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By Scott MacDonald

Chapter 1 – The Struggle

“Am I going to have to yell at them? What if I have to argue with her in front of her friends? I don’t even know how these kids will regard me. I’m too old to be one of their friends, but I’m too young to seem parental. I…think…” Questions rushed through my mind, a torrential downpour that threatened to drown me. “I wonder how many chaperones there are…shit, how many kids do I have to watch?” I rolled over in bed to reach for my phone, the second time that night. “…1:30…shit, it’s one-thirty! I have to be up in an hour and a half! Ugh…” With a heavy sigh, I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. “Stop thinking…stop thinking…”

I jumped out of bed as if someone poked me with a cattle prod. My phone screamed at me to awaken. I silenced it and stood, too quickly. Blood rushed to my head while I tried to take the first few steps of the morning. I lost my balance and fell into the wall with a loud, dull thud. “Dammit,” I muttered. I felt along the cold walls to the bathroom. Everything suddenly turned red. Four stars went supernova as I turned the light on. As my eyes adjusted, I focused on the figure before me – a tall man with long tangled hair, blood shot eyes and enough baggage under those eyes that he could have used someone to help him carry it all.

I took a deep breath. My shoulders and chest rose briefly before I deflated with a sigh.

I splashed cold water on my face, but the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood tall like I jumped into the lake. A drop of water fell gently from the spigot. It rippled calmly across the surface of the water before it rippled through me. I shivered. I smeared a thick layer of shaving cream across my face and neck. The razor yanked at every hair as I drew it slowly across my face. “Ah…what the hell…?” I asked the razor. Little red specks of blood popped up across my neck. I tried to go slower, but more spots appeared in the razor’s wake. Out of ideas, I painfully finished the job and washed the blood off my face. “That’s what I get for shaving two days in a row. I did it to look professional…” I told myself.

I expected to see Max at the door when I ascended the stairs. His furry yellow figure, with his tongue hanging out of his face, usually met whomever awoke first. It was even too early for him to be awake, though. The fluorescent kitchen lights buzzed and disrupted the tranquil house. I grabbed a bowl of Lucky Charms and threw myself in the recliner. It rocked back and forth, squeaking loudly. I ate all the boring oat pieces and then devoured the sugary marshmallow bits. It’s the only way to eat cereal.

My mom entered the room. “Hey,“ she said. I echoed her monotone greeting with a grunt. I recalled that I should mix up a protein shake. I didn’t want all my hard work at the gym to go to waste, even though I still had nothing to show for it.

The white chalky liquid shifted thickly back and forth in the glass. Small globs of white powder floated to the surface. I vigorously stirred the globs back from whence they came, but to no avail. I lifted the glass to my lips, paused for a breath and chugged the mixture.

I took a deep breath. My shoulders and chest rose briefly before I deflated with a sigh.

My mother kindly escorted us across town. If I was her, I’d have made us pay for it.

Outside the lifeless high school, a giant purple bus bustled with life. The side compartments were open, the skeletal insides stuffed with backpacks and instruments. My mom said something that sounded like utter gibberish. “Wha…?” I said. “Nothing. I just said I love you guys and have fun.” she said. “Oh…well, love you, too…”

I slowly opened the car door and headed for the bus. We headed toward the back where the only two open seats remained. As soon as I sat down, conversations began to flow through my ears. The word “like” filled the air. I strained my ears to hear something else, anything else, but “like” choked and smothered all other traces of language.

“Are you, like, a chaperone?” a female student said. She cocked her head to the side, much like Max does when I put a doggie biscuit in front of his face and then hide it behind my back. “Uh…yeah…” I said. “Wow. I thought, you were, like, a student, or something.”

Her curiosity satiated, she turned to her friend. “Oh. My. God. That guy from G.I.Joe, is like, so hot.” The high pitch of their giggles could have given a dolphin a migraine. As the lights went out, the  bus rumbled to life.

I took a deep breath. My shoulders and chest rose briefly before I deflated with sigh.

Our journey had begun.

Chapter 2 – Through the Darkness

Multiple televisions hung from the ceiling. Some of the students had brought DVD’s. The orchestra conductor, Mr. Johnson, read the titles over the intercom – “Raise Your Voice,” “Hannah Montana,” “Up…” his voice faded momentarily as I turned to my sister. “Linda, if I have to watch anything with Hilary Duff or Hannah Montana I swear to God I will throw myself from this bus,” I said. “Yeah…can you take me, too?” she asked. “Of course. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t?”

