked if there were any patients in special need, or if there was anyone new there, that no one else was able to reach. He always sought out these hardest cases first, perhaps considering it a personal challenge to go and visit them, and see if he could succeed where others had failed. More often than not he could.
In spite of their busy schedule of seeing Pete’s old and new ‘friends,’ they managed to still squeeze in an occasional visit to a state or national park. Kelly particularly enjoyed these visits as a respite from the otherwise continuous involvement in people’s troubles and problems, which could be emotionally draining. Somehow the rich mountain air was refreshing and enriching, giving both of them strength to carry on. Together they visited Yosemite Park in California, Yellowstone in Wyoming, re-visted the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and marveled at the beauties of Arches National Park in Utah. Kelly had never seen such wonders. Before meeting Pete he had never seen much of anything except inner city LA.
A few days after visiting Yosemite, Pete announced that he needed to visit a friend in a hospital in Fresno. Within a few hours, they arrived and Pete deftly maneuvered the RV into a spot in the parking lot.
“Who are we going to see, again?” asked Kelly. Every time they went to a hospital, Kelly asked this as his first ‘standard’ question.
“A young fellow named James Squire,” said Pete, unbuckling his seat belt. “He’s been very ill for quite some time.”
“Is he dying?” This was Kelly’s second standard question. If the answer was yes, which had occurred a few times over the last few months, he had stayed in the RV while Pete went up to see the person.
“Well,” said Pete slowly, “Let’s just say that things are not looking very good for him right now.” Kelly waited for him to offer more, but he didn’t.
“So, does that mean he’s going to make it through the night?” Kelly asked. He didn’t mind too much visiting with someone who was going to carry on. But after the scene with Mickey in El Paso, he had NO intention of being part of a death scene.
Pete just looked at him, his eyes sad. Finally he said, “I can’t say for sure. He might and he might not. To be honest, the chances are not that good.”
“Well, I’ll be here waiting for you,” said Kelly, folding his arms, and turning to stare straight out the front window of the RV. He had just bought a book Pete recommended at a second hand store—‘Cheaper by the Dozen.’ It was an amazingly funny book, so far. He would just read that instead.
But Pete didn’t move. “I understand how you feel,” he said softly. “I don’t blame you for it, really. But I think James is someone you should meet. If it looks like he’s not going to last, you can leave.”
Kelly just looked at him curiously. Why would this death scene be different? What made this ‘James’ so special?
With a sigh of resignation, Kelly got out of the RV and followed Pete into the hospital. One thing he was VERY determined about. If it looked like this ‘James’ was about to die, he would quickly get out of there.
They first went to the registration area where Pete asked once more if they had any patients with amnesia who had a tattoo of a wilting flower on their arm. As always, they had no one that met this description. Then they took an elevator up to the 8th floor and found the room James was in.
James was propped up in bed as they entered, watching TV. He was a young man about Kelly’s age, with dark hair and a very white face. “Pete!” he whispered in a barely audible voice as they entered. With a weak hand he reached over and turned off the TV. “You made it!”
“You bet I did!” said Pete, taking James’ hand in his. He looked into his eyes. “How goes the battle, James?”
“Not so well,” whispered James. He suddenly started wheezing. His body shook in spasms as he gasped for breath. He sank feebly back into the pillow, temporarily unable to speak.
“This is Kelly,” said Pete, motioning toward Kelly, who had stayed in the shadows by the door. Reluctantly, Kelly came across the room into the light. Only then did he notice the scars. James had two of them. One was down his right cheek. The other ran a ragged line up his forearm.
Were those caused from his illness and what the doctors had had to do? Or were they from something else?
“Hi, Kelly,” James said, his voice so soft it could hardly be heard. “Glad to know you, for a little while at least.” He looked back at Pete. A strange pleading had appeared in his eyes.
“The doctors think it’s going to be tonight,” he said hoarsely.
“And what do YOU think?” asked Pete. James didn’t answer for a minute. Then he slowly nodded his head up and down. “I think it will be too.”
Kelly backed up a step. Pete had said he could go if it didn’t look like the guy was going to make it. And right now it very definitely looked that way.
“Are you scared?” asked Pete bluntly. Another pause. Then James nodded his head again. “Yes,” he said weakly.
Unexpectedly, Pete turned to Kelly. “Sit down, Kelly. I want to tell you a little about James. You don’t mind, do you James?”
“No,” said James.
Kelly didn’t move. He didn’t like the looks of this at all. But as Pete and James kept looking at him, he finally moved forward and took a seat next to the bed, across from Pete. But he didn’t sit down in a relaxed way. His legs were bunched beneath him, ready to spring into action and quickly carry him to the door and down the hall.
“James was attacked by a street gang,” said Pete, without any preliminary. “The injuries he is suffering from are what have brought him to where he is tonight.” Kelly’s eyes grew wide. The implication was clear. This could be him, lying in a hospital bed in LA—IF he had survived that night at MacArthur Park, of course.
