The cell phone on the bed above Gus began to vibrate, stirring him from sleep. Knowing what was coming, Gus groggily began to squirm free of his covers and fumbled for his glass. It was too late. Metal music blared from above him, filling the room and snapping him out of his groggy half-sleep. His roommate shifted in the bed above him but did not stir.
“Darn it, Art,” Gus grumbled to himself. “How does that not wake you up?” He wriggled out of his bed, sat up, and reached up to the bed above him. After some feeling around, he found Art’s phone, pulled it to his nose so he could see, and hit the “dismiss alarm” button on the screen.
Returning to his sanctuary, Gus grabbed his phone, lying on the floor next to his glasses. Hitting the power button, the phone came to life, blinding him momentarily. Gus squinted to read the time displayed in the middle of the screen: “9:00 AM.” He began his morning ritual of checking all of his social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat. With nothing of interest happening, he grabbed his glasses as the vibrating above his head commenced anew.
Gus crawled out of bed, stood up, and dismissed Art’s second alarm. Stumbling over the excessive clutter in their room, he made his way to the closet. He grabbed his towel and soap and headed down the hall to the shower room. Because everyone was either asleep or still in class, Gus had the floor to himself, which he enjoyed. He could shower in peace.
Stepping into the steaming water, Gus splashed his face to wake himself up. As the steam surrounded him, his mind began to wander. What do I need to do today? Go to class. What day is it? Tuesday. So I have return papers to Written Composition at 12:30, then senior philosophy at 2:00 is cancelled. Thank God for study week! Just four more days until I graduate and get out of here. Four years has been long enough.
As he lathered up, Gus reflected on his time at Central Illinois University. Struggling to find his niche and going through counseling freshman year. Switching roommates and moving to a different floor at the start of sophomore year. Quickly becoming best friends with Art and their neighbors. Meeting all sorts of new people, writing papers, skipping class to nap, staying up way too late. College had been a new experience, Gus concluded, after having no social life in high school.
Turning off the water, Gus wrapped his towel around his waist, grabbed his soap and boxers, and returned to his room. We Came as Romans blared from Art’s phone again, but Art stirred enough to turn it off himself. Gus dried off and slipped into a pair of faded jeans and one of his many Jurassic Park shirts. He powered his laptop up and sat down at his desk to wait for Art to wake up.
It was nearly noon when the door opening behind him caught Gus’s attention. He pulled his earphones out of his ears and turned to see Mikey, one of the guys across the hall, standing in a towel. He was holding a Nerf gun.
“Classic Art, sleeping forever,” he said, raising the gun. He pulled the trigger, and a large red dart pelted Art in the chest. Gus and Mikey laughed as Art groggily grabbed the dart and threw it across the room.
“Get outta here,” he mumbled, picking up his phone. Mikey shot him again, sending Art into a brief fit of rage. Throwing off his covers, Art rolled out of bed and chased Mikey down the hall, laughing the whole way. Art returned to the room, grabbed his towel and Nerf gun, and left for the shower room.
“This is what you get!” “I was just waking you up!” “Don’t freaking come into my room and shoot me, you mook!” “Then wake up to your own alarm!” Gus could hear their shouting, even though they were at the other end of the hall.
The door across the hall opened, and Mikey’s roommate Neil stumbled into Gus’s room, rubbing his eyes. He sat down at Art’s desk and turned on his PlayStation.
“How shall we pester them today?” he asked mischievously, smirking. “I know. Let’s find the most country song possible. Any suggestions?”
“’She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,’ Kenny Chesney,” Gus replied quickly.
“Good choice.” Neil opened YouTube, searched for the song, and soon Art’s TV was blaring the song.
Neil left the room and returned wearing skinny jeans and a black V-neck. He was in the process of spiking his hair up when Art and Mikey returned from their showers. Both of them reacted immediately to the song playing from Art’s TV.
“What is this garbage?” Mikey yelled, darting across the hall. Art simply screamed to drown out the music, grabbed his controller, and stopped the video. Gus and Neil laughed.
Art and Mikey dressed quickly. The former wore black jeans, a gray band tee, and a blue zip hoodie. Mikey donned faded jeans and a Marvel t-shirt. Mikey and Gus slipped beanies over their short, dark hair while Neil grabbed a hoodie. After quickly combing his long, black hair, Art joined them in the hallway, and the four of them departed for lunch.
In the dining hall, they grabbed their typical meals of pizza, burgers, and fries and sat at a table. They stuffed their faces and talked loudly about YouTube videos, social media posts, new movies, and memories of school. As they talked, a short woman with blonde hair walked up to the table and sat down with them.
“Hey Kennedy,” Mikey said.
“Hey Michael.” Kennedy preferred to use people’s full, given names, not shortened names or nicknames. “You ready to graduate?”
“We don’t have to talk about it!” Art and Neil yelled, jumping to their feet. They ran back into the food court, partially to be dramatic and partially to get seconds.
“Um, anyway, yea, I am ready,” Mikey began. “CIU has been fun, and I’ve learned a lot, but it’s about time I got out of here and moved to the next phase of my life. I’m not too excited about more responsibilities though. Bills and student loans are a pain!”
“Any idea what you’ll do after graduation?” Kennedy asked.
“Nope, not a clue. Move down to Tennessee and marry Amber, I suppose. I’m not too worried about it. It’ll pan out.” Mikey shrugged.
“Michael!” Kennedy exclaimed. “You need to figure out what you’re doing! You can’t just go with the flow and put off important things like that!”
“Why not? We do it all the time,” Art interjected, returning with Neil and several more plates of food.
“Honestly I don’t know why I sit with you guys. You need to grow up. You can’t procrastinate all your life. Augustus, talk some sense into them. You’re the responsible one!”
“Kennedy, they’ll be fine. They’ll grow up when they need to. Let them have their fun.”
Kennedy sighed, exasperated. “Fine.” She stood up, gathered her dishes, and left.
Gus continued eating as the others fell into conversation about League of Legends, which the three of them played constantly. Gus was deep in thought when Mikey nudged him.
“Dude, we’re leaving.”
“Oh yea, sweet. Back to the dorm?”
“Don’t you have homework to take to Written Comp?” Mikey glanced the clock on the wall and saw that it was nearly 1:00.
“Oops. I’ll just put the assignments in their mailboxes later today. I didn’t even bring them with me.” The four boys returned their dishes to the kitchen and headed back to the dorm. Even though it was a comfortable spring day, the wind blows constantly in central Illinois, making it feel more brisk.
“What’s up, Gus? You were in your head again,” Mikey asked.
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking about Kennedy’s questions. We graduate soon, yet we have no idea what we’re doing with our lives after college. So I was thinking about what I can do, what my options are.”
“Dude, stop thinking so much!” Neil replied, slapping him on the shoulder.
“Shut up, Neil!” Gus punched him in the arm and laughed. “You and Art still have a year, and you’ll probably wait until after graduation to think about any of this anyway.”
“So what are your options?” Art asked, getting back on subject.
“Well there’s always graduate school,” Gus began, and everyone groaned. “Yea, I’m not very interested in grad school, even though everyone wants me to go. I could just move back home and look for a place to live and work, too.”
“True. I was thinking about the same thing. Plus I can also move to Tennessee. Amber has family there, so she can move in with them until we get married,” Mikey said.
“How long have you two been dating, anyway?” Neil interrupted.
“Um, it’s May, correct? It’ll be a year next month,” Mikey answered. “She’ll graduate next weekend, so I plan to be down there anyway. Maybe I can find an apartment and start looking for a job. Then I can look into getting a ring and proposing.”
“Awwww,” Art and Neil gushed. Mikey responded with punches to their arms.
By this time the boys were back in Art and Gus’s room. Art powered up his PlayStation and started watching Parks and Recreation on Netflix, which he had been doing nonstop for the last couple of months. The four of them had indirectly seen the series from start to finish several times over during that time. Conversation died as Art, Mikey, and Neil started playing League of Legends. Aside from the incessant mouse clicking and shouting in response to the game, Gus was undisturbed as he returned to his laptop. Not even social media and YouTube could distract him from the gnawing question of his future.
Several hours later, Gus’s phone vibrated. It was a Facebook message from one of his peers, a guy named Benny Hawthorne. Benny was Gus’s neighbor freshman year, a short, stocky, outgoing young man who was also starting his freshman year at college. Because he was outgoing, he and Gus never quite got along well. Benny would try to be friendly, but his personality and humor were overbearing and exhausting to Gus.
“Hey Gus, I hope you’re doing well,” the message started. “We both know that graduation is Saturday, and I’m sure you’re excited to get it over with. I just have a favor to ask. Would you be willing to speak at graduation? I know you spoke at your high school graduation, so I was hoping you’d have some good words to say to our peers as we go out into the world. Let me know as soon as possible if you can. Thanks! Signed, Benny.”
Gus sighed. “So Art. Benny just messaged me.”
“That’s fun. About what?”
“He wants me to speak at graduation on Saturday. You know, in four days.”
“That’s kind of dumb. Are you gonna do it?” Art didn’t even look away from his monitor, which was how many of their conversations went.
“Um I think I will. I mean, I did it in high school. I just need to know how long this speech needs to be.” Gus responded to the message with, “How long do I have?”
“Makes sense,” Art replied, clicking madly. “What are you gonna talk about?”
Gus’s phone buzzed. “About five minutes. You in?” He quickly typed back, “Sure.”
“I have some ideas,” Gus said, opening a blank Word document to begin writing. Benny responded with, “Awesome! I’ll tell President Maybrook.”
“Some ideas for what?” Neil asked, walking into the room.
“Gus is speaking at graduation,” Art replied.
“Ah, sweet! What are you gonna say?”
“You know, probably just, ‘It’s been real, it’s been fun, but it hasn’t been real fun. Deuces, people.’ Then just walk off,” Gus answered sarcastically. Art and Neil busted out laughing. Art and Neil started talking about their most recent game as Gus turned to his computer to work.
“Hey guys, when’s dinner? I’m starving!” Mikey yelled from across the hall. He was right; it was time for dinner.
“Um right now! Let’s roll!” Art stood up and slipped on his shoes. Neil and Mikey stood in the doorway as Gus finished typing and found his shoes.
“Any idea what’s for dinner?” Neil asked as they left the dorm building.
“Does it matter? We’ll probably just get the same thing as usual.” Mikey laughed and slapped Neil on the back, and everyone laughed. They hurried to the cafeteria, as the wind made the evening air quite chilly without jackets.
Inside the cafeteria, Neil and Art jumped immediately in line for pizza, burgers, and fries, while Gus and Mikey weighed their options first. Seeing country fried steak, they immediately grabbed plates covered in mashed potatoes, steak, and gravy. They went into the dining hall and claimed a table.
Art and Neil joined them quickly, with plates of their normal meals in tow. The four of them chowed down as people continued to enter the room. They were soon joined by a group of guys from another wing of the dorm. They were notorious for being a loud and rambunctious bunch, just like Gus and Art’s floor. Many of their craziest schemes came from Donovan, a peer of Gus who loved to goof off.
“Hey boys!” Donovan said, trading fist bumps with the group. “So Gus, Mikey, excited for graduation? Only four more days!”
“You know it, Donovan!” Mikey exclaimed. “Any idea what you’ll do afterward?”
“Go back home and look for a job! Any plans for you guys?” Mikey and Gus shook their heads. “No matter. Have some laughs here before we leave!”
“Speaking of laughs, are you pulling any last-minute pranks before you leave?” Art asked. “You should go out with a bang!”
“I have something big planned for the ceremony. But until then, I’m just winging it. In fact, I think I just got an idea.” Donovan glanced at Art, smirked, and started whispering to his friends. They started grinning mischievously.
“Care to let us in the loop?” Neil asked excitedly.
“Just go with the flow, boys. This will be good,” Donovan replied, returning to his food.
Dinner progressed without incident. The table laughed, joked, and reminisced on their time at college. Everyone kept getting up to get more food, but as time went on, Gus noticed that Donovan and his friends hardly ate any of their more recent plates.
“Donovan, are you doing what I think you’re doing?” he asked, glancing at Donovan’s plate for emphasis. The mischievous smirk returned to his face as he turned to his friends.
“I think it’s time for some fun, don’t you boys?” Donovan gave a thumbs up to his friends, and they all stood up.
“Food fight!” Adrian, the boy next to Donovan, yelled, grabbing a handful of potatoes from his plate and throwing it across room. It splattered across a group of freshmen girls, who screamed before standing up and scooping food in their hands to retaliate.
Mikey and Neil jumped to their feet immediately and flipped the table onto its side. Donovan and his friends did the same with the adjacent tables, creating a barrier. The boys all ducked behind it as handfuls of potatoes, salad, and stir fry flew across the room. Other groups around the dining hall were following suit, setting up tables as barriers and tossing food.
“Donovan! You realize how much trouble we’ll get in for this, right?” Gus had to yell to be heard over the roar of guys grunting and girls screaming. Donovan either didn’t hear or ignored him, focusing on lobbing half a country fried steak at round table of junior girls. It knocked over a cup of juice, which splashed all over the table and the girls.
“Lighten up, dude!” Adrian replied. “What are they gonna do, withhold our diplomas? We worked hard and paid good money for those!”
The food fight lasted about five minutes before the president of the school marched in, a few of the cafeteria servers at his heels. By then, the students were scrapping piles of food off clothes, tables, and the walls and floors to throw again. Donovan and his friends had discovered dozens of condiment bottles on a table in the corner. After tossing them around the room, everyone was running around squirting ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce all over each other. Initially hesitant, even Gus had gotten involved.
“Enough!” President Maybrook’s face was bright red. After he shouted, everyone in the room immediately stopped and stared at the ground. They looked around the room and began to assess the situation.
“Whose idea was this?” Maybrook demanded, looking intently at every individual. “Is anybody going to take responsibility for this?” The room remained silent.
“It was my idea.” Donovan raised his hand and looked Maybrook in the eye. His friends walked over to him and mumbled their compliance. Maybrook approached them quietly.
“Boys. I know you’ve pulled a lot of pranks during your time here. I appreciate how you have enjoyed your time here and how you’ve made others’ time enjoyable. However, this is crossing the line.” The president spoke sternly, shifting his gaze between Donovan and his friends. They all stared at the ground, motionless and wordless.
“Because you’re graduating this weekend, there isn’t much that I can do. So, as punishment, you boys will clean the cafeteria all week, after every meal. I will get all of your names before you leave tonight, and I will personally check to make sure you are cleaning when mealtimes end.”
“Yes sir,” Donovan and his friends responded.
“Additionally, you boys will not walk at graduation this weekend. You will receive your diplomas in the mail in the near future. Do you understand?” Maybrook approached the group and pulled a small notebook and pen out of his suitcoat.
“Understood, sir.” Maybrook began taking their names and home addresses. He then divided the group into three pairs and appointed them cleaning responsibilities. As Maybrook left the room to open the janitor’s closet, Donovan glanced at Gus and smirked.
Gus smacked Neil in the arm, as he was standing closest to him. “Let’s give them a hand. Start picking up dishes.”
Neil nodded and yelled at Art and Mikey to do the same. While Donovan and his friends fixed the tables and started mopping the floor. A handful of them, carrying buckets of soapy water and rags, got to work scrubbing the tabletops and walls. Meanwhile, the rest of the students in the dining hall filed out, snickering amongst themselves.
“You guys don’t have to help, you know. These guys will take care of it.” Maybrook had returned to the room to supervise the cleaning, and he was staring at Gus.
“Yea, get out of here. Go clean yourselves up,” Donovan sneered. “Thanks for the help though!” He smirked again.
“We’ll just finish picking up the dishes, then we’ll leave,” Mikey explained. Maybrook nodded and started barking orders at Donovan and his friends.
Within ten minutes, Gus, Art, Mikey, and Neil walked out of the cafeteria into the chilly night air. Between dinner, the food fight, and clean up, they had killed about two hours in the cafeteria. Now they were covered in food and condiments from head to toe.
“All of the showers are probably taken,” Gus said. “The freshmen are probably cleaning themselves off after the fight.”
“Classic freshmen,” Neil laughed. “We probably shouldn’t just walk through the lobby dripping gravy and ketchup all over the place.”
“Good call. We’ll go in the back.” Mikey gestured to the right, and the group cut across the grass to go around the building. Each wing of the dormitory had a door to the outside on the opposite end from the lobby. They lived in the back wing of the dorm, so almost nobody used that door. That made it perfect for sneaking out.
Reaching the door, the boys began stripping down to their boxers, leaving everything else in a pile outside the door. The minimal usage of their back door also made it perfect for situations such as this. Nobody would see them, and nobody would steal their clothes. They darted inside, grabbed their towels and soap, and raced to the shower room.
“Would you look at that?” Neil exclaimed as they stepped inside.
“I guess the freshmen showered while we were cleaning up the dining hall,” Art suggested. The room was steamy, with water all over the floor, but none of the showers were running. All four of them were open, so the boys quickly stripped and jumped in.
“So who’s washing our laundry?” Mikey shouted above the sound of rushing water.
“Better question: how are we washing our laundry?” Art retorted.
“Well I think Art’s out. He never does his own laundry anyway; his parents wash it every week,” Neil responded.
“Challenge: last person in the shower washes the laundry!” Gus yelled, laughing.
“Deal!” The four boys began quickly scrubbing their bodies and washing their hair, trying to remove all the food residue. As much of it had begun to dry, it took several cycles of “lather, rinse, repeat” to get the majority of it out.
“Ow! Soap in my eyes, soap in my eyes!” Neil began to scream overdramatically. The boys could hear spastic thudding from his shower, likely from Neil punching the wall. All four of them busted out laughing.
“Done!” Mikey yelled. Gus was right behind him, shutting off the water and wrapping his towel around his waist. Stepping out of his shower, he saw Mikey, also in his towel, leaning against the wall.
“Come on, ladies! It’s either Art or Neil now!” Gus taunted. As he finished the sentence, the water in Art’s shower shut off.
“Nope, not me! Have fun washing our laundry, Neil!” the boy exclaimed, laughing.
“You should probably rinse the clothes off in one of the showers first,” Mikey suggested. “But chances are high that all of that stuff is probably ruined.” Neil and Art stepped out of their showers, and the four of them returned to their rooms and got dressed.
As Neil started the laundry, Art turned on his PlayStation to play Call of Duty, a common post-dinner occurrence. Mikey sat down on Art’s couch and grabbed a controller to play. Gus took a seat at his desk to work on his graduation speech, looking up motivational quotes on Google and reminiscing on his favorite memories. Neil joined them soon afterward, and he immediately joined Art and Mikey at screaming at their game.
Around midnight, Neil came into the room with his arms full of clothes. He threw them on the couch next to Mikey, who began digging through the pile and sorting the clothing. Gus saw that everything was stained with splotches of gray, red, and yellow, so he stuffed his clothes into the back of his dresser.
Another guy from down the hall, Quentin, walked into the room and saw that they were playing Call of Duty. He disappeared and returned with two more controllers so he and Neil could join the game. Quentin took Gus’s seat, as Gus grabbed his book and crawled into bed. He was an avid reader, reading at least one book each week.
Tonight, he was starting The Fellowship of the Ring.
Gus was awakened once again by Art’s 9:00 alarm. Grumbling, he crawled out of bed, turned it off, and stumbled groggily to the bathroom. Standing in front of the sink, he splashed water in his face to wake himself up. He dried his face and left the bathroom.
On the way back to his room, Gus stopped in front of the hall mirror. He had let his hair grow out this semester. As a result, it tended to point in random directions in the morning. Running his fingers through it repeatedly, he did his best to flatten it out, deciding that he would cut it before graduation. Then he paused a moment and stared at his reflection.
He was tall, towering over his closest friends and most of his classmates. He was also thin, almost unhealthily so. His metabolism was a double-edged sword: he never gained weight, but he was perpetually hungry. His thin frame also provided no insulation against the bitter, central Illinois winters.
“Checking yourself out again, eh?” Mikey had stepped out of his room and was headed Gus’s way, likely to relieve himself.
“You know it,” Gus responded. “I have to appreciate being such a tall, sexy piece of man. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Dude, shut your face. I’m like four inches shorter than you. And a lot more fit.” Mikey laughed as he entered the bathroom. He was right; he had the same physique, with the added benefits of being a normal height and having meat on his bones.
Gus returned to his room and pulled on some clothes. Mikey joined him shortly after, having gotten dressed. Whispering, they brainstormed funny ways to wake up Art and Neil.
“Air horn,” Gus suggested.
“If we had one! How about a bucket of ice water?”
“Where are we gonna get a bucket? Or ice, for that matter?”
“Shaving cream and a feather?”
“Do either of us have access to a feather?” Mikey shook his head. “I thought so.”
“We already did Nerf guns yesterday,” Mikey mumbled. “What about something from YouTube? Something they both hate?”
“Eh, let’s just shake them awake. We’ll think of something later,” Gus relented.
“So fake an earthquake. Got it.” Mikey chuckled as he left his room. They both took their places beside their roommates’ beds. “3…2…1…Go!”
“Earthquake!” both boys yelled, shaking the beds violently and screaming incoherently. Groggy screams came from both beds, followed by a grunt from Neil and Mikey’s room. Art flailed around on his mattress for a moment before realizing what was happening.
“Get the eff outta here,” he grumbled, rolling over to face the wall. Gus laughed and walked across the hall to see Mikey clutching his face and Neil rolling in laughter.
“This punk decided it would be fun to punch me in the face,” Mikey explained. Removing his hands, he saw that he had a bloody nose and walked past Gus to return to the bathroom. Neil was still laughing.
“Dude, you know I’m a violent sleeper!” he yelled after his roommate. Neil hopped out of bed and walked to his dresser. Gus returned to his room to see Art climbing out of bed and pulling on a pair of jeans.
“You guys have class today?” As seniors, Gus and Mikey finished classes the week before; Art and Neil were juniors, so today was their last day of class before study days.
“Yea,” Art murmured. He went to the fridge, pulled out a Mountain Dew, and started chugging it. With class at 9:30, he and Neil finished dressing, grabbed their laptops, and left.
Mikey returned, having stopped his nosebleed, and the two of them started Parks and Recreation once more on Art’s PlayStation. When Art and Neil came back an hour later, Mikey joined them in playing League of Legends until lunch.
At lunch, they grabbed their food and sat down with Donovan and his friends. They were laughing and joking about the food fight from the night before.
“How long were you guys cleaning last night?” Neil asked.
“Um about an hour after you guys left,” Donovan responded. “It wasn’t bad. Just a lot of mopping and scrubbing tables. Which is basically what we’ll be doing all week.”
“What do you guys think about not walking at graduation?”
“Who cares?” Adrian laughed. “I didn’t really want to walk anyway.”
“Besides, we have the greatest of senior pranks planned for the ceremony!” Donovan interjected. “We’re gonna go out with such a big bang!”
“Is it anything like what you’ve done at every dorm meeting?” Neil asked. “Those were always hilarious!” Donovan had a tendency to strip down to a man-thong and strut around the room during the male dorm meetings.
“It’ll be greater than anything you’ve ever seen, I promise you that!” Donovan answered. “We’ve been planning this for months!”
“Any chance you’ll give us a hint?” Art’s mouth was full of food, so his question came out mumbled.
“Not a chance!” Adrian said. “You’ll have to wait for graduation! Be there!” With that, the group gathered their dishes and left.
Gus, Mikey, Art, and Neil remained in the dining for another hour, refilling their plates and wondering aloud about Donovan’s prank. When they finished eating, they returned to their rooms to continue watching Netflix and playing video games. Gus sat at his desk and worked more on his speech.
After dinner, the group took a trip into town. They visited Wal-Mart regularly and often spent several hours wandering the store. As usual, they needed to stock up on Mountain Dew and snacks, even though they only had three more days.
Once inside the store, Neil and Art made a beeline for the electronics, while Gus and Mikey grabbed a cart and headed to the grocery section. Going aisle by aisle, Mikey snagged various snacks off the shelves and tossed them into the cart. They darted around the store, setting off to find Neil and Art a few minutes later with a cart full of junk food.
“What did you guys get?” Neil asked without looking at them. He and Art were gazing intently into the display cases full of video games.
“Plenty of chips, candy, cookies, and pop,” Gus responded. “So how are we splitting all of this? Who’s buying what?”
“Eh, we’ll figure it out.” Art shrugged. Gus rolled his eyes. Being the responsible one is a pain, he thought.
“Art can buy the Mountain Dew. I grabbed four cases of the stuff,” Mikey answered.
“Dibs on the chips!” Neil yelled, still not looking their way. He walked around the display racks to look at the available movies, Art at his heels.
“Fine. Gus can get the cookies, and I’ll cover the candy,” Mikey continued. “Anything look interesting?” He weaved his way through the display racks along with Neil and Art. Gus pushed the cart slowly after them.
“No, just the same old stuff,” Art mumbled. “It’s like we were just here a few days ago.”
Without another word, Neil led the group away from the electronics towards the toys. They ignored all of the aisles until they found the Nerf guns, a favorite place of theirs to stop when at Wal-Mart. Though they have collectively purchased every gun available, they always visited this area. Sometimes they looked, others they were compelled to expand their collection or were in need of replacement darts.
“En garde!” Gus turned in time to see Mikey toss three foam swords into the air, brandishing a fourth in his hand. Catching them, Art and Neil wordlessly made one team while Gus shuffled over to Mikey.
“We’ll leave the cart here. Ten minutes. Head or torso shots are instant death,” Neil explained. “If someone slashes your arm or leg, you lose that limb.”
“We’ll start in three minutes,” Gus added, pulling out his phone. “Return here ten minutes after that. The pair with the most limbs left wins.”
“Bathrooms are off limits,” Art interrupted. “No hiding out. Just sneaking around.”
“Start in three minutes. Go!” Gus turned on his heels and power walked away from the group. Mikey followed him for a few aisles before darting off on his own. They had played this game many times, so they had established that each person goes to a different corner of the store to start.
Gus took his place in the sporting goods section. When time was up, he immediately moved toward the middle of the store. He liked to tiptoe around the clothing racks until either he found someone or was found himself. It never took long. The whole point of the game was to fight, not to hide and avoid the other team. He barely stepped into the walkway surrounding the clothes when he glanced left and saw Neil standing there, grinning ear to ear.
“You always come here, Gussie,” he taunted, approaching slowly. Gus raised his sword and scanned his surroundings quickly. There was no telling where Art was.
Neil swung first, and Gus parried. They continued swinging and blocking, taking turns being on the offensive and defensive. Meanwhile, they moved throughout the area, down the nearby aisles and around the clothing racks.
Backing out of an aisle, Gus saw sudden movement to his right. Reacting quickly, he deflected Art’s sword away from his face. But it provided enough distraction for Neil to jab forward and scrape Gus’s left arm. Holding it behind his back, Gus backpedaled to put some space between him and the pair.
“Way to miss, stupid!” Art grumbled.
“Dude, his arms are like eight feet long. They’re way easier to hit,” Neil countered, shrugging. The two turned to Gus and advanced quickly.
“Too bad you couldn’t get one of my legs, or even my right arm!” Gus teased. “I can still take the both of you easily until Mikey gets here.”
With a grin, Art and Neil bound forward, swinging wildly. Gus sidestepped into the nearest aisle, hoping to reduce the amount of space around him. Though he was outnumbered, defending against them would be easier if they stayed in front of him. Art and Neil continued their assault, swinging and jabbing their swords vigorously. Gus opted to deflect all of their strikes, as blocking would take longer and leave him more vulnerable.
With all of his attention focused on his friends, Gus didn’t realize that he was running out of space in his current aisle. The space around him suddenly opened up, and Art and Neil smirked confidently. Deflecting Art’s most recent attack, Gus backpedaled quickly to distance himself. He glanced around for Mikey, wondering what was taking him so long. Deciding to surprise his opponents, he tightened his grip and charged.
Art was the first to react, stepping forward and raising his sword. Unfortunately he wasn’t tall or quick enough, as Gus was able to jab his sword into Art’s chest. Art dramatically fell to his knees and dropped his sword as Neil lunged at Gus. Once again, the two traded blows, alternating between offense and defense. Art had returned to his feet and followed them, quickly shouting commentary over the fight.
“Gus deflects a downward strike by Neil! Then he counters with a jab aimed at Neil’s neck! Neil dodges and swings upward, but Gus parries it and tries another jab!” As this all happened, Gus was slowly backing up, leading Neil along the clothing section.
Suddenly a foam sword appeared from within the nearest clothes rack, slashing upwards across Neil’s back. Neil was unable to hide his surprise as he turned to see Mikey emerging from amongst the Carhartt jackets, smiling from ear to ear. Chuckling, Neil dropped his sword and fell to his hands and knees in defeat.
“And Mikey defeats Neil with a surprise attack! Mikey and Gus win!” Art cheered, helping Neil to his feet.
“Good game,” he panted, shaking hands with Mikey. “Nice job taking us both, Gus.”
“You gave me a run for my money,” Gus responded, catching his breath. “Dude, how long were you waiting there?”
“Oh you know, just the whole time,” Mikey said, laughing. “I watched you and Neil duke it out and followed you the whole time. I saw Art’s sneak attack and the whole 2-v-1 situation. It was pretty intense!”
“Jerk!” Gus punched him in the arm. “You could’ve jumped in and given me a hand sooner! We could’ve dominated 2-v-2!”
“But you were doing so well!” he responded. “I was getting ready to jump in when the two of you started moving my way. Then I just decided to finish it with a surprise attack.”