Someone settled on “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” It seemed like an arbitrary choice since the kids screamed the same for every option. I like animated movies, though, and it wasn’t Hilary Duff, so I didn’t complain.

As we reached the other side of Boise, we left civilization behind. Save for the occasional truck or street light, darkness completely surrounded us. The path to Mountain Home is a vast desert wasteland, often plagued by high winds and dust storms, though, the wind did not yet attempt to shove us off the road. The bus’ headlights illuminated directly in front of us, and nothing more. This darkness is known only to the reaches of space. Specks of light twinkled in the distance.

The night caused the warm glow of the televisions to reflect off the windows like mirrors at a circus funhouse. The girl next to me, the one I amazed with my chaperone status, tapped her foot to a song only she could hear.

Silos, their contents known only to them, appeared out of nowhere. Their hulking masses and skeletal frames reached longingly out of the darkness. Without the light of the bus, the night consumed them once more.

Buses and planes of all kinds were not built with me in mind. My lanky legs forced themselves into the seat in front of me. My muscles burned angrily. To appease them, I slid my legs out into the aisle, even though I knew that the first poor bastard to try to walk by me would trip. I accepted the risk.

“Grrr…” my stomach growled, just as I finally fell asleep. To placate the beast, I tore into a chocolate protein bar. The grainy texture and bitter taste did not do the name of “chocolate” justice. I scarfed it down to avoid the taste.

Light blue rays finally graced the horizon, a signal to the end of the all-consuming darkness. It slowly mixed and lightened the night – an eternal battle for dominance.

I haven’t been awake for a sunrise since graduation. I stood on the balcony at my apartment that day, in the blinding light, in this blinding light. Everything seemed so clear, so tangible, that day. But of course it was just a sunrise, just like this one.

Green, yellow and orange rays of light began to mix with blue. Orange birthed pink just as the sun crested the mountains. Light gently poured down the mountainsides and across the desolate farmland. In the words of Simon Belmont, in Castlevania II, “The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.” While I didn’t have to contend with Dracula, I was surrounded by zombies – or something much worse. And they had just begun to stir.

Chapter 3 – Like This, Like That

Moans and groans filled the bus. A few students popped their heads over the seats, like gophers pop out of holes, to see if their friends were awake. “Gooood morning,” a girl behind me said. A guy completely covered by a blanket shifted restlessly back and forth before he muttered something about how it wasn’t yet morning. “I know. Like, my parents, like, totally make me go to school, even if I’m, like, dying,” a girl’s voice up front said. And suddenly, the word “like” had returned once more to drown out all semblances of rational conversation. Outside, the sun fully crested the horizon and vanquished all traces of night.

A group of girls a few rows ahead of me began to exchange stories of their “troubles” at home. “Like, I know!” one girl said. “My parents, like, totally make me go to school, even if, I’m like, dying.”

“Kung Fu Panda” began to play in the background as a scrawny kid with short dirty blond hair joined the group. A small gold key dangled gently off a thin gold chain around his neck. It swung back and forth and bounced off his smooth chest and boney collarbone as he sat down. He searched through his duct-tape covered wallet – a silver chain connected it to his skin-tight blue jeans – as the onscreen panda said “There’s no cost for awesomeness…or attractiveness.” He repeated the line, but unlike the light-hearted panda, he spoke it like he lived it. His salient Adam’s Apple slid up and down his thin neck as he spoke.

Thick layers of snow replaced the barren desert landscape. A thick haze quickly rolled in and choked off the sunlight – a sickly mix of gray and green.

“Are we, like, going to go swimming?” a girl in the group asked. “I, like, don’t want to smell like chlorine for the symphony. We should just, like, chill in the hot tub.”

Surrounded by a flurry of “likes” and intelligent discussions such as “Oh. My. God. He‘s so hot,” I managed to pass out. It could have been the content that did it, but it’s hard to say.

I awoke with a start as the bus shifted. “Hot tub” girl, distracted by her iPod, had stood at that moment and smashed her head into the overhead bin. “Ouch! My head!” she shouted, as she rubbed the sore spot. I smiled and glanced at my sister. “Am I enjoying that too much?” I asked. “No, not enough. Maybe we’ll get a replay,” she said with a smirk. “Well, hell, I’ll get the camera.”

As we approached the theater, Mr. Johnson handed out lists of students to the chaperones.
“It would be really funny if you had Dustin,” Linda said.
“Why, which one is Dustin?” I asked.
“He’s kind of weird. He’s that skinny kid up there.”
“You mean the blond scrawny guy with the tight pants?”
“Yup, that’s him.”