“Actually though, James was also the member of another gang,” continued Pete. “The Tritans. It was a gang fight over territory that caused his injuries and brought him here.”
At least that was one point of difference. Kelly had been a loner and an outcast, and had never joined a gang.
“You don’t have any family, do you James?” asked Pete, turning back toward the black haired boy. James shook his head. “Don’t know where my Dad is. My Mom died two years back. My older brother was killed in a gang fight last year.”
“And so, you face this moment alone,” said Pete.
“Not alone,” said James. “You’re here. And Kelly.”
There was silence for a moment. “What will it be like?” asked James softly. “Will I feel anything? Will I go to hell? I never killed anyone, you know. In fact, I never even caused any deep wounds. I never had the heart for it. I just stayed in the gang ‘cause they were my only family. Will I be punished? Or will I just fade into nothing and not exist anymore?”
Pete smiled. “Those are questions many have asked,” he said softly. “I want to assure you that there IS hope, even for someone in your condition. Death is like stepping through a door into another room. The body stays behind, but life goes on. You’ll still be around tomorrow. You’ll just be somewhere else, that’s all.”
“How can you be so sure?” whispered James. It was the question at the front of Kelly’s mind as well.
“Now let’s see,” said Pete, suddenly sitting down and leaning back with a thoughtful look on his face. “Who would know more about death than anyone? That is, who among people you can’t see?”
“Someone who died?” asked James.
“True, they would know,” said Pete. “But there’s someone else who knows even better. The creator of life and death.”
“God!” said James.
“That’s right,” said Pete. “Have you talked with HIM about what you’re about to face? He knows the subject pretty well.” He looked at James intently.
“Not exactly,” said James. “I thought about it, but I didn’t think he’d hear me. I haven’t cared much about him until now. I didn’t think he’d listen.”
Pete smiled. “Oh, He’ll listen, all right. He’s always willing to listen. I’ve talked to him often. I KNOW he listens!”
The image of Pete saying ‘time to pray,’ then moving his lips noiselessly leapt into Kelly’s mind. He had seen it countless times.
But Kelly had never tried it himself. After all, God was Pete’s friend, not his. Pete seemed to know him pretty well. For Kelly, God was just a fearful unknown, who was more likely to condemn him in anger than listen to anything he had to say.
“That’s easy enough for you,” said James, wheezing, his breath coming in ragged gasps. “I’ve never talked to him before. How do I know he’ll hear me?”
“If you had a son of your own, you wouldn’t even ask the question,” said Pete firmly. “Any father knows that he ALWAYS wants his son to reach out to him when he’s in need, no matter what he’s done. Why would God be any different? OF COURSE he wants to hear from you—yes YOU James!”
There was silence in the room for a minute, broken only by James’ raspy breathing. Finally he looked at Pete, with pleading once more in his eyes. “Hope,” he said simply. “You said there is always hope. How can there be hope for someone who’s dying?”
Pete’s smile was massive. “In a way, that’s the greatest hope of all!” he exclaimed. “For people who haven’t spent most of their lives trying to hurt people, it’s like a great, big ‘coming home’ party! There’s only one thing that can kill your hope.” He paused, while James and Kelly looked on expectantly.
“YOU,” said Pete. “You have the power to kill hope absolutely, deader than dead. You have the power to disbelieve. You have the power to convince yourself that there is nothing to hope for, and nothing but silence after death. Which of course isn’t true at all, regardless of whether you believe it.”
He stood up and walked across the room. “That attitude is the great cop-out of all suicides! They’ve convinced themselves that death will bring silent relief to the burden of having to live with themselves. How wrong they are! You can’t kill a spirit—only a body! But if you kill your own body, thinking to release yourself FROM yourself, you create a regret you can never reverse! Your spirit lives on and on, thinking endlessly about what you threw away. Your happy homecoming is dashed, and replaced by endless remorse.”
Pete returned to the bed and took James’ hand. “Each one of us decides each day how to treat others, whether to be kind or selfish, whether to look outward or inward. If we’ve been looking outward, and tried not to hurt others, we’ve got a wonderful homecoming to look forward to. God will be so happy to see us!”
James just stared up at him. For a long time he said nothing. Finally he said in a barely audible voice. “I don’t know, Pete. I don’t think I’ve lived that kind of life. I haven’t cared much for people. I just always cared about me.”
“Are you sure?” asked Pete with a knowing smile. “I think I know YOU James. Think back now—have you really tried to hurt others, or to avoid hurting them? Are there people you wanted to help? Are there times you were mad, but didn’t try to get even? Did you find joy in seeing others suffer, or did it make you want to turn away? Where was your HEART James? What did you want to do, deep down inside? Did you take pleasure in pain, or just want all pain to go away?”
James didn’t answer. He just looked up at Pete, his eyes glassy. Slowly he looked over at Kelly. In a rasping whisper, he said simply, “Thanks for coming.”
He started wheezing again. He shuddered down the length of his body. But when he was finished, he smiled weakly up at Pete. “I guess I need to talk to him. God, I mean. Maybe in my own mind, since it’s so hard to speak out loud.” He paused. “Will you stay with me? I’d appreciate it.”
