A Desert Soul, Part 4

We walked for a mile in silence. Jack’s steps were light and I noticed he was barely sweating at all; I on the other hand, if invertebrate, could have been wrung out like a wet towel, filling many buckets with my sweat. My steps were still sinking deep into the sand as well, and with every step I cursed Jack and this blazing dream and God even. All I wanted was to return to my ordinary day, to go out and buy a coffee – maybe a croissant – and go about my day! God, did that sound lovely! My mouth nearly drooled at the thought. Suddenly I realized I was extremely thirsty, for I hadn’t drunk water since this whole nightmare began. I contemplated asking Jack if he had water, but of course he didn’t have a water bottle. And why would he? He was an angel; do they even drink? Aren’t they satiated by God alone?

I sneered at my own thought. All this was rather uncomfortable, was it not? What, in the end, would I draw away from this hellish experience? As soon as I was returned to my ordinarity, I would forget this whole thing – Jack, the two colleagues, the drunkard, and this hot desert.

This thought reminded me of my temporariness in this world. Surely I would be returned to Earth soon! This gave me hope to keep trudging, for I was exhausted and ready to collapse into the burning sand. I also reminded myself that it was cold on Earth right now and I would need my coat upon return, so with renewed passion, I gripped my coat and caught up to Jack, whose pace was difficult to match.

We came upon a scene which, in retrospect, is rather comical. In the moment, however, it hit way too close to home.

There was, on the cliff wall (for we had followed the wall of the ravine the whole time) was a worn ladder made from some sort of tied together twine. It looked suspicious and altogether not fit for climbing. There was upon it, however, a large man with a gigantic pack on his back. Furthermore, he was grasping in his left hand a staff, leaving his right arm alone to support and balance the weight that he carried. His situation was such that I thought several times he would fall, for he was tipping this way and that due to so much pressure on his back. And without both hands to properly climb the ladder, he swayed and rocked the ladder violently. And with every sway, an item from his pack would linger precariously close to tipping out and falling back down the wall; the man was no less than 20 feet above the ground.

Indeed, he would have made quicker progress, but for the fact that each time he swung to the right or to the left and noticed one of his precious collectables about to fall, he would do everything within his effort to clutch at it until it was once more secure in his pack. This he did a hundred times within the first minute of us observing him from below.

“Surely we must do something!” said I to Jack, cringing with every shake and stagger, “he’s going to fall!”

“Sadly nothing can be done for this poor old fool,” Jack responded.

“Nothing! Well, surely someone in his right mind might coax him down!”

“Do you not think this man is of a stable frame of mind?”

“Well certainly I don’t! Just look at him, he values his belongings more than his very life!”

“Ah, does he now?” And as Jack said it, I knew the tremor in his voice was meant to challenge my own way of thinking, for I was still holding on to my coat. Inside I boiled but outwardly kept my cool, feinting oblivion.

“Well very well, you may interact with the fellow,” said Jack, snapping his fingers. I was inserted into this new realm, the realm without Jack. I very much liked not having to bother with Jack’s judgmental attitude.

I approached the cliffside and looked up at the man, who had made no progress – in fact he may have traveled down a rung or two!

“Good sir!” I hollered up at the man. No response. “Good sir!” I tried again, louder this time.

“Ay, is somebody there?” the man called down without looking down.

“Hello good sir! Might I suggest you come down from there?”

“Well why on earth would I do that? I need to make it up!”

“I fear that if you continue, you shall fall and greatly injure yourself!”

“Ha! Never have I been one to follow fear’s whims. I am a conquerer!”

He tried to continue up the ladder, but only managed to knock loose a badminton racket from his bag, which he managed to catch with his foot, pinching the racket between his foot and the wall. It was quite impressive, I must say, but he nearly lost his balance and fell. The next minute was riveting to watch, as he precariously reached down with his left hand to grab the racket. The trick was that he was already holding his staff with his left hand, so in order to free his hand, he clenched the staff between his knees and grabbed the racket, then placed it back into his pack and wielded the staff once more.