I glanced at my list. The first name was “Dustin Bly.”

Chapter 4 – Introductions

I stood outside the Hale Centre Theatre in the sharp cold wind calling names. “Richard, Garrett, Joe and…Dustin…you’re with me,” I called. A kid bounded over to me. The hood of his black “Vancouver” titled hood flopped wildly behind him. “I get to go with the guy with long hair? Cool!” he said. “I’m Richard. You have great hair. I had mine long but my grandma made me cut it.” The other three just nodded at me. “Um…that’s…neat,” I said. “OK guys, let’s go inside.” As I turned, the wind whipped my hair to the side like a model in a shampoo commercial.

We were ushered into the theatre’s parlor, a sophisticated room full of brown sofas and chairs with an antiquated floral pattern. Bright yellow flowers and old portraits of the previous owners adorned the circular room.

“Good morning and welcome to the Hale Centre Theatre. We are pleased to have you here,” theater employee Rosalie Richards said. She held her hands in front of her like an opera singer and pronounced “theater” as “thee-a-ter,” with an almost British accent. As she began her 45 minute lecture on the history of the theater, many kids rested their heads on their hands. Others looked at the floor or out the window.

To explain the idea that tone effects character, Richards led us to a practice room.

After another lengthy discussion, she asked for volunteers to illustrate the concept.
No one looked at her, myself included. “Oh come on guys, it will be fun!” she said. A group of four of the scrawniest guys, Dustin included, hesitantly approached her at the front of the room. “Alright boys, I want all of you to act like male models,” she commanded. “And…GO!” Two of them looked at the floor, Dustin stared at the ceiling and the last stared at her, his eyes so wide they could have popped out of his skull. “Remember, a supermodel is just a glorified hanger!” she bellowed. With a breath, Dustin walked forward, as if on the catwalk, and spun at the end with his hands on his hips. His mustard-yellow and blue plaid jacket slipped down to his shoulders as he sauntered back and spun again. The others floundered about, unsure of what to do. “Good guys,” she said. “Next, I want you to be body builders at a competition. GO!” All four immediately flexed their biceps. A thunderous roar of laughter erupted from the crowd. Their arms shook as they tried their hardest to show off muscle that simply wasn’t there.

Richards led us by the dressing and storage rooms on our way to the stage.

 The tape pattern found on the practice room’s floor matched the size and design of the stage. “We put that tape down so the actors can work on their blocking without being on the actual stage and in the way of the designers,” Richards said. She explained the expense and fragility of the stage’s machinery and their insistence to use it only for productions.

Chapter 5- Rehearsal

Back at the hotel, the orchestra ceased to exist. Only individual musicians remained. Each played a different instrument and a different scale, all at different times. The cacophony reverberated off the conference room’s walls and echoed. Sound – not music – filled the room. I took a seat on the floor the farthest from the chaos I could.
“Dude, see that blonde?” Richard asked as he tilted his head in the direction of a girl across the room. “I just sent her a text that said ‘I just made you vibrate!’” A loud guffaw surged from him as he tipped to his side, grabbing his stomach. In front of me, Dustin and Garrett played floor hockey with their phones. They alternated, sliding their phones from between their legs at high speed. Their laugh, a short breathy “ha,”  grew louder and their smiles wider the closer they came to hurting each other. It seemed like a recipe for disaster. I readied my camera.

Richard began to slide his phone across the floor, too. “Dude, mine slides, like, six-inches and stops,” Richard said to Garrett. “Well, yeah,” I said. “With that…rubber-thingy on it.” Richard suddenly grabbed his phone, stood and held it in the air. With an emphatic “Ha!” he had an epiphany.
“Dude! It has a rubber! Six inches and it stops!” he shouted to me.
“That’s what she said?”
“Nice one, dude. It’s a black condom…for white guys that want to feel black!” He laughed and grabbed his sides as he slid down the wall to the floor. I stared at him momentarily. “Do you even hear yourself speak?” I said. “Not really,” he shouted as he ran off to share his joke.