“I will!” said Pete, gripping James’ hand. “I’ll stay as long as you want me to.”
Pete looked across at Kelly. His look said it all. It wouldn’t be long now. If Kelly was going to leave, now was the time to go. And no one would condemn him if he did.
For a long time, Kelly didn’t move. This was the moment. This was the time he had to leave, and he knew it. But somehow, this time, he hesitated. He couldn’t say exactly why. There was just something different, that’s all.
Then finally, slowly, he reached out and took James’ other hand. The youth stirred, looking at Kelly in surprise.
“I’ll stay too,” Kelly said simply.
James smiled weakly. And then he moved his lips as is if in silent prayer …
James died that night. He passed away peacefully, a smile on his face. Both Pete and Kelly were present, each holding one of his hands.
The two left the hospital in silence. Once in the RV, they drove and drove and drove. All through the night they traveled, and when the first rays of dawn were starting to lighten the eastern sky, they found themselves at the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. They parked the RV and slept until noon, then entered Bryce Canyon. Kelly had never been there before.
Bryce Canyon was unlike anything Kelly had ever seen. Towering pillars of red rock were melted into each other, forming the sheer walls of steep cliffs. At times the pillars were the shape of coke bottles; other times, they were of all different shapes. There were dozens upon dozens of the oddly shaped pillars, all molded together. The rock formation called ‘Thor’s Hammer’ was particularly impressive, with a tall pinnacle of rock sticking straight up into the air, while other pillars surrounded it.
Once again, the raw beauty of their surroundings served to enrich their souls, recharging them from their drained condition. They stayed two days and explored the park thoroughly. It was a rich time.
And then Pete and Kelly returned to their travels, and to their visits of people in need. They helped build a fence of a man with a broken back in Henderson, Nevada, planted shade trees for a widow in Escondido, California, and helped harvest the garden of an old woman in Yuma, Arizona.
Time was passing quickly. The long days of summer were starting to shorten. It was hot in most parts of the west where Pete and Kelly traveled since it was still August, but the mountain areas were starting to become rather cool at night.
Pete’s phone calls were as incessant as ever; his visits to people in need flowed in an ongoing stream. But no two visits were ever the same. There was always something new. An injured child they visited made unexpected progress. An addict Pete had been trying to help for years was finally released from rehab. The father of a destitute family finally got a job. At times there were victory celebrations scattered in the midst of the sadness of people’s suffering, like pebbles tossed on a beach.
They were traveling on I-5 down from Stockton, California one day, having just visited an old folks home. Over the last month, Kelly had become increasingly amazed at the stories and the talents of the people he met in such places. Before, he had always simply thought of old people as rather annoying, slow-moving geezers who said too much. Now, in talking to them, he was surprised at the richness of their lives and experiences, and the amazing talents many of them still carried with them. At the home they had just visited, one old man had sung an opera song for Pete and Kelly (and everybody else in a three block radius), with a voice as strong as a bull ox. It was fortunate most of the residents of his home were largely deaf, given the range and depth of his voice.
“I’d like to show you something,” said Pete unexpectedly as they drove. “In Modesto, California. It’s a place I’ve never taken you before.”
“A hospital or a rest home?” asked Kelly. “Or does someone need some work on their house?”
“None of those,” said Pete with a slight smile that quickly faded. “I want to show you … my family.”
Kelly looked at Pete sharply. In all the months they had been traveling together, never once had Pete mentioned his own family. There had been plenty of calls from Mike or Anthony or Joe, or many others of ‘Pete’s boys,’ as Mike had called them. But there was never a call or any contact from Pete’s own wife or children. This seemed particularly odd since Pete always wore a wedding ring on his finger, but there no pictures whatsoever of his wife or any children anywhere in the RV that Kelly had seen. An impossible thought had sometimes crossed Kelly’s mind—was Pete’s own home a broken home? Why would a man who showed so much caring for so many others, so completely neglect his own family?
“Your family’s in Modesto?” said Kelly.
“Yes,” said Pete simply. Then he added, “or I guess I should say, ‘yes and no.’”
There was a strange look in Pete’s eyes. Kelly was about to ask another question, but Pete’s somber attitude made him think better of it. Best just to wait until Pete showed him. Modesto wasn’t far. They’d be there soon.
They came down the Golden State Highway into the outskirts of the City of Modesto, passing field after field of green farmland. The houses they passed began to come more frequently until they were right in town.
Pete turned off into a residential neighborhood. There were older homes here, but they had been kept in good repair. Did one of these used to belong to Pete? Was his wife still there, receiving an alimony check every month from him? The thought seemed ludicrous. How could someone like Pete be divorced? But he had said he was taking Kelly to see his family. And Mike had told Kelly, in their meeting months ago, that Pete would reveal the secrets of his family in his own time.
