A Sad Scene

The room was dark, save a dying candle which was set upon the table beside the bed, where a small body lay. Peace. 

The flickering light played gently on the wall that the bed was nudged up against and if you let your eyes close halfway and allowed a teardrop to blur your vision, the ghostly shapes would become a sailor on a sailboat, waving to his lady who stands on the dock, crying softly, already mourning the distance between them. Sorrow. 

The boy was not the only one in the room; there his mother sat beside his bed, weeping bitterly into her hands, no one there to comfort her, for the boy was gone, a leaf blown away from a tree by the gentle wind. Oh the gentle wind. Loneliness. 

And with a final spark, the candle’s flame went out, leaving the room in blackness, the only sounds that of the mother’s sobs. Spent. 

Online News Consumption and What It Says About Us

I think we can all agree that the times have changed and are still changing at a rapid pace. The days when you could buy a ‘pape’ from a newsboy on the street corner for 7 cents are behind us. In fact, newspapers have all but died out by now it seems. According to this 2016 article by Pew Research Center, only about 20% of U.S. adults often get their news from print newspapers… and 48% of those folks are over the age of 65! Only 5% of adults age 18-29 still acquire print newspapers. This makes total sense to me, a 22-year-old who fits snugly in that demographic. It also makes sense to me because the internet has changed the game! Why go to something as archaic as a newspaper when after only a few clicks, every news article ever published is right there in front of you on the computer screen?

However, despite my original hypothesis, the internet is not the most common way for Americans to consume their news. Television still holds the torch with 57% of adults consuming cable, local, or nightly news, according to the same article by Pew Research Center.Interestingly, though, among the age demographics of 18-49 year-olds, the internet still inches slightly higher than TV. So only the 50-65+ demographic still prefers TV news to online news.

Although print newspapers are pretty much out of the picture, that doesn’t mean that those newspapers are out of business! Contrarily, the major newspapers in the U.S. (The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the like) have all adjusted to the new internet-obsessed generation we live in and have digitalized their papers. Furthermore, those sites are the most viewed news sites on the internet! Matthew Hindman, an internet researcher and author, affirms this notion in his 2011 article titled “Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet.” In it, he explains how news consumers almost always prefer national news sources to local ones online. Check out Hindman’s words: “The broad landscape of online local news is easy to summarize. Local news is a tiny part of Web usage; collectively, local news outlets receive less than half of a percent of all page views in a typical market… Only a handful of local news Websites—17 out of 1074… are unaffiliated with traditional print or broadcast media.” The good news is that these national news outlets are still getting some web traffic; the bad news is that news sites in general occupy a relatively miniscule part of the internet. Who knows? Maybe news consumption as a whole will continue to decline!

Now enters the question: what about social media? Surely the youngest generation, Generation Z, is getting their news from Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook! Well, according to this Pew Research Center article, that is incorrect! In fact, social media news has only barely edged its way ahead of newspapers! However, according to this article, when it comes to specific social media platforms, here are the standings: “Facebook is still far and away the site Americans most commonly use for news, with little change since 2017. About four-in-ten Americans (43%) get news on Facebook. The next most commonly used site for news is YouTube, with 21% getting news there, followed by Twitter at 12%. Smaller portions of Americans (8% or fewer) get news from other social networks like Instagram, LinkedIn or Snapchat.” Who knows how these statistics will change among the next generation, though?

All of this data is very interesting, especially since the internet is still young and its effects on politics are advancing every day. Hindman opens his article that I referenced earlier by making this statement: “Perhaps no part of the American media environment is as little understood as Web‐based local news.” Surely more research needs to be done on this topic! Only time will tell how emerging technologies will continue to evolve news consumption trends in America.

 

 

 

Could Partisanship be a GOOD Thing??

Selective exposure. It is a term that may be relatively unknown to the layman but is clearly visible if one is aware of what it is and what it looks like. Especially when it comes to politics.

Natalie Jomini Stroud, a leading source on the topic of selective exposure, says in a study she wrote titled The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication, “Selective exposure is the motivated selection of messages matching one’s beliefs” (Stroud, 531). Basically, the idea here is that, given the many options of today’s news climate, people will choose to ignore the news that contradicts their fundamental beliefs and instead will consume the news that conforms to their preexisting notions. I encourage you to check out Stroud’s article titled “Polarization and Partisan Selective Exposure” to learn more about selective exposure here.

Everybody knows that news outlets such as Fox and CNN are biased. So why do people tune in? There is plenty of research on the issue at hand. Leon Festinger, recognized as the father of modern social psychology, wrote a book in 1957 titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance that has received much scholarly acclaim and is a widely accepted reason for selective exposure. Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory can be explained using the analogy of a smoking habit. Somebody who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, knowing full well that smoking causes cancer, is living in dissonance.Their behaviors do not align with their cognition. The theory of cognitive dissonance would suggest that one does not enjoy the state of dissonance and thus will try to remove the dissonance and experience peace. For the smoker, they would have to quit their smoking habit to come to a point of consonance. You can read more about cognitive dissonance here. When it comes to politics, the theory of cognitive dissonance would provide a reason why we engage in selective exposure. Because we don’t like the feeling of dissonance, which can be created by receiving opposing political opinions, an easy solution is to simply ignore news that contradicts your opinions. Thus you are left with partisan selective exposure.

So if cognitive dissonance is why we engage in selective exposure, what are some results of selective exposure? Well, when it comes to politics, some outcomes include polarization of the political climate, increased selective exposure, and less tolerance for those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. These are all negative outcomes of selective exposure, but what if selective exposure is a good thing? What if selective exposure has its place in democracy? What if partisanship isn’t as bad as it first seems?

The New York Times produced an article on March 1, 2018 titled “What Motivates Voters More Than Loyalty? Loathing”which discusses the topic of “negative partisanship”. Negative partisanship is the concept that voters align themselves against the opposing party rather than with their own party. The 2016 presidential election provides pretty good evidence in support of the prevalence of this notion.

Now, this article still seems to shine a negative light on partisanship, and you can surely understand why! Nobody wants to identify with anger and hatred toward a political candidate, or anyone for that matter! These are emotions that people largely want to deny. Yet, as this article implies, these emotions are the very thing which motivates voters to get to the polls on election day!

So I submit this thought: if selective exposure, which is compelled by cognitive dissonance and leads to negative partisanship, encourages citizens to vote, then how bad can it really be? In a democracy, voting is arguably the easiest way to participate in politics, and it is vitally important to the success of a democracy. Check out this chart recording the voter turnout rates since 1916. Is the increase in voter turnout in recent years due in part to negative partisanship?

 

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 7

Their road to New York was comparatively uneventful, even though they crossed paths with a grizzly bear, got beat up by a gang of homeless people, and spent a couple months working for a circus troupe. While those experiences did contribute to the overall growth of the three protagonists, I as an author have run out of valuable ideas for plot twists that would keep you, the reader, engaged in the rest of this story. I was planning on making this book ten chapters because, well, why not? Ten is a good number… However, I am proud of myself for even reaching this point in the story and have decided that I am ready to end this saga after only seven chapters. But let’s be real… seven is the perfect number, right? So let’s just pretend that I planned this all along.

Anyway, let’s skip to the part of the story you’ve all been waiting for. Cue the scene where Anthony, Antwon, and Rachel are sitting in the restaurant, chowing down on the best chicken and waffles in the nation.

“So what’s something you’ve learned on our journey?” Anthony asked the group.

Antwon and Rachel thought for a moment, before both starting their sentences at the same time and then awkwardly halting because they didn’t want to interrupt the other, and then starting again at the same time and stopping again because— well, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there.