“Fair enough. We should get our stuff and head back to the dorm.” Gus started walking back to the Nerf aisle to grab their cart. “Anybody break or damage their sword?” They all inspected their foam weapons and found no sign of use.
Returning the swords to their shelf, the boys sorted through their snacks. The put each person’s purchase in different corners of the cart to make check-out easier. Then they made their way to the nearest register and loaded the conveyor belt. They recognized their cashier as a woman named Jenna, as she frequently worked during the evenings and nights when they ventured to Wal-Mart.
“Hey boys!” she greeted cheerfully. “Find everything okay?”
“Hey Jenna,” Mikey responded. “You know we did! We know this place like the backs of our hands, you should know that!”
“True,” she said, continuing to scan their items. “You guys do anything crazy tonight?” She winked at them. Most of the evening and night employees knew that they tended to have fun while shopping, but it only bothered a few of them.
“Nothing too crazy, just some sword fighting!” Neil answered, pantomiming such a fight. “We grabbed some of those Nerf swords and had a quick 2-v-2 match. Gus and Mikey won.”
“Sounds like fun! You didn’t break anything, did you?”
“Nope, nothing broken!” Art answered.
“You know we’d clean it up if we did!” Gus added. “We always pick up after ourselves. And we buy anything we break.”
“Seriously, we have like a dozen broken Nerf swords in the trunk.” Mikey laughed, but they all knew it was true.
“That’s a valid point,” Jenna replied. “When does school let out?”
“Well Gus and I graduate on Saturday.” Mikey turned and high-fived him. “These other two bozos have finals next week, but they’ll be done on Thursday.”
“Wow, you boys have grown up so much! Who will come in here and liven up the place once you leave?” Jenna stuck out her bottom lip to feign pouting.
“You’ll still have us for another year!” Art assured her. “We’ll have to befriend some of the freshmen and let them in on our shenanigans!”
“As if! You’ll never replace our charm and sense of humor!” Gus puffed out his chest, acting all high and mighty. “This place will just fall into monotonous despair.”
“I guess I’ll just have to find a new, more exciting job! So, Gus and Mikey, do you have any plans for life after college?”
“Life after, huh?” Gus repeated, musing. “Well, broadly speaking, I plan to get a job, find a place to life, and start a family sometime after that. Who knows when or where.”
“The same goes for me, really,” Mikey added. “Though I do have a better idea of when and where. Amber is in Tennessee, and she graduates next weekend. I can move down there until we get married.”
“Nice! You guys will have to come back and see little ole me once you make it big!” Jenna asserted. “Well, you guys are good to go. Thanks for coming around so much and making this job more interesting. I’ll see you later!”
“See you, Jenna!” the boys yelled, waving goodbye as they pushed the cart away. They loaded their groceries into the back of Mikey’s SUV, piled into the vehicle, and sped out of the parking lot.
“It’s crazy how close we are to graduating,” Gus said, turning to Mikey. They were always driver and shotgun-rider, as Neil and Art barely stood to Mikey’s shoulders.
“Seriously!” Mikey agreed, turning down the radio. “Pretty soon we’ll be paying bills, working our 9-to-5 jobs, and living boring adult lives!” Everyone laughed.
“Thank God I’m not graduating this year!” Neil interjected. “I’ll gladly take another year of being a kid! What about you, Art?” Art shouted his affirmation, and they high-fived.
“You mean you’ll take another year of being irresponsible, right?” Gus teased. “You know, playing League all the time, never doing your homework until the day it’s due, and sleeping through classes.”
“Oh come on, we don’t do all of those—” Neil began. He paused when Gus shot him a look that said, “Oh, really?” “Yea, you’re right. But we have so much fun!”
“And you forgot to mention all of our Nerf wars,” Art added. “We’ll totally make the best adults someday. ‘Someday’ just isn’t ‘today.’”
By this point, Mikey turned into the campus parking lot and found a parking space. The boys grabbed their groceries and headed to their dorm rooms, still talking about all of the antics they’ve pulled. Back in their rooms, they divided the snacks and drinks evenly between the two rooms and put everything away. Gus was taking off his jeans and shirt to read and relax before bed when Mikey walked in with a six-pack of root beer.
“All right, boys, I think tonight calls for a toast,” he explained, tossing bottles to Gus, Art, and Neil. “I bought twelve bottles of this stuff, so we can do three toasts before graduation. I’m sure we’ll go out sometime before then, so we can grab more for a post-ceremony toast.”
“Sounds like a fun idea,” Gus said. “So who’s doing the honor?”
“Well, I was thinking we’d take turns. Each of us takes one of these last four toasts.” Mikey looked from one person to the next. “Since it was my idea, I’ll go first.”
“Here’s to youthful hearts,” he began. “May we always be kids at heart, making fun in the most boring of tasks.”
“Cheers!” The four boys raised their bottles, clinking them together in the middle of the room. Grinning, each upturned their respective bottle and chugged.
The next day was Thursday, the first of the school’s study days before finals. Having turned off their alarms, Gus and Art slept in well past 9:00. It was around 11 when whispering and muffled movement stirred Gus from his sleep. Pulling back the curtain around his bed, he squinted to see what was happening, half-asleep and without his glasses.
“Attack!” Gus hardly had time to register that Mikey was standing in the middle of the room before he swung his arms in an upwards arc toward him. Without his glasses, Gus couldn’t see what was happening, but he felt it almost immediately.
“What the eff?” he shouted as the bucket of ice struck his bare torso. “What in the world is wrong with you people? I’m literally going to murder you!” He continued screaming and flailing in bed, pushing the ice to the floor and crawling out.
As he did this, Art began to flail violently above him, shouting profanities and similar promises to murder Neil. Standing up, Gus saw Neil at the foot of Art’s bed with a bucket. He apparently had pulled back the covers and dumped ice on Art to wake him up. Turning his attention to Mikey, Gus glared for a moment and gave chase as Mikey darted out of the room.
The back door out of the dorm was closer, so Mikey ran for that. Not caring that he was only in boxers, Gus followed. Once outside, Mikey took off across the lawn. Unfortunately for him, Gus had longer legs and was a sprinter, having run track in high school. He barely made it fifty yard before Gus lunged and tackled him to the ground.
“So you wanna wrestle?” Mikey taunted, squirming on the ground. “Just like old times!”
“Nope, I wanna strangle you,” Gus responded, chuckling. The boys rolled around in the grass, each trying to pin the other down. They had wrestled many times in their college careers, and they were always fairly evenly matched.
This time, however, Gus maintained control, full of adrenaline to take revenge on his friend. Pushing Mikey flat, he quickly looped his arms through Mikey’s and caught him in a full Nelson. He then shifted his weight so that much of it was on Mikey’s hips and torso.
“A full Nelson? Nice move,” he gasped, catching his breath. “When are you gonna let me up?” Mikey wriggled beneath Gus, trying to free himself.
“Never!” Gus exclaimed, headbutting Mikey.
Neil came out of the dorm with Art on his heels, smacking his back defiantly with a baseball bat. They saw Gus and Mikey on the ground and laughed.
“Get a room, guys!” Neil taunted. “Also, we should get ready for lunch. Then we can play League.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Giving Mikey one last headbutt, Gus stood up and helped him to his feet. Mikey playfully shoved him away after getting on his feet.
The four boys walked back into the dorm and grabbed their things to shower. Afterwards, they dressed and went to the cafeteria to eat. After getting their meals, they sat down at an empty table. Soon after they were joined by Kennedy.
“Hey boys!” she greeted. “How’s your study day going?”
“Well we slept until eleven. Then we were rudely awakened by some bozos throwing buckets of ice into our beds.” Art glared at Neil as he answered.
“Boys! Why would you do that?”
“It gets better,” Mikey interrupted, smirking.
“Oh yes,” Art agreed. “I chased Neil around the floor and beat him with my bat. He tried to hide in his room, but I carded the door. Then I started beating him again.”
“Meanwhile, I chased Mikey out of the building in my boxers. We wrestled in the lawn for a few minutes. It was a good time.”
“First, why would you throw ice at your friends?” Kennedy turned to Neil and Mikey.
“More importantly, where in the world did you get buckets of ice?” Gus asked.
“Funny story about that,” Neil answered. “We may or may not have broken into the maintenance shed on the edge of campus to get the buckets. Then we sneaked into the kitchen to fill them with ice. We carded your door and woke you up.”
“As for Kennedy’s question,” Mikey added, “why not? We thought it was funny, and it did not disappoint!”
Kennedy sighed and turned to Art and Gus. “Why did you attack your friends?”
“Um, because they started it!” Art again glared at Neil. “And they totally deserved it.”
“Boys, what am I gonna do with you?” Kennedy shook her head dejectedly.
“Let us graduate and leave CIU?” Mikey suggested.
“Oh boys. You need to grow up,” she said. “You can’t keep playing pranks and goofing off for the rest of your lives.”
“I think we can,” Neil replied. “We can stay young at heart. Have fun with our wives and kids. Play games with our co-workers, maybe prank them occasionally. There’s no need to be all uptight and mature all the time.”
“But you’re never mature!” Gus teased, laughing. Shaking her head, Kennedy finished her last few bites of food and stood up.
“I’ll see you boys later. Gus, Mikey, get ready for graduation. Art and Neil, study!”
“What’s studying?” Art joked. The group finished eating and returned to their rooms.
“What are we going to do today?” Mikey asked. “Play League? Watch Parks and Rec? Cards Against Humanity? Nap?”
“I’m gonna get back into Skyrim,” Gus replied, sitting at his desk. “You guys can do whatever. But you’ll probably play League.”
“You know us so well!” Neil went into his room and started shouting across the hall. “Get on, Art! We need to play!”
When it came time for dinner, Gus was the first one to get ready. He shut down his PlayStation, put on his shoes, and stretched. Art was clicking madly on his mouse, and Gus could hear the same from across the hall.
“Come on, you nerds!” Gus said. “Finish your game!”
“We’re almost there!” Neil responded. “We should be done in ten minutes!” They began shouting about the game again. Gus returned to his desk to check social media until they finished. It also gave him a chance to outline his speech, as he finally knew what to say.
A hand clapped him on the shoulder, snapping him back to reality. He had become entranced in planning the speech and lost track of time. Art was pulling on his shoes, while Mikey stood behind Gus.
“Let’s go, guys!” Neil yelled from the hallway. “Dinner time!”
“I have an idea,” Gus said. “Let’s ditch the café and go get some good food.”
“Perfect!” Mikey agreed. “Where do we want to eat?”
“Well, Steak n Shake is the best place in town,” Art answered. “It’s cheap, delicious, and fairly quick. Plus they have milkshakes, and they’re open all night.”
With no other suggestions, they hurried to Mikey’s SUV and sped across town to the restaurant. It was fairly empty, so they were seated quickly. Their waitress, a young blonde named Claire, led them to a booth in the far corner of the room. Like with Wal-Mart, they came to Steak n Shake regularly, so much of the staff knew them. Claire knew they could get rowdy, so she always put them off by themselves.
“How are you boys doing tonight?” she asked, passing out menus.
“We’re good!” Gus replied amiably. “How are you?”
“Bored!” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s so dull in here today.”
“Well worry no more!” Mikey asserted. “We’re here, so it might get a little crazy!” He gave her a wink and chuckled.
“What can I get you guys to drink?” Claire pulled out her pad and pen and looked at Gus.
Mikey and Gus ordered Dr. Pepper, while Art and Neil got Pepsi. Claire walked away to get their drinks as the group opened their menus.
“I don’t know about you guys,” Neil started, “but I’m super hungry. I might get like two or three meals!”
“Same girl same,” Gus agreed. He was looking over the various burgers in front of him.
“So let’s chow down then!” Mikey was grinning ear to ear. “We’ll make this our ‘Last Supper’ and eat until we’re stuffed!”
Claire returned with their drinks and took their orders. Neil ordered a dozen shooters and two orders of cheese fries. Mikey and Gus each ordered two bacon burgers with fries. Art requested half a dozen shooters and a spicy chicken sandwich with fries.
“I’d say you boys are hungry!” Claire teased, picking up the menus.
“Yea, you could say that! We decided to make this our ‘Last Supper,’ since graduation is on Saturday,” Art explained.
“Aww, you boys are leaving me? Well congrats on finishing college! I’m still uncertain about what I want to do, so I’ll probably just work until I figure it out.”
“No rush!” Gus assured. “There’s no point wasting your time and money if you don’t know what you want to do.”
“So true! I’ll get these orders in and come back to chat a bit,” Claire said, smiling as she turned and walked toward the kitchen.
“One other thing!” Neil yelled quickly. “Grab a glass of water and come back, please.”
“Okay?” Confused, she walked away and came back as requested.
“I want to start our night with a toast,” he explained. The five of them grabbed their glasses and raised them above the table. “To the best friends we could ever need. Through everything, these people have been there to laugh and cry with us, and even to make fun of us when we do something stupid. May these friendships never fade, no matter how much distance separates us or how much time passes.”
“To friends!” they agreed, clinking their glasses together. Liquid splashed over the rims of their cups and onto the table as they each drank deeply.
“You guys are great,” Claire said. “Now I’ll actually go get these orders in, unless you want to do anything else?” She looked at Neil and winked.
“No, that’s it. I just wanted to include you in the toast, since you’re a friend!” he replied. She grinned and walked away.
“So what are we doing tomorrow? It’s our last day as undergraduate students,” Gus asked. “I need to finish my speech, but I can do that anytime. Or I can just wing it.”
“We can lock ourselves in our dorms and play video games all day,” Neil suggested. “Pig out on the snacks we bought, pull an all-nighter, watch our favorite YouTube videos.”
“That could be fun,” Mikey responded. “Except two of us have a long, boring graduation ceremony to attend on Saturday morning. And one of those two has a speech to deliver!”
“So no all-nighter. Fine, why not just do everything else?”
“What are you guys talking about?” Claire pulled a chair to the end of the table and sat backwards on it, crossing her arms on the back of the chair. She leaned in to join the conversation.
“We were discussing our plans for tomorrow,” Gus explained. “So far the plan is to lock ourselves in our rooms and play video games all day.”
“That could be fun. But here’s a bigger question: what are your plans for after graduation?” Claire locked eyes with both Gus and Mikey. “My manager has a thing that she likes to do for graduating seniors.”
“How often do you get seniors in here?” Neil interrupted, chuckling.
“You’d be surprised,” she answered. “We see a lot of kids your age in December. And we serve a ton of high school and college grads during May.”
“Makes sense. There’s not much else to do here in town,” Gus said. “So what is this thing that your manager does?”
“I’ll be right back.” Claire spun out of her seat and walked off without a word.
The group jumped back into thinking of plans for the next day: taking an impromptu road trip, pranking Donovan and his floor, starting a campus-wide Nerf war. Neil suggested pulling the fire alarm in the middle of the night and breaking into the president’s office to replace all of his office photos, while Art clung to Neil’s original idea. Mikey discussed the possibility of camping and streaking across campus.
As the ideas got more ridiculous, Claire returned with a giant tray full of food. She set it all on the table, letting the guys sort it out themselves, and quickly brought drink refills. As the group started eating, she sat down, stole a few fries, and pulled some paper from her apron. She unfolded it and passed a half-sheet to each of the boys, saving one for herself.
Looking at his paper, Gus saw that it was blank. No lines or instructions. Confused, he looked at the others’ reactions. Their papers seemed to be blank as well, so they turned to Claire, who was handing out pens.
“Here are the instructions,” she began. “Paint a picture of your future. You can write lists or complete sentences. You could even doodle some pictures. However you do it, think about life five, ten, fifteen years down the road and ask yourself, ‘Where do I want to be? What do I want to do?’ Then, on the bottom or the back or another sheet of paper, you can start writing steps for getting there.”
“Give us an example,” Neil requested. “Also, why do Art and I have to do this? We don’t graduate until next year.”
“You boys are in college,” she said. “You should think about your future before senior year. I’m sure Mikey and Gus can attest to this: few will ask you what you want to do when you’re a freshman or sophomore, but once you become a junior or senior, everybody you meet will want to know what your plans are.”
“It’s true,” Gus confirmed.
“Seriously. No one said a thing, but as soon as we started last fall, everybody was interested,” Mikey added. “Not only did they ask, but they also suggested what they would do if they were you.”
Claire unfolded her sheet of paper, flattening it on the table. “This is my plan. My manager asks new employees to make five-year goals. So I wrote things like ‘find my passion,’ ‘start attending college,’ and ‘go on a road trip with friends.’ So you guys can put goals for career, education, relationships, or simply fun. It’s your future, so make it what you want.”
With a smile, Claire winked and grabbed one of Neil’s shooters, stuffing it into her mouth as she walked away. Neil dramatized his reaction, throwing his hands in the air and shouting gibberish. He threatened not to tip her, but she just chuckled and disappeared into the kitchen. Shaking his head, he turned back to the food and his friends.
“You should’ve expected that,” Mikey taunted.
“Classic Claire,” Art agreed, “always stealing our food.”
“So are we actually doing this thing?” Neil asked, mouth full of fries. “Because I have no idea what I’m doing next year, let alone five years from now!”
“It could be interesting,” Gus began. “But I think we should do it when we’re ready. You know, think about our futures, talk it out with friends, mentors, and family, and then try to make some plans.”
Nodding in agreement, conversation died as the boys devoured the food before them. As the food disappeared, they slowed down their eating. Gus looked at each of his friends in turn, noting that each seemed to be deep in thought. Finishing his last handful of fries, he took a swig of Dr. Pepper and cleared his throat.
“So what’s up, guys?” he asked. The table remained silent as the others ate their last bites, sipped their pop, and started stacking their plates.
“All right, I’ll spill,” Neil mumbled. “I hate awkward silences. It’s weird to think that you guys will be gone next year.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Art seconded. “We’ve been here for years, so it’ll be weird without you. And then I got to thinking about Claire’s pieces of paper and what I want to do with my life after I graduate.”
“It is weird to think about.” Mikey was staring at the sweat dripping down his glass. “But we’ll stay in touch. Life after college isn’t just work; there will be plenty of chances to hang out and have fun like old times!” He looked up and grinned.
“Looks like the food was good!” The guys looked up to see Claire with four milkshakes on a tray. “I think I know you guys well enough to surprise you with your favorite shakes for your ‘Last Supper.’”
“Oh do you? What did you get us?” Neil asked, grinning smugly.
“Peanut butter cup for Mikey, M&Ms for Gus, chocolate fudge for Neil, and cookies and cream for Art,” she replied, passing out the shakes. She handed out spoons and straws and piled the plates on her tray. “How did I do?”
“Perfect!” Mikey exclaimed. “Thanks so much!”
“No problem,” she said, smiling. “I’ll bring you guys your checks.”
Claire walked back to the kitchen as the boys began devouring their shakes. Gus and Mikey paced themselves, taking small bites. Art and Neil shoveled spoonfuls of the dessert into their mouths quickly.
“Ahh, brain freeze!” Neil yelled. He clutched his head with one hand and pounded the table with the other. He never stopped shouting the entire time. The others started laughing so hard that they couldn’t talk or breathe.
“For one thing,” Gus wheezed, “slow down!” He paused to catch his breath. “Secondly, stick your thumb on the roof of your mouth! That’ll fix it!”
With his thumb in his mouth, Neil’s yelling became more muffled. It didn’t take long for him to stop grimacing and wipe his thumb off on a napkin. Art and Mikey finally stopped laughing and caught their breath. Claire returned with their checks as they finished their milkshakes.
“Need anything else, boys?” she asked. “How about some aspirin for your brain freeze?” She patted Neil on the head and laughed.
“You saw that?” He turned bright red and covered his face.
“I think the whole restaurant saw,” she replied. “But it’s okay. I’m sure you’ve done much more embarrassing stuff. Anyway, you have your checks, so you’re free to go anytime. Mikey and Gus just have to promise me one thing.”
“Of course, anything,” Mikey said. Gus nodded in agreement.
“Don’t forget about your friends when you graduate and move on to whatever is next in life,” she told them, locking eyes with Gus and then Mikey. “Pinky promise!” She stuck her hand out toward the two of them.
“We promise,” they answered, interlocking their pinkies with hers.
“Good. Have a good life! Come back and visit sometime!” Claire gave them a quick salute and walked away.
When Gus woke up the next morning, he pulled back his bed’s curtain and saw that Mikey and Neil had crashed in his room, Mikey on the couch and Neil on the floor. Thinking quickly, Gus grabbed his glasses and crawled out of bed carefully. He stepped over Neil to climb onto the back of the couch. Sitting down carefully, he slid his feet and hands under Mikey’s torso. Fortunately, Mikey was the smallest and lightest of the four, so Gus’s task was fairly easy.
“Good morning!” Gus yelled, lifting with all of his limbs to toss Mikey off the couch. He flipped onto his stomach and landed face-to-face on top of Neil. Their heads smashed together, and they began flailing and screaming as they tried to separate and stand up.
“Gus! I’m going to kill you!” Mikey said through gritted teeth. He finally managed to climb back onto the couch as Art sat up in bed.
“Payback, dude,” Gus replied. “You guys doused us with ice, so this is payback.”
“Fair enough,” Neil grumbled, standing up.
The guys went about their morning routine: showers, social media, getting dressed. As it wasn’t quite lunch time when they finished, they sat down to watch more Parks and Recreation while snacking on the various chips and cookies in the room. Gus opened up his speech on his laptop and made some finishing touches, having worked on it extensively the night before.
“I think it’s done!” he announced triumphantly, throwing his fists in the air.
“Woo, we have to celebrate!” Art jumped up and ran out of the room, repeatedly yelling, “Gus finished his graduation speech!”
Mikey, Neil, and Gus followed suit. For several minutes, they ran up and down the halls, screaming about the completed speech. Each stopped whenever he passed Art and Gus’s room to stuff some junk food in his mouth, before getting back to his run. Whenever one of their floor mates stepped into the hallway, one would shake him by the shoulders while the other three jumped around him, still yelling. They quickly tired, however, and soon returned to Gus and Art’s room to relax again”
“Hold up,” Art said, disappearing from the room. He came back with four bottles of root beer and passed them out. “I think a toast is in order.”
“To what?” Neil asked, opening his bottle.
“To drinking root beer or something,” Art mumbled. “Just toast and drink!” Laughing, they raised their bottles slightly and then drank.
“Wait!” Gus clapped his hands excitedly. “I have an idea, but we need lots of root beer.”
“Oh? What kind of idea?” Mikey asked, intrigued.
“A deliciously sneaky idea,” Gus answered.
“Those are the best kind! Do tell,” Mikey said.
Gus leaned forward and started talking. When he got his idea across, the group got to work brainstorming how they would make it happen. They needed to know how much root beer to buy before anything else, so they decided to tackle that first.
“I can handle that. I’m a pro at breaking into places,” Neil volunteered. Without waiting for a response, he darted out of the room.
“And now Neil’s breaking into the registrar’s office.” Gus sighed and shook his head.
“That’s the first issue,” Mikey continued. “But where are we gonna get that much root beer? And how are we going to get it into place?”
“You and Art take care of buying it tonight. Neil and I will take care of the rest,” Gus replied. “Once he gets back, you two can head out, and we’ll figure out our part. Really, I just need him to break in, let’s be honest.”
The three of them began discussing how the faculty, staff, students, and audience would react. They concluded that the faculty and staff would probably be a little upset by it. The students, on the other hand, would likely love it, finding it hilarious. As for the rest of the audience, the reactions would be mixed.
“Guys!” Neil shouted from down the hall. “I’m back! I have the answer!” They darted out of the room to meet him. He handed a folded half-sheet of paper to Mikey.
“Now that we have that figured out, we have more stuff to do,” he said.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” Gus explained. “Mikey and Art, you hit every store in town, starting at Walmart until you have all the root beer we need. Neil and I will find an isolated place to store it and then plan how to get it into position.”
“What about lunch? And dinner?” Art asked.
“Grab some snacks for your shopping spree,” Gus responded. “We’ll skip lunch, but we should be ready by dinnertime.” Art ran back to his room and returned with grocery bag full of snacks and drinks.
“Does everybody know what they’re doing?” Mikey looked at the other three, who all nodded. “Okay guys. Let’s do this. Break!” With a shout, Mikey and Art took off down the hall, while Neil followed Gus to his room.
Gus’s alarm startled him out of sleep at 7:00 the next morning. The ceremony began at 9:00, but all the seniors had to be there by 8. Groaning, he turned it off and felt around for his glasses. Above him, he could hear Art snoring loudly.
Gus crawled out of bed and headed to the showers. As he stepped into the hallway, Mikey opened his door. Nodding groggily at each other, they went to the shower room and stepped into the stream of hot water.
“Graduation is stupid,” Mikey yelled over the sound of rushing water.
“Seriously,” Gus agreed. “We rehearsed this stupid ceremony for three hours last night. Why do we need to be there this early?”
“I guess this gives people time to take plenty of pictures,” Mikey suggested. “You know, in their gowns with all of their friends and professors. And Maybrook will probably want to run through the ceremony one last time.”
“Yea, too bad I’m not interested in any pictures. Except maybe with Jameson.” Dr. Jameson was the head of the philosophy department, so he and Gus had gotten to know each other fairly well over the last four years. “At the very least I’d like to talk to him one last time. You know, say thanks for teaching me so much.”
“True. I’d like to find Stewart too,” Mikey agreed. “I could bounce some ideas for the future off of him.” Troy Stewart was in charge of Mikey’s department, teacher’s education.
“We should make sure Art and Neil are awake before we leave. They’ll want to be at graduation.”
“True. They’ll want to see Donovan’s prank and our little stunt. How did that go, by the way? Is everything in place?”
“Oh yes,” Gus answered, grinning. “Neil and I were out until about 3, but we took care of it. This is gonna be great.”
“Good. Any ideas what Donovan has planned for today?”
“It will probably be similar to what he’s done at all of our dorm meetings. Which might be a little…racy and inappropriate. But I trust that they’ll do something memorable.” Gus shut off the water and wrapped his towel around his waist.
“I guess we should go get dressed,” Mikey mumbled, stepping out of the shower.
“Let’s just get this over with. I’m so ready to be done.”
“We’re gonna need a hardcore nap after graduation.” Mikey laughed and followed Gus down the hall. They entered their rooms, shook their roommates awake, and went to their closets to find clothes.
Gus grabbed brown khakis and a white dress shirt. Tucking in his shirt, he slipped a navy vest over his shirt and tied a matching bowtie around his neck. He found his navy Vans and put those on his feet. Meanwhile, Mikey dressed himself in black slacks, a blue dress shirt, and a blue and black stripped tie. He was tying his dress shoes when Art and Neil returned from their showers. As they dried off and dressed, Mikey and Gus got ready to leave.
“Is your speech ready?” Neil shouted at Gus.
“I made the finishing touches yesterday,” he answered. “Then I printed it out. It’s on the podium already. Maybrook had me leave it there, just in case.”
“When does graduation start, again?”
“Nine o’clock, stupid,” Art replied, laughing. “We should be there around 8:30. Take a selfie together, then we’ll need to find our seats.”
“Good plan,” Mikey said. “Meanwhile, we have to leave. Like, now.” He and Gus stepped out into the hall with their black gowns on. Tucking their caps under their arms, they headed down the hall, out of the building, and across campus to the auditorium.
Inside the building, they found their classmates crowded in the lobby. Everyone was wearing their gowns already, but Gus could tell that they were dressed up underneath. As they looked around, President Maybrook approached them.
“Boys,” he greeted. Gus had never noticed how intimidating this man could be until now. They stood eye-to-eye, but Maybrook had the physique of a bodybuilder. He was a massive man with a terrifying scowl.
“Good morning, President Maybrook,” they said.
“Augustus Millburn and Michael Kilroy,” he mumbled, checking their names off on a clipboard. “Are you ready to give your speech, Millburn?”
“Yes sir,” Gus replied. “I look forward to it.”
“Good. I will let you know when to come up. Just like we rehearsed. Which reminds me.” Maybrook turned abruptly and walked to the auditorium doors. “Seniors! File inside and take your seats! I will give you last-minute instructions momentarily.” The room immediately fell silent, and everyone entered the auditorium and sat down in the first few rows of seats.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Maybrook continued. He stood a few feet in front of the group. “Congratulations on making it to graduation. I know you all have worked hard to get here, and I am just as eager to get this over with as you are. If you all do as we rehearsed last night, this ceremony will proceed smoothly and finish within two hours. I will open the ceremony with a greeting, after which I will call Mr. Millburn to the stage to deliver his speech. After that, I will return to the podium to pass out diplomas. After a final word from yours truly, you will be done. I will then dismiss you all to the lobby, where your friends and families will soon join you. Everybody understand?”
“Yes sir!” the group said in unison.
“Good. It is now about 8:20. Meet backstage in twenty minutes, at 8:40. Dismissed!” Maybrook walked away quickly, leaving the seniors to walk around and chat.
Heading to the lobby, Gus and Mikey found Art and Neil waiting for them. Art wore a purple dress shirt with black jeans and gray Vans. He refused to tuck his shirts into his pants because tucking it bothered his insulin pump. Neil wore designer jeans, a simple white dress shirt, black tie, and black dress shoes. He also had donned his black beanie.
“Look who made it!” Mikey taunted, jabbing Neil in the arm.
“Shut your face,” he responded. “How’s Maybrook this morning?”
“Just typical Maybrook,” Gus said, laughing. “We have to head backstage in twenty.”
“Is the root beer still in place?” Art asked, lowering his voice.