That time was apparently now. Pete turned down another street. His face seemed strangely intense, as if he were seeing into the past with each street he drove down. His features were grey and ashen. Obviously, he was feeling an intensity of emotion that Kelly did not understand.
“Did you live here long?” asked Kelly.
“Twelve years,” answered Pete. He added nothing more.
They turned at a city park. Pete was driving slower now. It was typical park with play equipment and old picnic benches that were clearly in need of a new paint job. Was one of these houses facing the park Pete’s?
Apparently not. Although they were moving quite slow now, the park was soon behind them. They were driving down another residential street. Pete’s speed was well below the speed limit, causing an impatient car behind them to honk its horn, then swerve around and zoom past them, the driver shaking his fist.
Pete’s face looked white. He took no notice of the angry driver. He slowed his speed even further. Then he turned a corner, pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
Across the street was a cemetery.
Kelly just looked at Pete, his look both questioning and worried. Pete’s white knuckles as he held the steering wheel told it all. His family was here all right.
“We don’t have to visit this place,” said Kelly softly. “Why don’t we just leave, and head down to Fresno?”
Pete smiled faintly, but didn’t answer. He opened the door, and crossed the street to the cemetery. Kelly wasn’t sure whether to follow. Pete suddenly looked terribly small and alone among the dozens of gravestones.
Finally, Kelly opened his door and followed after the older man. Pete walked slowly toward the center of the cemetery. Suddenly he stopped. Kelly had little desire to go any closer, or to look at the gravestones that Pete was looking at. Only his loyalty to Pete made him keep walking, until he was standing at Pete’s side. The old man obviously needed someone to be with him in a visit like this.
There were five gravestones there, all in a row. All of them carried Pete’s last name, ‘Flint.’ From the birthdates on the headstones, Kelly quickly deduced that the one on the far right had been Pete’s wife, Alice. The other four were apparently their children. All five headstones had the same death date. A day approximately twelve years ago.
Kelly hung his head, not knowing what to say or what to do. In a way he felt ashamed. Most of his thoughts since he had been traveling with Pete had been about himself—about what he wanted or didn’t want, about refusing to visit hospitals where people were dying, about not always wanting to help people in need with their home improvement projects. He had never really thought much about Pete’s circumstances, or his family, or about what he had been through. He had never thought of consoling Pete. HE was always the one to do the consoling.
Glancing sideways at Pete, Kelly saw a tear in the old man’s eyes. It glistened like a dew drop in the early morning sun. Pete didn’t utter a word. Kelly didn’t know what to say, and kept quiet for fear he would say the wrong thing. He had never seen Pete look so vulnerable. Always before HE had been the tower of strength, the one everyone called on, the one who always knew what to say. Now he seemed alone and forsaken, with no one among the many he had helped to console him.
What could Kelly say? What would Mike say? Or one of Pete’s other boys? What could anyone say?
Wordlessly, Kelly reached across and took Pete’s hand in his. There was simply nothing he could say. Nothing that could erase the obvious reality of what they were seeing. The only thing Kelly could do was hold the old man’s hand.
They stood like that for nearly twenty minutes. There was no sound or other movement. Flies buzzed lazily in the air, and if it weren’t for the somber surroundings it would have seemed just like any other lazy afternoon.
Finally, Pete turned to go. He didn’t look at Kelly, and Kelly didn’t look at him. Silently they made their way back to the RV. Pete turned the ignition, and they slowly rolled away, leaving the cemetery behind them.
They drove for four straight hours after that, stopping only once to fill up the RV with ‘petrol,’ and to grab a bite to eat. There was little conversation. Pete didn’t mention the cemetery, and Kelly didn’t either.
They were driving into the wilderness of California, and it wasn’t long before Kelly recognized the road they were taking. They were going back to Yosemite Park.
Good. Kelly recognized the pattern. Every time they experienced something that was particularly draining emotionally, they went to a national park. That’s the way it had been after Mickey died, and after James’ death as well. That was just the therapy that was needed.
Paying their way in, Kelly was surprised to see Pete take the turnoff to the campgrounds. Usually they didn’t hit the camping areas until they had looked around first. Most of the campgrounds were reserved anyway for big family gatherings, with lots of little kids running around. What would the two of them do there for the rest of the day?
Rounding a curve, Kelly suddenly saw a banner over the entrance to a campground that made his eyes bug out. It said, ‘Pete’s Boys.’ Not far from the banner at the picnic tables were dozens of people. Most of them were young couples or young men. There were also lots of little kids.
Of course! How could Kelly have forgotten? Mike had said months ago that every year there was a reunion of ‘Pete’s Boy’s up at Yosemite. And this was it! How on earth could this have slipped his mind?
At the sight of Pete’s RV, the entire group rose with a collective uproar. They surrounded the RV so fast, Pete had to stop it on the spot, and couldn’t even park. Smiling faces were everywhere. Pete was beaming back at them all. Kelly was just sitting there, stunned.