Mr. Johnson gathered the students together to begin the actual practice session. Afterward, Richard ran up to me with a wide ear-to-ear grin. “Dude. Did you see me play?“ he said. “My phone vibrated so hard I thought it would rub my nut sack off.” He promptly ran off and left me to digest that informational bit. A smaller section of the orchestra continued to play while a hotel employee brought in a large red bag with 10 pizzas in it. Dustin watched with his mouth agape. Another employee brought yet another bag with even more pizzas. “Dude!” Dustin shouted. “They brought another bag.” Garrett turned around and greeted the sight with a toothy grin. “Duuude…” he said, as the two bumped fists. I grabbed a square of cheese pizza off the table and headed to where Dustin and Garrett stood. “So, dudes,” Dustin said. “Why don’t women need a driver’s license?” Garrett and I thought for a moment before Dustin said, “because the only road they take is between a man’s bedroom and the kitchen.” I quickly swallowed my pizza as I laughed to avoid choking or spitting it everywhere.
“OK, ok,” I said. “Why don’t women need a watch?” Dustin and I shouted the answer together, “because there’s a clock on the stove!”
“Damn man, I should be, like, a comedian,” he said, muffled, his mouth full of pizza.

Chapter 6 – Performances

The gilded proscenium arch of Abravanel Hall shone triumphantly between the dim auditorium and the luminous stage. Countless rows of blue-clothed seats lined the room and extended up into the three stories of ornate balconies above. Four rows of spotlights adorned the polished surface of the stage ceiling. Light bounced off the walls, the floor and the students’ instruments, and gave the stage a warm and welcoming glow. A semi-circle of chairs and music stands surrounded the conductor’s podium. The students wormed their way into the auditorium, breaking the solitude with their clamorous entrance. I surreptitiously headed for the back row away from the pandemonium.

As I rested in the relative silence, several students appeared out of nowhere. A guy in a white sweater, with short black gelled hair, threw himself in the chair next to me. His blue eyes shown surprisingly bright, like a Siberian husky’s. I recalled his name was Warren. He could always be found surrounded by a group of girls. “So, hermaphrodites. Did you know they can either be super straight or super gay?” he said matter-of-factly. “It all depends on the parts and where you put ‘em. So, they can be super straight, straight, gay or super gay.” I stared at him. “Well…um…I guess that makes sense.” I said. “I never really thought about it before, but I guess so.” A member of his all-female retinue barked at him from the corridor. He left without another word.
As the orchestra began to play with the coach, a member of the Utah Symphony, I moved to the front of the house to record bits and pieces of the several-hour long session. In between songs, I turned the camera off. I unintentionally fell asleep between each session, but awoke in time to film the next. The other chaperones glared and pursed their lips at me every time I awoke.

Back at the hotel, I languidly rode the elevator to my room to change for dinner and the upcoming symphony. I changed into my white long sleeved button-down shirt, my nicest pair of dark blue jeans and my black Vans. It wasn’t fancy, but I hoped it would be enough.
I walked into the foyer just in time to see Richard point at me. “I have to go with that guy,” he told a girl next to him. Her eyes squinted.
“Wait, like, how old are you?” she said.
“24,” I said dryly.
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“It’s nice?”
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
Her monotone voice failed to support her assertion. The girl next to her chimed in.
“I just assumed you were one of the bass players,” she said.
“Nope.” I said.
“Huh. Neat.”
“It’s neat?”
“Yeah, it’s neat.”
Her tone mimicked that of the first. I stared at the pair, vexed by the utter stupidity I just endured. “Can I go with Mr. Johnson to the mall?” Richard asked. “Yeah, OK, whatever. I said. “Are Dustin, Garrett and Joe with you? Good.” My sister finally exited the elevator. Before she could interject, I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

After dinner, we headed back to Abravanel hall for the Utah Symphony performance. Fatigue wrapped itself around me in the warmth of the Hall. Despite my best attempts, I couldn’t gather the energy to keep my eyes open. I became a human-sized bobble head. My head tilted forward, which woke me and caused me to snap back. Then it tilted farther back and snapped forward again. I awoke, confused, to loud applause as the musicians stood. I joined in the applause as a matter of politeness.

At intermission, I left the crowded, boisterous auditorium to stretch. Amidst hundreds of formally dressed symphony patrons, I stood with my sister and Dustin. Her faded blue jeans had holes and he still wore his mustard-yellow and blue plaid jacket. “Are you the ‘don’t touch this’ security dude?” Dustin said to the lone man by the sculpture in the room. He shook his head once to say “no,” but he remained stoically in position nevertheless. He held his arms behind his milky white suit and continued to stare forward. Regardless of the man’s true purpose, a tangled mass of orange and red colored tubes snaked their way around each other and toward the ceiling.