“Yea, it’s there,” Gus affirmed. “I can’t wait to see the look on Maybrook’s face when we pull this little stunt.”
“Oh yea,” Neil agreed. “But I think it’ll be quite tame compared to whatever Donovan has planned! He tends to go all-out with his pranks.”
“This is gonna be one graduation ceremony to remember!” Art pulled out his phone. “How about a couple of selfies to commemorate?”
“Here, use my phone instead,” Gus offered, reaching under his gown into his pants pocket. They immediately began taking a series of selfies, both serious and goofy.
“Well we should go take our seats,” Neil said. “You guys have fun. And don’t forget to rock that speech, Gus!” Without another word, he and Art walked into the auditorium. Gus and Mikey left the lobby and headed backstage to wait for the ceremony to begin. Maybrook entered the room shortly afterward.
“Okay seniors!” he bellowed when the clock read 8:40. “Line up in order, just like yesterday. The dean of students will begin the ceremony with the Pledge of Allegiance. During this time, I will line all of you up at the doors into the auditorium. When I introduce you, you may enter and walk down the aisle to your seats. Now go.”
The senior shuffled around the crowded room. Over the next five minutes, they formed two loose lines of people. Maybrook led them out into the hallway, where he spent another several minutes checking the lines against his clipboard. He had to check that everyone was present and in the correct spot.
“Good. Follow me to the lobby.” The president turned and returned to the lobby, where he motioned for the two lines to wait by the two sets of double doors. From the amount of conversation coming through the door, Gus figured the auditorium was nearly full. Being at the front of the second line, he peeked around the corner and scanned the crowd for his friends. He found them, sitting at the far right of the back row.
After a few minutes, the dean of students, a short, thin, balding man by the name of Westford, approached the podium. The room fell silent as he tapped the microphone.
“Good morning. I ask you all to stand and place your hands over your hearts as we recite the Pledge of Allegiance to begin the ceremony.” He spoke slowly in a calm, soothing voice.
As they started, Maybrook entered the auditorium and climbed the stairs onto the stage. When Westford finished, he nodded at the president and sat down. Maybrook stepped behind the podium to speak.
“I am the president of this university. My name is John Maybrook.” The man barely said these words when the lights on the stage died. “Everybody remain calm. I am sure our sound and lights crew will resolve this shortly.”
Suddenly a single spotlight flicked on, illuminating one of the doors into the lobby. As the crowd began to murmur, Gus locked eyes with Mikey in the darkness. They exchanged a look that said, It’s happening, before turning to see what would unfold.
There was a loud pop a few rows behind Gus, startling him. He looked around and noticed a long cylinder jutting into the air. Then he registered something falling around him and held out his hand to catch a piece of confetti. A confetti cannon, he thought.
The cannon was followed by a record scratch over the sound system. Within moments, the system blared festive Hispanic music as cannons popped and spread confetti around the auditorium. Another spotlight powered on, aiming at the other set of doors. Both sets flung open, and Gus busted out in laughter when he saw what was entering the room.
Two groups of men, totaling about a dozen, strolled through the room. Each of them wore a black suit with a brightly colored shirt. When Gus saw the sombreros on their heads, he realized that they were imitating a mariachi band. Looking more closely, he noticed that each of them also had a horse head mask covering his face.
Gus glanced over his shoulder to see Maybrook’s reaction. Fortunately, the person in charge of lights shone a spotlight on him. Thinking quickly, he pulled out his phone, opened the camera, and took a close-up of Maybrook’s expression. The man was visibly angry. Gus looked at his picture and saw the pulsing vein in his forehead.
An eruption of noise called his attention to the mariachi band entering the room. Between the dozen men, half of them wielded a pair of maracas, while the others raised vuvuzelas to their lips. As they shimmied up the aisles, they alternated shaking the maracas vigorously and blowing deeply into their horns.
About halfway up the aisles, the visitors began to stop every six feet or so. Once the last one stopped, they suddenly stood upright. They dropped their instruments simultaneously and reached up to grab their costumes in the chest and belt. The music and lights faded.
The room was silent and still for a few seconds. Without warning, the music gained volume and immediately jumped to a bass drop. The lights flashed on the men in the aisles as they tore their mariachi costumes off. Underneath, each man was outfitted in neon, skintight short-shorts and tank tops.
The crowd roared upon seeing this. Some yelled in disgust, while most of the room shouted excitedly and whistled. Gus doubled over laughing as the lights began to flicker and jump from color to color. They went from a mariachi band to a dance club, he thought as techno music filled the air.
The neon-clad men sprang to life. Some started pelvic-thrusting where they were, while the rest ran around the auditorium. The latter group mainly jumped around and thrust their fists into the air. As this commotion spread throughout the room, Gus heard the lobby doors fling open and turned to face them.
Another dozen men darted into the room, clothed from head to toe in black. They even had ski masks to conceal their identities. The first three in each group had several cans taped to their torso. They grabbed one in each hand, raised it above their heads, and started shooting silly string all over the audience. When their first cans emptied, they dropped them to the floor and pulled more off their shirts.
While this unfolded, Gus watched the rest of the second group to see what they were doing. They seemed to be empty-handed, but he knew that Donovan would never involve useless people in his pranks. The first group met these new arrivals in the aisles and huddled together. There was movement, but Gus couldn’t see what was happening.
The two huddles separated quickly and moved to the front of the auditorium. They all flung their arms upward, tossing what looked like small, flickering lights into the air. With that, they hurried out of the auditorium through the side doors. Noticing that the silly string group was also gone, Gus looked intently at the tossed lights. He suddenly realized what they were.
They were firecrackers. As this thought crossed Gus’s mind, they exploded. In an instant, the room was full of light and sound. Flashes of white, yellow, red, and blue scattered across the space above the audience. A procession of popping, whizzing, and crackling followed the light. As the commotion died, a thin cloud of smoke lowered throughout the room.
Everyone’s attention turned to the stage. Maybrook stood motionless behind the podium with his head down. A few moments passed before he did anything. Without a word, he lifted his head, looked at the crowd, and applauded.
“Good job, boys,” he said into the microphone. “Thank you for making this ceremony a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Fortunately I know all of your names, so I will contact you this weekend about this little…stunt. If you have any string or confetti on you, I ask that you brush it off so we can continue the commencement. It would take a great deal of time to empty the auditorium, clean up those boys’ mess, and bring everyone back. Please take the next few minutes to make yourselves more comfortable.”
Maybrook paused as the audience began to murmur. Gus saw movement throughout the room as people brushed themselves off or moved seats. The dull commotion slowly died down as everyone’s eyes focused on the stage.
“Good morning, friends and family,” the president started. “Welcome to the eighty-second commencement ceremony here at Central Illinois University. We have gathered here to honor the students who have worked hard over the last several years and completed all the requirements that we placed before them. These students are your friends, family, and loved ones. You have watched them grow from young children into the mature adults they are today.
“While they have completed their degrees here at Central Illinois University, they still have a long way to go. It is our hope that their success here motivates them to excel in their futures, whatever they may be. In order to do that, we requested that an upstanding student would speak this morning and share words of encouragement and wisdom with his peers. A young man by the name of Augustus Millburn will take the stage shortly, but let me introduce him. This man started his degree in philosophy four years ago. He came to this university from a small town called Burkitsville, Indiana, with a thirst for learning that cannot be quenched. He has excelled academically, earning the status of magna cum laude. Please help me in welcoming Gus to the stage.”
Maybrook backed away from the podium, clapping slowly. Applause erupted around Gus as he stood and climbed up to the podium. He pulled his notes from the stack of papers there and waited for the applause to fade out.
“Good morning. As President Maybrook said, we are here to graduate!” Gus began, scanning the audience periodically. He had enough practice with speeches to know how to avoid reliance on his outline.
“When you become a senior, everyone starts asking the same question: ‘What are you doing after?’ Whether you’re in high school or college, the question is the same. Everybody wants to know what your plans are for life after high school, after college, after whatever it is that you’re doing now. We all have to answer this question. Luckily, we have some experience with it already.
“When we graduated high school, we had to figure out what came after that. What did we make of life after high school? For me, I decided to attend Central Illinois University to study philosophy. Every one of us in this room found our own answers about our futures. For my peers in the first few rows, we all came to Central Illinois University. We made the decision to make college our life after high school. But now that chapter of life is ending, so we must face the question again.
“What comes after college? There are plenty of options: careers, further education, marriages, and families. Within these options, there are more questions. Where? What? With whom? No matter what we choose, there are questions to answer, choices to make.
“But isn’t that the beauty of adult life? We can do whatever we want! If you want to move across the country, get married, and start a business, live that life. If you want to move in with some friends and start working to save money for a bigger figure, live that life. When we leave today, we will be one step further in life. As seniors, we have to answer these questions soon, because life doesn’t slow down. If you don’t know what you want out of life, you need to take the time to figure that out. Once you know what kind of life you want after college, you need to chase that dream with all that you have.
“If you’re a lowerclassmen, this is my advice: go to Steak n Shake. Go alone or with a group of your closest friends. Make sure you bring pens! As you eat and talk and have fun, turn your placemat over. The back is completely blank, so it’s a perfect place to start figuring out your life. What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? Brainstorm answers to these kinds of questions and figure out how to make them happen. Make sure you return to your answers occasionally, because they can change a lot in a short amount of time.
“As for my peers and me, we don’t have time for that. If we don’t have answers, we need to find them soon, like this summer. Spend some time with friends, family, or mentors and bounce ideas of them. What comes after college? You decide!
“In the meantime, I propose a toast.” Gus reached under the podium and grabbed a bottle of root beer. He had placed it there at the beginning of the speech, having snuck it from his seat in his sleeve. “Classmates, if you look under your seats, you will find bottles of root beer. Please take a moment to pass them out. There are enough for everyone.”
The crowd murmured confusedly as the seniors leaned forward to check under their seats. They pulled out six-packs and passed the bottles around. Gus looked over his shoulder and locked eyes with Maybrook.
“Don’t worry, President Maybrook. I put one under your chair too.” The man reached down and felt around for it without removing his eyes from Gus. He picked it up, glanced at it, and gave Gus a subtle nod and smirk. Gus raised his bottle and continued speaking.
“A toast to the future. Let us make our futures into the lives that we want. May we never forget the moments and experiences that made us who we are. May we also always remember the people who share life with us. May our futures bring the best years of our lives. To our futures!”
“To our futures!” the seniors repeated.
“To your futures,” Maybrook agreed.
The seniors in the audience clinked bottles with their neighbors. Gus turned and tapped his bottle against Maybrook’s. Then, they twisted the tops off of the bottles and chugged the liquid inside. Without another word, Gus grinned and returned to his seat as Maybrook took his place at the podium.
A couple of hours later, Gus emerged from the auditorium, diploma in hand. His classmates followed but immediately dispersed around the lobby to meet up with their friends and families. Gus stood alone along the edge of the room and scanned the room for Mikey.
“Hey Gus!” He turned to see Jameson wave from across the room. Jameson was a fairly tall middle-aged man with white hair and a white goatee, dressed in his usual polo and jeans.
“Hey Dr. J,” Gus said, shaking the man’s hand. Jameson pulled him into a quick hug.
“That was quite the show, wasn’t it?” he began, referring to Donovan’s prank. “I don’t think I’ve seen any senior prank quite so elaborate! Was that Donovan and his friends?”
“I’m pretty sure,” Gus answered. “I wonder how they got the sound guys to go along with it. That made it so much more perfect.”
“True. I wondered how Maybrook would react when it started, but he seemed to be a bit of a good sport about it. Anyway, enough about that. Congratulations!”
“Thanks, Dr. J. It’s weird to think that college is finished,” Gus admitted. “I don’t think it’s really set in yet. I mean, I have my diploma, but I’m still here. I have one more night on campus before I head home.”
“I remember when I graduated from undergrad,” Jameson said. “I was so ready to move out and be on my own that I packed my car and took off. I spent that first summer applying for jobs, doing extra work to prepare for grad school, and living in a cheap apartment in South Dakota. I didn’t go home to say goodbye to family and high school friends. I didn’t even talk to anybody after graduation. I just hopped into my car, pointed the wheel the opposite direction from home, and drove.
“If I could go back, I would do it completely differently. I would’ve pull an all-nighter with my college friends, running around town and having a good time. I would’ve gone home to spend a few days with everyone there. The point is, Gus, that you shouldn’t rush the future. It will come no matter what you do. So live a little and enjoy the ride.” Jameson grinned and patted Gus on the shoulder. “Congrats again, and don’t forget to have fun.” He walked away before Gus could respond.
Art and Neil were the next to approach him. They exchanged high fives and fist bumps.
“Dude, you did it!” Neil exclaimed. “You and Mikey are out! No more college for you!”
“For now, anyway,” Gus mumbled. “I have a Bachelor’s in philosophy. There’s not a whole lot to do with that unless I go to grad school. But whatever, I’ll figure that all out later.”
“Exactly! What are we doing tonight?” Art asked.
“We need to rearrange the room,” Gus answered. “Because I have to pack and head home tomorrow.”
“No fun!” Neil yelled. “What are we supposed to do without you?”
“Seriously, just stay!” Art agreed. “What are you honestly going to do at home?”
“Probably the same that I’d do here: watch Netflix, play video games, stay up too late, sleep in, eat a ton of junk food.”
“So stay here!” Mikey shouted from behind Gus. “We can hang out some more. And we can take our time packing and rearranging our rooms.”
“Okay, so when are you leaving, Mikey?” Gus asked. The lobby had become crowded, so the four of them left the area and sat down in an empty classroom. Mikey and Gus removed their gowns and tossed them in the corner.
“I’m heading home next weekend,” he replied. “The less time I spend at home, the better! Mom and Dad will probably have me babysit the kids nonstop until I move out, anyway.” Mikey was the eldest of seven siblings, and the youngest four were in elementary school. He always ended up babysitting them whenever he was home, so he stayed on campus as much as possible.
“Makes sense. When are you guys finished with finals?” Gus turned to Art and Neil.
“I have an exam Tuesday afternoon,” Art answered, “so I’ll leave Wednesday.”
“I just have to finish a paper by 8:00 AM on Tuesday,” Neil said. “And by finish, I mean start. But other than that, I’m here until you guys leave.”
“So let’s do this: you two hang out until Wednesday. Then you can head home and start your summers. Then Mikey and I will stay one last night before leaving.”
“Sounds good!” Neil agreed. “That just leaves one unanswered question. What are we doing tonight?”
“We’ll figure something out. We always do! Let’s just head back to the dorms and do something!” Mikey jumped up from his seat and took off, the other three right behind him.
Back in the dorm, they all changed into casual clothes and sat down in Art and Gus’s room. Having recently finished season six of Parks and Recreation, they decided to try a new show for their last week. They agreed on Supernatural and started season six of that. They snacked throughout the day on chips, cookies, and Mountain Dew instead of leaving the room for lunch.
Dinner time rolled around, and they decided to grab something quick from in town. Mikey and Neil made a trip to McDonald’s while Art and Gus picked up the trash from their snacking. When Mikey and Neil returned, they brought a dozen burgers, several large orders of fries, and four large sweet teas. They divided the burgers evenly among them and poured all the fries into a single mound on the coffee table.
“This is so unhealthy for us,” Gus joked, unwrapping a burger.
“But it’s so good!” Art yelled through a mouth full of fries.
“And it’s super cheap,” Neil noted. “Which is a huge bonus for broke college kids!”
“You say that,” Mikey said, “but we’ve spent so much money in the last week.”
“I mean, financial aid,” Neil replied. “They let us direct deposit it for a reason!”
“That reason probably isn’t so that we can eat nothing but junk food at the end of the year,” Gus challenged. “But I’m not complaining. We’re having a good time.”
“Time for more Supernatural!” Art resumed the show as they continued to eat and talk.
A couple of hours later, Gus left the room to use the bathroom. On the way back, he noticed that the sun was setting. He suddenly had an idea and ran into his room.
“Art, pause Netflix! We have to go to the roof!”
“Why?” Art asked.
“Just come on!” Gus motioned for them to hurry. Mikey shrugged and stood up.
“I could use a little stretch and some fresh air,” he said. “Let’s go to the roof!”
While nobody was allowed on the roof of the dorms, that didn’t stop anybody. Carding the door was quite easy, so people were up there all the time. Couples would make out or have sex up there, while individuals would go up there just because they could. Gus slid an old debit card along the side of the door when they reached it, and it swung open instantly.
“Funny story, guys,” Neil began as they climbed the stairs. “The last time I was up here, I ran into a couple that I know having sex. As if that wasn’t awkward enough, they paused to say hi before going back to their business. Needless to say, I wasn’t up here long.”
“Let me give you some advice,” Mikey responded. “Don’t ever tell that story again.” Neil laughed and agreed as they opened the door at the top of the stairs and stepped onto the roof.
The group fell silent as they took in the scene around them. It was mid spring, so the trees and grass were vibrant green as far as the eye could see. The sky was clear of all clouds, so the setting sun painted it shades of orange, pink, purple, and yellow. These colors glowed off of everything around them.
“Shoot dang,” Art muttered after a moment.
“I take it this is what you wanted us to see?” Mikey asked.
“Oh yea. I saw it through the bathroom window and figured the view would be better up here,” Gus explained. “Plus, why not end today with a beautiful sunset?”
“Good call,” Neil said.
The group fell silent again. Each of the boys pulled out their phones and took a number of photos, trying to capture the moment. Pocketing their phones, they sat down on the edge of the roof, feet dangling three stories above the ground. They sat their quietly and watched as the sun sank behind the horizon. When it finally disappeared, they stood up and started down the stairs back to their room.
“Say what you want about the Midwest,” Gus said, “but we have some pretty nice sunsets here.”
The next couple of days consisted of Netflix, video games, and junk food. Mikey and Gus had no finals or projects to do, and Neil and Art procrastinated theirs. On Monday night, they ate dinner in the cafeteria. While returning to their dorms, Neil brought up his project.
“I can’t hang out tonight,” he began. “I have to write my paper.”
“What class is it?” Art asked.
“It’s for one of my music classes.” Neil was studying music business, aspiring to be a producer and musician one day.
“It’s due at 8:00 tomorrow morning, right?” Neil nodded, and Mikey jabbed him in the arm. “Maybe you shouldn’t have procrastinated until the night before!”
“I mean, I’ll get it done,” he defended. “I just may not sleep much tonight. It’s only twelve pages! I’ll start as soon as we get back.” True to his word, Neil locked himself in his room while his friends made a Walmart trip and resumed their Netflix binge.
Around 10:00 the next morning, Gus found a note on Neil’s door as he headed to the shower room: “I finished my paper at 7 AM. Wake me up before lunch. Signed, Neil.” He shook his head disappointedly as he continued to the showers.
Returning from his shower, Gus found Mikey and Art both on their laptops in his room. He could tell that they were in the middle of a game of League, as their mice clicked constantly. As he dried off, Gus realized something.
“Looks like we’re back to our normal routines,” he noted aloud. “You guys playing League all day with Netflix playing. Neil procrastinating his homework, then staying up all night to finish it. Then there’s me balancing my time between Facebook and video games.”
“That reminds me,” Mikey added without looking up. “Art, how’s studying going?”
“It’s…going,” he answered. “I’ll study in a bit. It’s just a psychology exam. I actually pay attention and know that stuff.” Art was studying psychology to be a counselor. When it came to non-psychology courses, he tended to be apathetic regarding his work. But he always excelled when it came to psychology.
Aside from the periodic shouts from Art and Mikey, conversation died. They did their own things until lunch time drew near. Gus grabbed his Nerf gun and carded Neil’s door.
“Hey stupid!” he shouted. “It’s almost time for lunch!” Without waiting for him to respond, Gus shot a large red dart at his face. Neil grumbled loudly and rolled out of bed.
“Give me five,” he mumbled groggily, pushing Gus out into the hall and shutting the door. He emerged a couple of minutes later, dressed and holding a can of Mountain Dew.
After a non-appealing lunch in the cafeteria, Art went to take his final. Gus spent the next couple hours wandering campus with Neil and Art. They went through every building and classroom, reminiscing on the various memories and lessons from their time at college. When they returned to their rooms, Art was already there and in the middle of a game of League.
“How’d your exam go?” Gus asked as they all sat down.
“Well I didn’t fail,” he replied, laughing. “I think I got about a C on it.” When he finished his current game, he started playing Call of Duty with the group. Gus participated this time, even though he was terrible at first-person shooters. The room was much quieter than normal, as if the thought of the next day loomed directly over their heads.
Between sleeping and playing video games, the next day arrived quickly. The guys all woke up early because they had to clean, pack, and rearrange their rooms. Neil moved a portable speaker into the hallway and used it to blare pop music as they cleaned. Throughout the ordeal, they randomly broke into song and dance. They all loved to sing in horrible accents and strange voices, so laughter often drowned out the music.
By noon, their rooms were back in order. Furniture was returned to its original position, and everyone’s belongings filled various boxes and bags. Art received a call from his parents telling him that they were on campus, so they got ready to carry things outside.
“I’m probably going to leave too,” Neil admitted. “I have a three-hour drive ahead of me. Plus putting off this whole ‘goodbye’ thing is miserable.” Between the four of them, they managed to gather all of Neil and Art’s things in a single trip and carry them to the parking lot. As Neil went to pull his car up, Gus helped Art load his things into his parents’ car.
When both vehicles were loaded, the guys stood in the middle of the parking lot. There was an awkward silence as they looked from one person to the next. Gus cleared his throat.
“Well, this is it,” he started. “Time for you guys to start summer vacation. Time for Mikey and me to spend our last night on this campus.”
“But this isn’t goodbye!” Neil interrupted. “Wherever you guys go, we’ll come visit!”
“And we’ll make sure we come back and hang out!” Mikey assured them.
“Plus we have texting and Facebook,” Art added. “We’ll stay in touch!”
“Exactly!” Gus agreed. “So this isn’t goodbye. It’s just ‘see you later.’”
“Group hug!” Neil yelled, pulling Art and Mikey into a half bear hug. Gus joined, and they all stood there in a huddle for a moment before stepping away.
“All right, time to go,” Art said. The four quickly exchanged fist bumps and bro-hugs.
Mikey and Gus started walking toward the dorm, while their roommates headed to their respective vehicles. Gus was the first to stop, turn around, and yell, “See you guys!” Neil and Art immediately returned the sentiment.
As he heard the cars drive away, Gus became aware of a heaviness in his chest. Even if it is only temporary, parting ways always leaves gnawing sadness.
Time passed at a painfully slow rate, but finally it came time for Gus and Mikey to part ways. Their last night had been nothing spectacular. They spent some time packing silently before sitting down to watch their favorite YouTube videos. On a normal day they would have laughed and quoted the videos, but on that night, they hardly chuckled at their favorite jokes.
When the next morning dawned, they packed the last of their belongings and hauled them to their respective cars. They shut the doors to their barren rooms and stood in the hallway, staring at the floor and saying nothing. They waited like this for a few moments.
“Well,” Mikey said, breaking the silence, “this is really it. The moment we’ve waited for: the moment when we leave CIU once and for all.”
“I can’t believe how quickly these four years flew,” Gus muttered. “It feels like we moved in just a few weeks ago, but now we’re leaving.”
“Yea, I hear you. So much has happened over the years. We’ve been through some of the best and worst moments together. In a way, it seems like all of that didn’t matter, like it’s just ending here.”
“In a way, it is. Those moments are behind us, and now our setting is changing. We’re moving into the next act of our lives.”
“Let’s get this over with.” Mikey inhaled deeply. “Last one to their car buys the group B Dubs when we get together again?”
“Deal,” Gus agreed. “On three.”
“One…two…three…go!” Gus took off toward the back door, while Mikey sprinted the other direction down the hallway.
Bounding out the door, Gus turned toward the parking lot and ran. As he came around the front of the dorm, he saw Mikey throw the front doors open and continue down the sidewalk. Gus picked up his pace, refusing to lose. He reached his car a moment later, threw the driver’s door open, and collapsed in the seat.
As he shut the door, he realized what Mikey had done. He made their goodbye a race so that they would not have to say anything, not even ‘see you later.’ Feeling the heaviness return to his chest, Gus pulled his phone out of his pocket and sent a text to Mikey: “B Dubs is on me.”
A familiar silver SUV flew past Gus’s stationary car and honked. At the same time, his phone vibrated. Glancing at the screen, he saw Mikey’s response. All it said was “Manchester,” but for some reason, it caused the heaviness in Gus’s chest to well up. Tears trickled down his cheeks as he started the car and backed out of his parking spot.
A sign on the right side of the road read, “Welcome to Burkitsville!” It was a small rural town in western Indiana. The town didn’t have much to its name: a couple of convenience stores, several run-down mom-and-pop shops, and complete isolation from urban civilization. The nearest city was nearly an hour away.
None of this bothered Gus. As boring as it seemed, it was home. He could always find something to do with his buddies, whether it was dirt-biking through the abundant cornfields or stealing and relocating street signs. It was a place where everybody knew everybody, and every pickup truck carried a shotgun or a rifle. Gus always found it loving and safe.
As Gus drove through town, he remembered all the time he spent running the streets with his buddies. They had done and seen everything that there was to do and see in their town by the time they were freshmen in high school. Once they got their licenses, they expanded their domain and spent the next three years making memories all across the county. He could recall where he wrecked his first car, where he kissed his first girl, where he had his first drink, and where he shot his first gun.
Leaving town, Gus weaved his way down dirt roads until he found his house. It was a gray one-story building set back from the road. Woods surrounded it on three sides, with a long driveway dividing the front lawn. Gus pulled up to the house and parked next to his mom’s car. He noticed his stepdad’s truck parked in the lawn beside the house. Opening his door, a large black shape immediately jumped into his lap.
“Hey Benji,” Gus grunted. Benji was his family’s black lab. Despite being several years old, he still acted like a puppy, running around and excitedly pouncing on the family whenever they returned home. His tail whipped back and forth, thudding against the side of the car, as he tried to climb into the car to lick Gus’s face.
“Okay, down boy.” Gus pushed the dog away and stood up. Grabbing his backpack from the passenger seat, he shut the door and walked into his house. He kicked off his shoes in the foyer and walked into the kitchen, where his mom Ruby was putting away groceries.
“Gus!” she exclaimed, turning to face him. She was a young brunette of average height and build, wearing a nice blouse with designer jeans and flats. She had given birth to Gus, her only child, when she was barely out of high school. But she worked hard to earn her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and her work landed her a job as an accountant.
“Hey Mom,” he answered, hugging her. Setting his backpack on the floor, he helped her put away groceries as they talked.
“How was graduation?”
“It was good. Some of the guys on campus pulled off this huge prank. There was a mariachi band, vuvuzelas, scantily clad men, silly string, pelvic thrusting, and firecrackers. It was quite a sight to behold.”
“Don’t tell me you were involved!”
“Not in that, no. But Neil and I broke into the auditorium to plant a bunch of root beer bottles for a toast during my speech.” Gus and his mom both laughed at this.
“How are the guys?” The four of them had visited each other’s homes on numerous occasions, so they were all familiar with each other’s families.
“Art and Neil are the same. Lots of video games, Netflix, and junk food, not a lot of homework. Mikey isn’t too excited about going home, but I’m sure he’ll find something to get him out of the house.”
“He’s always welcome here,” Ruby said. “Especially if he brings Amber!”
“I’ll let him know. I’m sure he’ll come visit sometime this summer. Maybe I can get Art and Neil here too, so you’ll have a houseful!”
“That sounds good! Have them all come over at the end of the summer. I’ll cook a ton of food for you!” Putting away the last of the groceries, Gus’s mom left the kitchen.
“Okay, I’ll talk to them!” he yelled after her. Gus picked up his backpack and went to his room, which was just off the kitchen. He dropped his backpack on his desk and went outside to start bringing his belongings inside.
Several trips later, his room was cluttered with boxes. He had his dorm bedding in a pile in the corner, next to his hamper full of dirty clothes. He took the hamper to the laundry room to wash his clothes. On the way back, he grabbed a bowl of sour cream and onion chips and a bottle of Dr. Pepper from the kitchen. Back in his room, Gus’s phone started to vibrate.
“Hey,” he answered, popping a few chips into his mouth.
“How was the drive?” Mikey asked. Gus could hear commotion in the background.
“Pretty bland. I just drove quickly and tried not to think about the future.”
“Same. My freaking parents left as soon as I pulled into the driveway. Now I’m stuck babysitting the kids.”
“Are you sisters there?” The next two oldest siblings were two sisters, aged 20 and 17.
“Kate has finals next week, so she’ll be home in about a week. Carla is probably at a friend’s house.”
“That sucks. I just got done hauling my stuff inside. I helped Mom put away groceries when I first got home.”
“How is Mom?”
“She’s good. She loves her work. She also misses all of you guys. She said you all can come visit before summer ends. But only if you bring Amber.”
Mikey chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do. We should message Art and Neil and see when they’re free. Maybe we all can take a few days, or even a week, and just come hang.”
“That would be legit! Mom said she’d cook for you guys!”
“Oh dang! I guess I’m moving into your place for the summer!” Mikey joked. “I’ll talk to Amber while I’m down there this weekend and see if she can take some time away from her mom’s beauty salon and come visit.”
“Good! Is she ready to graduate?”
“Oh yea! She actually interviewed with a hospital last weekend about a nursing job there. If she didn’t hear back already, they should call her tomorrow.”
“That’s awesome! So is she just going to move in with her relatives down there?”