Pete was fairly mobbed as he got out of the van. More than a dozen little kids were pulling at his leg or trying to jump into his arms. Pete was laughing as he pulled treasures out of his pockets to give to them all. So that’s why he’d been buying so many trinkets lately at the stores! Kelly had thought he must be getting ready for a particularly large children’s home.
Kelly’s door was unexpectedly yanked open. Turning, he saw more than a dozen young men looking at him, each with a huge grin on their face. Mike was one of them.
“Welcome, Kelly!” yelled Mike, grabbing Kelly’s arm and pulling him bodily from the RV. “Meet the gang! This here’s Joe, and here’s Floyd, and Bob and Charlie and Anthony and Mervin and Casey …”
Kelly just gaped at all the smiling faces. Most of them laughed at his expression—not a laugh of derision, but of recognition. “I looked just like that when I came to my first one of these!” said Casey. “Only I think my mouth was opened even wider—like a gold fish that swallowed a ping pong ball!”
“You must mean a basketball,” said Charlie, giving Casey a punch on the arm. “A little ping pong ball would just disappear forever in your big mouth!”
The mob of young men hauled Kelly bodily over to a nearby picnic table, peppering him with questions.
“Have you seen old Mrs. MacMullin in Santa Fe? How’s her garden? Pete and I put it in!”
“Is little Stevie still one of the amputees at the home in Las Vegas? How’s he getting along?”
“How’s Mr. Baines’ fence holding up? The one Pete and I put up in Flagstaff?”
“What national parks have you been to? Are there any you HAVEN’T been to?”
“Have you tried vegemite yet? If not—don’t do it! Or your taste buds will rue the day they were born!”
Kelly stammered out answers as best he could. NEVER had he been the center of such attention! Never had he had an experience like this! The wives and girl friends of many of the young men were at a nearby table, setting up food and drinks. They looked over at the fellows and smiled at their boyish excitement.
Finally, one of them—Mike’s wife—took pity on Kelly, and brought him over a paper plate of chips and a sandwich. “Give the poor guy a break!” she said laughing. “You guys are scary enough without all ganging up on him at once!”
The group broke up then, laughing in agreement. They all went and got paper plates heaping with food—then came right back over to Kelly’s table. Apparently they weren’t quite done with him yet.
But rather than put him on the spot, this time they each began to reminisce about their days on the road with Pete. They told of how he found them, usually pulling them from the very brink of disaster. They told of their initial resistance to the old man, and how they tried to escape him, but somehow couldn’t seem to. They told of months of travel, of visits to hospitals and national parks, of helping to put up brick fireplaces, to mend fences and to play with children amputees. And with each story that was told, Kelly recognized a kernel of his own.
This was Pete’s family!
They had been at the reunion now for several hours. Some of the fellows had hauled poor Pete off to the stream. They said it was to see if he could catch more fish than they did, but judging by how wet they were all getting it was obvious their real purpose was something else. Others of ‘Pete’s Boys’ had gone off exploring in the woods with their kids or wives or girl friends. It was a lazy, peaceful afternoon—the type that always seem full of gold and wonder, and deceive everyone into thinking they’ll last forever.
Only three of the fellows were still at Kelly’s table—Anthony, Joe and Bob. Others came to join them occasionally, then drifted away again. Kelly felt a sense of belonging like he’d never felt before—like he’d never known even existed before! In some odd way, these were his brothers. They cared for him. They knew what he was going through, because they’d been through it themselves. They wanted to help him. They’d stand by him through thick and thin.
He felt like there was little he could not ask or say to them. What a wonderful sensation, to not feel like he had to be on his guard about what he should or shouldn’t say! To simply be himself, with no excuses, and no worries about what others would think of him.
And so, Kelly asked the question that had been on his mind most of that day.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to know,” he said slowly. “I know all your stories now, and you know mine. But what’s Pete’s story? How did he get started doing this? Why does he keep doing it? What is it that keeps him going, anyway?”
There was silence around the table for a moment. Then Joe, who Mike had said was Pete’s ‘first,’ spoke up with an unexpected question.
“Did he take you to the cemetery today?”
Kelly looked at Joe in surprise. “Yes,” he answered. “How did you know?”
“He goes there every year, right before coming here to the reunion,” said Joe. “I think it’s the only time he can face those gravestones—when he knows that in a few hours he’ll be with all of us, and we’ll make him forget.”
Kelly was silent for a moment. “So … what happened to them?”
“Drunk driver,” said Joe without any preliminary. “Twelve years ago. Right there in Modesto. Pete wasn’t with his family at the time, or he’d have died too. He’d had to work late at his office that night, for some reason. No one survived … except the drunk driver.”
Kelly shook his head. “That must have been awful!”
“Pete almost never talks about it,” said Joe. “You’d think it’d get easier for him after all these years, but I guess it hasn’t. I think he still misses them terribly. That’s why he doesn’t have a picture of them up in his RV—he couldn’t stand to look at them all the time. But he does keep one copy of pictures, hidden in the bottom of the book case. He looks at them once in awhile.” Kelly had never thought to look there before.