“Sir,” I called up once more, “why don’t you let a few things go? You’re endangering your safety for the sake of your objects!”

“Indeed I am, but let me assure you, kind gentleman, that all of my possessions are of great worth!”

“Well, would you at least loose your staff so you have 2 free hands to climb the ladder?”

“Loose my– well!” huffed the man, “I could simply never do such a thing! This staff holds very dear sentiment to my heart and dropping it would be the cruelest thing I’d ever done.”

“Well, what about lightening your pack a little bit, then? Tell you what, why don’t you come back down and I’ll help you sort out your belongings, and then you can return up the ladder with ease!”

“You speak as a simpleton I’m afraid. You know nothing of the value of my possessions and if you did I’m positive you’d agree with me. Now, if you’ll leave me be, I’m almost to the top!”

It was then that Jack fetched me back and we both watched the fool climb the ladder hopelessly. He was nowhere near the summit.

“Will he ever reach the top?” I asked.

“I guess not.”

“A shame.”

“And what about you, John?” Jack turned to me as he said this.

“Well what about me?” I replied.

“Are you ready to drop your possessions?”

“This is hardly about me! Besides, the poor old man is carrying more weight than I! One shouldn’t compare the two of us!” I waved my hand in Jack’s face and turned my attention back to the man on the ladder. I never felt Jack’s gaze leave me, however, and it was quite uncomfortable.

“John, face the truth. You’ve been carrying around more weight than just your coat. You know I’m not only talking about physical things – the man’s pack represents more than just his physical belongings. You’ve been bearing many things upon your shoulders, since you were a child even!”

“You don’t know me and I wish you’d stop pretending you do!”

“You always blamed yourself for your father’s drinking habit, didn’t you?”

I turned to Jack, rage in my eyes, unable to form words. Jack continued, though I silently begged him to stop.

“And when your parents divorced, you promised yourself you’d never make the same mistakes… but here we are. You’ve been carrying these wounds like you’ve been carrying that coat, and you refuse to let go. Why is that, John?”

Like salt to an open wound were Jack’s words to my heart. I was crying now. I felt in that moment naked, completely exposed, weak, vulnerable, and I hated it. I hated Jack for doing this to me. Above all, I hated myself.

“It’s time to let go. It’s time to drop the coat. ‘Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’”

I felt like a little child. I was weak, dependent, unable to provide for myself. I was a failure. I had done the very thing I promised I’d never do. I promised I’d never hurt someone the way my father hurt my mother. And yet, I was no different from him… no better.

“Love and hate cannot coexist within your heart. You must rid yourself of one to make room for the other.”

How did Jack do that? How did he pierce my mind and soul and speak so eloquently into it? I didn’t know and for a moment I didn’t care. My eyes began to open to the truth of it all – just a sliver, mind you – it would take years before I began to fully understand the depravity of my heart, but there in the desert the door to my soul was cracked open, letting in a sliver of light.

I dropped my coat.

Oh the joy that embraced me in that moment! I danced a silly dance there on the hot sand, yet I barely even felt the sand on my feet anymore! What once had burned so painfully now seemed like nothing! My steps were not deep as they were before – no, they were light like Jack’s! I felt freer than I’d ever felt before. Greater than that, I felt the overwhelming power of love rush over me and take my breath away. I was speechless!

I looked at Jack, awe in my eyes and happiness inflating my chest. He looked back at me the same and we embraced.

“Now do you believe?”

I believed.

A Desert Soul, Part 3

We walked along in silence for a good while; I was deep in thought about the previous occurrences. What do they mean? Who is this Jack fellow? Am I dreaming? I concluded quite unsatisfactorily that I must be hallucinating and this was all one bizarre trip. Somehow my breakfast had been poisoned and I was passed out on the floor of my house. I say “unsatisfactorily” because this explanation begs the question: “can you reason about a hallucination trip whilst you are hallucinating?” My answer for the moment – until I could have time to really sit down and ponder it fully – was that I was overthinking it and that’s exactly the sort of thing one would do during a hallucination. Let it be said here, I had never been the one to experiment too deeply with drugs.

“That’s not true,” said Jack.