As the suits began to pile back in, Linda and I took seats in the back away from the crowd. If I became a bobble head again, I wanted to be away from the condescending eyes of the sophisticated masses. “You know, we can always leave,” Linda said. “No, no. I’m awake and I want to watch that famous pianist or whoever she is play.” I said.

Classical pianist Yeol Eum Son walked onto the stage to calm and reserved applause. Her long purple gown flowed behind her and shone brilliantly like a sea of amethyst in the warm glow of the stage light. A silver medal winner at the 13th International Van Cliburn piano competition, she gently took her seat and began to play a soft melody, accentuated by the orchestra. She gradually grew louder and faster. The orchestra drew quiet as her music took center stage. She lifted off her seat as she pounded her fingers down on every key, from left to right and then back again. She moved quickly and with certainty, the way water flows in a narrow, rocky creek. Music soared from the piano and captivated the now silent audience. The way she could hit the keys – so adeptly and beautifully – enthralled me…at least until I fell asleep.

I awoke to thunderous applause. Most of the audience had engaged in a standing ovation. I stood, whipped my hair out of my face and joined. I liked what I had heard…even if it had only been about 10 minutes worth.

The tranquil night and cool crisp air collided with me as I left the crowded foyer. Suits and their wives glanced up and down me as they whispered amongst themselves. The pretentiousness palpable, I walked down the street toward Dustin, who walked up a cement ramp that served as a fountain’s barrier. “Hey,” I said, as he jumped a few feet down to the street.
“Hey dude,” he said.
“So…what did you think?”
“Eh, it was kind of boring.”
After a moment of silence, I said, “Look, to be honest, I don’t really care what you do as long as you don’t get in trouble.”
“Ha, well, I can’t get in trouble. I’m an adult. After graduation, I have to move out. I already pay for my own food…”
“Well, it’s good you can do that. You have to do it later anyway.”
“So, I guess…don’t stay out all night partying and don’t get arrested.”
“I was out all night last time.”
“Oh…doing what?”
“Just…walking around.”
He ran ahead and jumped onto a gray flat stone that served as a bench. He leapt from stone to stone. His hair and open jacket whipped through the air as he leapt off the last stone and spun through the air. The key that still dangled loosely from his neck spun in circles along with him. I imagined him on a skateboard.
With a deep breath, I slowed to a stroll. By the time I exhaled, the other students had already caught up. Groups of them ran back toward the hotel. Five or six students pushed their way into each triangular section of the revolving door until it couldn’t move. Hands banged, feet pushed and voices grew louder. The door failed to move. A few students lingered on. They glanced at me and then the door. “Nah, go ahead,” I said. “Trust me, I’m in no rush.” And even though a giant mass of bodies, writhing appendages and stylish clothing clogged the door already, they couldn’t help but squeeze in, too. Another entrance stood, neglected, a few feet away.

Chapter 7 – Geekin’ Out

The next morning…

We arrived right as it opened. Only a single employee could be seen in the deserted arcade. Rows of machines lined the walls – they stood, lonely, waiting to be played. Each had a different set of flashing lights and music, all designed to lure in gamers of all kinds. I certainly couldn’t resist their allure. I even dressed for the occasion – my green Zelda shirt with the 1987 logo in white, and my black and gold Triforce belt buckle from 2006’s “Twilight Princess.” My gamer credibility established, I walked in with my head held high. There was nothing to fear – I was legit.
A “Dance Dance Revolution Extreme” cabinet stood by the door. I played this version for the first time four years ago in Boise State’s Student Union Building. All the requisite genres were represented here – side scrolling fighters; “Tekken” and Capcom’s versus series, old school holdovers; Skeeball and Hoop Fever, and music; “GuitarFreaks” and even one I hadn’t heard of – “Keyboard Heaven.”

After my initial perusal, Linda and I headed for the keyboard. If Guitar Hero and a keyboard mated and had a child, this would be it. Instead of five buttons, players had an octave of keys. We chose a level two song, which I assumed would be easy even though we didn’t know it. The screen flashed read within 30 seconds. The game showered us with its magnanimity, though. It didn’t flash “FAILURE” in our faces and allowed us to finish the song. It even gave us a letter grade of “E,” which was clearly the lowest score possible, but it wasn’t an “F.”
Linda and I decided to move on to something else, preferably something we wouldn’t fail awesomely at. I stepped onto the metallic DDR pad. The plastic top flexed gently under my weight as I inserted a few quarters.
“Do you care what song we do?” I said.
“Nah…you pick it. I don’t know any.” she said.
“OK, well…we’re gonna gallop then.”