“That’s the current plan.” Mikey paused to tell the kids to stop jumping on the furniture. “She’ll start working, and her relatives offered to help me find an apartment and a job. They’ll even open up their couch for me to crash there.”
“Awesome! Sounds like you have a plan!” Now if only I had a plan, Gus thought.
“Yep! I’ll move down there sometime this summer. I have some things to do up here first. Well, I’ll let you go. I know I need to unpack a bit, so you surely do too. Tell Mom that I’ll text her and find a time to visit! See you.”
“Okay, see you bud.” Gus hung up the phone and sat down on his bed. As he snacked on his chips, someone knocked on the door. It opened, and his mom stuck her head into the room.
“Was that Mikey?” she asked.
“Yea. He says that he’ll text you and talk about coming down for a few days. He’ll see Amber tomorrow, so they’ll see if she has time to visit.”
“Good! I can’t wait!” She glanced at the various boxes scattered across the floor. “Are you going to unpack?”
“I don’t think so,” Gus said, sighing. “I’ll probably just sort through the boxes and everything in the room. Decide what I’ll take with me wherever I go after the summer, trash or give away the rest.”
“That’s fine. Let me know if you need a hand. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to bed. I have to be at work at 6.” She walked into the room and gave him a hug.
“Night Mom. I’ll talk to you more tomorrow.”
“Good night.” She shut the door on her way out. Gus plopped onto his bed, lying on his back and staring out the window. He watched the branches sway in the wind until he finally drifted off.
A few days later, Ruby brought home Chinese for dinner. She set the boxes on the dining room table while Gus grabbed plates and a couple of forks. Sitting down, his mom went to the back of the house to get his stepdad from his office.
“Hey Gus,” he said, coming into the room. He was a man of average height and rugged build. He was darkly tanned from working outside constantly, and years of manual labor gave him a strong physique. For work, he bounced between working on their neighbors’ farms and helping out at the steel mill in the next town.
“Hey Dave. What have you been doing: farming or milling?”
“Farming,” the man answered, sitting down. “The neighbors have been planting their corn and beans lately. I think they have need my hands for a couple more weeks, then I’ll be back at the mill full-time until the middle of June. Then detassling starts.”
As he spoke, Ruby opened the boxes of chicken, rice, and steamed vegetables. She always sweet n sour and teriyaki chicken and brown and white rice. She passed out chopsticks to the two guys, even though they never used them. She grabbed soy sauce from the pantry and set it on the table.
“Let’s eat!” she declared, taking her seat. They each dumped mounds of rice, chicken, and vegetables onto their plates. Ruby picked up her chopsticks and started to eat.
“Mom, you know we don’t use chopsticks,” Gus joked. “There’s only one way that we can use them.” He clenched one in his fist and, in one swift motion, jabbed it through a large piece of chicken. He proceeded to bite the meat off the stick, having made a shish kebab.
“So Gus,” Dave began through a mouthful of rice, “what are your plans for the summer? And for after it?” Gus sighed and swallowed his chicken.
“Well I can help you out with detassling when that starts. I can either do it or supervise and teach the high schoolers how to do it. Otherwise I’ll just figure out what I’m doing. I can’t do many things with just a philosophy degree, so I probably need to start applying to graduate schools. Alternatively, I can get a teaching license somewhere and start teaching.”
“You need to figure something out,” Dave grumbled.
“I will. But picking the course of the rest of my life is a pretty daunting task. I barely graduated a week ago. I need some time to think about where I want to go.”
“Okay. As long as you know that you need to make some kind of decision soon.” With that, Dave changed the subject. “How are the guys doing?”
“They’re good,” Gus answered, scooping some vegetables into his mouth. “Amber graduated this weekend, so Mikey was down there. He plans to move down there later this summer and look for a job and a place to live. Art went back home to do nothing all summer, and Neil probably started at the sub shop where he worked last summer.”
“I’m thinking of having them all over for a few days,” his mom added. “I haven’t seen them since October, and I’d like to see Mikey before he grows up and gets too busy for us.”
“That’s fine. Any idea when that will happen?”
“I’ll let you know, honey.” She smiled and popped a piece of broccoli into her mouth.
“It would be good to have Mikey around again. I could use an extra pair of hands to look at the neighbors’ tractors. And our cars too, while he’s at it.” Dave looked at Gus and laughed. They both had a particular fondness for Mikey. He had lived with them over Christmas break the year before, and he repaid them by doing handy tasks around the house, such as plumbing and car maintenance. By comparison, Gus had no experience or knowledge of such tasks, and Dave always joked about it with him.
“I’m sure he’d love to help,” Gus said. “He loves being here, and he enjoys that kind of work. To be honest, if not for Amber in Tennessee, he would probably just take over my room once I leave!”
Conversation diminished as they each poured seconds onto their plates. As they finished their last bites, Ruby reached into her purse and pulled out three fortune cookies. She handed one to Dave and one to Gus.
“Open on the count of three,” she instructed. “1…2…3!” They all cracked their cookies in half, pulled out their fortunes, and read them. They also had developed a tradition of guessing what their fortunes meant at the current moment of time, so they shared their thoughts after sharing their fortunes.
“’Open your mind and your heart to good things.’ Well, based on the conversation we just had, I should keep an open mind about Gus’s plans for the summer. Whatever you do, son, I’m sure it will benefit you in some way.” Dave looked at Gus as he said this. Feeling awkward, he simply stared at his cookie and nodded.
Gus’s mom went next. “’Your home will be filled with peace and harmony.’ My cookie must be saying that Mikey and Amber will visit soon! That’s the only possible explanation.”
“’Work with what you have,’” Gus read. “I guess I can skip graduate school and just work with the Bachelor’s degree that I currently have! Well that’s a huge weight off my shoulders!”
They all laughed and stood up from the table. Clearing off the trash and dishes, Gus returned to his room. He had spent the few days since his arrival at home reading, and he went right back to his bed and picked up his book again. Over the next few days, he balanced his time between reading and sorting through his belongings. By the middle of the week, he had a large pile of possessions on and around his desk that he no longer wanted.
Gus loaded the pile into his car and drove to the next town. He dropped everything off at the Salvation Army there and headed back home. As he turned into the driveway, he saw that an SUV had parked in his mom’s spot. He pulled up next to it, shut off the engine, and realized that he recognized the vehicle.
“Hey Gus!” Mikey stepped out the front door, and Benji charged at him. He kneeled down to pet the dog as Gus approached him.
“Why are you here?”
“Mom invited me, dummy,” he replied, not looking up from Benji.
“I guess she forgot to tell me,” Gus muttered. “Unless—”
“She wanted to surprise you,” Mikey interrupted. “She told me to come up around the middle of the week because she was going to take the day off.”
“Then where is she? She got up and left early like she does when she works.”
“You’ll see.” Without another word, Mikey turned and went back into the house. Gus followed and discovered Art and Neil sitting in the living room.
“You guys are here too?” Art and Neil jumped up to give him a group hug.
“Yep. Mikey picked Art up, then they crashed at my place last night,” Neil explained.
“Well, since you’re all here, how about some lunch? We have plenty of food.”
“Surprise us!” Art said. “Do you mind if we hook up the PlayStation in the living room?”
“No, that’s find. It’s in my room.” Gus went to the freezer and began looking through the shelves. When Art didn’t pass through the kitchen, he glanced into the living room to see that Art had brought his own PlayStation and connected it to the television.
Finding a large bag of Pizza Rolls, Gus spread them on a pair of cookie sheets and stuck them in the oven. He set the kitchen timer, grabbed four cans of Mountain Dew from the fridge, and went to the living room. Passing out the drinks, he sat down on the floor and leaned against the couch as Art and Mikey played Call of Duty.
The boys took turns playing and snacked on Pizza Rolls and chips all afternoon. Around four o’clock, Ruby returned with a couple of grocery bags. She set them on the counter and entered the living room to greet Mikey and the others.
“Hey guys!” she exclaimed, hugging them all in turn. “How was the drive?”
“Not too bad,” Mikey answered. “We stayed at Neil’s outside West Lafayette last night, so it wasn’t even a two-hour drive.”
“That’s good. You guys bring your appetite? I’m making steaks!” With a smile, she went to her room and came back wearing yoga pants and plain white shirt with her hair pulled back in a bun. She went into the kitchen to start dinner.
“Do you want a hand?” Gus offered.
“No, you enjoy having your friends here!” his mom replied. “I’ll let you all know when it’s ready.” From the living room, they could hear the clatter of pots and pans, the running of water, and the dull thud of a knife on a cutting board. Soon the smell of cooking meat wafted into the living room.
When his mom turned on the electric mixer, Gus left the living room and started setting the table. He grabbed six plates, cloth napkins, and sets of silverware and spread them across the table. He began placing the food on the table as his mom finished mixing the potatoes and brought them over. Gus and his friends claimed their seats as Ruby went to get Dave.
“Dig in, boys!” Dave said, taking his seat. They passed food around until everyone had filled their plates with sirloin steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, and rolls. They started eating without another word.
“This is wonderful!” Mikey exclaimed. “I didn’t realize how much I missed good, home-cooked food until just now!” Art and Neil voiced their agreement through grunts as they stuffed more food into their mouths.
“How’s Miss Amber doing?” Ruby asked, looking at Mikey.
“She’s good! She just graduated this past weekend, so I was down there to see her. She heard back from an interview she had, and she got the job! She’s had training this week at the hospital, and the job starts Monday.”
“What’s she doing there?”
“She’ll be a pediatric nurse assistant. Basically, she runs around the children’s wing of the hospital and helps out with their care.”
“That’s cool!” Ruby replied. “Where is this hospital?”
“It’s in Nashville,” Mikey said. “She has some relatives who live there, so she’s going to live with them for now. I plan to move down there sometime next month to find a place to live. I’ve done some job searching, and I lined up some interviews for the end of June.”
“That’s good,” Dave interjected. “If only Gus could figure his life out as much as you have.” Both Dave and Gus chuckled. While they didn’t see or talk to each other much, they got along well through playful teasing.
“I mean,” Gus defended, “I already said I’d help with detassling. And I have plenty of mail from universities across the country, offering me scholarships to attend grad school.”
“Boo, grad school!” Neil exclaimed between bites. “Grad school is for nerds!”
“What would you study at grad school?” Dave pried, smirking.
“I don’t know. I haven’t looked into any of those schools yet. But I can do that and see what Master’s degrees they offer.”
“Don’t worry about it too much. Make sure you enjoy this summer; it’s your last before you move out on your own.”
“Yea, listen to Dave!” Mikey chimed. “After dinner, we need to play some fun games. We brought more than just the PlayStation.”
“You mean after dessert, right?” Ruby corrected, getting up from the table. When she returned, she brought an Oreo cream pie and new plates. As she divided the pie equally amongst them all, Dave left the table and came back with a six-pack of beer.
“Consider this a little graduation gift,” he said, passing them out. Though Gus and his friends had no interest in drinking, they popped off the bottle caps and obliged. Fortunately, the pie’s sweet taste covered most of the bitterness of the alcohol.
When they all finished their desserts, Mikey and Gus helped clear the table while Art and Neil plopped down on the couch. Ruby and Dave shooed the guys out of the kitchen, so they joined Art and Neil in finding a film to watch on Netflix.
“Good night boys,” Ruby said when the cleaning was finished. She and Dave retreated to their room to sleep. The boys followed their lead after their film ended.
A soft voice stirred Gus from his sleep. It was right next to his ear, whispering, “Psst, Gus, wake up!” He rolled over to face whomever was speaking and came face-to-face with Mikey, crouching by his bed.
“What the—” he began, but Mikey clapped his hand over Gus’s mouth before he could finish. So he narrowed his eyes in confusion, hoping for an explanation.
“Just be quiet,” Mikey whispered. “We need you to pack. Bring about a week’s worth of clothes and all the money you have. I’m going to remove my hand, so don’t yell and wake up your parents.”
“What are you talking about?” Gus rubbed his eyes, and as they adjusted to the dark, he realized Art and Neil were standing behind Mikey, fully clothed.
“Just do what I said! We have plans!” Gus sat up in bed and looked at Mikey.
“Come on, dude! Let’s have some fun” Neil urged quietly. Suddenly Jameson’s words of advice came back to Gus: live a little and enjoy the ride.
“Okay, give me a second,” Gus agreed.
“Good,” Mikey said. “Because we’re going on the biggest adventure of your life.”
Mikey, Art, and Neil left the room as Gus rolled out of bed. Throwing on the clothes from the day before, he grabbed the suitcase from his closet and began digging through his dresser. He neatly removed and packed half a dozen pairs of jeans, a half a dozen t-shirts, and a couple of button-up shirts. Gus stuffed all of his socks and boxers into the suitcase, tossed in a Ziploc bag with his toiletries, and zipped it up. He then found his backpack and filled it with his phone charger, a couple of books, and a hoodie. Slipping on his Vans, he grabbed both bags and headed outside.
“About time!” Neil taunted, sitting in the backseat of Mikey’s SUV. The trunk was open, and Mikey seemed to be rearranging its contents.
“Here’s my suitcase.” Gus hoisted it into the back. He saw that each of them had packed a suitcase, as if they knew about this surprise adventure. Mikey had rearranged everything so that the suitcases were on the left and the large cooler was on the right.
“Alright, we’re good to go!” Mikey shut the back quietly and climbed into the driver’s seat. Art and Neil had already claimed the backseat, so Gus rode shotgun. Before long, they were cruising down the highway.
“Okay, I have to ask,” Gus said. “Why in the world did you guys wake me up at 4:00 in the morning for some adventure? Couldn’t this have waited until, oh I don’t know, a more reasonable hour?” Sitting sideways, he looked back and forth between his friends.
“Because we wanted to make it more adventurous,” Neil explained. “Why shouldn’t we start our amazing road trip adventure with sneaking out of your house?”
“That reminds me!” Gus pulled his phone from his pocket. “I should let Mom know where I’m going.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mikey interrupted. “This was her idea. I mentioned thinking about a road trip with you guys, and she told me to go ahead. She didn’t want you to spend your summer updating your resume, interviewing for jobs, applying for grad school, and working with Dave. She wanted you to have some fun. It is your last summer, after all.”
“Then he called Neil and me to invite us,” Art added. He was engrossed in playing his PlayStation Vita, so he didn’t look up. “So we both packed our bags, grabbed all the money we could, and freed our schedules for a road trip.”
“So how long will this trip take?”
“No idea!” Neil answered.
“We’re just going to adventure until we’re done,” Mikey elaborated. “We’ll drive some, crash in hotels, and take turns picking places to visit. Maybe this trip will last a week, maybe a month, maybe all summer. But we’ll have a good time.”
“So who picks first?” Gus barely had time to finish the question when all three of his friends turned and stared at him. “Okay, fine. Give me some time to think.”
“Good, because we need gas. Where’s the nearest gas station?”
“There’s one in the next town. You can’t miss it.” As conversation died, Mikey turned up the radio, and Gus began searching for nearby places for them to visit. Before long, they could see the glowing light of a gas station.
“Mikey, we also need snacks and drinks,” Neil said.
“Well I need to pump gas, so you guys figure that stuff out,” Mikey replied. “Just remember to grab substantial food, not just junk.”
Suddenly getting an idea, Gus turned around to look at Art. “Paper Towns?”
“Yes!” Art yelled in response. “We have to do that! I’ll buy this round if we do this!”
“Do what?” Neil asked.
“It’s simple: we just run in there and grab the snacks,” Art explained. “We do it all as fast as possible. In the book, they had six minutes to gas up, grab snacks, and go. So we’ll divide what we need into three groups, then each of us will be responsible for one.”
“I got this,” Gus interrupted. “I’ll take the substantial food. Neil, you grab snacks. Art, you’re on drink duty. Make sure to grab some water too. Good thing this place is empty this early in the morning.” As they pulled into the gas station, Gus saw the lone attendant through the window. He was reading a magazine, and he looked extremely bored.
Mikey had yet to stop his SUV fully when the other three unbuckled their seatbelts, threw the doors open, and sprinted to the door. The attendant jumped at the sudden commotion but quickly started laughing as the chaos unfolded in the store. Neil weaved through the aisles, scooping up various packages of candy, cookies, and chips. Art headed to the back of the store and started hauling twelve-packs of pop to the counter. Gus ran along the glass refrigerator doors and pulled out handfuls of Lunchables and deli sandwiches. The attendant was scanning items as the boys brought them to the counter and stuffing them into plastic bags. While Art grabbed a few bottles of water, Gus noticed several slices of breakfast pizza in a case by the drink fountain and grabbed them.
“Will this be all for you?” the attendant asked.
“Yea, that’s good,” Gus answered, chuckling. The three of them panted lightly to catch their breath as the attendant finished bagging their items.
“What are you guys doing?” He took Art’s money and opened the register drawer.
“Road trip,” Neil panted. “Just a spontaneous road trip since Gus here just graduated.” Neil patted him on the shoulder as Art grabbed his change.
As they picked up their various bags, Gus glanced at the brochure rack next to the register. It was primarily full of road maps for the county and the state, but he noticed that one was for a local attraction. Without a thought, he picked it up, tucked it into his back pocket, and helped Art and Neil haul their purchase to the SUV.
A few minutes later, they had filled the cooler with water and pop and surrounded it with the various bags of snacks. As they climbed into the car, Gus remembered the brochure and pulled it out.
“I found us a place to go,” he said, holding it up for the guys to see. The front had a picture of a waterfall, with the words “Cataract Falls” in bold above it.
A few hours later, they entered the park and stopped the car in the designated parking area. Map in hand, they stepped out and started wandering around the park. Neil read about the park from the brochure.
“Apparently Cataract Falls is the largest waterfall in Indiana,” he began. “The upper falls plunge 20 feet, and the lower falls drop 18. Overall, the two falls create a drop of 86 feet!”
“That’s pretty intense,” Mikey noted. “If only it was just one waterfall. That would be so much more insane!”
“Yes, if only Indiana was known for waterfalls instead of corn,” Gus joked. “It’s weird that I’ve never been here, even though I grew up just a couple of hours away.”
“Had you heard of it before you found the brochure?” Neil asked.
“Yea, I know plenty of people from high school who came here and jumped off the falls.” Immediately Gus wished he could take back his words.
“Well I know what we’re doing!” Mikey cheered. “Which one should we do first: the upper or lower falls?”
“Well I can’t jump,” Art mumbled. “The water would ruin my pump.” He motioned to his insulin pump, dangling from his belt loop.
“Dude, just take it off for a bit,” Neil replied. “Then you can jump, dry off, and put it back on. You don’t even have to do both falls.”
“One problem,” Gus added. “I didn’t bring any swimming trunks or towels.”
“Forget the trunks! We’ll just jump in our boxers. Our clothes will dry. Plus my SUV has leather seats, so water won’t ruin them.” Mikey turned around and locked eyes with Gus, backpedaling slowly as the group walked. “So, you’re the brains. Which one first?”
Gus sighed and shook his head. “Well, we parked near the upper falls. So it makes more sense to keep walking, jump off the lower falls, then hurry back to jump off the upper ones.”
“Good! Then that’s what we’ll do!” Grabbing the map from Neil, Mikey led the group down the path.
About twenty minutes later, they reached the falls. They kept walking to get a good look at them before jumping. They stopped and stared at the scene before them. Water cascaded over the rocks, creating what looked like white foam where it entered the pool beneath it. Gus had seen a picture of it in the brochure, but the real scene was much more impressive.
“Let’s do this,” Mikey said, taking off his shirt. Gus glanced around and saw that they were alone. The park had just opened, so it seemed that not many other had arrived.
“I’m going to sit this one out,” Art said. “I’ll jump the upper falls.”
Without another word, Gus, Mikey, and Neil stripped to their boxers and trekked to the top of the falls. The water rushed around their legs, so they had to walk carefully as they approached the edge. The boys played rock-paper-scissors to decide who went first. Gus was the first to lose, so he had to go first. Sighing, he took a few steps back.
“Here goes nothing!” He ran forward and leapt off the falls. “Woohoo!”
Suddenly he was surrounded by cold water. As he swam to the surface, he felt a couple more splashes around him. He surfaced, and Neil and Mikey soon joined him above water. They all breathed heavily and shivered.
“Let’s not tell Art how cold this water is,” Mikey stammered. Nodding in agreement, they swam back to the bank and stumbled up to where Art waited. They did their best to brush off the water before slipping back into their clothes.
“How was the water?” Art asked.
“It was fine,” Mikey lied. Fortunately the warm May air and bright sun warmed them up quickly, so they didn’t have to worry about Art seeing them shiver.
“I took pictures of each of you jumping and sent them to your phones.”
“Sweet!” Gus checked his phone. The picture showed a wide shot of the waterfall, with a small figure visible in the middle of the screen falling into the water. He saved it to his phone.
“To the upper falls?” Neil asked. He started walking along Mill Creek. They talked about the landscape around them and various trips to state parks or famous landmarks. As people started to arrive and explore the park, the guys got strange looks as they noticed their wet clothes. Gus, Neil, and Mikey would just grin and wave as if nothing was amiss.
It took another twenty minutes for them to get to the upper falls. Unfortunately, the area was far more populated than when they first arrived. They decided to get some food from the car and have a small picnic while they waited for the crowd to leave. After their picnic, they walked down to the edge of the water and started skipping rocks.
“These people need to leave,” Neil grumbled, tossing a rock. Instead of skipping, it splashed into the water and sank.
“I mean, we could just jump,” Art suggested. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Conservation officers tend not to like people swimming in parks and recreation areas,” Gus explained. “I’m not sure how they’d feel about us jumping off the falls.”
“We’ll give it another hour,” Mikey said. “Then we’re jumping, no matter what.”
Agreeing to that, they settled into the wait. Art pulled his Vita out of his pocket and sat down under a nearby tree. Mikey, Neil, and Gus wandered around the area. When the hour came to an end, Mikey detoured to his vehicle while the other two met up with Art. Mikey jogged over to them.
“You guys ready?” Mikey asked, stopping next to them. Mumbling in agreement, they kicked off their shoes and took off their shirts. After Art disconnected his pump from his abdomen, they slid off their jeans and ran to the water.
“Just jump!” Neil yelled. Without a word, the four of them leapt off the falls and yelled excitedly as they plunged into the water. When they surfaced, they tried to catch their breath between laughing and coughing.
“Holy eff!” Art cried. “Why didn’t you tell me that the water was ice cold?”
“Because we knew your reaction would be funny!” Gus answered, laughing. As they swam back to shore, they became aware of people yelling at them.
“Judging from the sound of it,” Mikey panted, “some people aren’t too happy about us going for a swim.”
“I don’t think it’s the swimming that bothers them,” Neil said. “It’s probably the fact that we’re in our boxers.”
“Oh well. What are they going to do, kick us out?” Mikey teased. “We’re leaving anyway. Let’s go!”
Climbing out of the water, they hurried to grab their clothes from under the tree. They didn’t stop, instead continuing to the car. As they took their seats, they noticed towels spread across the seats. Mikey started the engine and chuckled.
“I figured we’d have to make a quick getaway, so I put these towels down before we jumped.” He backed out of their spot and sped out of the park.
They found a backroad and pulled over to dry off and get dressed. Since it was mid-afternoon, they decided to find a hotel nearby and crash for the night. Back in the car, Mikey searched on his phone for a nearby hotel and started driving.
“Apparently there’s a Motel 6 in a place called Cloverdale,” he explained. “That’s as good of a place as any for a single night.”
“Works for me,” Gus replied. “So who gets to pick the next adventure?”
“Neil? Want to take it?” Mikey asked, glancing at him in the rearview mirror. “Art and I are both Illinois natives, so we don’t know anything around here.”
“Sure, I’ll do it,” he agreed. “Let me text Matt and see if he has any ideas.” Matt was Neil’s older brother. From stories about Matt and actually meeting him once, Gus learned that the man could look at any activity and find a dozen ways to enjoy it in ostensibly illegal ways.
“I’m sure he has plenty of ideas,” Art replied.
“But how many of them will be legal?” Gus added, chuckling.
“Guys, you make it sound like my brother is the worst.” They paused and glared at him. “You’re right, he’s kind of a terrible person. But I’m sure his ideas would be a lot of fun.”
They continued driving, jamming out to the radio. After about ten minutes, Neil busted out laughing randomly. He leaned forward and whispered something into Mikey’s ear, causing him to chuckle.
“That’s a pretty good idea,” he said. “We’re doing that.”
“What are we doing?” Gus asked.
“It’ll be a surprise,” Neil teased. “But trust me, you’ve never done this. In fact, I’m confident that you’ve never even been to the place we’ll go for it.”
Gus sighed. “Fine, surprise me. I’m not even gonna try to figure it out.” He returned his attention to the music, patting out the beat on his knees as he sang along.
When they arrived at the motel, Mikey parked the car and went to rent a room. He came back with a key and led the group to their room with their belongings. They settled in for a night of video games, Netflix, and snacking.
The next morning, Mikey explained that their next destination was in Indianapolis. He refused to offer any more details, so they loaded into the SUV and hit the road. When they arrived in the capitol a couple of hours later, they found a motel and checked in.
“This is as good as any other,” Neil said, getting out of the car. “We’ll be here for a few days. I need to make some arrangements with Matt.”
Without another word, they settled into their new room. Over the next couple of days, Gus did some research on his phone in an attempt to discover Neil’s plan. However, there were too many things to do in Indianapolis for him to narrow the options down. He also knew the idea came from Matt, so there was little chance of him guessing it. He resigned himself to enjoying the time in the city. During the day, he often spent hours walking around the city before returning to the motel and playing video games.
Neil and Mikey disappeared every night for several hours. Neil always left fifteen minutes after Mikey, but Gus found it suspicious the first night. Mikey tried playing it off by saying he was calling Amber, while Neil allegedly just wanted fresh air. On the subsequent nights, Gus and Art began speculating where they went.
“There are plenty of gay bars that aren’t too far away,” Art guessed, looking at his phone. “I bet they’ve been checking those out, trying to find the best gay bar in Indianapolis.”
“Nah, they probably got in touch with some contact of Matt’s. A drug dealer. So they met him when we first came into town, and now they’re doing some odd jobs for the dude so that he’ll sell them weed.”
“Mikey initially left to call Amber, like he said. But as he left the parking lot, a hooker approached him and offered a two-for-one deal. He texted Neil to invite him along because he’s the most likely among us to be interested in that sort of thing.”
“Matt hired them out to a gang lord as a mercenary. So they’ve been carrying out hits on previous clients, snitches, and old rivals. By tomorrow, the gang will view them as their own, meaning this will be our last night with them.”
“Whatever they’re doing, it better be good!” Art said. “We’ve been here for like four days without any information about what this master plan is.”
“Knowing that it was Matt’s idea doesn’t make me feel much better,” Gus confessed. “I’d almost prefer one of our non-serious ideas to whatever he planned.” The door opened, and Mikey and Neil stepped into the room. Mikey was carrying a large, plain plastic bag.
“Hey guys!” Neil greeted. “You guys need to get ready to go.”
“Go where?” Gus asked, pausing the movie he had found on Netflix.
“Just put these on and follow us.” Mikey pulled black hoodies out of the bag and tossed them to each of the guys. Shrugging, Gus and Art slipped them over their heads, put their shoes on, and followed Neil out the door.
Mikey joined them in the parking lot a moment later, backpack slung over his shoulder. He motioned and started leading the group away from the motel. They zigged and zagged down side streets, seemingly avoiding the main roads as much as possible.
“Where are we going?” Gus whispered, following closely to Mikey and Neil.
“You should be able to figure it out,” Neil replied. “What’s directly in front of us?”
Gus recalled looking at the map of Indianapolis over the last few days. He glanced at his surroundings, but nothing stuck out as familiar or noteworthy. Ahead of them, he could see a long but low structure. As they drew closer, the structure seemed to resemble his high school football stadium, but he knew that they weren’t approaching the Lucas Oil Stadium.
Suddenly it hit him. “That’s the Motor Speedway!” They were approaching it from the back side, so all they saw were the bleacher-like seats and the fence.
“Ding ding ding, we have a winner!” Mikey taunted. “We’re going to watch some late-night Nascar!” Neil chuckled.
“Are we breaking into the Speedway?” Gus asked.
“Technically, no.” Neil smirked at him in the darkness. “Mikey and I already did the ‘breaking in’ part. Now we’re just entering!”
“What’s so special about this place?” Art asked.
“Nothing really,” Mikey said. “It’s just a giant racetrack. It’s been here for a long time. What’s special is what we plan to do there.” Gus could hear him grinning loudly and noticed him tugging on his backpack straps.
“Mikey, what’s in your backpack?”
“Don’t worry about it, Gussie boy,” he teased. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Gus resigned himself to the events at hand. Mikey and Neil were intent on going through with this plan, so he figured that he might as well enjoy the ride. They continued walking in silence until they reached the parking lot to the Speedway. As they crossed the vast, empty space, Gus appreciated their approach from the side streets. This side of the Speedway was much less trafficked at this hour, so sneaking in would be easier.
“Don’t worry,” Neil reassured, seemingly reading Gus’s mind. “We’ve been in this parking lot every night this week. Nobody comes back here.”
They drew near to the fence, and Gus noticed a section of broken links. He glanced at Neil, who winked without a word. Mikey led the way, pushing the two sides of the opening apart and wriggling through the gap. They found their way from under the seats out onto the track, where they paused to take in their surroundings.
Gus had never felt so small. He knew nothing about the size of the Speedway, aside from the fact that it was enormous. No matter which way he looked, he could hardly see the silhouette of the stands surrounding the track. Even standing on the track, he felt like a mouse who had found his way onto a high school track.