“What?”

“It’s not true… in fact, you have experimented quite heavily in drugs, haven’t you?”

“I–well… well yes but… how did you…?”

“Remember, John, you are in a supernatural dimension, being led by a supernatural being… I can read your mind. Your hypothesis that you are hallucinating is completely outlandish and honestly makes you sound quite silly.”

It was the first time Jack had used my name and it startled me for I had not offered my name to begin with. I was bothered by that for the rest of my journey.

“All of my experimentation was in college and I haven’t fooled around with those kinds of substances in years!” Said I, feeling the need to justify the shame I felt.

“Ah, maybe so with what might be called ‘hard drugs’, but what about alcohol, John?”

“Stop using my name! You don’t know me, you’re just a figment of my imagination, now why don’t you get off your power trip and send me back!”

There was an awkward pause. I felt downright justified in my lashing out – he was asking for it, the self-righteous jerk! As if Jack had never drunk before! I seethed inwardly as we trekked on. Moments later, I once again began to justify my position.

“Well of course I drink here and there, but it’s rarely in excess and when it is I have a jolly good reason, now don’t I? Show me another man who’s gone through a divorce like I have and tell me he doesn’t down a few shots every now and again!” I began this sentence to myself, muttering in obscene rage, but as I continued on and gained confidence, I lifted my voice, unashamed of who heard me. At this, Jack spun around to confront me, eyes glimmering.

“Ah, good! Very good! Now we get down to your heart (at this he jabbed my chest with his extended index finger). Here is how we get to the root of your pain!”

“You know nothing about pain!” I nearly screamed, “You’re just an angel after all! You just sit up in your clouds and laugh at us from above!” Immediately I regretted my statement, for I knew he would capitalize on my logical inconsistency, which he did.

“Ah, so you admit that I’m an angel – a supernatural being!”

Too proud to show weakness, I continued to dig my own grave. “Well, what else could you be? You read minds, you know my past! What’s your angle, anyway? What do you want from me?”

“My angle?” Said Jack, turning back around and continuing down the slope, which had grown much less sharp – in fact, we were near the bottom. “I exist to do the will of Him who sent me.”

“God.”

“That’s right.”

I guffawed softly.

Presently we reached the bottom of the basin. I was relieved to not be in danger of losing my footing and falling to my death, however, upon looking back up the cliff wall, I was reminded that in order to get out of this god-forsaken ravine, we would have to climb back up. I did not look forward to that in the least.

Before I had time to grumble about this further, Jack and I came upon a man, heavily clothed as was I, holding a bottle and stumbling around aimlessly. He was singing rather loudly and swaying to some melody that was in his head. A ways to our left, a woman followed, dragging her feet in the sand, obviously exhausted and suffering from dehydration.

Jack turned to me, “Unlike the last conversation we overheard, this time you will be visible to both of them and able to interact with them.” Before I had time to balk, he snapped his fingers and he disappeared – well I guess technically I disappeared, for I had been teleported to the other dimension, but from my perspective, it was just Jack disappearing.

My first interaction in this new dimension was with the drunkard. He addressed me first.

“Well hellow there gentl-y-man, do you have a name or are you an apparition?”

“Uh, John’s the name.”

“Well hellow there John!” he said much too excitedly, “I wish I could help you with your fine quest, but I have important work to do, so best leave me be! Cheers!” He took a swig from his bottle.

It was then that I was approached by the woman, who perked up considerably when she saw me.

“Please, sir, would you tell me which direction you came from? My brother and I are horribly lost and in dire need of water!”

I turned to look behind me so I could explain the little steep pathway which Jack and I had taken to get down into the valley, but when I did I realized that suddenly I was lost as well! Behind me there was no sign of a path. I circled in all directions, searching for a familiar scene, but all that greeted me was hot sand as far as the eye could see. I was discombobulated, and I began to panic.