Finally, Rachel was chosen to speak first and this is what she said.

“I haven’t learned anything.”

“Yeah, same here,” Antwon agreed.

“Well, but… surely you learned something!” Anthony said.

“Nope.”

“Nah.”

Silence engulfed them for a while. Anthony was flabbergasted (boy, that’s such a mom word) that his compadres hadn’t learned anything from their months on the road together. Nothing? Nothing at all? That’s hard to believe…

“Well I learned,” Anthony began, “that life on the road has its own challenges. I learned that self-discovery sabbaticals aren’t all they’re hyped up to be.. that you can learn about yourself even at a boring desk job. I learned that I should value stability in life and having a job is a good thing. I learned that I can’t always trust people, but that I should give grace to people anyway. I learned the value of second chances. I learned that weird people like you guys can be the best friends a guy can ask for!”

“Wow, you sure learned a lot,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, I guess I learned all that too,” Antwon said, his gaze fixed on a beautiful woman across the restaurant.

Anthony and Rachel turned to look at the girl Antwon was looking at. She wasn’t honestly that beautiful, but to each his own…

“Hey, you should go ask her out,” Anthony said, elbowing Antwon playfully.

“Ehh… I tried that once, remember? Didn’t work too well.”

“Yeah, but you can’t give up! What do you have to lose?”

So Antwon plucked up his courage and walked confidently over to the table where the woman of his dreams was sitting with a few of her friends, laughing.

“Excuse me, my name is Anthony VanHilderbrant and I think you’re extremely attractive. Would you like to go on a date?”

“No,” said the woman.

“Fine,” said Antwon. 

When he returned to Anthony and Rachel’s table, rejected and defeated, he found them making out like two turtle doves at Christmas time.

“WOAH! Since when did you two…” His voice trailed off at the end. He was utterly confused, and quite frankly, terrified.

“Oh, we’ve been in love this whole time!” Anthony said. “Ever since I laid eyes on you in the Hungry Hamster, I knew…” 

“Ew, get a room!”

“Actually, we’re gonna get married. Will you be my best man, Antwon?”

“Dude, how did I not see this coming?? Are y’all for real right now or are you… what’s the phrase… pulling my leg??”

“No leg pulling here,” Rachel said.

“Well then I’d be happy to be your best man, Anthony.”

So they took their chicken and waffles to go and drove to a courthouse where Anthony and Rachel eloped. It was a happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy occasion. Truly happy, one might say.

As they sat down on the steps to the courthouse, holding a marriage license in one hand, and their chicken and waffles in another hand, nothing in the entire world could ruin the magic of the moment. 

“This is like Hollywood. A perfectly happy ending. We just need someone to say ‘and they all lived happily ever after,’” Rachel said.

“And they all lived happily ever after,” said Antwon.

Anthony sighed happily. What a day.

“Y’know, this might be kinda controversial, but I don’t really like chicken and waffles…” Antwon said.

“Yeah, me neither,” Rachel said.

Anthony just laughed. He loved chicken and waffles.

THE END

 

Author’s Note: This story is based on true events.

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 6

The three of them spent that night in a jail cell. The next morning they all had to pee but nobody dared use the toilet in the cell. That would be awkward. At 8 AM, an officer escorted them to an interrogation room, one of those cool ones that has the two-way glass. Antwon thought it was cool. Anthony was upset he was being interrogated for a crime he never tried to commit. Rachel was unimpressed with the entire situation.

“I’m going to ask you a few questions now,” the officer began.

“Um, excuse me, real quick, sorry for interrupting, but I have to pee. Can I use the bathroom before we get started?”

“Oh, me too!” Rachel and Antwon agreed.

The officer looked frustrated. “Wasn’t there a toilet in the cell?”

“Yeah, but that’s weird…” Anthony said, glancing around at Antwon and Rachel, who both made weird faces too. The officer sighed heavily and escorted them to the bathroom and then back to the interrogation room.

“Okay, confession time. Did you rob the bank?”

“Technically, yes,” Anthony began, looking around at his companions nervously, “but we never intended to! The real criminal is her sister. She forced us at gunpoint to front the operation. Plus, it should be obvious! Check the duffel bag we had in the bus! It’s empty! We were just a decoy so that Coral and her posse could get away clean!”

“So you’re saying there were more than the three of you involved in the robbery?”

“Yes! There were five others! Coral-“

“Gonzalez,” Rachel interjected.

“Her name isn’t Coral?” Anthony asked.

“No, it is. Our last name is Gonzalez,” Rachel said.

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Yeah.”

“So there was Coral Gonzalez, a big man named Jimmy, another big dude named D’vonne, and one other we don’t know the name of..”

“Rich,” Rachel said.

“Well they’re certainly rich now…” Antwon said, rolling his eyes.

“No,” Rachel said, rolling her eyes, “the other guy’s name is Rich. Probably short for Richard, but we always just called him Rich.”

“Ohhh,” Antwon and Anthony said in unison.

“So you knew the rest of the gang?” The officer asked Rachel. He was taking notes on their story.

“Yeah… to be honest, I am partly to blame for the whole operation. I was the one that led these guys into the heist… my sister Coral—“

“Did you just confess to criminal activity?” The officer said ecstatically. He probably wasn’t very experienced and was eager for a breakthrough.

Rachel diverted her eyes downward, ashamed. “Well, sort of. I did help in the heist, but I was denied any payoff and sent away with these guys, who were genuinely innocent… so maybe that makes me mostly innocent?”

“Hm.. makes sense,” the officer said, scratching something off on his notepad.

“Rachel, this probably a weird time to bring this up, but you’re not monotone anymore! I’m so proud of your voice right now!”

There was a long, awkward silence. Leave it to Anthony to misread social cues and be overly optimistic in a clearly dreadful situation. I mean, c’mon! They’re in jail being questioned by a cop!

“Okay, well is there anything else you want to add?” The officer piped up. 

Antwon, Rachel, and Anthony exchanged glances as if to wonder if there was anything else to add.

“Um,” Antwon began, “I’d like to add that I was responsible for evading the cops in the bus. I installed nitrous in the bus, which I think is technically illegal… but it was really fun.”

“Ah,” the officer said and wrote something down on his notepad. “Okay, so Rachel is partially innocent, Antwon is kinda innocent but also kinda guilty, and Anthony is a pure little baby angel who hasn’t grown his wings yet. Got it.”

“Also,” Anthony said, “Rachel, while partially guilty, is changed now. She spat on her hand and shook my hand – I spat on my hand too, so you know it’s legit – she is committed to living a wholesome life and rediscovering her true self, just like Antwon and I. That’s how we met Rachel in the first place—“

“So Rachel is or isn’t partially guilty..?” The officer interjected, looking around the room skeptically.

“Uh, well I guess that’s your job to figure out…” Anthony said, confusion lacing his voice.

“But basically I’m innocent, for the most part,” Rachel chimed in.

“Okay, this is confusing. I’ll go look over my notes and see what conclusions I can draw. I’ll escort you back to your cell now… you each have one call if you want to call someone.”

Back in the cell, they discussed who they might call with their one phone call.

“I might call Ed…” Antwon said.

“But he’s dead,” Anthony responded.

“Well, you never know.”

“What do you mean, ‘you never know’?? He is dead, isn’t he??”

“Well… yes.”

“Then why would you waste a phone call on a dead guy?”

“Hey listen! He’s not just some dead guy. Ed is my hero, my inspiration—“

Was,” Said Rachel sarcastically.

“Besides,” Antwon continued, “He’s the only phone number I know. It’s not like the phone at the police station is going to have my speed dial presets…”

After a pause, Rachel piped up. “I think I’ll call Coral.”