Arrows flooded the screen as the song began and a female voice sang, “I’m a cowgirl. And I’m ridin’ on my horse. Ba-bang, b-b-bang! And I’m shootin’ my guns.” I galloped up and down the arrows as the pattern rotated. My wide grin reflected in the machine’s screen. “Hey…I think I need…a cowboy hat… to do this properly,” I said as I tried to catch my breath, jumping. (I unfortunately don’t have video of us dancing to it, but what we did is below).

After two more songs, I rested on a bench near the pool table. My legs burned, my lungs ached and beads of sweat ran down my face. “Guess I’m a bit rusty,” I thought to myself. A loud clack echoed across the noisy arcade as Linda knocked the cue ball into the six ball toward a corner pocket. It missed. She glared at the six ball momentarily, as if to upbraid it, before she clicked her cell phone open to text.
Meanwhile, Garrett tightly gripped his sniper rifle, his eye to the sight, at the “Silent Scope 2” cabinet. The onscreen character asked, “Who is he? Is he a freelance sniper?” Garrett promptly shot him from his advantageous position on a bridge. His nondescript body toppled into a heap. Seconds later, the screen’s image shattered like a bullet through glass. “Really aren’t so quick, are ya?” another sniper asked, as the words “game over” flashed onscreen.

Dustin walked toward the DDR machine, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to play with someone else.
“You mind if I join you?” I said.
“Nah, dude.”
I set the difficulty to “heavy.” “Is that OK with you?” I said.
“Should be fine. I was in competitions. I don’t know any of these songs, though, man, so you pick.” he said.
I hesitated for a moment, but chose “Candy.” Previous experience taught me that most people handled faster songs better than slower ones. (Top video is Dustin and I dancing, Garrett watching. Bottom video is the song.)

I clearly thought wrong. It’s no fun if the other person can’t keep up with me. I chose something easier – “Cowgirl” again. He couldn’t quite grasp the gallop move, so he failed again. “Alright, fine,” I thought to myself. “If you can’t keep up…then we’ll both fail.” For our final number, I chose “A,” a song that started deceptively slow and then jumped to an insane speed in an instant. It worked perfectly. “Failure” in bright red letters shown across the screen within a minute. I leaned forward, my hands on my knees, and gasped for breath. Dustin simply stepped off the pad and toward a group of guys, one of whom had a guitar. “Dude, you got a pick?” Dustin asked. He began to gently strum as I walked outside, still gasping.
The rest of the students and chaperones lingered in other stores in the mall nearby, and with our time short, we all left for the hotel. In the street parallel to me, the driver of a gray SUV slammed on his brakes in the intersection. The tires squealed. The horn screeched. The SUV clipped the right back corner of a silver car with a loud crunch. Shards of plastic splintered off from the car. They bounced, skidded and crashed to the ground in front of me as the car sped through the crosswalk. I clenched my fists. I held my breath. The world stopped.

Chapter 8 – Movement

A gentle wind blew the hair out of my face. I remained, stationary, while students and other chaperones walked around me. And then, as if someone had pushed “play,” I began to walk once more. I exhaled. “Dude, if I had been, like, another two feet ahead, I would have got hit,” Richard said to himself, ahead of the group. He had only been arms length away from me when the car zoomed by us. “I like that his response is ‘har-har, I could have been splattered all over the road,’” I said to Linda. The driver of the car had parked on the side of the road near us. His subwoofer bellowed and his speakers blared. The music vibrated off me. He began to text on his phone. I thought to myself, “It probably starts with ‘OMG’ and is full of ‘likes’ and ‘dude.’”
“Dude, I wish I could tell him to come to our place. I could fix that for, like, 40 bucks,” Dustin said. “I could be, like, ‘Dustin Bly: The Traveling Repair Guy.’ The advertising writes itself. Our name rhymes with, like, everything.” Mr. Johnson began to do just that. “Fly…cry…” he said. Before he could name another, Dustin interjected. “Yeah, even die,” he said, drowning out whatever rhyme Mr. Johnson had concocted. “So, dude, like, what do you do?” I explained that I graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism, but currently wandered aimlessly without a job. “Oh, well that explains the notebook,” he said. “I could have my welding certificate in a few months.”
As we came upon the hotel, the students approached the revolving door in bunches. I walked through the student-free door to the right as they clogged the entrance. The dull thuds of their hands smacking the glass and their chaotic laughter could be heard past the registration desk and down the hall.