“Oh,” the woman said, drooping her eyes back down to the earth, “I see you are as lost as we are. Very well then. I thought you would be the salvation I have been praying for, but so is my luck. My brother is drunk as I am sure you can tell – the disgusting man – for as long as we’ve been wandering around in search of salvation, he’s been at that bottle. The coward. You do think it cowardly, do you not, that in time of tribulation – in a time when siblings should stick together closer than ever, he chooses liquor over his own sister! I should’ve known he had a bottle or two under that coat of his – why he’s even wearing so many clothes in this dreaded heat to begin with is beyond me… why, sir! Why indeed are you wearing a coat? Are you not dying from heat?”

I didn’t know what to say. I was, of course, dying from heat. It was nothing more than my pride that held my coat to my body but I didn’t dare tell her that! I thought it must be much the same for her brother. I wondered what I would do in their situation. I figured in all honesty I might have chosen the bottle. I felt ashamed and intensely selfish in that moment.

Seeing I was unable to form a response, she went on after her brother, who had made it several more yards away from us as we conversed.

“Wait, ma’am, let me come with you!” I called after her.

“Let them go,” Jack said, for I had been transported back to his side. I looked after the woman and her brother, sorrow filling my heart. This encounter had affected me more than I cared to admit, but pride telling me I must keep up the appearance of strength in the presence of Jack, I came up with a snarky comment.

“So I assume the moral of this story is to quit drinking?”

“No, John, the moral of this story is that a chasing after pleasure leaves you empty and only hurts those around you. Come on, let’s keep going.”

I followed Jack for a few steps only before stopping. Jack, sensing my halt, called from over his shoulder, “why are you stopping, John?”

“I wish you would stop using my name like you know me,” I said. “If I take my coat off, are you positive you won’t take it from me?”

Jack turned to face me. “What would I gain from stealing your coat? Heavens! It’s a hundred degrees out!”

I eyed him skeptically and began to disrobe, beginning with my scarf. My neck, exposed to the open air, began to cool for the first time since entering this cruel world and it was one of the most refreshing feelings I had ever felt. I gained confidence after that and hastily removed my coat, though I struggled since I was still holding my scarf in my left hand. My arms, now exposed to the fresh air, screamed with gratitude. I let out an audible “ah” and I’m sure my face opened for a moment into a smile. Satisfied with my decision, I took a few steps forward, toward Jack. My smile quickly turned into a frown, for I realized I was carrying just the same amount of weight as I had before, and my steps were still tedious.

“You’ll be lighter if you drop them,” Jack said, nodding toward my clothes. He wore an annoying little smirk and I wished to knock it right off him. I’m sure he felt my glare penetrating his soul, but his expression did not change.

“What if I want them later? Who knows, maybe you’ll transport me to some wintry environment next and then I’ll be dreadfully cold.”

Jack’s smile widened ever so slightly before he turned back around and began marching forward once again. I followed, contemplating whether I should just drop my coat and scarf and be done with it.

“What’s the sense in holding onto your pride when I see right through you, John?” said Jack over his shoulder. It was a downright ugly thing to say and it filled me with rage. Deep down I knew he was right though.

A Desert Soul, Part 2

At the edge of the trench were two men in heated discussion. There was much swearing and pointing and obvious frustration on both party’s ends. The man on the right was gripping some papers tightly and pointed at them occasionally as he argued. It appeared as though this man cared a great deal about his papers. The other man, I concluded, was less attached to the papers, as he was holding nothing and in fact, the briefcase which sat nonchalantly at his feet was open and the files in there were strewn recklessly around with no organization. As we approached them, they continued arguing, not seeming to notice us at all.

“The blazes, man! How could you possibly bear to abandon our years of hard work at such a time as this! I simply cannot believe my ears, Frederic! This is absolute–“

“Now listen here! I didn’t come all this way just to be reprimanded by my colleague – and best man at my wedding I might add! When did you get so… consumed with your work that you’ve given up on our good graces! If anyone has the right to be flabbergasted, it’s me!”

“Our good graces! Don’t you see the importance of this work! We’re on the brink of breakthrough, Frederic! One more day and we’ll have a moment and as soon as we publish our work, we’ll be famous! Famous, I tell you! And, listen now – no, you listen to me! – It’s not just about fame. It’s about discovery! It’s about knowledge! It’s about advances of science! Can’t you see that? Can’t you open your eyes and look about you–“

“Don, it’s just a map!”