“Coral? How would she help you?”

“Well, she won’t… but I can at least let her know that her evilness landed us in jail and that I refuse to ever work with her ever again. Ever.”

“Attagirl!” 

“Who will you call, Anthony?”

“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about my best friend growing up – the one who went into a coma and who’s cat I refused to look after – his name is Alan and I haven’t talked to him in years… but I can’t help but wonder how he’s doing. I think I might call him and see if he’s okay… maybe apologize for all those nasty things I said back in high school.”

“Guys, I think you’re missing the point of a phone call when arrested,” said an unfamiliar and strangely deep voice from the cell next to them. Had he been listening to their entire conversation? Oh well…

“That’s really nice, Anthony. I think you should call Alan,” Said Antwon. It was the first encouraging thing he had ever said. And I mean ever. Not just since he had been with Anthony on the bus, but like, ever, ever. This little self-discovery excursion was having a positive effect on Antwon after all! He was softening! Who woulda thought.

The three amigos spent another night in the jail cell. The next day they had the opportunity to make a phone call. They all tried, but nobody answered their calls. You know how in the movies when a criminal is given a phone call, the person they try to call always answers after one or two rings? Yeah, that’s kinda unrealistic… 

That day, however, the same officer from the day before came and let them go. “Well, your story checks out. Turns out one of the cameras in the bank was left uncovered and we were able to identify the real criminals. We’re currently searching for them, but you guys are free to go.”

And so Anthony, Antwon, and Rachel gratefully returned to the bus.

“You know, I think it’s about time we painted the bus.”

So they stopped at a body shop and had the bus painted white, with black splotches all over so it looked like a cow. And then, in beautifully italicized yellow letters was painted the bus’s splendiforous new name, Chicken and Waffles. It was beautiful, nay, it was glorious. 

“Well my friends, is it about time to go experience the best chicken and waffles in the nation?” 

“Oh yeah.”

They drove nonstop for ten hours from Nashville to—

“Wait guys!” Rachel’s shrill screech nearly caused Anthony to swerve off the road from fright. “Guys! I just read this article about the best chicken and waffles in the nation… none of these restaurants are in Texas!!”

“But the waitress at that one diner in chapter one told me the best chicken and waffles are in Texas!” Anthony said, sounding rather offended.

“You didn’t think to fact check her??” Rachel was still shrieking.

“I’m a trusting guy, what can I say??”

“Wait, hold on a second,” Antwon said, “did you say you stopped at a diner in chapter one? What are we, characters in a book or something?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what we are,” Anthony responded.

“Yeah, you didn’t figure that out by now? There are so many plot holes in this story too! How did you not know this already?” Rachel added. Antwon shrugged.

“So what do we do now? Are we still gonna go to Texas even if the best chicken and waffles are in New York City??” 

“Dang, we’re not even close to the best chicken and waffles in the nation..”

Anthony was, understandably, disappointed. If this little sabbatical from the real world had taught him anything, it was to trust people less. Rachel, Coral, Antwon, the waitress at the diner… they had all either directly or indirectly lied to him and made his life more difficult! How can anybody trust anybody these days? Anthony was becoming a real skeptic and that was honestly the last thing he wanted to become.

“Well I vote we go to NYC,” Antwon said.

So they did.

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 5

They drove south. Anthony drove Chicken and Waffles with Antwon, Rachel, and Coral. Following them closely were the other gang members driving an inconspicuous black van. Coral shouted directions at Anthony as she filled them in on their roles in the crime, which was quickly realized to be a bank robbery. Darkness was upon them by the time they arrived a block away from the bank they intended to rob. The bank was getting ready to close down for the night. Perfect time for a bank heist, Coral insisted. 

Anthony was given a small black duffel bag, a ski mask, and an air soft gun with the orange tip removed, and was told to walk in the front door of the bank, point his “gun” at the teller, and demand that they start dumping money into the duffel. Meanwhile, Antwon, who was given a ladder, a roll of duct tape, and a walkie-talkie, was to walk in with Anthony and proceed to cover up every camera in the building with tape. Once they were all covered, he was to radio in to Coral, who had the other walkie-talkie. From there the rest of the gang would take it and Anthony and Antwon were to look out for cops.

“Can I have a ski mask too?” Asked Antwon.

“You can put duct tape on your face,” Coral replied with a mean smile.

A few minutes later it was go time whether Anthony and Antwon wanted it to be or not. They stepped out of the bus and headed for the bank, dreading every step.

“Is there any way we can get out of this?” Anthony thought out loud.

“I don’t know but I’m excited. I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, haven’t you?” Antwon responded.

Anthony didn’t know if he was joking but really hoped he was.

They reached the bank door, took a deep breath, and swung it open. Then Anthony realized he hadn’t pulled the ski mask over his face. He frantically did so, then rushed the teller.

“Hey man, I really hate to do this, but I have to. Would you mind putting all the money into this duffel bag? Thanks.”

Anthony was without a doubt the friendliest bank robber in the history of bank robbers. But despite his politeness, the teller sprung into action, obeying rapidly. Meanwhile, Antwon covered over the cameras and then called Coral on the Walkie-Talkie.

“Uh, Coral? Code: you can come in now.”

“Idiot, don’t say my name out loud!” Coral responded angrily.

“Code: sorry boss,” Antwon responded.

“Hey Anthony,” Antwon said, “when Coral comes in you should shoot her with your air soft gun.”

The bank teller looked confused. “That’s only an air soft gun?”

Before Anthony could respond, Coral and Rachel and the rest of the gang entered, real guns drawn. They took over the operation, ensuring the teller was emptying all the money and not just some of it.

Just for the heck of it, Anthony shot Coral with the air soft gun.

“Give me that!” She took the air soft gun and pocketed it. 

Anthony looked over at Antwon, who just shrugged.

The heist was going swimmingly. Anthony and Antwon begrudgingly stood look out for red and blue lights while the rest of the gang frantically stuffed money into bags.

Anthony’s mind raced. “I can’t believe I’m a part of a bank robbery right now! What if I get caught? I might go to prison for a crime I never wanted to commit! This is insane! Why did I ever leave Cincinnati??”

The sound of sirens interrupted his thoughts. He whipped his head around and made eye contact with Coral. Everybody’s head popped away from what they were doing for a split second before diving back into their thieving activities with extra fervor.

“Hurry up boys! The Popo is coming!”

Another iconic line from the infamous villain… she must have been a Hollywood actress in another life.

Finally all the money had been stuffed into the duffel. Coral rushed up to Anthony and shoved the duffel into his arms. “Okay, Jumpy. Now your real job begins. You and Antwon – oh and Rachel too – take the bag and get out of here! Hop back in your bus and try to evade the cops. If you don’t, sucks to be you. But if you do, cool I guess. I don’t really care. But lead the cops away so we can get away clean.”

“Wait!” Rachel said, anger all over her face, “This wasn’t the plan! I was supposed to go with you guys!”

“There’s no room for you in the van,” Coral said matter-of-factly. Rachel was going to argue more but the sirens were too close for comfort. There was no time for arguments.

“GO!” Coral yelled.

Anthony, Antwon, and Rachel sprinted out the bank door and down the street to where the bus was parked. Cop cars came screeching around the corner at that moment, wailing like it was the end of the world. Maybe it was for them, thought Anthony.

“Why did Coral give us the bag? Now we’re gonna get caught and they won’t make a dime!” Anthony huffed.

“It doesn’t make sense, does it?” Antwon returned.

“Idiots, this duffel is a decoy! They have the real money back in the bank still!” Rachel yelled.