There was silence around the table for a minute. Then Joe said, “It’s hard to imagine Pete being just a normal guy in a normal town with a normal family living a normal life, working at a normal office. But that’s what he was before that drunk driver came along.”
“Pete told me about that once,” said Anthony. “About when he actually met the drunk driver after the accident. I learned later he never told any of the other boys here about that meeting—just me. I have no idea why. Maybe it was just the mood. We were camping out in Yellowstone, and a mournful coyote was howling and howling. Suddenly Pete just started talking.”
Kelly stared at Anthony. “He actually MET the driver that killed his family?”
Anthony shook his head. “It was right after their funeral. He met the guy at the courthouse, when they settled up the insurance claim. Pete said he could hardly breathe when he saw him. He just stared and stared at the guy. Then when they got out of the courthouse and said good bye to their lawyers, he followed the guy in his car. The guy evidently went to a bar. Pete grabbed him before he went in and dragged him into the back alley. He found an old board there, and was just about to use it on the guy, to really let him have it—“
Kelly’s eyes were wide. The image was unthinkable. He simply could not imagine Pete doing such a thing!
But what was Pete to do? That man had killed his entire family! His wife and four little children!
“So what happened?” asked Kelly, dreading the answer. “What did he do?”
“Nothing,” shrugged Anthony. “He just dropped the board and walked away. And he never saw that guy again.”
“Boy, that’s not what I’D have done!” exclaimed Joe. “If someone did that to Dolores and little Stevie and Maddie!”
“But, there was one other thing Pete told me,” said Anthony slowly. “He didn’t tell me this right away. But then it was as if he wanted me to know he hadn’t done anything heroic. So he told me the real reason he dropped that board.” He paused. “He said he heard Alice’s voice. That was his wife who’d died. She wasn’t there, of course. But he heard her voice just the same, plain as day. She said just two words: ‘PETE, DON’T!’ He said if it wasn’t for that … he would have used that board.”
“And if he’d done THAT, where would all of us be?” asked Bob suddenly. “If he’d killed that guy, he’ have been put in jail. And then instead of finding us at the time we most needed him … well …”
Joe smiled sadly. “Where, indeed would we be? In this case, good came from evil. But only because Pete made the choice for it to be that way. He told me once that he died too, that night when the rest of his family did. His old life was dead. He wanted to die and join them. But he wouldn’t commit self-murder, so he did the next best thing. He absolutely, totally and completely stopped thinking about himself. He let his old ‘self’ die. It’s buried there with them, in that cemetery. He sold his house, bought an RV, and went out on the road, looking for people to concentrate on and think about, and help. He’s been living on the huge amount of insurance money he got from the accident ever since. And he’s built himself a whole new family …”
Kelly looked over to where Pete was standing part way in the stream, holding a fishing rod. The ‘fishing’ expedition with Mike, Roy and Carlos had turned into an all out water fight. They were all soaked and laughing their heads off. Pete turned to look at Kelly and the others, then beckoned for them to come join them.
Joe had seen the invitation too. “C’mon!” he said, slapping Kelly suddenly on the back. “Enough of this depressing stuff! Let’s go show the old man what it REALLY feels like to get wet!”
Slowly Kelly grinned up at Joe, then got up and followed him toward the stream.
The reunion was glorious. For two fantastic days, Kelly found himself immersed—indeed practically DROWNED—in a family of 79 people. They hiked the trails of Yosemite, fished, sang and cooked s’mores over the campfire. They kidded each other constantly, and pulled little pranks on each other to their hearts content. And then they parted, one by one, promising to call each other often and to see each other back at the same place next year.
And then Pete and Kelly went back on the road again. They headed north, traveling farther in that direction than they had ever been before. They visited Seattle in Washington, stopping in to see a number of ‘friends’ Pete had up that way. Then they crossed over into Canada and headed east. They traveled for quite a distance along the U.S./Canadian border, then dipped briefly into the U.S. again in the panhandle of Idaho to see a sick child in Coeur D’Alene. Then they darted right back up into Canada, and headed for Banff National Park, one of Canada’s great wonders.
The massive mountain peaks in Banff were already covered with snow. Their incredible size was breathtaking, and the lakes that lay at their feet were like deep blue jewels thrown at the feet of mighty kings. For two glorious days, Pete and Kelly explored all there was too see in Banff.
A then they hit the road again, heading south. And shortly after they left, a miracle happened in Billings, Montana. Pete and Kelly had gone into a hospital to visit an elderly lady who had recently had a stroke. In his usual way, Pete had gone to the registration desk, and asked for any men in this hospital with no identity, who had a tattoo of a wilting flower on their left arm.
“Yes, we do have a man like that!” said the nurse, to Kelly’s amazement. “He’s been with us nearly a year, in our psychiatric ward. He’s completely lost his memory. Nothing we try has worked to bring it back.”
Pete just looked over at Kelly with widening eyes, and smiled. “Lisa’s going to be thrilled!” he said ecstatically. “But we’d better handle this carefully.” Turning back to the nurse, he said, “Can we see this man? I’d like to make a phone call from his room, and describe the tattoo to a friend of mine. If it matches, then I think we’ve found his family for you!”