“Fun fact,” Mikey said suddenly. “The Speedway covers about 550 acres, which would fit around 500 football fields.” His voice echoed through the vacant space around them.
“Let’s not talk too much,” Gus suggested quietly. “I’m sure there are cops or guards or something around who wouldn’t take too kindly to some college-aged visitors.”
“Okay, fine. This way.” Mikey led them across the middle of the track. Without any light, Gus could just make out the shapes of structures around him. They returned to the track on the opposite side of the Speedway and walked a bit further.
“Right here,” Neil said, stopping. Gus looked around, confused. Then he saw that Neil was pointing to the track in front of them.
“The Yard of Bricks,” Mikey explained. “Just a tiny remnant of the bricks that used to make up this racetrack. These mark the start and finish line.” Sure enough, Gus saw a three-foot strip of bricks stretching the width of the track. Mikey kneeled down, took off his backpack, and rummaged inside it. After a moment, he pulled out a wide chisel and a hammer.
“Whoa, wait,” Gus interrupted, whispering. “You’re not really—?” He was answered by the sound of metal striking wood echoing around him.
“That’s too much noise,” Neil noted.
“Wrap your hoodie around the chisel,” Gus said. Mikey nodded and obeyed. He began hammering at the bricks methodically.
Concerned about somebody catching them, Gus paced up and down the track and scanned the darkness intently. The dull sound of Mikey digging out the bricks continued for about five minutes. As he paced, Gus watched Mikey remove first one, then two, then three bricks from the strip. He pulled a fourth from the track, wiped his forehead, and stopped.
“Alright guys,” he whispered, “time for the final part.” Opening his backpack again, he removed four bottles of chocolate milk and passed them around.
“You see, winners of the Indianapolis 500 always chug a glass of milk as they accept their trophy,” Neil explained. “This was Mikey’s personal touch. So, as we accept our trophies in the form of Speedway bricks, let us drink.” Following his lead, Gus opened his bottle and downed his milk.
“Okay, we can go now.” Mikey packed the empty bottles, tools, and bricks into his backpack. Pulling on his hoodie, he tossed the bag over his shoulders and took off at a jog for the other side of the track.
Ten minutes later, they were safely back in the motel room. Gus decided to take a shower before going to bed. Stepping into the shower, he stuck his head under the shower head. As the hot water trickled over his face, he thought, What have I gotten myself into? This trip is going to be insane.
Several days passed before the guys decided to leave Indianapolis. They spent most of that time in the motel room, playing cards and watching Netflix. Nothing seemed to come from their brick theft. As they packed their bags, they had to figure out their next destination.
“Mikey or Art, it’s one of your turn to pick where we go,” Gus began. “Maybe we can do something a little less illegal than breaking into the Motor Speedway.”
“Hey, you have to admit that was fun!” Neil defended. Gus shrugged.
“Art, do you have anything you want to do in Indiana?” Mikey asked.
“Nope. I don’t live here!” he replied, laughing. “You can take this one.”
“Okay, I have an idea. Who likes camping?” Mikey glanced up from packing to look at each of his friends. “My family has a cabin near Lake Michigan, so we can go there! We won’t need a tent or sleeping bags, but we’ll be able to swim, have a campfire, share scary stories, and whatever else we want to do!”
“Is there electricity?” Neil immediately asked.
“There’s a generator out back, yea,” Mikey answered. “I’ll probably have to put some gas in it, but I can deal with that when we get there.”
“Okay, good,” Neil said. “I don’t know if I can go without my laptop for more than a few hours!” He laughed like he was joking, but Gus was willing to bet it was fairly true.
“Well they didn’t have Wi-Fi when I was up there last summer,” Mikey explained. “So unless you play Solitaire or Minesweeper, your laptop is fairly useless.” He patted Neil on the back and took his suitcase outside.
The rest of the group followed after him. Checking their snack supply, they decided to stop for gas and a bag of ice on the way north. Neil tried to call shotgun, but Gus took the seat anyway, citing his height as an excuse.
“Fine, you can take shotgun,” Neil grumbled, climbing into the backseat. “But I get to pick where we eat!”
“Fine, where do you want to eat?” Mikey asked, pulling out of the parking lot.
“Gus, you know the place,” he teased. “It’s a delicious little place in West Lafayette. The best root beer and some of the best burgers you’ll ever eat.”
“Triple XXX!” Gus exclaimed. “I love that place!”
“That sounds like a strip club or something,” Art noted. “What is it?”
“It’s a small drive-in restaurant in West Lafayette,” Neil explained. “It’s been open for like a hundred years. It brews its own root beer, which is probably the best I’ve ever drank.”
“Okay, so can you navigate us, right?” Mikey glanced at Neil in the rearview mirror.
“Just get to West Lafayette,” he replied, “then I can get you there.”
“Got it.” Mikey pulled out his phone, typed in their destination, and drove. “Who wants to play a game?”
“What game?” Gus asked. “Do I know this game?” He rarely played any road trip games, because he either drove alone or didn’t care to participate.
“Padiddle,” Mikey said with a smirk. “Loser buys Triple XXX.”
“One question: how naked are we getting?”
“Let me put it this way, Neil. If anybody gets full naked in my car, I will stop the car, pull you from your seat, and beat the tar out of you.” Mikey took his eyes off the road for a moment to glance at Gus and into the rearview at Neil and Art.
“So first one to lose after getting down to their boxers, got it,” Neil clarified. “We’ll start after the next exit.”
When they exited, the boys immediately began scanning the cars around them looking for busted headlights. The game was more difficult during the day, but they didn’t care. Whenever they saw a busted headlight, screams of “Padiddle!” would fill the vehicle as they tried to be the first to shout and slap the ceiling. The last person to do so would have to remove an article of clothing.
Gus was the first to lose. “Well, time to keep my word!” Anytime the game came up, he always claimed that he would take his pants off first to break the ice. Now that he had lost, he slipped off his shoes, pulled off his jeans, and put his shoes back on.
The game continued for about an hour. The four took turns removing shirts, shoes, socks, and even pants. Ultimately, as they entered West Lafayette, Neil and Gus were left in their boxers. Both scanned every passing car intently, trying not to lose.
“Padiddle!” Gus screamed, punching the ceiling. Art and Mikey followed suit, leaving Neil as the loser.
“You guys suck,” he said, laughing. They all dressed again as Neil directed Mikey toward their destination. A few minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot next to a black and orange striped building.
“Welcome to Triple XXX!” Gus exclaimed, getting out of the car. He led them up the sidewalk and into the building.
Inside, they saw a countertop weave around the room, with bar stools placed every few feet for customers. Taking their seats, they grabbed menus from the condiment caddy in front of them. As they scanned their options, a waitress approached them, walking in the space inside the countertop.
“Hey guys! How are you today?” she asked.
“Hungry!” Neil responded. “So we came to one of the best restaurants in West Lafayette! These two guys have never been here, either.” He motioned at Art and Mikey.
“Well I hope you have a good first time!” she said. “My name is Crystal. What can I get you boys to drink?”
“Root beers all around,” Neil interrupted. “They need to try it!”
“Okay, I’ll be right back with those!” Crystal walked off as the group continued looking over the menus. She came back a moment later with four mugs full of pop. She pulled out her notepad to take their order. Gus ordered the Duane Purvis, Art and Neil got the Bert, and Mikey requested the Boilermaker Pete.
“How far away is your family’s cabin?” Art asked, sipping on his root beer. “Oh gosh, this is so good! I need more!”
“It’s about a two-hour drive from here,” Mikey answered. “We should be there by dinner time. We may even be able to fish in Lake Michigan and cook our own dinner!”
“That could be cool,” Neil said. “Or we can just grab McDonald’s or something.”
“Or we could not,” Gus replied. “Art, do you have any idea where we’ll go after Lake Michigan?”
“No idea. I’ll look for something while we drive.” Art pulled out his meter pack and checked his blood sugar. He then messed with his pump.
“You live here in West Lafayette, don’t you Neil?” Gus asked.
“Yea, born and raised. I didn’t go to public school, but I know a ton of people who live, work, and go to school here. During my senior year of high school, my buddies and I would run around Purdue’s campus with some of the college students.”
“Sounds legit,” Mikey replied. “I bet you could find lots to do if we were staying.”
“Oh totally.” Neil smirked. “I still keep in touch with plenty of the guys. In fact, I’ve met more and more of them through my summers at home. I could totally find us some frat parties or games of Zombies or something. Maybe we can make it back here by the end of the summer. Have some more Triple XXX, meet some new people, have some fun.”
Crystal returned with their food, passing out baskets of burgers and fries to each of the guys. She refilled their mugs and stopped to chat a bit.
“What brings you guys to West Lafayette?”
“We’re on a bit of a road trip,” Mikey answered, mouth full of burger. “Gus and I just graduated college, so we grabbed these guys and decided to enjoy our last summer together.”
“Aww, congratulations! Where did you guys go to school?”
“Central Illinois University,” Neil said. “It’s a tiny place in the middle of Illinois, so you probably haven’t heard of it.”
“I have not, you’re right.” Crystal laughed. “Where are you guys going?”
“Mikey has a family cabin on Lake Michigan,” Gus replied. “We’re going to spend a couple of days up there before finding somewhere else to go.”
“Gus and Neil have both picked locations already,” Art added. “I get to pick where we go after the lake.”
“Fun! Where did you guys choose to go?”
“I chose the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Neil answered. “Gus picked Cataract Falls.”
“Sounds like you’re having a great road trip,” Crystal said. “Since you guys are finishing up, I’ll go grab your checks.”
“How was your peanut butter burger?” Neil turned to Gus.
“Wait, peanut butter?” Art looked at Gus alarmed. “There’s peanut butter on yours?”
“Don’t judge it until you try it!” Gus exclaimed, taking a long drink of root beer. “It’s so delicious! You should get it next time!” The guys disgustedly shook their heads as Crystal returned with their checks.
“Here you go guys! Have a great trip!” She grinned broadly at them as they stood up.
Gus dropped some cash for a tip as they waved goodbye. Neil stopped to pay at the register while the rest of them got into Mikey’s SUV. When Neil joined them, Mikey pulled out of the lot and headed north.
A couple of hours passed, full of loud music, road trip games, and storytelling. Mikey began weaving through side roads looking for the cabin. Gus stared out the window, watching the scenery fly past them as Neil and Art talked League of Legends in the back.
“Here it is!” Mikey yelled suddenly. Gus looked and saw a small cabin hidden amidst the trees. It was exactly what he expected: a small, brown building surrounded by trees.
“Where’s the lake?” he asked, glancing around.
“There’s a trail out back that takes you right to it,” Mikey replied. “It’s about a half-mile walk, though.” He turned the vehicle around and backed up right to the door.
The cabin opened up to a large room. A large flat-screen TV hung on the wall, with a pair of leather couches angled toward it. A small kitchenette sat in the far right corner, with some cabinets, a fridge, and a microwave. Two doors stood open along the left wall; the first led to a small bedroom with a queen-sized bed, and the other led to the bathroom.
Gus, Art, and Neil unloaded all of their belongings, scattering around the living room of the cabin. As they explored, Mikey went around back to check on the generator. Gus and Art loaded their food and drinks into the fridge, while Neil plopped down on the couch.
“We should be good on gas for about a week,” Mikey said, walking into the cabin. “The generator is full, and there’s are a couple of gas cans in the shed. Also, dibs on the bedroom.”
“Dibs on sharing the bedroom!” Gus shouted, shutting the fridge door. He and Mikey took their suitcases into the other room and lined some pillows along the middle of the bed as a boundary.
“So what are we doing?” Neil asked as they returned to the living room.
“Well, we can go down to the lake and swim, have a campfire, stargaze, or play games,” Mikey explained. “Take your pick.”
“I say we just chill for tonight,” he replied. “Eat some junk food, play some video games, and sleep well. Then we can party hard the next few days!”
Nodding, Mikey unpacked the PlayStation and started up a game called Spelunky. Art brought four cans of Mountain Dew from the fridge and handed them out. The boys sat down and grabbed controllers to play. The next several hours were full of yelling, laughing, and snacking on chips and Lunchables as they guys played the game.
Around one o’clock, the guys shut down their game. They found a movie on a shelf by the television and started playing it. The guys kicked up the leg rests on the couch and reclined. Within an hour, they were all fast asleep.
The next afternoon, the group put on t-shirts and shorts and walked down to the lake. They brought a backpack full of snacks and drinks so that they could stay for a while. Mikey had a Frisbee in his trunk, so he carried that along, passing it back and forth between the guys.
When they stepped onto the beach, they paused to take in the scenery. Sand stretched before them for about fifty yards before stopping at the water. The lake continued beyond the horizon, so they could not see the other shore. To either side of them, the beach was the only thing visible. Gus could see what looked like a city on the horizon, slightly to the left of them. He figured that it was probably Chicago.
The group set down their towels and backpack, then took off their shirts and shoes. Mikey hurled the Frisbee down the beach. Gus darted after it, carefully dodging the other beachgoers. The Frisbee began its descent toward the water, and Gus dove, grabbed it, and splashed into the water.
Surfacing, he saw Neil jog towards him and tossed the disc to him. Thus began a game of Frisbee that spread across the immediate area. Random strangers joined them as it progressed. They never exchanged names, just shouts of “I’m open!” and “Over here!” After a group of about a dozen joined them, they formed two teams and started playing Ultimate Frisbee. The game began as two-hand touch but quickly progressed into full-tackle. As it continued, some people left, new people joined, and teams were shuffled. From time to time, they took a ten minute break to cool off in the water and grab something to eat and drink.
Around sunset, the strangers disappeared, heading off to whatever lives they led away from Lake Michigan. Mikey tucked the Frisbee into his backpack and sat down in the sand, close enough to the water for the waves to splash over his feet. Gus took a seat next to him, while Art and Neil retrieved the last of the snacks before joining them. They sat in silence, staring across the ocean as the sun set.
“This sure is a sight,” Neil muttered. “I don’t think I’ve seen a sunset like this ever in my life.” The sun was painted in layers of blue, purple, and pink. The colors continually shifted and changed as the sun fell further behind the horizon.
“I’ve been here dozens of time,” Mikey replied. “But no two sunsets are ever the same. I try not to come up here very often because I don’t want to take it for granted. This is such a good place to sit and think about life.”
“So what are you thinking about?” Gus asked, eyes glued to the horizon.
“Life. The future, mostly.” Mikey sighed and started dragging his finger through the sand absentmindedly. “What do we do after college? I never learned. You guys know the deal with my dad. In ways, he forced adulthood on me when I was just a kid, but in other ways, he did nothing to prepare me. I’ve had to learn for myself how to write a resume, conduct myself in a job interview, pay bills, and manage my money. Now I get to have more responsibility with absolutely no idea of how to handle it.”
“I feel you man,” Gus said. “None of us have picture-perfect dads. Mine was an absentee. Neil’s died when he was just a teen. And yours and Art’s are present, but they’re still a couple of bozos. We’re all just royally screwed. Nobody taught us how to make friends, talk to girls, figure out who we are, or anything. Life without a dad is like getting tossed into the ocean. No direction, no way to keep afloat, just alone to figure it all out. Sink or swim.”
“It’s not fair,” Art added. “I know Mikey and I have our dads still, but that doesn’t make it much better. They weren’t the dads we wanted or needed; they were the dads they knew to be. Which sucked. Do you know how hard it is to have this bar set above your head that you’ll never, ever reach? The pressure is unbearable at time! So I don’t think about it. I push it out of my mind, try to lower the bar. But nobody understands.”
“Nobody understands?” Neil repeated. “You don’t even know. My dad’s dead. Mikey, Art, at least your dads are around. They may suck, but you can talk to them, you can work things out. It can get better! And Gus, I get it, your dad’s never been around. But maybe he’ll change his mind! He’s still alive, so there’s a chance that you can reach out to him, talk to him, and maybe, just maybe, have a relationship. But me? I go to a slab of marble with his name on it, sitting above the casket where he’s buried, and nothing! I can talk all I want, but he’ll never respond. He’s gone, and he’s never coming back.”
The sun had disappeared below the horizon, leaving the sky a dark, star-speckled expanse. With the colors of sunset gone, a somber mood settled over the boys and their conversation. Gus felt pressure welling up in his chest until he couldn’t bear it.
“Sink or swim!” Gus yelled, standing up suddenly. “It’s not fair! It’s not fair that our dads suck. It’s not fair that we have to struggle through every moment of life because of something that we couldn’t control! It’s not fair that we have to figure out everything on our own and live with this pain, this weight every moment of our lives. It’s not fair that nobody understands how we feel, and it’s not fair that there’s nothing they can do to help us. It’s just not fair!
“But here we are. Against all odds, we made it. We swam. Through all the weight, all the pain, all the unfairness, we made it to shore. We learned to swim, we found our way, and we never gave up. Now we’re on the shore, looking at what lies behind us, what lies before us, and what lies within us. After swimming for so long, we don’t know how to walk on the land. But we’ll figure it out. We’ve made it this far; we have no choice but to keep going. So we will.”
The boys fell silent. The wind continued to blow around them. The waves crashed upon the shore, dampening their feet.
“Amen,” Mikey whispered. “Amen.”
After that night, the guys stayed at the cabin for a few more days. They spent another day or two on the beach, swimming and playing Frisbee with other beachgoers. When they weren’t at the beach, they watched movies, played Spelunky, and ate junk food. One night, Mikey and Art drove to the nearest town for food, while Gus and Neil searched the nearby woods for firewood.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Neil asked.
“Dude, have you never had a campfire?”
“I lived in the city! I’ve never made a fire!”
“Fair enough. Just pick up a ton of small and medium sized sticks and a bunch of leaves. We need kindling to start the fire. I’ll find bigger logs.”
By the time Mikey and Art returned an hour and a half later, they had made three distinct piles of leaves, twigs, and logs by the cabin. Mikey joined Gus in building a fire pit behind the cabin, digging a shallow and wide hole and surrounding it with rocks they found on the beach. As they finished and started making a fire, Neil and Art grabbed some lawn chairs from the shed and set them around the pit. The fire roared to life before them.
“This is the life,” Mikey said, taking a seat.
“So when’s dinner?” Art asked. “We bought all sorts of campfire food, but when are we making it?”
“Whenever you want,” Mikey replied. “The sticks are in the shed, and we have hotdogs and supplies for s’mores in the cabin.” Gus went to the shed and brought back four sticks as Neil retrieved the food.
The next few hours passed as the guys relaxed by the fire. Neil and Art never seemed to stop eating, always having their sticks in the fire to cook hotdogs or toast marshmallows. Mikey and Gus shared various stories of camping from high school. After a while, the conversation moved to the next leg of their trip.
“So Art,” Neil began through a huge bite of hotdog, “where are we going next?”
“Umm,” he stammered. “We could go to Chicago.”
“What would we do there?” Neil asked.
“We could visit the Bean,” Art suggested. “I don’t think Gus has ever been to Chicago, so it would be kind of cool.”
“Question,” Gus interrupted. “Did you even think of anything? Or did you just come up with that on the spot?”
“Um yes,” he replied, laughing.
“Oh Art,” Neil muttered, shaking his head. “I don’t know why we expected anything else from you. You do everything at the last minute.”
“Chicago could be fun!” Art pulled out his phone and started typing on it. “I can look up plenty of things to do!”
“Well, it’s his decision!” Neil declared. “We’re going to Chicago!” Gus and Mikey glanced at each other and shrugged. They began discussing the sights and attractions in Chicago that they could visit. Art remained determined to visit the Bean.
“Here’s a fun idea,” Art said. “The Skydeck.”
“What’s that?” Gus asked.
“It’s an observation deck on Willis Tower,” Mikey explained. “You basically stand outside the tower on a pane of glass.”
“Yea, nope,” Gus interrupted. “Not a fan of heights.”
“Live a little, bro,” Neil taunted. “You won’t die! Tons of people visit it each year without plummeting to their deaths.”
Gus sighed and shook his head. “I’m going to regret this, but fine. Let’s go to the Skydeck. It sounds like a big tourist attraction.”
They continued laughing and joking as the sun set. Snacks ran out not long after sunset, but they stayed around the fire until it dwindled. By midnight, it was a pile of smoldering logs.
“Let’s head inside,” Mikey said. Neil and Art went straight inside and showered. Mikey put the chairs and sticks back in the shed, while Gus spread the ashes and poured a bucket of lake water over them.
A couple of hours later, the guys had claimed their beds: Mikey and Gus in the queen bed, and Art and Neil on the couches. They passed out almost instantly and slept until nearly noon. After waking up, they ate a quick breakfast of deli sandwiches and loaded the car. They stopped at the first laundromat they found to wash laundry before heading to Chicago.
Once in the city, they headed for Willis Tower. Gus had no idea which building it was, because they had no distinguishing characteristics. Mikey pointed it out to him, and his stomach dropped. It was the tallest building in the city, and he could see several protruding boxes of glass way above them.
Gus began dreading the Skydeck as they parked and entered the building. They stepped into the elevator, and the doors closed. As it rose to the floors above, Gus winced and swayed on his feet as his ears popped from the changing air pressure. The display above the panel read “103” when the elevator stopped and the doors opened.
Mikey led the group to the glass boxes, which were full of people. As they waited, the building around them swayed, tightening Gus’s stomach into knots. To calm himself, he pulled out his phone and researched the tower quickly.
“Apparently the boxes are affectionately called ‘the Ledge,’” he read. “They stand 1,353 feet above the pavement. Each box retracts back into the building so that they can be cleaned easily. Oh gosh, one of the panes of glass shattered in 2014 while tourists were in the box. That makes me feel so much better. Willis Tower is also the tallest building in America. The World Trade Center surpassed it for a while, until 9/11. On a clear day, tourists can see—oof!” Gus was interrupted by a shove from behind. One of the Ledges had emptied, and Neil directed him toward it. He stumbled onto the glass and glanced downwards.
“Oh gosh,” he murmured. Feeling queasy, he doubled over, planted his hands against the glass wall, and closed his eyes. He breathed slowly as his friends joined him.
“What do you think, Gus?” Neil taunted, patting him on the back.
“Shut up,” he replied through gritted teeth.
“If you’d stop looking down, it’s actually a really good view.” Mikey’s voice came from behind him. Inhaling, he straightened himself and opened his eyes.
Around him, the city of Chicago spanned for what seemed like miles. In the distance, Gus could see Lake Michigan stretching from the city to the horizon. Looking to the right, he saw Chicago give way to open fields. Though Gus hated heights, the view around him made him forget all about his uneasiness.
After staring into the distant for a few moments, Gus left the box and waited in the hallway. His friends joined him shortly afterward. Without a word, they returned to the elevator and descended to the ground floor.
“Oh sweet terra firma!” Gus exclaimed once they stepped outside. He excitedly jumped around, stomping his feet.
“You never answered my question,” Neil said. “How was it?”
“Worst thirty seconds of my life,” Gus replied. “The view was nice, but I’d rather die than go back up there. I prefer keeping my feet on solid ground.”
“So where’s the Bean?” Art asked. Mikey glanced around to get his bearings before pointing directly in front of them.
“We could probably walk,” he added. “It’s not too far. A handful of blocks.”
The guys started walking, weaving through the crowded Chicago streets. Gus spent much of the walk taking in his surroundings, as he had never been to Chicago. Mikey shared information about the various shops and sights in the city, having grown up near the city. After about twenty minutes, they entered Millennium Park.
Directly ahead of them sat what looked like a giant reflective jelly bean. It towered above the tourists crowding around it. Through the crowds, Gus noticed people walking under the bean, as there was an arch to provide space. All of the people in the park were taking photos of the giant sculpture.
“Interesting,” Gus said. “I’ve seen plenty of pictures on Facebook, so it’s not that impressive. But it’s interesting to see how much attention it gets.”
“Yea, it’s a huge tourist attraction,” Mikey explained. “We need to get a picture with it.”
“I have an idea,” Neil added. “Let’s get everyone here involved in a huge group photo!”
Without waiting for a response, he and Art hurried toward the crowd and started speaking loudly to the strangers. Mikey and Neil followed as everyone lined up in front of the Bean. Neil handed his phone to a random person, who backed away from the structure.
“Okay, we’ll stand here,” Neil directed. Gus and Mikey moved to where he pointed, and Neil and Art joined them. Suddenly they were picked up by the people behind them.
“Whoa whoa, what the heck?” Mikey exclaimed. Art and Neil started laughing.
“I forgot to mention that I convinced them to toss us into the air for the picture,” Neil replied. “Here’s hoping they don’t drop us!”
“Neil, when we’re done here, we’re going to kill you!” Gus yelled.
“Are you guys ready?” the stranger with Neil’s phone asked. “3…2…1…go!” He touched the screen to start taking pictures as the crowd heaved and threw the four guys into the air. They cried out in surprise as they rose and then fell back to the strangers below them. A couple of guys managed to catch each of the guys and put them on their feet.
“Thanks guys! I’ll find a good picture and tweet it, so make sure you all follow me on Twitter!” Neil shouted to the crowd. He retrieved his phone and started walking back toward the car, his friends at his heels.
“How did you convince them to toss us like cheerleaders?” Mikey asked.
“I told them it was Gus’s bachelor party, so we wanted to make sure he had an extra special picture at the Bean,” Neil replied, grinning.
“That’s sneaky,” Gus noted. “Where are we going now?”
“I think we’ll just crash at a hotel,” Mikey said. “Then we can figure out what we’ll do next. Maybe we’ll agree on something to do, or we can just go through us all again.”
“Sounds like a plan. We should look into getting something substantial to eat,” Art added. “All the junk and Lunchables are getting old.”
“So what’s good in Chicago?” Neil asked, turning to Mikey.
“What else besides pizza?” he answered. “There’s a good place not too far from here called Lou’s. We can call in some carry-out, pick it up, and find a hotel.”
“I do enjoy pizza,” Art agreed. “Let’s do that.”
Mikey pulled out his phone and dialed a number. He ordered a large pepperoni deep-dish pizza with extra cheese. Hanging up the phone, the group continued their trek back to their parking lot. It took about half an hour for them to return to the car and drive to Lou’s, which was only a few blocks away. They picked up their pizza, found a nearby hotel, and settled into their room for the night.
“This pizza is so good!” Neil exclaimed, a long string of cheese dripping from his mouth.
“I know, right?” Mikey agreed. “Chicago is pretty famous for deep-dish pizza! Everyone should try it at least once in their lives.” The conversation died as the four of them devoured the pizza. They then turned on the television and found a random channel to watch while taking turns in the shower.
“Isn’t Father’s Day soon?” Art asked after all showers were done.
“Um it’s this weekend,” Gus answered. “We should do something special for it. And by special, I mean something fun that distracts us from social media and everything.”
“We should go to D’Arcy’s,” Neil suggested. “It’s impossible to be sad when we’re stuffing our faces with horseshoes!”
“Good point,” Mikey agreed. “We’ll do that this weekend. What shall we do until then?”
“Eh, we’ll figure it out later,” Art said. He pulled out his PlayStation Vita and tuned out the conversation around him.
“What’s there to do in Chicago?” Gus started searching for things to do with his phone.
“We don’t even need to leave the hotel,” Neil said after a moment. Gus looked up to see him holding a brochure for their hotel. “They have a pool and a hot tub.”
“All right, I’m sold.” Mikey clapped his hands together excitedly. “Let’s enjoy a week of relaxation and refreshment.”
Gus was the first to wake up, around noon the next day. He decided to find the hot tub, so he put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and grabbed a towel. Writing a quick note to tell the guys where he was, he left the room and started wandering the hotel.
He found the hot tub in an isolated room next to the pool. It was empty, so he went in, took off his shirt, and lowered himself into the warm water. He reclined so that the water covered his shoulders and rested his head on the floor outside the hot tub, closing his eyes. Gus was starting to doze off when the door into the room opened.
“Hey man,” Mikey greeted. “I saw your note and figured you’d enjoy some company. And some music!” He gestured towards a sound system in the corner. He hooked up his phone and slid into the hot tub across from Gus. Soft instrumental music filled the room.
“This sounds like the film scores station on Pandora,” Gus noted.
“That’s because it is,” Mikey replied, chuckling. “It’s very relaxing, non-distracting music. Plus it’s all beautifully composed.”
“Any idea when Art and Neil will get up?”
“Knowing them, about dinner time. Though I did text them before starting the music to wake them up. Maybe they’ll be here soon.”
At that moment, the door opened, and the two entered the room. For some reason, they were laughing hysterically. Neil climbed into the hot tub with the guys, while Art sat on the edge with his feet in the water, drinking Mountain Dew.
“What’s up?” Art asked.
“Well I just woke up and decided to soak in the hot tub,” Gus answered. “It’s very relaxing. I’ve never been in a hot tub before.”
“Really? They’re so great!” Neil sank lower into the water, letting it cover up to his chin.
“It is really nice. I’m probably gonna relax here for a while.”
“We should go back and grab some snacks sometime,” Neil added. “But otherwise, I’m right here with you!”
The group sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to the music and the bubbling of the water. It was a strange occurrence, because the group was almost never quiet. They all knew that this time of year was uncomfortable. Father’s Day reminded them of their fathers and the strained relationships they had with them.
“This sucks,” Gus mumbled suddenly. “Father’s Day is dumb.”
“I hear you,” Art agreed. “It’s not even fun for me, and my dad’s around.”
“Yea, it just reminds me that my dad’s dead,” Neil added. “I do have some fun memories of him, but mostly it’s just a depressing day.”