It all made sense now. Anthony and Antwon were just decoys. They had a fake duffel with fake money, running away from the crime scene where the real criminals were still hiding, waiting for the commotion to end so they could slip away unnoticed. And it was working too! The cops zeroed in on the three fugitives and paid no attention to the bank. They were intent on capturing their criminals! They’d come back to secure the crime scene later.

They reached the bus ahead of the cops but they were close behind.

“I’ll drive!” Antwon said.

“You sure?” Anthony asked.

“Trust me.”

So Anthony gave Antwon the keys and he fired up the engine. 

“Ohhh baby, stuff’s about to get real!” 

And the chase was on.

“Rachel, how do you feel now? You betrayed us and now your little scheme has backfired! None of us are ever going to see a penny of that cash. You put our lives at risk for nothing. You should be ashamed of yourself!”

The bus lurched this way and that way as they skidded around corners and ran red lights. Anthony and Rachel held on for dear life.

“Coral played you like a fool, Rachel! And you played us too. As soon as we evade these cops, we’re dumping you.”

“HANG ONN!!” Antwon yelled from the front as he engaged nitrous. The bus hurtled ahead at supersonic speeds.

“ANTWON, DID YOU INSTALL TURBO IN THIS BUS?!” 

“NITROUS, NOT TURBO. THERE’S A DIFFERENCE!” 

“WHEN?? HOW?”

“TURBO CAN’T PRODUCE INSTANT HORSEPOWER BUT NITROUS–”

“NO, NO, I MEAN WHEN DID YOU INSTALL THE NITROUS??”

“BACK WHEN THE BUS BROKE DOWN ON THE HIGHWAY. AT THE AUTO PARTS STORE I PICKED ONE OF THESE BAD BOYS UP AND BOY AM I GLAD I DID! I KNEW IT WOULD COME IN HANDY SOMEDAY! YEEEEEEHAWWW!”

“HOW FAST ARE WE GOING??”

“300 MILES PER HOUR!! WOOOHOOO”

“WE’RE GONNA DIEEEE”

“WE’VE ALMOST EVADED THE COPS. HANG ON, I’M GONNA TAKE A FEW TURNS AND SEE IF WE CAN LOSE EM!”

Anthony felt like he was on a roller coaster and his stomach was not having it. He was ready to puke everything he had ever eaten. Fortunately, Antwon skidded the bus to a halt behind a large barn.

Anthony, Antwon, and Rachel breathed heavily for a moment. There was no sound of sirens anywhere near them. They had lost the cops! After a few dumbfounding moments of silence, Anthony spoke.

“Where did you learn to drive like that?”

“I used to be a NASCAR driver,” Antwon said.

“What?? You didn’t include that in your life story!!”

“Yeah, I guess I left that part out.”

No more explanations were made and silence ensued for another few minutes. Antwon looked exhilarated, like he had just won the lottery or something. Anthony still looked sick, but was also very grateful that he wasn’t behind bars. Rachel looked depressed and mopey.

“Guys, I’m sorry I misled you. It was an awful thing to do.”

While short, it was a sincere apology. Rachel’s usual monotone was replaced with some variation and for the first time that Anthony or Antwon had seen, she was on the brink of tears. Still, Anthony wasn’t convinced.

“Yeah, not good enough. I think it’s about time you leave.”

“But-“

“You used us! There’s no way you can redeem yourself after something like this!”

Rachel drooped her head. “I guess you’re right.” She got up and slowly headed to the doors of the bus. Just before marching outside, she turned to address them one more time.

“You know, when you said at the restaurant that you judged me wrong and that I wasn’t truly trying to become a better person… well I was at first. When you offered your companionship at the restaurant, I sincerely saw it as an opportunity to start over. But then Coral called and I wasn’t strong enough to pass up this new opportunity. I was a fool and I’m sorry.”

With that, she turned and exited the bus. Anthony and Antwon made eye contact. Antwon was, of course, stoic, but Anthony felt a little something tugging on his aorta and maybe his right ventricle as well. Maybe Rachel was sincere… maybe she was ready to start over. Does she deserve a second chance? 

“Rachel, wait!”

Rachel turned back, her head low and eyes sad.

“If you really mean it, and you really do want to start over, I’m willing to give you a second chance. Antwon is too.” Antwon nodded, even though Anthony hadn’t asked if he was willing or not. But he was.

Rachel’s face lit up gently. “Really?”

“One condition.”

“Name it.”

“We do one of those handshakes where we both spit on our hands before handshaking.” Anthony was dead serious. Rachel hid a grin.

“Deal.”

And they shook spit-hands. Everyone knows that kind of handshake is binding and is only shared between committed people. 

“One more condition,” Anthony said seriously.

“So there’s two conditions?”

“If you join us on our journey of self-discovery, you have to be committed to making right what you’ve done wrong. I expect you to call Coral and tell her you’ll never have dealings with her gang again. You’re starting fresh. Understood?”

Rachel nodded her head eagerly. “I’ll make the call right now.”

“Uh, guys,” Antwon interjected, gazing out the windshield.

Standing in front of the bus was a whole fleet of police officers, weapons drawn.

“Frickin frick monster!!” Anthony said.

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 4

That evening ended uneventfully. Everyone was rather tired so they parked in a Walmart parking lot and bought a few inflatable air mattresses to sleep on instead of the uncomfortable bus seats. Antwon slept in the far back of the bus, Rachel slept in the middle section, and Anthony took the front of the bus. It seemed appropriate. Anthony slept a whole lot better than the previous night and the next morning, over some food they bought at Walmart, they all agreed they had slept rather peacefully. And so, high spirits endured through the night and into the next day.

They hadn’t been driving but an hour or two when Anthony struck up conversation with Rachel. He wanted to learn about the newest member of their little gang. They were, after all, stuck in a bus with a long journey ahead of them. 

“So Rachel, tell me about yourself. Where did you come from? Where did you go? Where did you come from, cotton eyed Joe?”

Anthony chuckled at his joke, but nobody else thought it was funny.

“Well,” Rachel began, “I grew up in Virginia in a small town on the coast—“

She hadn’t gotten a sentence into her story before the bus coughed loudly and lurched forward once, twice, three times, and then came to a sudden stop in the shoulder of the highway. A cloud of smoke emerged from under the hood of the bus.

“Oh great, something blew,” Anthony said.

The three of them sat there for a while. What’s protocol here? Does anybody know how to fix engines? Should we even get out of the bus while sitting on the side of the highway with cars zipping by at a hundred miles an hour? Should we call roadside assistance? Since I’m a man, shouldn’t I be able to fix it myself… or at least pretend like I can?

“I’ll take a look at it,” Antwon said, “I can probably fix it.”

While Antwon exited the bus and lifted the hood, Anthony and Rachel remained inside. There was nothing else to do, so Anthony struck up a conversation.

“I hope Antwon knows what he’s doing out there. I certainly don’t know how to fix things.”

“Neither do I. I can’t even change my own engine oil… wish my dad would’ve taught me when I was younger.”

“It seemed like a pretty bad problem. I hope we can salvage some stuff and keep the bus running.”

Just then, Rachel’s phone rang. She looked down to see the caller ID, looked up at Anthony quickly, then excused herself. She seemed a little nervous to Anthony. Something was going on, but he didn’t know what. She spoke in hushed tones in the back of the bus. It was a quick conversation. When she returned to the front where Anthony was sitting, she seemed a little fidgety.

“Who was that?” Anthony asked.

“Uh.. my sister. She’s kind of in some trouble. Do you think we can make a pit stop in Nashville? She needs my help.”

“I thought you said that you didn’t have any family or friends?”