“Just a map! God, Frederic! Don’t you care! Don’t you have an ounce of respect for–“

“Of course I care! But I refuse – I simply refuse – to let cartography of all things – hah! Cartography is what’s coming between us, Don, can’t you see that? Can’t you open your eyes? I simply refuse to let this job ruin a friendship that I’ve cherished for ten years!”

“You just don’t care about your field. You need to find some loyalty. You’re not the man I once knew – captivated by the science of cartography. Enamored by the discovery of new heights, new places, new phenomena! It’s everything, Fred, everything!”

You’re speaking to me about loyalty! It seems to me that you’re the one that needs a lesson in loyalty, Don!”

At this point, the argument dissipated a little as the two men, too annoyed to look at each other, prepared to go their separate ways. I looked at Jack, confused. Not only about the nature of what I just witnessed, but about my nature. Was I invisible? Was I in a separate dimension? Was I awake, was I alive? Jack must have perceived my state of mind from my state of face, for he explained without hesitation that we were just visitors in this desolate world and without his permission, I could not be seen by anyone here. I was a ghost! The thought appalled me, and made me more homesick than I’d felt since my first semester at university!

“Don’t worry, when your time here is finished, you will be transported back to your home on Happy Lane, but God still has a purpose for you here in this world.”

I sneered.

“So what do you think of the two gentlemen?”

“Well,” I responded, “I think the one called Don had a point, if indeed they were so close to a breakthrough in their work. They shouldn’t abandon their objective over a silly disagreement.”

“So you hold no merit for Frederic’s words?”

“He sounded a bit like a woman, didn’t he?” I chuckled to myself. Jack smiled too. “Look, I see the validity of his argument. Friendships are important, but think about the long-term. The advancement of science will have a longer and broader effect than a platonic relationship. Long after the both of them are gone, the world will thank this Don fellow and scoff at Frederic.”

Before Jack could respond, Don and Frederic began once more to babble on. It went like this.

“Oh, Frederic, please don’t tell me you are beginning to see the supernatural side of things! What, next you’ll be telling me you believe in God!”

“Don’t you find it just a tad confusing, the origin of our planet? I’ve done a lot of thinking on the matter and the more I wrestle with it, the less I can come to accept the simplicity of macroevolution.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous! You call yourself a man of science!”

“Why does science and the supernatural have to be at odds with each other all the time? Huh? Why can’t, just for once, the scientific community come to think about reconciling the two?”

“Because, Frederic, the concept of God is a spit in the face to materialists everywhere! It’s admitting that modern science can’t adequately understand something, and I would argue the opposite!”

“Okay, let us take an example here–“

“There is no point in arguing this right now! What will we accomplish? Up until this point I have thought of you as a great mind. What has happened to you? Where’s the Freddy I know and love? This can’t be him!”

“I thought you should be a lot more open-minded than you’re making yourself out to be right now. At least I had hoped. Remember when you were this bright-eyed kid, hungry for science and knowledge? You were open to new ideas, you challenged your presuppositions, you engaged in conversation! When did you start defending your stubborn mind to the point of shutting out your closest allies?”

“Oh, not this again! Really, you’re still on this whole friendship thing? Can’t you see this is bigger than that! I care more about the future of science, the future of intelligence, than a silly relationship that will end as soon as the both of us are decayed in our graves!”

“There are others, Don! If we don’t make this grand discovery, somebody else will! Somebody else always does. The world isn’t at stake here, but our friendship is! I have come to care less about the grander things in life, and more about the things that affect me personally. I want to have more time for my wife and kids, don’t you?”

“There’s a reason I’m not married!”

“You never approved of me and Marie, did you? I knew it! Okay, well, listen to me carefully. If this is the real you, I want nothing to do with you! And I definitely don’t want anything to do with your scientific discoveries! I hope you enjoy your fame, but Don… I hope you can see some day what’s important in life. And what you’re chasing won’t satisfy you. You’ll be an insatiable beast til the day you die!”