“Yea, my dad just makes it all about him.” Mikey shook his head. “He tries to act like he’s the best person in the world, but he’s not perfect by any means.”
“It doesn’t help that Brock’s birthday is next weekend,” Gus said. Brock was his father, who had never been a consistent presence in his life. They had a long, complicated relationship that traced back to Gus’s earliest memories. “So it’s always a double-whammy. This is always a long week of thinking about Brock and wondering why he isn’t around.
“Oh dang, that sucks,” Neil agreed.
“We’ll have to keep your mind off of all that next week,” Mikey suggested. “We can find a bunch of really fun things to do, like Spelunky. All else fails, I’ll drive us to the East Coast or to New York or something. Take you somewhere new and exciting, get you out of the Midwest.”
Gus forced a laugh. “Sounds like a plan. I don’t think we’ll need to go that far, but we can keep that as an option.”
“What else is there to do in the Midwest?” Art asked. “Maybe we could go to some new places and sights in the area.”
“There’s St. Louis,” Mikey said. “There’s the Gateway Arch and the zoo.”
“There’s Turkey Run State Park back in Indiana,” Neil added. “It has some really great hiking trails, horseback riding, and camping.”
“We could always go to Tennessee!” Gus chimed in. “There’s plenty to do in Knoxville, and then Nashville is the heart of country music.”
“No.” Neil’s face deadpanned. “You know I hate country music.” Gus laughed and punched him in the arm.
“See!” Mikey exclaimed. “There are options. We’ll find something to do next week. It’ll be a good time!”
They continued sharing ideas of things to visit around the Midwest. Art recorded their ideas on his phone, as he remained out of the water due to his insulin pump. When they ran out of their own ideas, Art searched for new locations and sights with his phone. After a while, they had an expansive list of options.
“Well, my skin is getting all clammy,” Neil said suddenly. “Let’s go back to the room and grab some food. Maybe go out for dinner after we watch a movie.”
“Dibs on the pizza Lunchables!” Gus declared, quickly climbing out of the hot tub. He picked up his towel and shirt and darted out of the room. He made it back to the room first, found the keycard folded in his towel, and opened the door.
The guys turned on the PlayStation after changing clothes. After starting Parks and Recreation again, they grabbed Lunchables and cans of Dr. Pepper from the fridge and sat down on the beds. Neil also found an unopened bag of chips and started passing it around.
“So what sounds good for dinner?” Mikey asked. “American? Chinese? Italian?”
“Chinese,” Art said immediately.
“I agree. We’ve had tons of American food. Maybe we’ll have Italian some other time,” Gus added. Neil shrugged indifferently.
”Okay, so let’s see what we have around here.” Mikey pulled out his phone and started typing away at the screen. “There’s an Asian grill and sushi bar! Who likes sushi?”
“Go there!” Gus exclaimed. “I love sushi! And it’s a grill for you guys to eat something that isn’t sushi.”
“Any objections?” Mikey glanced at Art and Neil, and both shook their heads. “All right, to the bar and grill! After a few more episodes of Parks and Rec.”
A few hours later, they sat down around a large griddle. After ordering their drinks, they looked through the menus. Gus was intent on getting sushi, while Art and Neil wanted sweet and spicy chicken. Mikey weighed his options and decided to get grilled shrimp and steak. The waitress returned to pass out their drinks and record their orders before disappearing back into the kitchen.
“I’m so excited for this,” Neil said. “I love watching the chefs prepare our food.”
“Your food,” Gus sassed. “You don’t cook sushi.”
“Well see if we share anything with you!” Neil threw his crumpled up straw wrapper across the counter at Gus.
“I’m definitely not sharing mine,” Mikey said. “I got the surf and turf of Asian cuisine.”
“Fine, no sushi for any of you guys either!” Gus’s friends started retching and gagging, as they didn’t like sushi.
After a few minutes, their chef approached the table. He pushed a cart covered in various bottles and ingredients, including vegetables, rice, and meat. He sprayed some oil on the griddle and picked up a turner and meat fork.
“How are you guys today?” he asked, firing up the grill. He started his routine with his utensils, clattering and flipping them across the griddle.
“We’re good!” Mikey replied, grinning broadly. “We’re ready for some authentic Asian food, so it’s going to be a good night! How are you?”
“I’m good,” the chef replied. He sprayed more oil and lit it. “Watch your eyebrows.” He poured more oil across the griddle and flames sprang to life, climbing toward the ceiling.
“Whoa!” Neil yelled. “This is definitely my favorite part of Asian grills.”
“Just keep watching,” the chef said. “It’s going to be good.” He oiled the griddle again before dumping a large tray of rice onto it. As he mixed it and added oil, he continued flipping his utensils around each other and his hands.
“How long does it take to learn all these tricks?” Gus asked, amazed. All four of them had their eyes glued to the griddle, watching the man’s show.
“Many, many hours. I trained for many years at an Asian chef school, learning all the recipes and tricks by heart.” The man laughed heartily at his own joke, making his customers laugh as well. He dumped a plate of vegetables on another part of the griddle, oiling and mixing them so that they could cook.
“Man, I wish I could do all this!” Gus exclaimed. “Any chance you could put in a good word for me at your school?”
The chef grabbed a couple of shakers and covered the cooking food in their spices. “I don’t know, man,” he answered. “I’m not sure my school takes people who come to a grill and order sushi!”
“Touché! I guess I’ll have to find myself a sushi rolling school or something!”
“Good luck finding one of those this far inland!” the chef replied. He looked up at the guys. “Which of you got shrimp and steak? And you two got sweet and spicy chicken?” Mikey raised his hand for the first question, and Art and Neil nodded in response to the second.
“And I got the sushi!” Gus interrupted. “I don’t want you forgetting that.”
“Oh I won’t.” The chef turned to Art and Neil. “How sweet and spicy do you want your chicken? More sweet, more spicy, little of both?” He dumped a plate of diced chicken onto the grill, along with a small plate of diced steak and shrimp.
“We like it a little spicy,” Neil said.
“That’s something we have in common, my friend!” Their chef laughed and grabbed a bottle of orange sauce, dousing the chicken in it. “I have a little seasoning here that I think you’ll like, Mr. Surf and Turf.” He covered the steak and shrimp in a light brown sauce.
“I’ll take your word for it!” Mikey agreed. “Judging from your cooking skills, you know what you’re talking about!”
“And now you’re Mr. Brown-Noser,” the chef said, chuckling. “Here, take some rice!” He scooped the rice onto each of Art, Neil, and Mikey’s plates. He followed this with the vegetables after cutting and mixing them. A small pile of both rice and vegetables remained, so he pulled an empty plate from his cart and moved the piles to it.
“All right, I see everyone else’s food, but where’s my sushi?”
“Oh did you not read the fine print?” The man glanced at Gus and smirked. “You have to go to Lake Michigan and catch your own fish!” He covered both piles of meat in more sauce and continued to mix them.
“I guess I’ll just have to snag some food from these guys!” Gus picked up his fork, leaned across the counter, and stole a piece of broccoli from Art.
“Sneaky dude!” With a laugh, the chef divided the chicken among Art and Neil’s plates, after which he added an extra spray of sauce. He then transferred the steak and shrimp to Mikey’s plate. He deliberately left several pieces of each and added them to his own plate.
“Thanks so much!” Art declared. He stuffed his Vita back into his pocket, having been playing it for much of the cooking.
“Welcome back to reality, my brother!”
Neil nudged Art’s arm and whispered, “It’s funny because you’re Chinese.”
“I’m half!” Art yelled, flailing his arms at Neil. “I’m only half! Thanks Dad.”
“Before I go, I have one last thing to give.” The chef reached into his cart and pulled out a plate with two sushi rolls on it. “Your lame sushi. And because I feel bad for you, here’s a little sampler platter of what your friends are eating!” He handed both plates to Gus and walked away with his cart.
“That guy was awesome,” Neil said. “He had such a good sense of humor.”
“Definitely,” Mikey agreed. “We need to tip extra well. But in the meantime, it’s time to dig in!” Without another word, he picked up his fork and started eating.
“This was probably the best decision we’ve made in Chicago,” Art commented. His mouth was full of rice and chicken, so it came out muffled.
“Would it kill you to swallow your food before you eat?” Gus asked. “It’s actually quite gross when you do that.” In response, both Neil and Art opened their mouths and stuck out their tongues, showing Gus their half-chewed food.
“One of the best things about Chinese places,” Neil began, “is that they always give you so much food! There’s always enough to fill you up and still take a full meal home!”
“Gus, if you take any of that sushi home, you’re walking back to the hotel.” Mikey locked eyes with him and stared. Unfazed, Gus lifted a piece of sushi to his mouth and bit into it. Slowly he tore his bite away, turning his head away from Mikey and closing his eyes. He added a soft grunt for extra effect.
Neil blinked a few times, confused. “Did you just…eat a piece of sushi seductively?”
“As a matter of fact, I did,” Gus replied, smirking.
“That’s it, I’m done!” Mikey exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air. “Waitress, we’re ready for our checks!”
Gus laughed and accepted a high five from Art. Shaking his head, Mikey downed the rest of his drink and tried not to smile. Their waitress walked over to the table a moment later and passed out their checks.
“How was everything tonight?” she asked.
“It was delicious!” Neil answered as they each dug their wallets from their back pockets.
“I agree!” Gus added. “The food was delicious, and we really enjoyed our chef.”
“I’m glad to hear that!” she replied. “Would you guys like boxes?”
“Yes please!” Mikey agreed. They handed their receipts back to her with their debit cards, and she nodded and left.
“What should we do now?” Gus asked, popping his last piece of sushi into his mouth.
“No idea,” Mikey said.
“We’ll figure it out. We don’t need to figure it out yet.” Neil laughed when he saw Gus rolling his eyes. “Just go with the flow, bro. Planning ahead is lame.”
“Well so far, ‘the flow’ has been ‘watching Netflix for hours on end,’” Gus retorted. “And planning ahead is what kept me from having to pull all-nighters to finish papers when I was a college student.”
“’When I was a college student,’” he repeated mockingly. “You just graduated. Also, at least I get the papers done! Eventually.” Neil shrugged and laughed awkwardly.
The waitress returned to the table carrying four Styrofoam boxes. She handed one to each of the guys, then pulled their debit cards and receipts from her apron pocket and passed them out. After setting a few pens on the counter, she wished them a good night, smiled, and walked away.
“All right, let’s roll,” Mikey said. They scraped their leftovers into their respective boxes, signed their receipts, and headed back to the hotel.
A couple of days later, Gus grew tired of spending so much time in their hotel room watching Netflix. They had hardly left the room, except to restock on snacks and hang out in the pool for an hour or so. He also found himself increasingly unable to stop thinking about Brock and Father’s Day. Standing up, he grabbed his wallet and phone and put on his shoes.
“I’m going for a walk,” he announced. “I need some fresh air. You’re welcome to join me, but I’m leaving now.”
“Sweet! Where are we going?” Mikey jumped up and turned off the PlayStation. “We’ll join you. I think we all could benefit from fresh air and stretching our legs.”
“I’m not sure,” Gus replied. “I’m just going to walk and go into the first place that seems interesting.”
“This could be a lot of fun!” Neil slipped on his shoes and stepped into the hallway.
Gus led the group out of the hotel. Out on the sidewalk, he paused for a moment before turning and walking down a random street. They walked for several blocks, glancing into the windows of every business they passed.
“What sound interesting?” Art asked. “We have coffee shops, fast food, souvenir shops, clothing stores, banks, and a couple candy stores.” Neil and Mikey joined him in reading the signs hanging above them.
“Well I don’t drink coffee, so that’s out of the question,” Gus answered. “I have clothes, and I’m not looking for a bank that’s like four hours from home.”
“Jeez Gus, you’re so hard to please!” Neil joked. “How about you read the next sign you see? Then we’ll go there.”
“Deal,” Gus agreed. “I’m going to close my eyes for three seconds. Make sure I don’t wander into traffic. 1…2…3…Now!” Opening his eyes, Gus glanced above the crowd ahead of him and read the first sign that came into focus: “The Drunken Respite.”
“You had to pick a bar.” Mikey chuckled and shook his head. “Have any of you guys even been inside of a bar?”
“I have quite a few times,” Neil replied. “Matt is a bartender on weekends, after all.”
Gus pulled the door open and followed his friends inside. They immediately came face-to-face with a tall, gruff man. He wore all black and stood with his arms crossed in the doorway from the entryway into the bar itself. Gus noticed several scars on his arms and face.
“IDs,” he growled, extending one hand. The guys removed their licenses and placed them in his hand. He held them to his face and studied each of them intently. “You’re all clear. Go ahead inside.” Returning their IDs, he stepped aside and swung his arms wide, gesturing for them to enter.
Inside, Gus looked around, taking in the scene. The room was dimly lit with no windows. Neon signs advertising various brands of alcohol cluttered the walls. A couple dozen people gathered around a number of tables scattered around the room. The quiet din of conversation filled the air, along with the occasional clatter of billiards and darts being played in the other room. Televisions were mounted in the corners, broadcasting a variety of news and sports.
Mikey and Neil walked straight toward the counter, with Art and Gus following. They sat down on a group of barstools in the corner, isolated from the rest of the commotion. Gus noticed a jukebox along the wall behind them and wondered if it still worked.
The bartender approached their end of the counter. He was a bald, stocky man of average height. Tribal flame tattoos covered both of his arms and spread up his neck. He wore a white wife-beater under a dark gray sleeveless hoodie and black jeans. A long jagged scar ran up the side of his face and over his right eye.
“New to town?” he asked, leaning against the counter.
“Yea, how’d you know?” Mikey replied.
“Every bar has its regulars,” the man explained. “So bartenders such as myself notice newbies such as yourselves immediately. My name is Zane, welcome to my bar.” He stuck his hand out across the table.
“I’m Mikey, and these are my buddies Neil, Art, and Gus.” Each of them shook hands with the bartender and greeted him.
“What can I get you fellas to drink? We’ve got the usual variety of alcohol, along with water and Pepsi products,” Zane said.
Gus glanced at his friends. “Well none of us drink, so we’ll just take Mountain Dews.”
With a nod, Zane walked away and into the back room. He returned moments later with four tall glasses of pop. He slid them across the counter to each of the guys.
“What brings a group of non-drinking guys into a bar in the middle of the afternoon?” Zane pulled a barstool from under the counter and sat down.
“Well Mikey and Gus just graduated from college,” Neil began. “We all went to Central Illinois University together. Since summer just started, we decided to take a road trip around the Midwest. You know, have one last outing as a group before they head off to start careers and the rest of their lives.”
“I remember doing the same with my buddies. I grew up in New York, so we all jumped in a car and took off. We hit places like D.C., New Orleans, Vegas, and the Grand Canyon in a loop across the country. Every now and again, we meet up at one of our stops to share drinks, reminisce on the past, and talk about the future.”
“Sounds like fun!” Art replied. “We started in Indiana, then spent about a week on Lake Michigan before coming here to Chicago this past weekend. It’s been about three weeks or so since we started.”
“What’s your next destination after this?”
“Springfield,” Gus said. “There’s a little Irish pub called D’Arcy’s Pint there, where they have some of the best horseshoes. Well, actually I’ve never eaten them elsewhere for a comparison, but we would go there all the time with the guys on our floor.”
“Oh D’Arcy’s, I miss that place!” Zane slapped the counter and laughed. “I visited there once when I was younger and downed three horseshoes and half a dozen pints of beer. Had one hell of a hangover the next morning!”
“Three horseshoes?” Mikey exclaimed. “I think I’ve maxed out at two without the beer and ended up in a food coma for a weekend.”
“I was an animal in my youth,” Zane joked. “I could eat in a single meal more than most people ate in a day. Well, when I was in college anyway. Then I graduated and had to start buying my own food, so I cut way back on both food and beer.”
“Makes a lot of sense!” Neil agreed. “So what got you into bartending?”
“My father was a huge drunk. He’d drink all the time when he was home. He had his bad days when he’d beat the shit out of my mom and me, but that wasn’t too often. When I got older, I started spending a lot of time in bars. I’d get drunk and beat the shit out of anybody who would fight me because I was just angry all the time. This continued from my late teens up into my mid-twenties.
“I went to college at NYU, and I visited a bar just off campus every weekend. I would sit at the bar and just drink most of the time. Occasionally someone would mess with me, and I’d whoop his ass. But mostly I sat alone, drinking and brooding. After a couple of months, the bartender started talking to me, like I am with you guys. Xavier would listen to me rant nonstop about how my dad was a worthless drunk. He would always called me a cab so I could get home when I was drunk. After a while, he’d gradually reduce the amount of alcohol he’d let me drink, which helped me clean up my act.
“Then, he gave me a weekend job during my senior year. I fell in love with the work, serving people and talking to them about their lives. I doubt that I impacted any of my customers’ lives the way Xavier did for me, but I like to think that they benefited from being allowed to rant and vent freely. When I graduated, I started working fulltime at his bar until he recommended me for this job here. He knew the former bartender from college, so he put in a good word for me. I was about twenty-seven when I moved to Chicago, and I’ve been here for about twenty years.”
“That’s noble,” Gus noted. “So do you expect us to rant and vent to you? Because we’re way too sober to do that.” The group laughed.
“Well, if you have something to rant or vent about, then go ahead! You can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard before, so go ahead!”
“Well we could go on for hours about our own father issues,” Mikey admitted.
“That’s why we’re going to D’Arcy’s,” Gus added. “You can’t be sad when you’re stuffing your face with horseshoes!”
“Well let me grab a couple pitchers of Mountain Dew, then you can share whatever you want.” Zane disappeared into the back room and returned with two pitchers. “So what’s up guys? What’s going through your minds as Father’s Day approaches?”
“All of our dads suck,” Neil began. “Mine died, Gus’s is a walk-out, and Mikey and Art’s just aren’t good at parenting.”
“Ouch,” Zane said. “Gus, tell me about your dad.”
“His name’s Brock. He lives in Crawfordsville, Indiana, which is about an hour away from my hometown. He and Mom never got married, so he disappeared almost immediately after my birth. When I was in elementary school, we tried for many years to contact him. We called and left voicemails, but he never answered or returned our calls. Mom forced me to see a counselor for many years, but I never wanted to talk to the guy.
“When I was about eight, he randomly called and wanted to see me. It was strange, but I started to visit him every other weekend. He would take me to a woman’s house to play with her daughter, who was about my age. They spent all of their time back in her bedroom, probably having sex. But at least I got to see him for the first time ever, so I dealt with it. He took me out to eat almost every weekend, but it was always with the woman.
“After a few years passed, they got engaged and married. Then he pretty much stopped letting me visit. I still saw him during the summer and around Christmas, but he continued spending much of his time with her. I texted him often to let him know how school was going, but he never said much more than, ‘That’s cool.’
“Then, during the start of my sophomore year of high school, he actually responded. He essentially told me to stop texting me. He said I would have visited more often if I actually wanted to spend time with him. After that, he changed his number so I couldn’t contact him. He has a Facebook profile, so I’ve tried messaging him, but he blocked me after my second try. So it’s been about seven years since I saw or spoke to him last.”
“Wow, that’s rough,” Zane noted. “Sounds like you have wounds that run deep into the core of who you are and where you’ve been. Those are the worst kind, because they never seem to heal completely. Even when you think you’re fine, things will happen to bring up all the pain and memories again. Like Father’s Day.”
“Right,” Gus muttered, lowering his eyes. “This time of year sucks.”
“Well I have some advice for you, but I think I’ll wait until I’ve heard from your friends. I get the feeling you all need to hear what I’m going to say.” Zane paused and turned to Neil. “You next, bud. When did your dad die, and how have you coped with that?”
“Well my parents were married for nearly ten years before I was born. They were in their mid-thirties when they had me. I have two older brothers, one four years older and the other seven. My parents rocked. We did a lot together: game nights, dinners, trips to the park, and family photos. So I was really close to both of them. But when I was about nine, he started getting frequent migraines. He went to the doctor and was diagnosed with stage two brain cancer. He had a couple of small tumors.
“He underwent chemo for several years and went into remission. So he was fine for a while as long as he visited the oncologist regularly. But around the start of freshman year, he relapsed, and the cancer spread quickly. He went into stage four in a couple of months, which caused seizures and rather severe memory loss. He died right after Thanksgiving, when I was fifteen years old.
“So I basically had to endure high school without my dad. I fell into the wrong crowd at school for a while. There was a lot of partying with the upperclassmen and even various frats at Purdue. Basically I did a lot that I regret. But my older brother caught me at a party one night, and he helped me clean up my act. He and my oldest brother started sharing memories of Dad all the time to tell me more about who he was. I still struggled in high school though, as I had no one to teach me about puberty or girls or any of that. I think the hardest part is that he’s not around anymore. Even Gus has a chance to see his dad again, but I’ll never see mine.”
“I’m sorry for you loss, brother.” Zane reached across the counter and patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll speak to you after hearing from Art and Mikey. Go ahead, guys.”
“I guess I’ll start,” Mikey said. “My parents are still married. I’m the oldest of seven kids. So from a very young age, they raised me to be responsible for my siblings. They would leave me to babysit them when I was just ten years old, while they went out on a date or something. Then, when I started working at fifteen, they made me buy my own clothes, save for my own car, and pay for the insurance and gas for it. I couldn’t go out with friends because I was always working to pay for everything.
“Then when it came time for dating and college. My dad controlled who I dated, where I applied for college, and what I studied. It was stupid. He controlled all of my life. He made me grow up too fast, so I never enjoyed being a kid. Then he forced me to live the life he wanted, like he was making me become the same person he was. And he never did any of that with my siblings! He and Mom bought their cars and clothes, paid for gas and insurance, and let them go wherever and study whatever! It was so frustrating. I never got to be myself because I was so busy being him. He was always on me about being mature and responsible.”
“I see,” Zane muttered. “What about you, kid?”
“My dad was very similar to Mikey’s,” Art began. ”He was born and raised in China, so his parents raised him to be disciplined and respectful. He graduated law school by the time he was twenty-one and immediately started his own law firm. His parents put a ton of pressure on him to go to school and be a well-known and well-respected person in his community, so that’s what he did. I’m his oldest son, so he tried to instill the same traits in me. He constantly told me to be studious and respectful, to become a hugely successful doctor like my grandfather. But he was always emotionally distant. He didn’t care about me, just my success.”
“I’m gonna tell you boys what I tell most of my regulars.” Zane grabbed one of the pitchers, which was almost empty, and tipped it back to drink the last of its contents. “Life is hard. It’s gonna hit you, and it’ll hurt like a bitch. Chances are it’s gonna floor you. When it does, you have two options: pull yourself to your feet and show life that you mean business, or stay down and go wherever life pushes you. Take your pick.”
“So how do we pick ourselves up and show life that we mean business?” Mikey asked, refilling his glass.
“Only you can answer that, kiddo. For me, I turned all my time in bars into a profession, which I use to meet people and hopefully impact their lives. Each of you has to figure out how to take your circumstances and turn them into the life that you want. It’s all about the choices that you make.”
“That’s what you wanted us to hear, the fact that we have to make our own choices?” Neil rolled his eyes.
“Look around the room. All of these people make choices. Some are good, some are bad. But there are some people in here who make the worst choice possible: they don’t take control of their own lives. They’re tossed from one place to another by the waves around him, by the people and events in their lives. I teach them to take control, to grab the steering wheel and point their lives in the way they want. Many people need to learn that they’re the captains of their own lives. My job is to teach them that.”
“That makes sense,” Gus muttered. “Everybody makes their own choices. But some people don’t know that they can choose something else. They don’t think they can stop the cycle of pain, so they end up continuing it.”
“Exactly!” Zane clapped his hands and stood up, saluting the guys. “Captains, I challenge you to take the helm and steer your lives the way you want.”
“Challenge accepted!” Art declared. His friends nodded in agreement.
“We should get out of here and figure out what to do about Father’s Day.” Gus reached into his back pocket to grab his wallet.
“Hey, don’t worry about that,” Zane interrupted. “Drinks are on the house.”
“Really? Thanks!” Neil exclaimed. “We’ll see you around, Zane!”
“See you, dudes.” Zane exchanged fist bumps with each of the guys. “Now get out of here and enjoy the rest of your road trip! If you’re ever back in the area, feel free to stop by and tell me where your lives are heading.” He saluted them quickly as they waved and left the bar.
A couple of days later, Mikey and Gus loaded their belongings into Mikey’s SUV and left the hotel to fuel up and restock on snacks and drinks. Neil and Art were still asleep, but they had packed their suitcases by the time they returned. The group grabbed some fast food burgers and fries for lunch and hit the road for Springfield.
“How far is Springfield from here?” Gus asked. “Three and a half hours?”
“Something like that,” Mikey answered. “I bet I could make it in three or less.”
“I’ll take that bet!” Neil exclaimed. “Loser buys D’Arcy’s for everyone.”
“Deal!” Mikey reached into the backseat and shook Neil’s hand. He then pressed the accelerator to the floor. Gus glanced at the dashboard and saw that they were cruising around ninety miles per hour.
“What’s been your favorite part of the trip so far, Art?” Gus asked, turning to face his friend in the backseat.
“Well I love food, so that place in West Lafayette, Triple XXX or whatever,” he replied. “That was definitely one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten and the best root beer I’ve ever had.” Art pulled his PlayStation Vita from his pocket and started playing.
“Triple XXX is just the best,” Neil agreed. “I go there all the time, since I live nearby. I may be a bit partial, but I enjoyed the Indy Motor Speedway. I love seeing that I can break into places. Plus Matt really enjoyed hearing all about it. Now we have a funny, highly illegal story to tell to our kids!” Neil laughed. “What about you, Mikey?”
“I enjoyed Cataract Falls,” he said. “It was a place I’d never visited. I love Lake Michigan, but I’ve been there a dozen or more times. Plus I don’t think I had seen a waterfall before that. I’ve jumped off of plenty ledges and rope swings into lakes and rivers, but now I’ve added a waterfall to the list of things I’ve jumped off.”
“I’ve never jumped off anything,” Gus added. “You know, since I just learned to swim last summer.”
“Well good thing we got you to jump off the falls!” Mikey exclaimed. “What was your favorite part so far, dude?”
“Um probably Chicago,” Gus answered. “Cataract Falls and the Speedway were cool, since I’d never been there. But Chicago was really fun. Willis Tower was absolutely terrifying, because heights are just dumb. Admittedly, it did have a really nice view. The Bean wasn’t super cool either, though it was interesting to see it in person after seeing so many photos of it. Plus I enjoy a hot tub and visit a bar for the first time.”
“It’s hard to believe we’ve only been on this trip for a couple weeks,” Neil said. “We’ve done so much! It feels like we’ve been gone for like a month or more.”
“Seriously!” Art agreed, not looking up from his game. “I keep thinking it’s like July, but we’re barely in mid-June. We’ll need to find lots more to do, because I don’t want to go home.”
“I agree. If I go home, I’ll just end up babysitting my siblings every day until I move down to Tennessee. I’ll probably make arrangements to do that as soon as this trip ends.”
“We’ll just make sure it never ends!” Gus exclaimed. “There are plenty more things to do in the Midwest, or we could even explore more of the United States. Though we may have to start budgeting our money and rationing our snacks a bit better if we do that.”
“Psh don’t worry about that stuff!” Neil replied. “It’ll all work out!”
“Whatever dude. You just give us games to play while we drive, and I’ll keep tabs on our money and food.”
“Speaking of games, I have one to play! It’s probably one of the funniest road trip games I’ve ever seen. What you do is read the road signs that we pass and replace one of the words with the word ‘butt.’ For example, ‘Speed Limit 70’ becomes ‘Butt Limit 70.’”
Mikey busted out laughing. “This is going to be great. So that hotel sign that we just passed goes from ‘free hot breakfast’ to ‘free hot butt.’ Or ‘free butt breakfast.’”
“Exactly! It’s just a fun, innocent little game. Everybody has a butt, so it’s not even really inappropriate. Plus some of the signs can be really funny when you change them!”
They continued along the interstate, reading and modifying every sign that they passed. Each sign caused a roar of laughter to erupt within the vehicle. They continued to share favorite stories from college and high school in between signs.
“Hey look, the windmills!” Neil exclaimed, pointing out the window.
“Technically, they’re wind turbines,” Gus corrected. Scattered throughout the land around them, the guys could see dozens of wind turbines rotating in the wind. They were a common sign in northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana.
“Dude, nobody cares!” Neil smacked him in the arm. “Also, what’s the difference?”
“Windmills spin to tell you the direction and strength of the wind,” he explained. “You find them most notably on farms, and they look like giant fans. Wind turbines are more mechanical. They produce electricity as the blades rotate in the wind.”
“Okay cool. I still don’t really care,” Neil admitted. “But now I know. I can try to call them what they are.”
“You know what’s unnerving?” Mikey asked. “Imagine driving down this interstate in the middle of the night. There’s no light except from the cars around you, so it’s just darkness. But then you look to the side and just see a ton of red lights above the horizon, blinking slowly. It’s so eerie. You just feel like you’re about to drive into hell or something.”
“That sounds kind of creepy,” Gus agreed. “I can see the lights and how the blades make them seem to blink. I can only imagine what it would be like if these dozens of lights were all you saw. Good thing it’s daytime.”
“It’s weird how small they seem,” Art noted. “They look fairly small, but then there we drive by the ones that are closer to the road and see that they’re like 300 feet tall.”