“Oh, uh.. well we’re not really close. But she’s blood.. I gotta help her out, right?

Before Anthony could respond, Antwon re-entered the bus with some news.

“I figured out what caused the problem. We’re going to need to get to an auto parts store so I can pick up another radiator hose. There’s a leak in the line and that’s what caused the lurching. I should be able to put it in myself, I just need a tool or two. I saw a sign for an auto parts store back a few miles. It’ll be a hike, but it’s not like we’re really in much of a hurry anyway, right?”

“Rachel’s sister is in trouble and needs our help. Once we fix this baby, we’re gonna make a pit stop in Nashville. Is that okay?” Anthony asked Antwon. He just shrugged. He was on a mission. After a short silence, he said, “I’m gonna go,” and started hiking along the shoulder of the highway.

“Hang on, wait up, we’re gonna come with!” Anthony shouted and beckoned for Rachel to follow. “Let’s go with him, maybe we can help. Plus, we’ll be bored here on the bus for a couple hours.”

It made sense to Rachel, so the three amigos set off toward the auto parts store. Once they got off the highway and away from the noise of cars speeding past them, Anthony asked, “so what’s the story with you and your sister, Rachel?”

“Coral, my sister, was always the troublemaker of the family. It was just me and her growing up and since she was older than me by a year, she received harsher discipline than I. I was the spoiled kid and she had it rough. At least that’s what she’d tell you. I guess I’d have to agree. But she always butted heads with my parents and high school was real rough for her. The first chance she got, she ran away from home and started doing her own thing. I would see her from time to time, mostly when she needed a place to stay or some money. My parents never denied her a roof over her head. But she never stayed long. 

I remember there was a long period where I didn’t see her for a couple years. Then one day she came back and I barely recognized her. She had cut and dyed her hair, she was all tatted up, she had piercings everywhere… she was a different person. She stayed for a while, just long enough for her to decide for the hundredth time that she hated all of us. And then she was gone again. It was always like that; she always came back for one reason or another, but was never around long enough for me to grow attached. It was like that until I moved out. 

Once I was out of my parents’ house, Coral called me and asked me if I wanted to join some sort of gang she was apart of. I told her I wanted to live a good life. I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations. Someone has to make up for all of my sister’s bad choices. She called me a name or two and then hung up and I hadn’t heard from her until today. It’s been four years… she didn’t even call when my parents died. Of course she would call now, when she needs help.”

Rachel’s story was told in her typical monotone, although it was slightly more fluctuated than when she was in the restaurant. If they hadn’t been walking, Antwon would’ve fallen asleep because of how bored she sounded.

They finished their trek to the auto parts store in silence, got the parts they needed, and hiked all the way back to the bus. By early afternoon, Antwon had fixed the bus and they were back on the road.

When they arrived in Nashville, they went to a food place to wait for Coral, Rachel’s sister. They were supposed to meet up there and Coral would explain why she needed Rachel’s help and then they would do their best to help her. Anthony couldn’t help but be suspicious. Rachel was acting strange.. but Anthony didn’t really know her well enough to know that for sure. But just to be safe, he kept his eye on the door and mentally planned his exit if it came to that.

This is life on the edge, Anthony decided. This is what comes with living spontaneously. If you want to live a little, you have to embrace the potential dangers as well. Never before had he lived this kind of life, so it was unnerving and uncomfortable, but who said life had to be comfortable? 

A couple big men walked in and took a seat at a table near them. They were wearing dark clothing and Anthony couldn’t help but think the worst of them. He hated that he was so cynical all the time but it was in his blood. 

Two other darkly-clothed fellows entered and took a seat near the other two. Now this was getting a little creepy. Who were all these people? Were they some sort of gang? Were they planning something? Then Anthony noticed that every time he secretly glanced over at one of them, they were discretely watching them. He would make eye contact for a brief moment before one of them would turn back and pretend like everything was normal. Anthony was getting really nervous and was ready to tell his friends that they need to move, but before he could, a girl walked in and headed straight for their table.

“I think Coral is here,” Anthony said quietly to Antwon and Rachel. Both of them turned to look and Rachel stood to greet her sister. When Coral reached the table, they awkwardly embraced, exchanged a knowing look, and sat down.

“Coral, this is Antwon and Anthony. They’re cool.”

“So they’re in?” Coral asked.

“What do you mean, ‘in’?” Asked Anthony, brow wrinkled in concern.

“You didn’t tell them?” Coral said to Rachel, her eyes throwing invisible darts at her.

“I thought I’d let you explain,” Rachel responded. 

“You always did let me do the heavy lifting… welcome back little sister.”

“I thought you needed our help? What is this? What’s going on?” Anthony was ready to spring for the emergency exit, as it was near him. He looked around at all the dark-clothed thugs at tables near him and they were all focused intently on him. They seemed ready to stop him if he tried to run for it. He wondered if he could make it to the exit in time, and even if he did would he have enough time to make it to the bus and escape? And maybe he made it, but what about Antwon? He couldn’t just abandon his new friend like that! Antwon had been through enough hardship in his life, how could he cause that kind of pain to an already burdened man?

“Calm down, jumpy. I do need your help… we need your help,” for the first time, Coral addressed the other members of her party, tilting her head in their direction as if to indicate that they were with her.

Then it clicked in Anthony’s mind. Rachel had lied about her story. Rachel had joined Coral’s gang and was apparently still working with them! He darted his gaze to Rachel to see if her expression would betray her feelings, but he learned nothing. He exchanged a knowing look with Antwon, who had remained silent up until this point. Anthony wondered if Antwon was aware of what was happening.

“Look, all of us are good people,” Coral continued, “We’ve all been dealt a bad hand in life and we’re trying to turn the cards in our favor, that’s all. Jimmy over there has a daughter with type 1 diabetes. You know how much it costs to keep her alive? D’vonne over there is saving up to buy his girl a house. Look, we’ve all made a mistake or two and the world refused to give us a second chance. You know how hard it is to get a job as an ex-con? All we’re doing is giving ourselves a second chance. And we need your help. Do you believe in second chances, Anthony?”

Anthony saw straight through her sob story. She was pulling on his heart strings, but he knew better. Who knew if she was telling the truth, but even if she was, they put themselves there and it wasn’t on him to get them out. What was he supposed to do now though? 

“What do you need us for? You have a lot of people in your crew already. What more could two untalented men add to your group?”

“Well, for starters we need your bus. But I’d be willing to bet that you aren’t as untalented as you assume. We need two unassuming guys like yourselves to front our mission. We’ll pay you generously, I might add.”

Anthony looked at Antwon. His expression was unchanging, expressionless. Ugh! Give me something, Antwon! Help me out!

“Look, me and Antwon are on a journey of self-discovery. We’re not looking for trouble and we aren’t hurting for cash either. We’re just taking a mulligan in life and trying to reconnect with our true selves. Obviously Rachel was never sincerely looking for positive change, either. I think it’d be best if you found two other guys to help you out. We’re just gonna go—“

Before Anthony could finish his monologue and bolt for the exit, he heard a distinct click from under the table. It was obviously the sound of the hammer of a revolver being pulled into place, ready to fire. Anthony’s heart skipped a beat or two and his brain was rushed with screaming cells of information, intent on sacking the quarterback. It was successful apparently because he couldn’t think of a way he and Antwon got out of this scenario alive.

Just then the waiter walked up to the table and asked if they were ready to order. If the moment weren’t so intense, it would have been comical. Coral abruptly told the waiter they needed more time and he walked away slowly. The tension was tense.