And with that, Frederic was off, shedding his clothes with each step away from his colleague, til he was down to his breeches. With each layer shed, his step became lighter and lighter, til he was actually running – away from Don, away from the ravine.

“And what do you think of that exchange?” Jack asked me.

“Frederic is losing a level-headed friend. It’s quite a shame, really, but this sort of thing happens all the time. The folly of the supernatural is always covered over with the charade of care. The poor Don was only standing up for reality, for the truth… and he got attacked for it. Ah, but so it goes. Persecuted are we who champion science; I’ve come across quite a many Frederic in my day.”

“So how do you explain me?” Jack asked.

To be quite honest, I had been avoiding this purturbance. It had been bothering me since the moment I came face to face with my new reality in this barren land, and I hadn’t yet come up with a conclusion to the matter.

“I can only be explained with the acceptance of the supernatural, for I am not humanly in any sense. I am a messenger of God and you are captured in a supernatural dimension. I’d very much like to hear how you explain this whole experience away using your precious science. But no matter – I’ll let you chew on that for the time being. Let us continue on our journey, down into the ravine. It will be a tad narrow going down, and it might benefit you to shed your coat. I’m sure you’re quite stifled with heat in there.”

“I will keep my coat, thank you.”

“You’re a stubborn man, aren’t you. Well, let’s go.”

And Jack led me down past a dead shrub to a narrow ledge that led precariously down into the gorge. I did not fancy this part of the journey, but seeing no alternative, followed my ‘supernatural’ guide. My coat tore a few times on the way down I’m ashamed to admit.

A Desert Soul, Part 1

I have seen many strange and fantastic sights, I have embarked on many noble adventures, and I have learnt lessons both grand and small from all of my escapades. Here I will submit to you now one such tale of morality which I find not only entrancing but more importantly, nourishing. I mean that in a spiritual sense, of course, and I hope you come to agree with my word choice. So read, dear friend, and be satiated.

My word of advice to the reader is to not close your mind the moment you come across a thing that upsets you – and they will come, believe me – rather, engage with that upsettingness and ask yourself ‘why does that upset me?’ and then dig even further and ask yourself ‘why’ five more times until you come to the very root of your upsettingness. You see, in this world of vast information, one truly finds themselves in this spot of ‘too much’. There is no limit to engaging (and uningaging) content! An unfortunate result of this is what I am calling the ‘don’t like it, won’t read it’ sensation, though others who are smarter than me call it a ‘filter bubble’. The ‘don’t like it, won’t read it’ sensation describes the moment one comes across not only something upsetting, but even something difficult to understand, and the result is an unfortunate letting go of that content and a search of content which agrees with their already-formed presuppositions. There are many works of study on filter bubbles out there on the world wide web, so I am content to leave you with this little understanding of it here and move on with my preamble.

And so I begin my account with some context. I live in an unnamed city (naming it would do one of two things: one, it would ring a bell within your mind and you would exult because you know the place of which I am speaking about; or two, you would shake your head in silent disappointment because you have no idea the place of which I am speaking. Thus, in not wanting to isolate the many for the sake of a few, I leave my city unnamed.) So like I said, I live in a city on a street called ‘Happy Lane’. For a majority of my life, I have made it my aim to seek personal happiness and, once I have found it, to grip it with such tightness as to never let it go. This has been my sole purpose in life: my own happiness. That is why I found it fitting to live on Happy Lane, and truly I believe that living there has increased my overall happiness just an iota. The scenery around my house is urban; yards are small, houses are close together, there are few trees, except those that line the street. Happy Lane is close to the center of the city and fairly trafficked by pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles alike. For me, privacy is secondary to a feeling of connectedness and closeness to the bustle of the city.