“Imagine being one of the engineers,” Mikey added. “They have to climb up on those things and fix them. How would you like being an engineer, Gus?”
“Um, how about now? I would rather do just about anything else than work on top of one of those turbines. I don’t like climbing a ten-foot ladder, let alone a 300-foot turbine.”
“You’re no fun, dude!” Neil taunted.
“How much farther to Springfield?” Art asked.
“Um, probably about an hour. We’re making really good time.” Mikey turned to look at Neil quickly. “I hope you’re ready to pay up, bro! I might have to order a second horseshoe!”
Neil rolled his eyes as they continued down the interstate. True to his estimate, they turned off I-55 to enter Springfield about an hour later. When they pulled into the parking lot at D’Arcy’s Pint, barely two and a half hours had passed since they left Chicago.
“Dang it,” Neil muttered. “Well a deal’s a deal. Food’s on me. Just don’t be jerks.”
Laughing, they stepped into the restaurant to wait for an open table. Since it was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, the wait was not too long. As they followed the waitress to their table, Gus noticed that many tables were occupied by fathers with their sons. They had been there enough to know exactly what they wanted, so they ordered immediately.
“This place is pretty busy,” Neil noted. “Seems like a lot of families. Especially dads with their sons. And then there’s us.”
“We should probably talk about that,” Gus said. “What are we going to do about our dads? Zane told us that we need to take control of our circumstances.”
The table fell quiet. The guys sipped on Mountain Dew and fiddled with the silverware to avoid answering. A few minutes passed before anybody spoke.
Mikey sighed. “I think I need to talk to my dad. I’m not sure if he knows how much he’s messed me up. He and I have never talk about anything personal like that. It’s just him telling me to babysit and me updating him quickly on school, Amber, and everything. We’ve never sat down to have a really deep conversation, so it should help. I know he raised my siblings way differently, but I think he tried to over-correct what he did with me. I did learn a lot from him, so I would need to tell him everything. Everything I learned, everything I wanted and expected of him, everything I wish was different.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Neil agreed. “At the very least, you can vent to him. Zane did say that many of his customers benefited from being able to do that. So at least you can get rid of all of the pent up emotion.”
“That’s a good point. Venting is fairly healthy,” Art added. “Keeping all of that crap inside of you isn’t good. It affects your mental and emotional health. But simply talking about whatever’s wrong is useful. Tons of people go to the counseling center on campus just to have a place to rant about life.”
“Gus, what do you think?” Mikey asked.
“I agree with Art and Neil. You just have to be ready for the unexpected. With all the stuff that’s built up, you may end up yelling and screaming at him. And it may change nothing about your relationship. But I think you should do it, for your own sake.”
“Yea, that makes sense.” Mikey paused to take a drink. “Too bad we didn’t talk about this earlier. We could’ve stopped by my house before coming down here. I live west of Chicago, so we’d have to retrace our steps.”
“Maybe we’ll end up back in the area before the summer ends,” Neil suggested. “Or you can just talk to him when you go home, before moving down to Tennessee.”
“I could do that. I don’t even know what I’d say, so that would give me some time to think about all of that.”
“Actually I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Art admitted. “I’ve been dealing with his crap for years. And I think my brothers have as well, especially since hitting high school.”
“What would you talk about with him?” Gus asked.
“I’m not sure. It’s really frustrating that he expects me to do all of these things that I’ve never wanted to do. He wants me to spend my time reading, studying, and getting a higher education. While these are good things, I also want to play video games and stuff. But he doesn’t want what I want, he wants what he and my grandparents want. His head is stuck in the culture of China where he was raised, and he’s ignoring the culture of America.”
“So tell him that,” Mikey said. “Let him know that he’s putting too much pressure on you and your brothers. Ask him to let off a bit.”
“That and help him understand that America is way different from China,” Neil added. “You’re growing up in a world completely different from the one of his youth. You’re growing up in a culture that defines success as being social and having friends, not making a lot of money and having a high academic degree.”
“Plus Americans in general have a lot of leisure time. We like to watch movies, play video games, and just hang out. Education isn’t as big of a deal for us. Well, most of us.” Gus laughed and shrugged. “Hey look, our food!”
The waitress returned carrying a tray. She set a plate in front of each of the guys. A mound of food sat on top of each plate, consisting of a slice of Texas toast, a type of meat, and a pile of fries. Liquid cheese covered all of this. Their waitress picked up their empty glasses and came back with full ones a moment later.
“My body is so ready!” Neil exclaimed, rubbing his hands excitedly.
“Well Mikey, this is it: our first horseshoes as college graduates.” Gus picked up his fork. “Let’s dig in!” As they ate, they continued their conversation.
“You guys make good points,” Art said. “So I guess I’ll have to talk to my dad soon. Let him know that he needs to stop pushing me to be as successful as him. I want to lead my own life, like Zane said.”
“Do it, man!” Mikey replied. “We could stop by your house tomorrow or the next day, since we’re pretty close to home for you.”
“Maybe.” Art stuffed a huge bite of cheesy fries into his mouth and stopped talking.
“What if we backtrack to Chicago so both of you can talk to your dads?” Neil asked. “It would give us something to do this week before setting off for more sights.”
“That could be interesting,” Mikey agreed. “But what about you and Gus?”
Gus glanced at Neil and swallowed the bite of food in his mouth. “There’s no way for us to find Brock. But if you guys want, we can try. There’s a lot for him and me to discuss, so it would be good. I would have to creep on his Facebook or try calling my grandparents to find where he lives or works.”
“There’s nothing for me to do, though,” Neil added. “My dad is dead. I could visit his grave, but I can’t talk to him. I suppose we could try talking to my brother or my mom. And I haven’t visited Dad’s grave in a couple of years, so I should probably do that if we stop by West Lafayette.”
“So are we going to do this?” Mikey glanced from one friend to another. “Are we really going to talk to our dads?”
“To be honest,” Gus began, “I think we need that. We spend so much time knocked down by life that it’s about time we pick ourselves up and show life that we mean business.”
“Just like Zane said,” Neil noted. “Let’s do it.”
“So who’s going first?” Art asked. The group exchanged looks before simultaneously turning to look at him. Art sighed and shook his head.
“Your place is the closest,” Mikey said. “We can basically just backtrack our route. So I’ll go next, then Neil, and then Gus will be last. This can be our plan for the week. Then we can figure out what to do after Gus’s turn.”
“This week, huh?” Gus mused. “Brock’s birthday is Friday. That would be one heck of a coincidence!”
“Fine, I’ll go first,” Art muttered, stuffing the last bit of his horseshoe into his mouth. “But you guys can’t come. You can go to the park down the road, but I’ll go inside alone. I don’t need you guys awkwardly sitting there while I’m talking to my dad.”
“That’s fine,” Mikey agreed. “We could all talk to our fathers alone. Those are important conversations, so like Art said, we don’t need to eavesdrop on each other. Obviously we can fill each other in on what happens, but we should probably handle the talks alone.”
“That works for me. We’ll finish up here and grab a motel for the night,” Gus explained. “Then we can hit the road tomorrow and head for Art’s house.”
Without another word, they finished their horseshoes and emptied their glasses. Neil got the check from the waitress and paid for their food. Loading into Mikey’s SUV, they found the nearest motel and rented a room for the night.
Art was the first one to wake up the next morning. He had showered and stepped outside by the time Gus and Mikey woke up. They cleaned themselves up, and Gus went to find Art as Mikey woke up Neil.
“How are you doing, bud?” Gus joined Art on a bench in the parking lot.
“I’m just trying to figure out what to say to Dad,” he grumbled. “He and I never talk, so this will be weird. And there’s no way for me to know how the talk will go. So it’s a little nerve-racking to think about.”
“Yea, this week is going to suck for all of us,” Gus agreed. “But we’ll be better off after it. We’ll get to vent all of our frustrations to our fathers, and maybe you and your father will get along better after your talk. Which would make life so much easier.”
“True,” Art muttered. Standing up, he threw his hands up and yelled, “All right, let’s get this over with!”
Laughing, Gus and Art returned to the motel room to pack their suitcases. Loading up the car, Art switched seats with Gus to ride shotgun and guide Mikey to his house. They pulled some Lunchables from their stock of snacks and ate while on the road.
About half an hour later, they entered Art’s hometown, a small town in central Illinois. They passed a Casey’s General Store, which according to Art was the town’s biggest attraction. He directed them from the main street through a series of turns and side streets until they stopped in front of a two-story white house.
“This is it,” Art said forlornly. “If you keep going straight, you’ll run into a small park. You guys can hang out there. I’ll walk down there and meet you when I’m done.” He stepped out of the car and walked up to the front step. Mikey pulled away from the curb as Art opened the door and entered his house.
“Travis, is that you?” his mom yelled. Travis was Art’s birth name, but everyone at school knew him by the nickname ‘Art.’ He hated being called by his birth name by anyone but his parents.
“Yea, it’s me!” Art slid off his shoes and left them on the square rug in the foyer. “Is Dad home? I’d like to talk to him.”
Footsteps approached from the back of the house. His mother, a petite American woman, met him in the living room. Art’s brothers Sean and Damian were in the living room, reading books and typing on their laptops.
“He’s up in his office working,” she answered. “What do you need?”
“I need to talk to Dad,” Art replied, going up the stairs. He walked down the hallway, past the family’s bedrooms and toward the office at the back of the house. The door was shut, but he could hear soft instrumental music and the clacking of a keyboard through the door.
Knocking on the door, he opened it and stepped inside. His dad was a small Chinese man with short black hair and glasses. As a lawyer, he always wore a suit, though he loosened his tie and abandoned his jacket and shoes at home.
“Travis, what have I told you about interrupting me while I am working?”
“I need to talk to you, Dad, and it can’t wait.”
“Okay, give me a second.” Art’s dad typed for a few more moments before stopping and turning around in his chair. “What’s wrong?”
“Um, I don’t know how else to say this,” Art began, “so I’m going to come right out and say it. You’re kind of a crappy father.”
“What makes you say that?” Art’s dad was always careful to remain in control of his emotions, no matter what people said or did. He also never used contractions and spoke with a tone of complete respect.
“Well for starters, you show absolutely no emotion! It’s ridiculous. You’re just a person who lives in my house and tells me how to live my life. There’s no emotional connection at all. Like right now, I said you’re a crappy dad, and you didn’t react at all.”
“I see no point in getting worked up over a simple discussion,” he replied calmly. “And I show plenty of emotion. I am smiling in every photo we have taken as a family.” He gestured around the room, where various family pictures hung.
“That’s not the same! The only emotion I’ve ever felt from you is disappointment. You were never proud of what I did, never happy with the effort I put into anything. All you ever showed was disappointment! In my studies, in my free time, in my friends, in my girlfriends, in anything and everything that took my attention!”
“I wanted you to do your best, Travis. I was top of my class in secondary school. I spent all of my time studying and reading. The only friends I had were people who would help me to get into the best universities and give me the best references for my resume. As for girlfriends, I never dated until I moved to America at twenty-five. There was nothing to distract me from my studies. No movies, video games, parties, or anything. Back home, nobody wanted to do any of that. We have been taught for generations that we need to do well in school so that we could become successful and respected working men and women.”
“But we’re not in China!” Art snapped, barely containing his anger. “This is America! Kids play video games, go to movies, sneak out, and throw parties! There’s enough time in the day for me to do those things and still get my school work done!”
“Your brothers do not do any of those things,” his father replied. “They are very studious. Sean was top of his class, and he is excelling at Harvard Business School. Damian is second in his class, but he is going to Princeton in the fall to study engineering. Both of them are going to be very successful.
“But I wanted you to be more like them. You had the potential to be the top of your class and wasted it. And you could be an honors student now, but instead you barely avoid flunking out of college. You are my eldest son, so you should carry on the family name with honor. You need to be successful in order to do that.”
“I didn’t want to be like Sean and Damian! I didn’t want to be the top of my class, and I don’t want to be an honors student! I want to have fun while at college! I want you and Mom to support me and to be proud of me, not of my grades or my popularity! I want you to see that I’m not you, that I’m growing up and maturing even if it is differently than you did! I want you to let me be myself.”
“I am proud of you, son. I just think that—”
“No!” Art yelled. “Just be proud of me! I’ll graduate from college next year! I’m going to be a counselor so that I can help people! I have great friends who encourage me to do my best without forcing me to conform to some other image of me! You have this image of me that’s basically a mini version of you! I understand that Grandma and Grandpa raised you a certain way, but that way doesn’t work here in America! It doesn’t work for me! I don’t want to be the best. I just want to be myself, and I want you and Mom to acknowledge that.”
Art’s dad sat silent for several moments, staring blankly into the corner. He seemed to be reflecting on what Art had said. Art caught his breath and tried to slow his heartrate. He could feel either tears or more yelling bubbling just under the surface.
“Let me get this straight,” his dad said suddenly. “You think I am pushing you too hard to become something that you do not want to be. Correct?”
“Yea,” Art grumbled, staring at the floor. “I don’t want to become a doctor or anything like that. I don’t want to make tons of money. I don’t want to read and study and work all day. I want to help people. I want to live comfortably. And I want to play video games, go out with friends, and stay up too late.”
“Is that how you define success?”
“Yes. If I can do all that, I will be successful. And I’ll be me.”
His dad paused again. Then he stood up, walked over to Art, and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. “I do not know if Grandma and Grandpa will understand, but I think I do. I am proud of you, Travis. You have grown into quite the young man. Thank you for telling me what you really think and feel. I am glad that you know what success means to you, even if it is different from my definition.”
Art felt a huge weight lift off his heart. He looked his dad in the eyes before wrapping his arms around him in a hug. He couldn’t fight the tears anymore.
“I did learn a lot from you. I learned to appreciate education. I may not be the best student, but I’m really good at reading and studying. If I put the time and effort into something, I do really well at it. I also know how to get things done quickly. I learned that while balancing my time between homework and video games. So your parenting wasn’t all bad.”
“That is good. I am proud of you.”
“Thanks Dad,” was all he could say.
“You are welcome son.”
After Art opened the front door, Mikey drove down the road and found the park at the end of the street. He parked the car and led Gus and Neil to the swing set. They had no idea how long Art would be at his house, so they just sat on the swings and waited.
Neil started swinging after a few minutes. He swung his legs and kicked off the ground in order to swing higher.
“While we’re waiting, we might as well have fun!” he said loudly. “Let’s see who can jump the farthest!”
“What is this, elementary school?” Gus taunted as he started to swing. Mikey followed their lead, and soon all three were taking turns jumping off the swings.
They jumped off the swings for several minutes. Gus and Mikey consistently fought for first place, with Mikey ultimately winning when they stopped. As he gloated over his victory, he noticed a roundabout on the other side of the park.
“Dude!” he yelled, pointing. “I haven’t been on one of those in years!”
“Let’s go!” Neil agreed. “Most playgrounds and parks don’t have them!” They ran over to the roundabout and climbed on.
For the next several minutes, they took turns spinning the other two. The roundabout squeaked and groaned the entire time. Occasionally, one of the guys would lose his grip on the rails and tumbled into the grass, laughing and yelling.
“Hey guys.” Art had joined them at the park without any of their notice, carrying a plastic bag. “I see you’re enjoying the park. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone play here in years.”
“Oh hey Art!” Gus greeted, standing up. The guys found a nearby bench and sat down to talk about what happened.
“So how did the talk with your dad go?” Mikey asked.
Art recounted the conversation between him and his dad. His friends remained silent the entire time. “And after we talked, we went downstairs for dinner. Mom made General Tso’s chicken with white rice and vegetables.”
“Dude!” Neil exclaimed. “I want some General Tso’s!”
“That’s what’s in here,” Art answered, holding up the bag. “I have a giant Tupperware container of chicken, rice, and veggies. We can heat it up after we find a motel for the night.”
“Sounds like a plan!” Neil agreed.
“But while we were at dinner, we talked about how school was going,” Art continued. “My parents wanted to clarify their expectations of me, so we talked about all of that. They wanted to know how to encourage me along the way, and I told them what I thought of their expectations. When they were too high, we discussed how to lower them to hopes that were more realistic.”
“That’s good,” Gus noted. “Do you think the talk went well?”
“Yea, I do.” Art paused. “He said that he wanted me to be like my brothers, because they both are studious and successful like him. But I think he realized that I’m different from them, which is important. And he seemed to approve of how I view success.”
“That’s awesome!” Mikey cheered. “You should text him and wish him a happy Father’s Day, even though it’s a day late.”
“Good idea,” Art mumbled. “I’ll do that when we get to a motel. Let’s go!” Art traded high fives with his friends, who patted him on the back as they walked to the car.
Mikey’s phone guided them to the nearest motel, which was about half an hour away. Renting a room, they settled in and heated up the leftover Chinese food. They started a movie and started eating as Art pulled out his phone to text his dad.
“Mikey, dude, it’s time to wake up!” Gus shook his friend until he opened his eyes.
“What time is it?” he grumbled, covering his eyes with his arm.
“It’s 1 o’clock,” Neil answered. He and Art sat on the other bed in their room. They had already loaded their suitcases into Mikey’s SUV to leave.
“Oh gosh. Why didn’t you wake me up?” Mikey stood up and rubbed his eyes. He stumbled to the bathroom.
“Well we figured you were tired after all the driving you’ve done lately,” Gus said. “Since we’re not in any hurry, we just let you sleep.”
“Plus it’s your turn to talk to your dad,” Art added. “I wasn’t too excited to talk to mine, so I bet you aren’t either. Now we have all afternoon to drive back up north before you talk to your dad tonight or tomorrow.”
The room was silent except for running water in the bathroom. Mikey emerged a few minutes later with his toiletries. He combed his hair, changed clothes, packed his suitcase, and loaded it into his car.
“All right,” he said, coming back into the room. “Let’s check out and hit the road.”
Checking out, they got onto the interstate and headed north. Gus glanced at the dashboard and noticed that Mikey was going the speed limit. Clearly he was not in any hurry to get home and talk to his parents.
“So what’s the plan?” Gus asked. He shifted in the passenger seat to face Mikey. Neil watched over Art’s shoulder as he played on his PlayStation Vita, commenting about the game.
“Well, I’m not sure,” Mikey began. “I don’t know whether my dad will be at work today or night. We could probably crash in the attic, where I stay. My sisters have the basement, and my youngest siblings have the upstairs rooms.”
“Okay. So are we just going to go to your place and work from there?”
Mikey paused. “We can do that. You guys can watch Netflix or something in the attic while I talk to my dad. Though if he’s not home, chances are that we’ll have to babysit my siblings. You may even get to see Jenny and Suzie, since it’s summertime.” Jenny and Suzie were Mikey’s sisters. Jenny was a year younger than him, and Suzie was two years younger than her. After them, the next oldest sibling was about ten years old.
“You know, we’ve never actually met your sisters,” Neil interrupted. “You just talk about them all the time!”
“Well maybe that will change!” Mikey chuckled. “Though if they are home, they’ll probably ditch us immediately to hang out with their friends. Leave us to babysit.”
“Oh well,” Gus replied. “Any idea what you’ll say to your dad?”
“Probably just swear at him and punch him in the face,” Mikey said seriously. “Just kidding, I’ll avoid those as much as possible. I’ll probably just do what Art did. Tell him that he’s kind of a sucky parent and explain how his parenting messed me up. Explain how I wish that I’d had a childhood instead of just working and acting like an adult.”
“How do you think he’ll respond?” Art asked. “We had similar experiences with our dads, but I feel like yours is a very different person from mine.”
Mikey sighed heavily before responding. “I really don’t know what he’ll say. He can be so unpredictable and hard-headed. I can see it going either way. Based on past conversations though, I think it will take a lot of convincing for him to realize where he went wrong.”
“I can see that,” Gus agreed. “You’ve told me enough about things that have happened with your dad, so I have a pretty good idea of how you two relate. I would say you’re right. He seems very set in his ways, so expect the worst.”
“I’ll try, but you never know what will happen.” Mikey fell silent, and they continued along the interstate in silence. The only noise in the SUV came from Art’s Vita and Neil’s commentary on the game.
“I think we need some tunes,” Neil said after a few minutes. “I have Spotify Premium, so hook me up and I’ll DJ.” Gus connected the auxiliary cord to the radio and handed the other end to Neil.
“Make sure you play something good!” Mikey demanded.
“I think I have the perfect song to play.” Neil smirked as music started playing.
“Yes! This is great!” Mikey cheered, laughing. The song playing was ‘The Great Escape’ by Boys Like Girls. As the song picked up, the guys rolled down their windows and jammed out. They sang loudly, pumped their fists out the window, and danced around in their seats. All the cars around them on the interstate shot them perplexed looks.
As the song ended, they busted out laughing. Gus turned down the radio as Mikey rolled up their windows.
“Funny story about that song,” Neil added. “It’s basically a graduation song. The song writer described it as the end of one chapter with an outlook on the future.”
“Huh,” Mikey mumbled. “That’s oddly perfect for us. Good job, Spotify.”
Neil continued to play fun, upbeat songs as they continued toward northern Illinois. Whenever a favorite song started, they jammed out to it as they did with ‘The Great Escape.’ Before long, Mikey exited from the interstate and headed for Rockford, his hometown.
“Do you actually life in Rockford?” Art asked. “I don’t think any of us have been up here to visit your home.”
“I live on the outskirts of town,” Mikey answered. “We shouldn’t have to go into Rockford. It’s pretty chaotic, like most cities. We should be there soon.”
When they arrived at Mikey’s house, they pulled into a long driveway leading to a large blue house. A tall wooden fence enclosed the backyard, and Gus noticed an expansive garden along the side of the house. A garage sat a short distance from the house, with three cars sitting in front of it.
“The SUV is Mom’s,” Mikey explained. “The Jeep is Jenny’s, and I guess the Ford is Suzie’s. Dad drives a big ole truck, so I guess he’s still at work.” As they parked, Mikey’s sisters stepped onto the front porch to see who was here.
“Oh hey, it’s Mikey!” one of them shouted. She was a pale young woman with short brown hair and narrow glasses. She wore basketball shorts and a band shirt.
“Hey Jenny,” Mikey said, walking up to the porch. Gus followed him, while Art and Neil got out of the car. “This is Gus. The short Asian kid is Art, and the other guy is Neil.”
“Hey guys!” Jenny smiled broadly and shook Gus’s hand.
“And this is Suzie,” Mikey introduced, gesturing at the other girl. Her long brown hair had blonde highlights and was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore noticeably more makeup than Jenny, with skinny jeans and a pink blouse over a black camisole.
“Hey! I just got home this morning. Also, the house is a bit of a mess.” Suzie chuckled and walked back into the house.
Jenny and the guys followed her into the house. They kicked off their shoes in the foyer and entered the living room, where Mikey’s mom was watching the news. She was a portly middle-aged woman with short, dark hair. She was wearing medical scrubs, as if she had just gotten off of work at the hospital.
“Hey Mikey, hey boys!” She stood up and hugged them. “What brings you here?”
“I wanted to talk to Dad,” Mikey replied. “Is he still at work?”
“Yea, he’ll be home late tonight. What did you want to talk to him about?” Mikey’s mom went into the kitchen and started preparing dinner. “Also, are you guys going to be around for dinner? We’re having spaghetti!”
“I just wanted to talk to him one-on-one,” Mikey said. “Yea, we’ll be here for dinner. Is it fine if we stay here tonight? We’ll sleep in my room.”
“That’s fine,” she answered. “I’ll let you all know when dinner is ready, so you can go ahead and settle in for the night.”
Mikey showed the boys around the house quickly. Downstairs, the front door opened to the kitchen, which led into the living room. At the back of the house, Mikey showed them the dining room and the master bedroom. Upstairs, they found three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a staircase to the attic.
The guys retrieved their suitcases and headed to the attic. The attic was a large room, with piles of cardboard boxes in the corner. There was a queen-sized bed against the far wall, by the only window in the room. A couch and lounge chair sat in front of a large flat-screen TV in the middle of the room.
“Dibs on the bed!” Neil declared, hurrying across the room.
“I mean, it’s my bed too, so you’ll have to share,” Mikey said. He turned to Art and Gus. “One of you can take the couch, and the other can take the chair or the floor.”
“I’ll sleep in the floor,” Gus volunteered. “So what are we going to do?”
“I have my PlayStation,” Mikey suggested. “So we can watch a movie or Netflix or play video games. Or we can grab a board game from the closet in the living room.”
“Let’s do a board game,” Neil replied. “We haven’t done that yet.” He and Mikey went downstairs to grab a board game, while Art and Gus settled in. They pushed the couch back to make more room around the coffee table.
“We got Monopoly and Life,” Neil said, coming back into the room.
“Let’s play Monopoly!” Gus decided. “We can destroy some friendships tonight.”
They set up the board and refreshed themselves on the rules and gameplay of the game. By the time they finished, Mikey’s mom yelled that dinner was ready. They joined her, Jenny, and Suzie at the table. A smaller table sat nearby, where the younger siblings sat.
Conversation jumped between topics while they ate. Gus learned that Jenny studied social work at Indiana State University, while Suzie was a political science major at University of Illinois in Champaign. Each of them discussed what drew them to their majors and what their hopes for the future were. Mikey’s family shared embarrassing stories of his childhood, while Neil and Art told many of their funny stories from college.
After dinner, they returned to the attic to play Monopoly. They turned on some music to play in the background as they played. As Monopoly goes, it was a slow start as the guys moved around the board and bought their properties. Mikey and Gus slowly took the lead as the game progressed. After a couple of hours, they heard a car pull into the drive.
Mikey went to the window and glanced out. “That’s Dad,” he muttered. “I’ll be right back. Gus, you play for me.” He sighed and headed downstairs to meet his dad outside.
“Hey Dad,” Mikey said, stepping into the garage. His dad was a stocky tanned man with a receding hairline and a dark goatee. His hands were stained with grease from working on machinery all day. He sat at his workbench with a beer in his hand.
“Hey Michael. How’s your road trip going?”
“It’s been fun.” Mikey stood in the middle of the garage, not wanting to sit or approach his dad. “I’ve enjoyed spending time with the guys. We’ve had a lot of fun and seen a lot of different places lately.”
“That’s good,” his dad muttered. “Do you want to sit? There are beers in the fridge.” He pulled a stool from under his bench and gestured toward the fridge in the corner.
“No, I’m fine.” Mikey sighed, knowing he had to start the conversation. “Dad, I need to talk to you.”
“What’s up?” The man turned around and leaned back against the workbench.
“Well, I just wanted to come clean about some things that I should’ve said much sooner. I pretty much hated my childhood, to be honest. I didn’t really have a childhood, because I spent all of my time working to pay for everything and babysitting the kids. It wasn’t fair.”
“Fair?” his dad grumbled. “I worked on your grandparents’ farm from the time I could walk. Grandpa would wake me up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows and gather the eggs. I was baling hay and driving the tractor from about age ten. I just raised you the way I was raised: to be responsible and hard-working.”
“Well I am both of those things! I’ve paid for my phone and car since I was fifteen! Then I worked a full-time job while taking class full-time at college. I did my best at everything I did, and I’ve never needed any financial help from you!”
“See, I made you the man you are today. You could never have done any of that if not for me instilling those values in you from youth.”
“Yea, you made me responsible and hard-working, but that’s not all I am! Do you even realize all the crap I went through because of you? You only allowed me to date girls you approved of, and then you forced me to study education at college! You never let me do what I wanted! Now I’m all screwed up because I don’t know what I want out of life. For the first time, I can make my own decisions, but I don’t know what to do!”
“Michael, you need to understand something.” His dad walked to the fridge to grab another beer. He offered one to Mikey, but he declined. “You are the oldest child. You should be the most responsible and mature one. So I raised you that way. But with your sisters, I raised them much differently because they aren’t the oldest. I still encourage them to work hard and become responsible, but I don’t force them to do that.”
“But what parents leave their ten-year-old son to babysit every weekend?” Mikey was nearly yelling at this point. “Kids want to play and have fun, not feed and bathe and take care of their siblings!”
“I was teaching you responsibility,” his dad replied. “Every child needs to understand that their actions affect others. So I wanted you to learn to think about the needs of others aside from yourself. That is why your mother and I let you babysit your siblings.”
“But I didn’t need to learn that stuff so early! I definitely should not have been the person in charge! If you wanted me to babysit, you should’ve had another babysitter to teach me how to do it! But even then, I spent most of my time being the parent!” Mikey paused to take a deep breath. “That wasn’t my job! You and Mom were supposed to be the parents, but you shoved that responsibility onto me! And that’s not fair!”
Mikey’s dad sighed, exasperated. “I knew you wouldn’t appreciate all of my effort. I did my best to raise you into a responsible young man. I’m sorry you don’t understand.” He stood up and walked toward Mikey.
Mikey felt his blood boiling. When his dad went to pass him, he grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him so that they were face-to-face. He started speaking through gritted teeth.
“You’re sorry that I don’t understand? I understand! I understand that you’re a dick. You’re a horrible father! I understand that you have no idea who I am or what I want because you’re stuck on your high horse thinking that you’ve done no wrong! And I understand that you really aren’t sorry! You wouldn’t change a thing about how you raised me!” He was breathing heavily as his father shook his head.
Suddenly, he shoved his son away from him. Mikey stumbled backward into the shelves behind him. He glared at his father, who had turned and continued out the door. He paused in the doorway.
“Clearly I failed to teach you respect,” he said without turning around. He walked away, leaving Mikey alone in the garage.
After standing for a few moments, he pulled out his phone and dialed Amber’s number. The phone rang a few times before she answered.