“Sit down and nobody gets hurt,” Coral said slowly, quietly. She said it as if she were the villain of a movie, delivering an iconic line. “Here’s the deal,” she continued, “You lend us your bus and take the fall for our crimes, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come out of this alive. Or, if you prefer, I can kill you both right now and steal your bus anyway. You choose.”

Anthony slowly lowered himself back into his chair and glanced at Antwon again. His face was still expressionless. How could he remain so resolute in a moment like this? Anthony looked over at Rachel, but she showed no sympathy. He felt betrayed. Why did he ever trust her? Was everything she had said a lie? Did she not want a restart in life? Why would she quit her job and go with them if she didn’t at least partially want an above-board life? Maybe she was being coerced into this gang. Coral was the real devil, she was just a victim! Maybe. Time will tell.

“Tell us what we need to do,” Anthony said with resolve. This was his only option. Either they go along with Coral’s schemes, or they die… it wasn’t much of a choice! Maybe they could find an escape during the middle of this mess, but it didn’t look good.

Anthony swore under his breath. He never should have left his easy life. He left a stable job and a comfortable daily routine for this? What was he thinking? This is why people settle down and stay in the suburbs and retire early. This life is for millennials and crazies!

It was the first time Anthony second guessed his decisions, but he didn’t have time to dwell on his misfortune. 

“Let’s go, we’ll fill you in on details on the way.”

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 3

By the time Antwon had finished his heartbreaking story, they were well into Kentucky, getting ready to cross over into Tennessee! Anthony hadn’t spoken a word through the entire story, paying respects to Antwon and his violent emotions. Anthony didn’t know what to say when Antwon finished, other than “I really have to pee.”

They stopped at a convenience store, filled up the bus with fresh, fresh diesel, got a bagel or two, and continued their trip. Antwon returned to his quiet and composed state, but Anthony felt the need to address the heartbreaking story. He hoped he didn’t make Antwon cry more. Emotions always made him uncomfortable.

“What a heartbreaking story,” was all he could muster. Pretty weak, but a story of this magnitude couldn’t be helped! What else was he supposed to say??

They drove in silence for a long while after that, the only sound being their mouths munching on the delicious salty snacks they had snagged. 

“You should know,” Antwon said to Anthony’s shock, “I’ve never been much of a talker.. I think that was the longest I’ve ever talked at one time. It feels so good.”

Anthony smiled.

“You’re a good listener,” Antwon finished.

Anthony’s smile beamed wider. While he had only known Antwon for hours, he felt a special connection with him.

After a beat, Anthony felt it was his turn to talk, just for a little while.

“Are you curious why I’m driving a school bus with the words ‘Deport the Mexicans’ written on the side, to Texas?”

“No,” Antwon responded.

“Oh,” Anthony said, shrugging.

“But tell me anyway,” Antwon said after a beat.

“Yesterday, my girlfriend broke up with me, my father died, and my childhood best friend went into a coma and wants me to look after his cat. I guess I snapped because I quit my job and bought a school bus. I feel free for the first time in my life. I’m making an adventure. I have no idea what tomorrow holds. Every day is new; different. It’s a different feeling than I’ve ever experienced and I’m loving every second of it. Some kids vandalized my bus while I was in a diner eating chicken and waffles for the first time, so that’s why it says ‘deport the Mexicans’ on the side. You know what though, I don’t really care! Oh, and the reason I’m going to Texas is because the waitress at the diner said that they have really good chicken and waffles in the south! I’m living impulsively. Who knows how long I can support myself like this, but I’m going to find out! This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life! You know what’s sad though, is nobody cares that I’m not in Cincinnati, Ohio anymore. I’m not close to anyone, really. I’m too boring for a fun job, too boring for a girlfriend, too boring for life. So screw Ohio! I’m going to Texas, baby!”

It was the first time Anthony had vocalized his feelings and boy, did it feel good! 

Antwon didn’t say anything. He may have had things to say about Anthony’s story, but he didn’t vocalize them. He was mentally and emotionally exhausted from his own story. They rode in silence for a long time, Anthony deep in thought. He thought about his life; how he had such a hard time connecting with people. His childhood friend that went into a coma wasn’t even his friend. They had had a falling out early in high school. Anthony hadn’t spoken to that friend in decades! Why did they reach out to him, he wondered?

The sun dropped lower and lower in the sky, leaving behind beautiful pink and orange streaks. Anthony imagined a giant holding massive paintbrushes and using the sky as a canvas. It was truly breathtaking. Anthony thought with dismay that he couldn’t remember a time in his life when he had sat and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. A tragedy to be sure! 

They decided to stop for dinner at a restaurant called The Hungry Hamster. It looked pretty trashy but with a name like that, they couldn’t pass it up. They were chuckling as they sat down.

“Welcome to The Hungry Hamster, my name’s Rachel, I’ll be your waitress tonight.” She said it in monotone kind of like the waitress in The Emperor’s New Groove. (If you’ve never seen that movie, I implore you to stop reading this riveting story and go watch that movie immediately. It is quite literally the best.) 

“What do you suggest, Rachel?” Anthony asked.

“The chicken and waffles are pretty good.” Rachel’s eyes batted boredly.

Anthony’s mind was blown. It was the second time in two days that somebody had mentioned chicken and waffles. It was a sign from heaven that Anthony was doing what he was always meant to do. Anthony’s face lit up with excitement and it took Rachel by surprise.

“What, do you really like chicken and waffles or something?” Rachel asked, still bored.

“Rachel —your name’s Rachel isn’t it?— you have no idea what I’ve been through in the past 48 hours and the central role that chicken and waffles has played in my story!” 

“Wow… that’s weird,” she replied, “So one chicken and waffles, and what would you like, sir?”

Antwon ordered a pizza. While they ate, Anthony kept an eye on Rachel. She truly had a sad existence. She seemed to hate her job, coworkers, even her life. She never smiled and never looked anyone in the eye. 

“I wonder what has happened to her to make her so grumpy,” Anthony said. Antwon just shrugged and stuffed more pizza in his mouth. 

Rachel came back with the tab at the end of the meal and before she could leave, Anthony decided to speak up. He couldn’t bear to see her so sad. Since his liberation from his own misery the previous day, he had a soft spot for other people’s happiness.

“Rachel,” he said, “Why do you look so angry all the time?”

The question caught Rachel by surprise. For the first time, she looked into his eyes, maybe to discern whether he was sincerely caring or just faking it. He was sincere. After an awkward silence, she shrugged and said, “there’s not much to be happy about.”

Antwon stopped stuffing his face, not because he was interested in this turn of conversation but because he had finally finished his pizza. Anthony remained silent, beckoning Rachel further into the conversation. His gaze remained unwavering; expectant. Finally, she caved.

“I’m gonna quit. This job sucks. I’m overworked and underpaid. I don’t have a family or friends. My life is meaningless. The only thing that brings me joy is my cat Penelope. If it weren’t for her, I might consider suicide.” 

Rachel said all these things with no emotion. One might expect her to be on the verge of tears, yet she remained steadfast in her apathy. It concerned Anthony immensely. In fact, he was on the verge of tears. 

“Rachel, my friend Antwon and I are on a journey of self discovery and downright adventure. That’s my bus outside. We’re road-tripping across the country to learn who we really are and also to find the best chicken and waffles in the south. Would you like to join us? My bus is quite big enough and Antwon isn’t much of a conversationalist. We’re good company for someone who has no company. I think we might do you a lot of good. What do you say?”

To Anthony’s surprise, she said “okay”, then walked to the back, loudly screeched at her manager that she quit, and walked back out to Anthony and Antwon and they all walked outside to the bus. They drove to Rachel’s house and picked up some of her belongings (including Penelope) and hit the road again.