All these details are important because on the day my account began, I stepped outside my house expecting to see the sidewalk that leads up to my front door, a small gate barring my exit down to the mailbox, and beyond that the street where cars would be passing by. However, to my great shock, none of that was in sight. Instead, I was affronted quite abruptly by a barren wasteland. No longer was I in bustling urban city; now I was in a sandy desert with no civilization or any settling thing in sight! My first thought upon leaving my home was that it was cruelly and unbearably hot (for it was winter on Happy Lane!) Indeed, I was covered in warm clothing from head to foot; a hat, scarf, coat over long-sleeve shirt, pants, heavy socks, and casual boots! Within seconds I was sweating and overly aware that something was not right. My second thought was that I must be in a dream, and so I turned around to open my door and re-enter my abode. However, I was met with an alarming complication – my house was no longer there! Indeed, when I turned around, I was met by nothing more than sand as far as the eye could see! I did a sort of 360 degree spin around, searching, wondering where–how–where indeed has my house gone off to? As if my house could just disappear like in a magic show! Oh the absurdity and horror I felt in that moment! I must be dreaming!

It was then that I heard a voice address me from behind (whether ‘behind’ was in the direction of where my house once was or any of the other 3 directions, I did not know, for as far as I knew I was teleported to the middle of the desert with no markers indicating direction. I was completely discombobulated.) I whirled around to face the voice that invaded my unexpected feeling of isolation.

–––––

“Good day!” I said to the fellow that stood before me. I am sure my face expressed my shock and confusion, for the gentleman let out a gentle guffaw.

“Might I ask where I am and how I got here and–”

The man stopped me with an upheld hand. “All in good time, my friend.”

I looked at him, waiting for some sort of explanation, but none came, at least right away.

“My name is Jack and I have been sent by God to take you on a journey of discovery. But first, why don’t you shed a few layers of clothing; you’re perspiring quite heavily!”

“Sent by God!” I guffawed a little too loudly, and I was met by a gentle frown from Jack.

You see, I have never been one to believe in God. I am what you might call a materialist – one who believes only in things the human eye can see. No ghosts, no angels, and no gods. Everything that has happened in my life has been a direct result of my own previous actions. It’s a simple ideology, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and most importantly, it frees me from rules. Ah, rules! How I despise moral rules. Of course, in the correct context, rules are valid, even necessary! But when it comes to the actions of an individual which affect no other human being, well that is nobody’s business except his own. And so, when confronted with this tall fellow’s words (for he was tall, even taller than me, and I’m above average!) I could not help but let out a guffaw of my own.

He recovered from his frown quickly and with confidence addressed me once more, “That’s right, good sir, sent by God. I am here to usher you into the journey that God has for you. Won’t you join me?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sure you mean well, but I have a full day ahead of me and simply can’t be bothered by a silly dream.” At this, I looked down at my wristwatch so as to affirm that I was in a rush.

“You will notice by glancing at your time keeper that in this realm, time stands still. As soon as your journey is complete, you will return to your doorstep on Happy Lane, having lost no time or energy. You see, this is no detour at all, and if I’m being blunt, you don’t have much of a say in the matter. What God has willed, let it be done.”

Indeed, my watch showed no indication of progress and I looked back up at the gentleman, quite baffled.

“Certainly there must be some natural explanation for all this,” said I, circling around myself once more to search for a break in the scenery which would provide some sort of clarity. Of course, I ended up back where I started, staring at this man named Jack, wishing very much that all this would end and I could go on about my day.

“Come on then,” said Jack, noticing my fading determination to get myself out of this, “shed your coat and let’s begin!”

“You’ll only steal it, for it’s a perfectly good coat and don’t you just look like the thieving type!”

It was a rather cruel thing to say I admit, and I didn’t much mean it, for in fact he did not look much like the ‘thieving type’, whatever that means; however, I was flustered and flustered people say things they regret. Jack just shrugged and with a curt “suit yourself”, turned and began to walk into the wilderness. I had no choice but to follow, though I did so with much reluctancy.

I noticed right away that Jack walked much more effortlessly through the sand than did I. His tread was light and his pace quick; I sunk deep into the sand with each step and I felt heavy and sluggish. When I asked him about it, he told me my clothing was weighing me down and if I were to shed my layers, I would walk with the ease that he walked. I refused as I did before and kept laboring behind him.

I was drenched in sweat by the time we reached our first destination – a deep, long trench.

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.”