Chapter 9 – Low Expectations

A crowd of people lingered outside the Hale Centre Theatre as our bus parked out front. An austere wind blew. I shivered and she caught it as I walked in. She tapped my arm with the back of her hand. “Where is your coat, young man?” the elderly woman said. “You can’t go out in wind like this without a coat. You need a coat. Where is your coat?” The wrinkles around her eyes gathered in bunches as she squinted at me. She held her hands to her chest, as though the wind chilled her, too, though she wore multiple jackets. I tried to explain that I had just left the bus parked in front of the building and I didn’t need it, but she cut me off. “It’s too cold to not have a jacket.” She turned to someone behind her to continue the tirade. I slipped into the crowd, as much as a person of my height can, as soon as she turned her back.
Linda and I took our seats in the crowded house as the lights dimmed. A lone man stood on the archway of one of the stage exits and began to play his violin.
I had never seen “Fiddler on the Roof” before and every part of the production won me over. A two story house had been rigged above stage and descended every time the scene was set at home. The outer and inner rings of the stage rotated in opposite directions for many of the dances. Triangular sections of the stage raised and lowered during the nightmare sequence, while characters taunted from the spinning rings of the stage. A woman “flew” in from wires attached to the ceiling, dressed as a spirit of a deceased relative. My skin literally tingled through each song. The production values were far higher and impressive than I gave a theater in Utah credit for.

Oh, and if I were a rich man, I would have stopped Gwen Stefani from ripping that song off.

Chapter 10 – Departure

“Dude, that was awesome,” Richard said, as we headed for the bus. The students praised every part of the production – from the stage design and script, to the music and dancing. I headed for a seat in the back. Linda took a seat behind me. Our journey back began under a gray sky. Mountains, their snow covered summits dotted with black specks of trees, ran along both sides of the highway. Long, deep valleys meandered their jagged faces in sets of three or five, as if some great creature tried to claw its way through. Long stretches of barren fields ran the length of the foothills to the highway. Several bunches of sagebrush poked their branches above the snow to prove that something had indeed survived the inclement weather.
Alex, a guy with large brown-tinted glasses, a gray hood and skin tight jeans, walked fastidiously down the aisle. He held his arms above the seats, his hands limp, for balance. He took each step delicately, like he might have fallen through the floor if he moved too quickly. Dustin walked behind him and quickly filled each gap Alex made between them. Alex gently opened the bathroom door and clicked it shut. “I’ll let ‘em go first,” Dustin said to me. “He’s closer to a girl than I am and…ladies first.” He leaned with his elbows on the seats. His key swung back and forth again.
“OK, look, I have to ask this,” I said. “What does the key mean?”
“Aw, it’s the key to my heart,” he said, a goofy grin plastered on his face. “Quick one-liners. That’s the only way to live.” His smile disappeared. “Like, if you want to be charming, then, like, you say ‘what’s that on your face? It’s beautiful,” he said. His hand cupped some imaginary face in the air His thumb gently caressed the cheek. “Or, if you want to be rude, then be like ‘Nice boots, let’s fuck!’” He shrugged and left for the bathroom.
A sliver of sun broke the cloud cover for a moment, but a mountain slowly slid in front of it and blocked its valiant attempt to illuminate the darkened area. A taller ridge blocked out what light tried to reflect and ensured no sunlight would reach us. Shadows swallowed us as we passed a sign. It read “Welcome to Idaho.”
We were consumed by the night within 20 minutes. In the back, a group of three girls stood by the bathroom. “Oh. My. God. Have you, like, tried this?” one said. “It’s like, sooo hard.” She placed one hand on her stomach and one on her head. She attempted to rub her stomach and pat her head at the same time. The other girls tried the arduous feat with her. All three ended up patting both or rubbing both, never one of each. They continued until the bus hit a pothole. It rocked back and forth and sent all three tumbling into each other and the bathroom door. Their high pitched squeals and laughs filled the still air of the bus.
The sky and the ground became one. Stars – lights – twinkled in the distance light-years – miles – away. An entire constellation – a distant gas station – flew by. Reality and illusion mixed. Each light had another light that shone above it – a reflection – and each reflection had its own reflection. 23 screens, their size and image distorted, glimmered around the bus.
“…yeah, and now, like, my mom won’t, like, trust me,” a girl’s voice said from the darkness ahead of me. “She was all, like, ‘How do I know you won’t buy weed with it?’ And I was, like, ‘Mom, it’s, like, four dollars.” The voice dissipated as quickly as it had arrived. I rose from my seat and headed for the bathroom.