Spirits were high that evening as they drove slowly in the right lane of the highway with 2 new bus members. Rachel actually seemed sort of happy (I say sort of because she was still a grumpy old grouch, but she seemed less salty; less like the Dead Sea and more like the Atlantic Ocean). 

Anthony was happier than ever. He had formed a little band of misfits and he could tell they would be friends. He had already found an odd companion in Antwon and he hoped he could say the same about Rachel. She seemed to him a little more intimidating than Antwon, though he couldn’t discern why, but he was optimistic about her. He was a man of hunches and his hunch told him that she needed them for some reason. Only time would tell if his hunch was true, he decided. 

“We should name the bus,” Rachel said in her usual monotone.

“What should we name it?”

There was a pause where nobody spoke. You know that moment with your group of friends when you have to decide where to eat but nobody wants to take charge because they’re scared the others won’t want to eat there? This was that kind of situation. Maybe everybody had a clever name for the bus, but nobody spoke up. But finally, Antwon did.

“Chicken and Waffles.” 

Anthony and Rachel thought it was hysterical and laughed together for the first time. It was quite raucous. From that moment forward, the bus was dubbed Chicken and Waffles. 

“When we get the chance, we’ll get rid of ‘deport the Mexicans’ and put ‘Chicken and Waffles’ on there instead.”

Everyone agreed it was a good idea.

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 2

“I was born into a cruel, uncaring family that never wanted me. I was the only child my mother ever bore because she never wanted a kid but got pregnant and her husband refused to let her get an abortion. They divorced shortly after I was born, and I was left on the front steps of our neighbor’s house. I eventually made it to an orphanage and there I spent my formative years.

The orphanage was pretty much the worst place on the face of the planet. I was always bullied for one reason or another. My head was too big, I wet the bed every night, I smelled bad… they always called me ‘Little Hitler’ and I never knew why.  

My only companion in the world was a stray dog I found when I was ten. I named him Brownie because he was brown. We did everything together. He was my comfort from the mean bullies that harassed me, he was by my side when I tried to escape the orphanage, and he was there for me when the head of the orphanage told me I would never ever be adopted. The bullies noticed my affinity towards Brownie and conspired against me. One day they were nice to me and though I should have seen right through their evil scheme, I was unaware. They gave me some extra food that day. They told me it was leftover chicken. But as I took a bite, they started snickering. The chicken tasted a little funny, but I was hungry so I kept eating it. As I took another bite, the bullies busted up laughing hysterically. Through clenched eyes and wide mouths they told me that I was eating Brownie. I was traumatized. That was the day I was broken. I became hard, unfeeling, uncaring. I refused to let anything get under my skin from that day forward. It worked because eventually the bullies stopped messing with me. I wasn’t enough fun for them anymore, so they began to target other kids. I was off the hook from my perpetual torment, but a new torment began. My inner voice spoke louder than any bully could. I believed I was worthless, garbage, refuse. I stopped speaking, I ate little, and I contemplated suicide. 

By the time I reached eighteen – the age of release from the orphanage – I had attempted suicide twice and I hadn’t spoken a word in two years. The orphanage released me onto the streets. I was on my own.

Most kids that graduate from orphanages find their way into gangs and become drug runners. It’s dangerous but provides a sense of security and family to someone who has never experienced those things before. I didn’t know what would happen to me; I didn’t really care. I was ready to die. My two suicide attempts had been failures – I couldn’t go through with them in the moment – so maybe being released onto the streets was my death sentence. It was about time. 

It wasn’t long before I ran across a street gang called The Dragonis. They beat me to a pulp, then took me in. I became a drug runner. They called me ‘the mute’ because I never spoke. I had vowed never to speak another word in my life. All that changed the day I met my mother.

I was on a drug run, delivering some crack cocaine to a trailer in the ghetto. The buyer turned out to be my mother. I had never met my mother, so I didn’t know she was my mother, but when I turned around to leave after she paid me and I gave her the drugs, I heard a gasp escape her lips. 

‘Anthony?’ She faintly whispered.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Nobody knew my name. I hadn’t spoken in years. Who was this woman? How did she know my name? 

What I did next was completely unexpected. Before I knew it, I was speaking for the first time in years.

‘How do you know my name?’

‘The birthmark on your neck… you’re my son!’

I reached my hand to the back of my neck where my splotchy birthmark was. Could this be my mother? I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, motionless. My mind was trying to process the situation, but it didn’t seem to be working.

‘How are you?’ She said softly. She said it almost out of duty rather than care, and I picked up on that. I realized she didn’t care about me and it hurt more than anything had. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to feel and a single tear dropped from my eye. I turned and ran out the door. If she didn’t care about me, why should I care about her?

As I ran quietly away, I heard her voice one last time. She said ‘come back sometime.’

‘Not likely,’ I said to myself as another tear escaped the prison of my face.

A few months passed and I continued running drugs, escaping the cops, and finding a sense of belonging with The Dragonis. But it was only a matter of time before the gang got busted and everyone dispersed. Most of the members got caught and went to jail but a few of us escaped. 

I was on my own again and for the next few weeks I lived on the streets, on the brink of starvation. I ate leftovers out of people’s trash cans and stole clothes from thrift stores to wear.

I went back to my mother’s trailer one day and it had been burned down. My mother was gone and her house was too. I always wondered what happened to her, but I never saw her again.

One day I was scoping out a rundown gas station to get some food when a trucker stopped to get some gas. He thought I looked suspicious and started talking to me.

‘Hey if you need a job, I could hook you up. You look pretty bad, friend, why don’t you come with me and I’ll get you a job. You should take care of yourself better. You’d better not try to rob this gas station. That life never ends well, friend. Come on with me and I’ll recommend you to my boss. We’ll get it all worked out.’

He was the first person to ever call me friend and something about him was comforting. I don’t know why I did it, but I got in his truck that day and he became my first friend. His name was Ed. He got me the trucking job I have to this day. I’ve been a trucker for fifteen years now and it’s all because of Ed. 

Ed died last year. I spoke at his funeral. I told everybody there that he was the kindest person I had ever met and that he was my first and only friend. Nobody has ever treated me the way Ed treated me. He was solely responsible for getting me off the streets and providing me a way to make some money and provide for myself. He even let me stay with him for a few months. 

One time Ed and I were eating lunch together and he pointed out a woman across the diner. His eyebrows raised in a goofy way and he said ‘you should ask her out.’

I didn’t want to let Ed down so I walked over to the woman, who was very beautiful, and asked her out. Just as I was doing just that, a man walks over and sits down next to the woman. I hadn’t noticed the ring on her left hand. She wasn’t very happy and I received a cold hand to my cheek. I returned in defeat to Ed, who was trying to contain laughter. I never found love, and now my only friend is dead. I feel like that little kid back in the orphanage who felt so hopeless he tried to kill himself. I had nothing to live for then and I have nothing to live for now.”

Chicken and Waffles, Chapter 1

Anthony Albot Armensen had worked at Marcus Overson Accounting for eight years and had hated all 16,640 hours of it. He had never taken a vacation day, never called in sick, never came in late; he was a hard worker who had never enjoyed a day in his life. Until August 20, that is.

It was Anthony’s 34th birthday and he started the day the way he normally would, with some burnt toast and black coffee, before he wrapped up breakfast and headed to work in his Toyota Corolla. At lunch, he received a call from his girlfriend, who promptly broke up with him because “she wasn’t ready to be in a committed relationship” but let’s be honest… there was another guy. Anthony took the news hard but kept it inside as he did all news and got back to work. It wasn’t long before he received another call, this one from his mother.