“Of course!” said the excited nurse. In no time, Pete and Kelly found themselves in the room of a man who looked to be in his 30s. He had dark hair and a prominent tattoo of a wilting, purple flower on his left arm. He was friendly, but confused about what was going on.
Pete called his little friend Lisa in Wichita, and described the tattoo to her. He hadn’t gotten far when Kelly suddenly could hear excited screaming coming from the other end of the phone.
Rubbing his ear from where he had nearly been deafened, Pete said to Kelly, “I think I’d better talk to Lisa’s Mom just to make sure.” After a minute of pleading and coaxing little Lisa to hand the phone to her Mom, Pete finally had her on the phone.
“Hello, Mrs. Nelson,” said Pete. “This is Pete Flint, Lisa’s friend. I’m at a hospital in Billings, Montana. There’s a man here with a tattoo of a purple, wilting flower, on his left arm. Let me describe it to you in greater detail, and then maybe you can tell me if you think this might be your husband …”
While the black-haired man stared curiously at Pete and Kelly, Pete leaned over and described the tattoo in great detail, even down to the three dead black leafs at the bottom of the flower.
Suddenly there was a great deal more screaming on the other end of the phone, from Lisa’s Mom this time. Pete quickly pulled the receiver away from his ear, to avoid being deafened again. Then he looked at Kelly and the nurse with a smile, and said, “I think it’s him.”
Pete and Kelly stayed in Billings until Lisa’s family arrived the next day. It was a bitter sweet reunion. Little Lisa hugged and kissed her father repeatedly, but he just looked back at her in wonder, saying he didn’t know who she was.
At first, Lisa was heartbroken. But when Pete pointed out to her that her Daddy must have had a terrible accident for him to forget someone as wonderful as her, and that she could help him get his memory back if she was patient, she was able to smile again. The doctors were happy to release him to their care, sure that with time and the love of his family, his memory would slowly return.
And then Pete and Kelly were on the road again. Swinging down through Denver, they visited a paraplegic center, spending an entire week there. Then they made their way back to the children’s amputee center in Las Vegas. Once more, Kelly played spaceman, cars and dolls with the children there. He and Pete were happy to learn that Crystal, the little girl without a left arm or leg that Pete had given the snarf to, had improved dramatically, and was no longer there. She had been released to go home.
After that they crossed the desert to Victorville, on their way back to southern California. It was late September. Kelly was unusually quiet as the miles passed behind them. He seemed to be deep in thought about something. Pete didn’t press him. He just kept driving.
When they reached Victorville, it came as no surprise to Kelly when they pulled up in front of ‘The Vegemite Sandwich Shoppe’ once again. “Care to try one?” said Pete, with a sly grin.
Kelly looked at him, and said, “You know, I think I just might!”
Pete nearly fell out of his chair. “No! You’re not serious! Oh, boy, are you going to love it! Makes your tongue feel like it was stung by a sick bee!”
Kelly smiled. “But there’s one condition. If I have one of these, you’ve got to agree to take me back to my Mom’s place in LA.”
There was dead silence in the RV. A slight smile came across Kelly’s face. It was a sad smile, but a firm one.
Pete didn’t say anything for awhile. Finally he asked quietly, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Kelly shook his head. “I’ve given it a lot of thought. She needs somebody. I’m probably all she’s got. I know she’ll say a lot of mean things at first, but I think she’ll soften up. I think I’ve learned … how to handle that sort of thing.”
“And what will YOU do?” asked Pete.
“Go back to school,” said Kelly. “Get my GED, then go to college.” He looked at Pete. “I can’t stay with you forever. Somehow I realized that when we found Lisa’s Dad. I’ve got my own life to live. I’ve got things to do. And you … you need to … well …”
Pete just looked at him, but didn’t say anything. His eyes looked rather watery.
Kelly’s eyes were moist as well. Finally he was able to say what needed to be said. “You need to find someone else to help. Someone else to save.”
Kelly looked away. He couldn’t start balling now! He quickly got out of the RV. He stood there for a minute, looking up at the dingy sandwich shop. No amount of vegemite could equal the bitterness that was in his mouth right now.
But he had done what he knew he had to do. What Pete himself would want him to do. The RIGHT thing to do.
Pete came around the RV and put his arm around Kelly’s shoulders. “My boy,” he said softly, shaking Kelly slightly, “I’m proud of you. You’ve made the journey. You’ve come full circle. You’re ready to start your life over again.”
Kelly looked up at him with tear streaked eyes and smiled.
“But just remember,” said Pete, holding out his cell phone in front of Kelly’s face. “I’ll always be here. Right here. Just a few numbers away. And if you want me, I’ll come, as fast as I can get there. And you can come back with me any time you want. You’re my boy now. And you always will be …”
“You ALWAYS will be …”
Together, shoulder to shoulder, they entered the little restaurant …
And Kelly entered into his destiny.