Chapter 11 – Egregious Error

It should be an Olympic sport – peeing while standing in a moving bus. It takes far more concentration and skill than is logical.

“How was the bathroom?” Samantha said, sitting next to Linda, as I returned to my seat.
“Yeah, I bet, what with the door opening…and the flushing…”
“Yeah, I meant the standing part.”
“Oh…I…bet.” She looked away.
“Dude, I don’t sit to pee,” Dustin said. “Only if I have to wipe.”
“Uh…me neither.”
“Dude, it’s like our God given right.” He shook his fist in the air, a threat to whomever dared to counter his argument.
“Wow, Dustin. Thanks for the…profound insight.”

An hour or so passed in silence. Students either slept, listened to music, or sent texts. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson peered in through the windows. I tried my best to ignore the god-awful “Escape from Witch Mountain” remake someone had subjected us to, but he kept staring at me. I closed my eyes.

Linda and Dustin‘s laughter came in sharp bursts. I popped my head over the seat. They jabbed at each other with their index fingers. “Oh yeah?” Dustin said. “Well take this!” He licked his finger and rubbed it across my sister’s cheek. My left eyebrow raised. “Dustin, if you gave her gonaherpesyphilees, I will hunt you down,” I said. Note: It’s a combination of gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis. It‘s a great portmanteau. “Huh…” he said. “Well, now you’ve got AIDS!” He repeated his transgression. Linda turned her head and flapped her hands at him. She broke into song. “You’ve got AIDS. You’ve got the AIDS!” she sang. “Not HIV, but full blown AIDS!” I’m never one to miss a Family Guy reference, so I joined in. “What the hell was that?” Dustin said, our random song sung. “Eh, it’s an inside joke,” I said with a shrug.

Her composure regained, Linda reached over and pinched the inside of Dustin’s thigh. I had seen that move before. Our mother would do that anytime our father said something snarky or back sassed her. “Ouch!” he cried out, squirming in the seat. “Come on, Linda,” I said. Don’t be so mean. Stop…” My brain froze. I desperately searched for the word. “Touch” wasn’t it. Instead, I told her to stop molesting him. “Molest, huh?” he said. The smile faded from his face. He pulled his knees to his chest and looked away. “Reminds me of group therapy at church,” he said under his breath. I bit my lip. That was not what I had meant to say. I never joked about that sort of thing. “I…uh…yeah…” All I could manage, in the words of our father, was “diarrhea of the mouth.” Neither Linda nor Sam caught my comment. Their phones made soft clicking sounds as they both sent texts.
Before I had a chance to say anything intelligible, someone brought up music. I didn’t catch who said it. I stared at the seat.
“You know, dude, you’re like Weird Al,” Dustin said. He regained his halcyon demeanor.
“Uh…what…how’s that now?” I said.
“You are white and nerdy,” Linda said.
“True, but I have way better hair.”
“Dude, I wish I had a segue.” Dustin said, in reference to Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” music video. “Dude, they go, like, 40 miles an hour. I’d be haulin’ balls down the freeway.” He gripped imaginary handle bars in front of him and leaned left and right making sounds like a toddler does with a toy car.
“I should at least apologize,” I thought to myself. “Dammit…” Dustin had already returned to the front for his stuff by the time I decided to speak. I could see him in the distance. I could have called him back. I could have approached him.

I remained in my seat. I said nothing.

Chapter 12 – Lost Opportunities

I stepped off the bus into the cool air.
“Did you have fun?” I said.
“Yeah, it was fun.” Linda said. “You?”
“Yeah…it was a bit strange, but certainly fun. You’ve got some…interesting friends.” Our father drove up in his truck; the windshield still cracked. We threw our stuff in the back.
“Hey, Josh, David and I are going to go hang out,” I said.
“Alright,” my dad said. “Have fun.”
The rain began to gently fall.
“OK, give me a hug,” I said to Linda. I pulled her to my chest. I could feel her heart beat, slightly faster than mine. I thought about our trivial arguments. Our misunderstandings. My broken trust. I went on this trip for her – for us. I wanted to say that what had happened was in the past. I wanted to say we both had made mistakes. I wanted to say everything would be OK, even if I didn‘t entirely believe it.

I closed my eyes.

“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too.”

I let go.

“…OK, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yup.” She climbed into the front seat and slammed the door.
“You ready?” Josh asked. I watched as they drove off into the darkness. Above, the moon shone brightly in the cloudless sky. “Yeah…” I said. “Yeah, let’s go.”


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