“Anthony, your father is dead,” said the voice on the other end.

This news penetrated Anthony’s heart even more than the first news, but he kept working. He wasn’t particularly close with his father.

At 2:43 pm he received another call. Surely nothing could make his day worse! But of course he was wrong because his childhood friend had passed into a coma and the doctors said it didn’t look good. Oh, and if he could please look after his cat, that would be fantastic! 

For the first time in eight years, Anthony snapped. He walked into his boss’s office, declared his resignation, gathered his things and left the office. He didn’t go home, however. He drove to a car sales place where they sell old cars for cheap, bought the biggest bus he could find, which used to be an elementary school bus, and drove it back to his apartment. He emptied everything of importance from his apartment into the bus, turned off all the lights in his apartment, locked the door, and drove to the bank, where he proceeded to take out his life savings in cash. Then he started driving. Where, he didn’t know nor did he care. He was making adventure for the first time in his life. It was the only way he felt he could cope considering the recent events. He never stopped to think of the consequences of his actions or where this drastic lifestyle change might lead him. It was a complete impulse decision to leave, and he was happy… which is ironic because he was clearly not happy. But he thought he was happy.

His first day of travel went rather unobtrusively and for the first time in his miserable life, Anthony felt alive. He wasn’t sitting at his desk in his oddly-lit work building next to an elderly woman who ate canned tuna every day and had putrid B.O. He was, rather, driving an unusually large yellow bus down the highway somewhere in Ohio, the windows cracked and the music as loud as the not-so-great sound system could handle. 

“I’ll live on my own for a while. Sleep in my bus, shower at gyms, go to a national park or two… This is the life!”

The sun set on that monumental August day and Anthony stopped at a diner for some breakfast for dinner. It was one of those days, he decided, where one eats breakfast for dinner. The practice had always struck him as odd and honestly, a little annoying, but today was unlike other days. He was being adventurous. He ordered chicken and waffles.

“Isn’t this a southern thing?” He asked the waitress.

“Yes. If you want good chicken and waffles, go to Texas,” she replied.

“I guess that’s where I’ll go, then,” said Anthony.

“Is that your bus out there?” asked the waitress.

“Yes it is. Got it today! Only six thousand dollars! It’s going to be my—“ he stopped as he saw the worried look on the waitress’s face as she glanced out the window at his new purchase.

Anthony followed her gaze to see a couple of highschool dropouts with spray paint vandalizing his new bus. Anthony sprung into action.

“I’ll take the chicken and waffles to go, please!”

He leapt up and sprinted outside, yelling at the kids to leave his new baby alone! The kids heard him and bolted, but not before they added a finishing touch on their masterpiece. By the time Anthony got to the bus, the kids were gone and all that was left were the words “DEPORT THE MEXICANS” in big black ink. Fortunately, they hadn’t slashed the tires so his bus was still highly functional.

Anthony ate his chicken and waffles messily as he drove the evening away. Around 9 o’clock he began to get drowsy so he pulled over at a truck stop for the night. He found the comfiest few seats in his bus and laid across them to sleep. It wasn’t very comfortable. He’d have to do something about sleeping arrangements tomorrow, he thought as he dozed off.

—————

RAP RAP RAP.

Anthony bolted up so fast he hit his head on the roof of the bus. 

“Frickin frick monster freakin OUCH,” he yelled. A moment passed as he sat down in sleepy terror, wondering why, who, or what was the noise that awoke him from his slumber. 

RAP RAP RAP. It was coming from the front of the bus. Somebody must want something.

“Coming, coming!” Anthony reminded himself of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit in that moment, running to the front door to greet a very tall bearded man with a staff. But when Anthony opened the bus door, it wasn’t Gandalf that greeted him, but a short, bald man wearing all brown. He didn’t look very happy. 

“Hi, can I help you?” Anthony said.

“No, I just pounded on your bus six times to wake you up and make you angry,” the man said sarcastically. 

Anthony couldn’t tell if the man was being sarcastic or if he was serious, so they just stared at each other for a long time. A minute passed, then another. Anthony fidgeted a little bit. The man in brown stared straight through Anthony. This was undoubtedly the most uncomfortable he had ever been.

“Okay, what do you want?” Anthony finally said.

“Where are you going with your big yellow, racist bus?” The man asked. The way he spoke was very strange. His head remained very still and only his mouth moved. His eyes stared unblinking and he left his hands dangling at his sides. Expression was not his thing. 

“I don’t know. Why do you care?” Anthony responded. He was sleepy and every new moment of speaking to this ugly man was making him angry.

“My truck died yesterday,” the man said, turning very slightly to look at his truck, which was was parked several yards ahead of Anthony’s bus. “I need a ride to Texas.”

Texas?! Could this be destiny? First the chicken and waffles thing, and now this?! Anthony took this as a sign from heaven and decided with confident resolve to go to Texas. He would be doing himself a disservice if he didn’t go to Texas! 

Anthony shrugged in reply to the short man in brown. “Okay. I’ll drive you to Texas.”

The man didn’t smile, he just nodded. He didn’t say thank you, he just stepped inside the bus and walked all the way to the back of the bus and sat down. Anthony watched him curiously, wondering what in the heck he had just gotten himself into. But he reminded himself that he was living for the first time, and life comes with some weird surprises sometimes! This was his first test. Should he pass the test, he could come away with a new friend. If he failed, at least he’d learn a lesson; better than living a boring life at a boring company with boring co-workers and boring everything!

“I’m just going to take a quick shower, I’ll be back in a few minutes… mind looking after the bus for me?”

“Yes,” the man said.

“You sure there’s nothing you can do to fix your truck?”

“Yes.”

After a short, awkward pause, Anthony stepped off the bus and headed to the showers, making sure he had his keys just in case the brown lunatic in the back of his bus tried some funny business. 

After a five minute shower, he was back to his bus and ready to start driving. He decided he loved driving more than anything in the world. He buckled his seatbelt, cranked up the A/C, and put the bus in drive.

“What’s your name?” Anthony shouted behind his right shoulder at the creepy man who had made a home in the back of his bus.

“Anthony,” the man in the back called back.

“No way! That’s my name too!” Anthony shouted. 

Anthony didn’t respond.

“Hey, come up here and talk to me!” Anthony yelled.

Anthony made his way to the front of the bus and sat down in the closest seat to the driver’s seat.

“You don’t talk much, do you?” Anthony asked.

“No,” Anthony responded.

A few minutes passed, both men thinking about nothing, as men do.

“Let’s clear this up. I’ll call you Antwon for short, and I’ll be Anthony. That way if we meet anyone else on the way to Texas, it won’t be confusing. It’s going to be a long journey to Texas, man.”

“Okay,” Antwon said.

Another long silence ensued before Antwon breached the quiet.

“Can I trust you, Anthony?”

Anthony looked back at Antwon. For the first time in their short relationship, Antwon was showing signs of expression. His eyebrows were furrowed slightly, his lip was pouting in the slightest way, and his eyes were downcast. The man has feelings after all! This was Anthony’s chance to make a breakthrough with this hardhearted man. The image of a dragon shedding its scales to reveal soft, beautiful skin entered Anthony’s mind for a split second before he lunged out of his daydream to respond to the question.

“You can trust me.”

Antwon proceeded to tell his life story, through several bouts of torrential sobs. The next four hours were consumed with his heartbreaking story. Had a more heartbreaking story ever been told? I would suggest no. But you can be the judge of that. If this isn’t the most heartbreaking story you’ve ever heard, you have permission to email me and tell me your more heartbreaking story. Okay, enough with the stall, let’s get to the heartbreak.