Miss Lydia Fairbanks is the newest teacher at Inner City Junior High School, the deadliest school in the state. While the school principal believes she won’t last a day, Miss Fairbanks quickly surprises everyone by not only surviving in the midst of her killer students, but actually thriving in the classroom. But even someone as weak and small as Miss Fairbanks can harbor secrets from the past …
Kate’s journal begins with a very simple entry. “I like pizza and ice cream and going on dates and watching funny movies. I like to swim and text on my phone and go skiing in the winter. Oh, and there’s one more thing you should know about me. I just killed my baby.” Join Kate as she struggles with the aftermath of having an abortion, and the nightmare she never dreamed would follow.
Blake Guv is a starving young attorney fresh out of law school, desperately trying to get new clients. In a mad gamble to obtain some publicity he foolishly enters the race for Governor of his state as an independent candidate. But when a series of unexpected events shove him to the front of the race, Blake is appalled at the prospect he just might win—since he hates politics with a passion!
Shortly before Christmas the tiny town of Afton is shocked when everyone is sued by a man claiming to be Santa Claus. His lawsuit is for wrongfully ‘firing’ him from his delivery job, since he can only come to people who believe. With less than two weeks until Christmas, will Santa’s lawsuit convince them to change their minds?
This book discusses six fundamentals of stupidity that lead to the stupid choices we see all around us. These include the belief that there are no moral values, that God does not exist, and that it is acceptable to become addicted and to treat others badly and be proud. In the end we see that the only sure way to avoid and overcome stupidity is through the saving power of Jesus Christ.
American society is obsessed with sex. This obsession has led to extreme results that would be considered appalling by prior generations, such as: rampant premarital sex which increases AIDS while decreasing trust and commitment between partners; gays/lesbians elevating sex to such an extreme it has become their god; and abortions in which innocent unborns are yanked out piece by piece.
A false world is like an apple full of worms. It appears juicy and attractive on the outside, but is in fact disgusting on the inside. This book discusses a number of false worlds masquerading as truth but which are in fact false to their core. Included are the false worlds of politics, international relations, law, sexual confusion (premarital sex, abortion and gayness), entertainment and pride.
This book explains how the Ninth Amendment is the key to understanding rights in the United States. The founders created the Ninth Amendment to protect unlisted natural law rights as they were understood in their day. This amendment was never intended to allow future generations to create new rights. Rather, it was to safeguard the morality and natural rights of the founding generation.
(Under pen name “Ansel Hatch”)
Stopping speeders by throwing logs in front of their car? Having a man walk in front of the car waving a red flag, to warn it is coming? Putting the initials of the driver on a piece of metal to act as his license plate? Giving a driver’s license to anyone who has the use of both arms? These are but a few examples from this book of the first laws dealing with new-fangled automobiles.
Fifth grader Blake Drywater has a new wizard science teacher, who promptly turns Blake’s class into roaches and earthworms. But Blake soon learns there is more than science going on in his classroom. An evil wizard is seeking a powerful potion his teacher has made. And when Blake is given the potion soon thereafter, he finds himself facing problems far harder than any science exam! Book 1 of ‘The Stewards of Light’ series.
Blake Drywater and his fellow unfortunate students at Millard Fillmore Middle School once more find themselves facing an unexpected creature in one of their classes. Because of a sudden ‘neck disorder’ suffered by their math teacher, Blake and his classmates receive a chilling substitute. His name is Mr. Coagulate, who has a strange fascination with blood and dreams. Book 2 of ‘The Stewards of Light’ series.
Flo and Mo are not ordinary babies. Although they are only fourteen months old, they can use a computer, trick any mindless adult they want, and help their goofy detective father solve baffling crimes. Then a mysterious girl comes to their father, claiming that her grandmother has disappeared. Will the babies’ superior brains be able to solve the mystery and save their bumbling parents?
Inventor Uncle Ned has discovered that clouds are alive and can be transformed into common objects. He gives his nephew Talmage a cloud turned into a pen, with the assignment to see what it says and does. However, Talmage soon learns that THIS cloud is nothing but trouble since it insults everyone they meet! And since no one believes pens can talk, they think Talmage is the one saying the insults!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Duane L. Ostler was raised in Southern Idaho, where the wind never stops. He has lived in Australia, Mexico, Brazil, China, the big Island of Hawaii, and—most foreign of all—New Jersey. He has driven an ice cream truck, sold auto parts, been a tax collector, and sued people as an attorney. He has also obtained a PhD in legal history. He and his wife have five children and two cats.
Feel free to contact the author at: .
On a dark night in a lonely park in LA, crazy old Pete saves a teenager named Kelly from a suicidal encounter with a street gang. While Kelly initially resists Pete's kindness, he is gradually drawn into the life and service of his unusual mentor--a lifestyle of total concentration on others, and forgetting of himself. But even Crazy Pete has secrets, and one day, with a shock, the boy learns the terrible history of Pete’s past that turned him into the saint he has become …