“Hey Mikey,” she greeted. “What’s up?”
“I just talked to my dad,” he replied gruffly. He quickly told her about their conversation.
“Wow, that sucks,” Amber said. “How are you feeling?”
“To be honest, like I want to beat the tar out of my dad. Like I want to yell and scream and hit him until he understands how screwed up I am because of him. That’s all. I just want him to understand.”
“I know you do. But sometimes people are too stubborn and set in their ways. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re correct for so long that being wrong isn’t something they can even consider. He’s been telling himself that he raised you the right way for twenty-two years now. Being wrong isn’t an option for him.”
“That doesn’t make it hurt any less,” Mikey mumbled, tears welling up. “It still sucks! It hurts so much. I just want it to stop. I want him to say he’s sorry, to admit that he’s wrong and that he hurt me.”
“But he did the best he could,” she reassured him. “You heard how he was raised. He had to work and be responsible from a young age. That’s all he knew. He didn’t know any other way to raise you. I think that counts for something.”
Mikey remained silent for a moment, thinking about her words. “I guess you’re right. He did what he thought was best for me. But that doesn’t excuse it. He still left me broken and hurting, and I don’t think those wounds will ever fully heal.”
“Maybe they won’t. But they don’t have to cripple you. Sometimes the deepest, most painful wounds can motivate you to overcome, to become better than those who hurt you. So pick yourself up, nurse your wounds, and become a better man, husband, and father than your dad ever was.”
Grinning, Mikey responded, “You’re right. Thanks!”
In the attic, the game of Monopoly continued. Gus dominated the game twice as much now, as he was in control of Mikey’s play. He gradually grew cockier as his lead increased.
“Pay me my money!” he yelled as Neil landed on one of his properties. He cackled tauntingly as Neil grumbled and handed him some money.
“We get it, you’re winning,” he muttered.
“Seriously,” Art agreed. “We totally expected you to win. You’re the smartest one here.”
“This is why Monopoly destroys friendships,” Gus explained. “Even calm, level-headed people like me become criminal masterminds. You guys get really into games like Call of Duty, but strategic games like this and Worms are my forte.”
“I think we should play COD now,” Art suggested.
“Yea! You suck at those!” Neil teased. “We would totally destroy you!”
Gus shrugged, so they started Call of Duty on the PlayStation. They played a free-for-all game, so they started sneaking around the map to shoot each other. Gus was the first to die. He had a tendency to die before he could even find whomever was shooting him.
“How do you think Mikey’s talk with his dad is going?” Neil asked suddenly.
“Probably about as well as we can expect,” Art replied. “We’ve all heard his stories about how poorly they get along.”
“Yea, I doubt it’s going as well as Art’s conversation did,” Gus added. “How long has it been since he left?”
Neil picked up his phone. “Umm, nearly an hour. So he should be back soon.”
As gameplay continued, they fell silent apart from yelling in response to getting shot and killed. Gus managed a few kills, but his friends killed him way more than he killed them. Before long, they heard footsteps on the stairs and paused the game as Mikey entered the room. He stopped just inside the room and stared at the floor.
An awkward silence filled the room before Gus spoke up. “How did it go?”
Mikey walked over to them and sat down on the coffee table. He related how the talk went with his dad and what Amber had said when he called her. After he finished, he walked to the corner of the room and grabbed them small bottles of Dr. Pepper.
“Well it sounds like it went better than expected!” Neil joked.
“What are you going to do now?” Art asked. “Like, right now and after we finish our road trip. Do you have any plans?”
“Right now, I’m going to unwind with some video games. As for after the road trip, I’ll figure that out.” Mikey grabbed a controller and joined Gus and Art on the couch. “I’ll be fine. I just need to get my mind off things for now. Who’s up for some Worms?”
The next morning, Gus awoke to someone shaking his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he saw a blurry Mikey kneeling right next to him on the floor. He could hear Art snoring, so he assumed that Neil was also still asleep.
“Dude, let’s go make some breakfast,” Mikey suggested. “It’s about 9 o’clock. We can make something home-cooked and wake these bozos up to eat.”
“Okay,” Gus croaked, groggy. “I’ll meet you downstairs in half an hour.” As Mikey went downstairs, Gus started his morning routine of showering, brushing his teeth, and getting dressed. Then he headed down to the kitchen.
Walking into the room, Gus saw food cluttering the countertops. Mikey had pulled cartons of eggs, a couple pounds of bacon, tubes of cinnamon rolls, and bags of frozen hash browns from the fridge. Gus found him sitting on the counter eating a bowl of cereal, likely waiting for him to come down.
“Let’s do this,” he said, putting his bowl in the sink. “We can work on the eggs, bacon, and hash browns at the same time. Which do you want to do?”
“Well first, we should start the cinnamon rolls. Those will take a while.” Gus paused to consider his options. “I’ll do the bacon and eggs. I can keep the bacon chewy, which is how I prefer it, but I’ll make most of it crunchy.”
“Deal!” They immediately got to work frying the bacon and hash browns, scrambling the eggs, and baking the cinnamon rolls. Gus frequently yelped in pain and jerked his arms away from the stovetop as the bacon grease popped and splattered him, which Mikey found funny.
Within half an hour, they had set the dining room table. They placed bowls full of eggs, bacon, and hash browns in the middle, surrounding a large plate of cinnamon rolls. Gus poured glasses of chocolate milk and apple juice for the four of them. As Mikey returned to the attic to wake up their friends, Gus pulled a bag of shredded cheese from the fridge for Neil.
The next hour was full of talking, laughter, and the clattering of dishes and silverware. When they finished, Art and Neil cleaned the dining room and kitchen while their friends packed their suitcases and carried them to the SUV. By noon, the guys piled into the car to head to West Lafayette, with Neil riding shotgun. As they pulled out of the driveway, a thought crossed Gus’s mind: Before long, it’ll be my turn. I’ll have to face Brock for the first time in years.
The trip from Rockford to West Lafayette was fairly uneventful. The guys jammed to Neil’s Spotify and replaced words on road signs with the word ‘butt.’ They did not stop for lunch after eating such a large breakfast, but they started to discuss dinner in West Lafayette.
“What haven’t we eaten?” Mikey asked. “Something good, not fast food.”
“I mean, we can always go back to Triple XXX,” Neil said. Then he muttered quickly, “Maybe Crystal is working tonight.”
“Let’s not,” Art replied. “What about B Dubs? We haven’t had any wings yet!”
“Oh yes!” Mikey shouted excitedly. He reached into the backseat and patted Gus on the knee. “You owe us B Dubs, dude. I Manchestered you when we left school.”
“You did what?” Neil turned suddenly in his seat and stared at Gus, grinning.
Gus chuckled and shook his head. “It’s true. We raced to our cars and wagered B Dubs. We didn’t know who won, so I volunteered to buy, and he Manchestered me.”
“Well I guess we need to go to B Dubs!” Neil looked expectantly at Mikey.
“All right, to B Dubs!” he announced. He then glanced in his rearview mirror and winked at Gus. “And if you don’t pay, I’ll slap you so hard that you’ll wet yourself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll pay,” Gus assured. “I mean, I get B Dubs out of the deal!”
Mikey lowered the accelerator to the floor and sped down the interstate. When they crossed the state line, Neil rolled his window down, stuck his head out, and hollered into the wind. The others joined him in yelling but remained in the vehicle.
At Buffalo Wild Wings, they each ordered Mountain Dew and a large serving of honey barbecue wings, with Gus adding a large order of fries. It was mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, so the restaurant was fairly empty. The televisions around them played an array of sports: soccer, baseball, UFC, and others.
“Is there rugby?” Neil asked, looking around. “I love rugby! It’s so intense.”
“Seriously,” Gus agreed. “I don’t like sports, but I still respect rugby players. Plus all of them are totally jacked!”
“What do you do at B Dubs, since you don’t watch sports?” Mikey watched the various soccer games happening above their heads. Meanwhile, Art checked his blood sugar.
“I usually stick with UFC, track and field, and the quiz game,” Gus answered. “I never actually play the quiz, but I try to see how well I would do against those who are playing.”
“You like UFC?” Neil asked. “I know you ran track in high school, so that makes sense. But I didn’t expect you to like UFC.”
“Well I wrestled in high school, and it’s kind of similar to wrestling. Plus, it’s always fun to see two guys beat the tar out of each other. And it’s an added bonus when someone takes a jab to the head and just collapses.”
When their food arrived, the guy turned their attention from the screens to their wings. Conversation died at the table as they began devouring their food. Their waiter checked on them periodically, and they requested a few boxes to take their leftovers home.
“That was so good!” Gus exclaimed, sitting back in his seat. He had eaten all of his fries and about half of his wings.
“I mean, it’s B Dubs,” Art replied. “What else do you expect?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Neil said. “And now we’ll have leftovers to eat later tonight!”
“That’s how we always eat here, stupid,” Mikey answered. “It’s a little expensive for a single meal. Speaking of expensive, don’t forget to pay, Gus!”
“I won’t,” he assured them. “In the meantime, why don’t you guys figure out where we’re staying tonight?”
“Oh that’s easy,” Neil interrupted. “Some of my buddies have a bachelor’s pad on the other side of town. I hang out there all the time.”
“Are they okay with all of us crashing there?” Gus handed his debit card to the waiter when he returned with the boxes.
“Oh yea, I already asked them.” Neil laughed and dumped his wings into his box. “They left on vacation last weekend and won’t be back until sometime next week. I already have a key, so it’s fine.”
“Sweet, let’s roll then! I’ll cover the tip.” Mikey dropped some cash on the table as the waiter returned with Gus’s card. Signing the receipt, he joined his friends outside. They took their seats in Mikey’s SUV and followed Neil’s directions across town.
“Here it is,” Neil said, pointing at a small white house. It was a single-story building with an attached one-car garage. A basketball hoop hung above the garage door. Neil unlocked the door and led them inside.
The front door opened into the living room, which had two leather couches and a large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. A stretch of countertop divided this room from the kitchen, with bar stools lined on the living room side. In the corner of the kitchen, Gus noticed a door that he assumed led to the garage. At the back of the house, Neil showed them three small bedrooms and the bathroom.
“Make yourselves at home! There are plenty of snacks and drinks in the kitchen. We have plenty of movies to watch and video games to play. Or we could go to the garage and play ping-pong or pool.”
“I’m down for some pool,” Mikey replied. “We can play 2-v-2.”
“I’m on Mikey’s team,” Gus declared. “We’ll destroy you guys!” They headed through the kitchen into the garage. A pool table sat in the middle of the room, with a ping-pong table nearby. A large fridge stood in the corner, and a number of tall bar tables were scattered around the room.
“Let’s turn on some tunes.” Neil connected his phone to a sound system that was hidden in a wardrobe next to the fridge. Music began playing from the speakers surrounding the room. Meanwhile, Mikey racked the pools balls.
They played pool for the rest of the night. They would shuffle teams after a couple of games and switch to playing cutthroat. The guys danced, sang, and played air guitar along with the music throughout the night. After a couple of games, they started to discuss their plans for the next day.
“So Neil,” Mikey began. “How do you want to go about tomorrow?”
“Well I want to visit Dad’s grave,” he replied. “We can do that first. I think that’s the most important part.”
“Okay, sounds good,” Mikey agreed.
“What about your brother?” Art suggested. “Or your mom? Do you want to talk to either of them?”
Neil sighed and remained silent for a moment. “I’m not sure. I don’t even know what I would say to either of them. How do you talk about the void left from your dad’s death?”
“Well I had no idea what I was going to say to mine,” Mikey said. “And I doubt Art knew how his talk would go either. I think you’ll just have to say what comes to mind. If you talk to them, that is.”
“Yea, I guess.” Neil paused and took a deep breath. “We’ll head to the cemetery when we all get up and moving. Maybe I’ll text Matt and see if he can meet us there.”
The conversation died as they returned their focus to the game. Around eleven o’clock, they returned to the living room to start a movie. Mikey grabbed The Fast and the Furious from a shelf and started it. Before long, the group had drifted off.
It was mid-afternoon the next day when they pulled into the cemetery. Neil directed them toward a group of headstones around the middle of the cemetery. Mikey parked the car, and the guys followed Neil to a row of graves. Gus glanced at the names written and noticed that many of them share Neil’s last name: Jackson.
“This are Dad’s relatives,” he explained sullenly. “His parents, aunts and uncles, and a handful of cousins. Here’s Dad.” He stopped in front of a headstone that read, ‘Ritchie Jackson.’
“We’ll give you some space, bro,” Art said. Neil simply nodded, so his friends returned to the SUV to wait.
Neil stood in front of his father’s grave, his mind blank. He had no idea what to think or feel. He strangely felt numb, but the numbness slowly gave way to sadness. He sat down in front of the headstone and picked at the grass.
“It sucks, you know,” he mumbled. “I don’t know what happened to you after you died, but I know what happened to me. I went through hell. I was just a kid, really. I didn’t know how to handle the pain. So I tried to numb it with whatever I could: drugs, alcohol, even girls and sex. But it never left. It’s like I have this giant scab on my heart, and sometimes it just starts to peel and bleed for seemingly no reason.
“Now here I am, six years later. I made a lot of mistakes in high school, but you weren’t here to tell me what to do. I discovered sex and drugs and all of that on my own because you weren’t here to teach me about them. I’m going to finish college soon, but you aren’t here to shake my hand or say you’re proud of me. I have some of the best friends I could possibly want, but you aren’t here to meet them. One day, I hope to get married and have kids of my own, but you won’t be there to watch me grow up or spoil your grandkids.”
Neil paused and blinked the tears from his eyes. “It sucks. I’ve had to figure things out on my own. I’ve struggled pretty much nonstop since you died. People say it gets better, but the pain just doesn’t go away.”
Neil fell silent for a few moments. He heard a car door shut but thought nothing of it, assuming it was someone grabbing a drink from the trunk. Suddenly someone rustled his hair and sat down next to him.
“Sup bro,” Matt said. He was heavy-set man of average height, with spiky hair and a skull and crossbones tattoo on his left forearm. He wore faded jeans and a plain black shirt.
“What are you doing here?”
Matt pointed over his shoulder. “Your buddy Gus texted me this morning. Told me that you’d be here and asked if I wanted to come by. So how are you doing?”
“Eh, you know how it goes. Father’s Day just sucks.”
“I totally understand. I make sure I work all day so that I don’t have to think about it. It doesn’t really get much easier, it seems.”
“Really?” Neil turned to look at his brother. “How did you do it? How did you handle Dad’s death so well? I never saw you cry or anything.”
“Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Matt replied, chuckling. “I struggled a lot. I had to keep my composure around you and Mom, because you needed someone to keep their head. But when I was away from home, I fell into the same things you did: partying, drinking, and drugs. Suddenly I was man of the house, and I had no idea how to handle that kind of responsibility. So I ran from it and pushed it from my mind with anything that would distract me.
“But then I ran into you at a party. I saw you hurting just as much as me, if not more. I realized that I had to get my shit together for your sake. So I took you home and stopped going to parties and hooking up with chicks. I started taking my role as man of the house seriously. I visited Uncle Jon the next day and broke down. He helped me to keep clean and taught me how to be more responsible. I know I could never replace Dad, but I did the best I could with Uncle Jon’s help to make it easier for you and Mom.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that.” Neil fell silent for a moment. “Life just sucks for all of us, doesn’t it? You and me, and all of those guys.”
“Yea, it really does,” Matt agreed. “I only talked to Gus a bit this morning, but he told me a bit about each of their issues with their dads. They understand, bro. They’ve been fighting the same fight as us. In ways, they’ve been fighting it longer.”
“That’s true. We’ve had many talks about how our dads or circumstances suck. It was so nice to talk about it after thinking I was alone for so long,” Neil admitted. “You and Mom never talked about it, so it felt like I was the only one who had no idea what to do. It felt like I was drowning while everyone else was safe and okay on the shore.”
“Well that is absolutely not true. Mom and I were drowning with you. And your friends have been struggling to stay afloat all their lives. That’s just the life of a fatherless kid: trying not to drown and teaching yourself to swim. And look at where you guys are now. Look how far you’ve come. You beat the odds. You could’ve ended up in a life of addiction or in prison for acting out. But you guys saw your wounds and used them to become the men you are today.”
Matt paused and stood up. Patting Neil on the shoulder, he said, “Dad would be proud of you. You’ve grown up so much. So don’t let yourself get too down. Remember that you can talk to those guys, and they’ll understand. More importantly, don’t forget that Dad would be proud of you. I know Mom and I are too.”
After a moment of silence, Neil stood up and followed Matt back to his friends. They were leaning against the side of Mikey’s SUV, quietly waiting for Neil. When Neil approached, Art was the first to say anything.
“How was it?” he asked.
“Not too bad,” Neil replied. “It could’ve been worse. Matt and I had a good talk. I’ll fill you guys in later.”
“I have to go, bro,” Matt said. “I work in a couple of hours. It was good talking to you! And Gus, thanks for texting me.” He hugged his brother, patted Gus on the shoulder, and left.
“Oh yea, that reminds me!” Neil shoved Gus. “You stole my brother’s number from my phone, didn’t you? There’s no other way for you to get it!”
Gus laughed and shoved him back. “I’m not apologizing. Let’s head back to the pad and figure out what we’re doing next.” Piling into Mikey’s SUV, they left the cemetery and returned to the bachelor pad.
“Your turn now, Gus,” Neil said, taking a seat at the counter. Art and Mikey joined him while Gus grabbed cans of Mountain Dew from the fridge before sitting down.
“Yea, I know. I’m not super excited about that.”
“What’s the plan, bro?” Mikey asked. “We should figure out where we’re going and what we’re doing before we go anywhere. Do you know where Brock lives or works?”
“Last I knew, he lived in a trailer on a random backroad near Crawfordsville,” Gus replied. “Though I know his wife lived in Crawfordsville somewhere, so he likely moved in with her years ago. It’s been about seven years since I last spoke to him, so he could easily be in a totally different state.”
“Do you have any way to find him?” Neil went into the kitchen and brought a package of Oreos and a bag of sour cream and onion chips to the counter.
“I have one option.” Gus popped a couple of chips into his mouth. “I have my grandma’s old phone number. I can try calling her and seeing if she knows where to find him. I haven’t spoken to her in several years, though, so it’ll be awkward.”
“Dude,” Art said. “You’re hunting down your father, whom you haven’t seen in seven years. It’s already awkward. Just do it!”
“Yea, give her a call,” Mikey agreed. “We’ll put a couple of pizzas in the oven for dinner, so call her and see what she knows.”
Sighing, Gus stood up from the counter. He went outside, sat down on the front steps, and dialed the number saved under ‘Grandma Millburn.’ It rang a few times before someone answered. The voice on the other end of the line was an elderly woman.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi, is this Lex Millburn?” he asked.
“Yes, this is her,” the voice answered. “May I ask who is calling?”
“Grandma, it’s Gus.” An awkward silence followed his statement.
“Gus? You mean Brock’s boy?”
“Yea, Grandma, that’s me. It’s been a while.” Gus was not sure what to say. He just wanted to ask about his father and hang up. Talking to his grandma after so many years made him feel uncomfortable.
“My goodness, yes it has!” Lex agreed. “How are you doing?”
“I’m doing well. I graduated from college last month, actually. A lot has happened since we last spoke.”
“You graduated college? Congratulations! I wish you’d come by more often. I miss seeing you.” His grandma sighed on the other end of the line.
“I know, it’s just…I’ve been busy,” he muttered. He could not bring himself to admit how awkward it was to talk to her since his father had left.
“Have you talked to your dad lately?” she asked.
“No, I haven’t,” Gus replied. “I haven’t seen him since he married Joy. I don’t even think I saw him after the engagement. We stopped talking.” Not that we ever really started, he thought, catching himself before he said it.
“That’s unfortunate,” his grandma said. “He and Joy were here for Easter. They brought her daughter with them. She was so pretty. I don’t remember her name, though. They also had another kid with them, a boy who was about seven years old. Your father played with him in the yard for hours. He really loves that boy.”
Gus gritted his teeth and exhaled slowly. “Did they have a kid?”
“Yes, I think so. If I remember correctly, he introduced the boy as their son.”
This just made Gus even angrier. “Do you know where Brock lives? Or where he works? I wanted to talk to him, but I have no way to contact him.”
Lex paused for a moment. “He works at Home Depot in Crawfordsville still. He’s been there for several years. I don’t know where he lives, but he usually works nights in the back, loading and unloading trucks.”
“Thanks Grandma. I’ll look for him at Home Depot. I need to go now. Some friends are waiting for me.”
“Okay, thanks for calling, Gus,” she replied. “You should call more often.”
“I’ll try. Bye Grandma.” He hung up the phone and sat on the front steps for a while before going back inside.
“How’d it go?” Neil asked. “I assume she answered.”
“Yea, she did. We talked a little bit about life, but then Brock came up. Apparently he and Joy have a son. And according to Grandma, he really loves the kid.” Gus took his seat, crossed his arms on the counter, and rested his head on his arms.
“Ouch, that sucks,” Mikey noted. “How are you feeling?”
“Absolutely pissed,” Gus grumbled, his voice muffled. “He loves this little punk with some random woman, but not his first son? I did everything I could to make him a part of my life, and what does he do? He tosses me out and then kicks me while I’m down.”
The room fell silent for a few minutes. Gus heard fidgeting in the kitchen but refused to lift his head. He sat unmoving, reflecting on all that had happened between Brock and him. All the conversations and encounters replayed in his head. He was lost in thought when Mikey set a plate of pizza in front of him.
“Eat, dude,” he ordered. “Pizza makes everything better. And here’s a Dew.” He popped open a can and handed it to Gus, who lifted his head and accepted the food.
“I did learn something else,” he remembered, stuffing a whole piece of pizza into his mouth. His friends waited as he chewed, swallowed, and washed it down with a swig of Dew. “I learned that Brock works night at Home Depot in Crawfordsville. He loads and unloads the trucks in the back.”
“Sweet!” Neil replied. “That’s only like forty-five minutes from here. When do you want to go? Tonight or tomorrow?”
Gus considered his options as he ate another slice of pizza. “Let’s go tonight. I just want to get this over with. We can leave around midnight.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Mikey agreed.
The guys fell silent as they continued to eat. Gus dreaded seeing his father after so long and wondered if there would even be a conversation between them. Regardless, he knew that it was going to be an emotional experience. The more he thought about it, the more his stomach twisted itself into knots.
They passed the time in the garage, playing ping-ping. As usual, they played ‘full court,’ which meant that they played off of everything. They ran around the garage, swinging wildly at the tiny plastic ball. Every few points, they stopped to take a drink and catch their breath.
When midnight finally came, the knots in Gus’s stomach were tighter than ever. He felt like he would rather puke than see or talk to his father. But his friends had faced their fathers, so he could not back down. They loaded their suitcases into the SUV and hit the road.
The drive was eerily silent. Neil played music through the radio, but nobody did more than lip-sync to it. Gus did not feel like talking, so he stared absently out the window at the passing scenery. He tried to foresee how his encounter with Brock would go, entertaining a number of possible scenarios. None of his friends tried to start conversation, as they knew what he was feeling and thinking.
Within an hour, Mikey pulled into the parking lot at Home Depot. He parked at the back of the lot and turned off the ignition. They sat in silence for a moment.
Mikey sighed and turned to Gus. “Let’s do this, eh?”
“I would much rather be anywhere else,” he muttered. “But you guys already did it, so it’s my turn.” Without another word, he opened the door and stepped out. He led his friends into the store, which was fairly empty.
“What’s he look like?” Neil asked. “We can split up and look for him. Or we can stay as a group and just have more eyes searching.”
“Give me a sec,” Gus replied. He opened Facebook on his phone and found Brock’s profile. He was a middle-aged man with short, graying hair, an ash-colored mustache, and darkly tanned skin. “This is him.” He showed his profile picture to the group, and they started wandering through the store.
After circling the store, they passed by the check-out lanes again. They had only seen a couple of workers, but no Brock. Suddenly, Mikey tapped Gus on the shoulder and pointed at a man and woman talking by a register. Gus looked and recognized Brock.
“Well, here goes nothing,” he grumbled, stepping into their lane. His father turned his gaze from the cashier, saw Gus, and whispered quickly to the woman. He then walked away quickly, disappearing through a door in the corner of the building.
Gus did not even have time to open his mouth before the woman gave him a death glare and started talking. “He doesn’t want to talk to you.” She wore black lipstick and nail polish and dressed in all black, aside from the orange Home Depot polo.
“Why not, Jazmin?” he asked, reading her name tag.
“Does it really matter?” she retorted. “He doesn’t want to talk to you, so just leave. If you really want, I can call him so he can tell you himself.”
“Yea, do that!” Mikey interrupted. “We didn’t come all the way here for Brock to pussy out of this. Call him right now!”
Sighing, she picked up the receiver by the register and dialed a few numbers. “Yea, he’s not leaving. He demands that you talk to him.” There was a brief pause. “Okay, I’ll let him know.” She hung up the receiver and turned to Gus. “Just wait, you’ll hear from him soon.”
With a beep, the intercom system kicked on. “This is a message for the entitled little shit who showed up after seven years and demands that I speak to him. Go home. If you wanted me around, you would’ve tried harder all of these years. But what do you do? You ignore me for so many years, then show up out of the blue and think you have a right to talk to me. You have no right to come to my workplace and disrupt my life. I’m finally happy with my life. So just go home. You’re no son of mine.” There was a click, and Brock’s voice disappeared.
“Happy now?” Jazmin said smugly.
Without a word, Gus turned and hurried out of the store. He felt years of repressed rage boiling inside him. It would soon erupt out of him, and there was no way to know what he would say or do when it did. He barely made it into the parking lot when it happened. Stopping in place, he turned on his heels and took a deep breath.
“Fuck you, Brock!” he yelled, not caring who was around. He had to let the rage out somehow, or else it would eat him alive. “I worked so hard to impress you! I was top of my class in high school, but that didn’t work! I tried sport after sport and worked my ass off in every one of them, but that didn’t work! I entertained Joy’s fucking kid so you could sneak off and have sex, but that didn’t work either! I called you countless times and left just as many voicemails, but you never responded to a single one! Every single thing that I have done was to impress you, but none of that worked!
“I don’t know what I was thinking! There was no way you were ever going to talk to me tonight! You only talked to me when you had something to gain. Otherwise, I was just some fucking kid who took your money! Why would you need me now, when you have Joy? Why would you want to talk to me when you have your precious little son who will do and be just what you want him to? I’m just a complete failure, aren’t I? Aren’t I?” Gus took several deep breaths, tears streaming down his face.
“Well not anymore! You wouldn’t know, but I graduated college last month! I made it all the way here on my own! I didn’t need you. Hell, I never needed you! I hope you enjoyed your little stunt just now, because that’s the last you’ll ever say to me! Now just sit back and watch! I’m going to become the best damn father on the planet! I’ll show you! I’ll show you that I’m good enough! I’ll be better than you ever were! So fuck you!”
Gus noticed his friends standing behind him and turned to look at them. He tried to smile but nothing happened. His knees buckled, and he fell to his hands and knees, sobbing. Art and Neil helped him up while Mikey pulled the car up. Gus sat in the passenger seat, curled up in the fetal position, and sobbed as Mikey left the parking lot.
Gus sat up suddenly and looked around, confused. He had no memory of anything after leaving Home Depot. He fumbled for his glasses and realized he was back in his bedroom. He crawled out of bed and stumbled to the living room.
“Well good morning!” Neil greeted. He was on the couch with Art and Mikey, watching more Parks and Recreation.
“Morning,” Gus croaked, his throat burning.
“You probably should drink some tea,” Mikey suggested. “I just brewed some, so it’s still warm. Mix in some honey to help your throat even more.”
Gus poured himself some tea and lowered himself into one of the armchairs in the living room. He sipped slowly on his drink until his throat felt better. He noticed blankets and pillows scattered across the floor.
“What happened last night?” he asked.
“What do you remember?” Art replied.
“I remember Home Depot, Brock, then yelling in the parking lot,” Gus said.
“Well, we got you in the car after you finished screaming,” Neil began. “You sobbed in the front seat for a while, but then you passed out. Mikey decided to crash at your place, so we managed to find our way here after a couple of hours. We carried you into the house and put you to bed before crashing here in the living room.”
“I see.” Gus looked at a clock for the first time and discovered that it was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
“How are you feeling?” Mikey asked.
“I’ve been better,” he admitted. “But I’ll be fine. It felt good to get all of that crap off my chest finally.”
“That’s good,” Art said. The room fell silent for a few minutes.
“I think our road trip is done,” Gus muttered. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not really in the mood for more traveling and motels and junk food.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Mikey agreed.
“I mean, what could possibly top the insane week we just had?” Neil joked. “But yea, it was fun while it lasted. I think it’s time to call it quits.”
“So what are we going to do now?” Art looked at each of his friends in turn. “Where do we go from here?”
“Well for me, I’m going to Tennessee,” Mikey answered. “I’ve been talking to Amber the last few days about it. She knows a place where I can apply for a teaching job, and I can crash with her relatives for the time being. I’ll probably go home, pack up my belongings, and head down there within the next week. I’ll interview and hopefully start working as a teacher. Which is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
“That’s awesome dude!” Neil exclaimed. “I think I’ll work on my music. I can get back into a rhythm of practicing. I might even start posting stuff on YouTube to develop my own style and fan-base. I have a channel, but I haven’t posted anything in a couple years. I should return to that and build a name for myself. Plus I can try to connect with other musicians there and get support and advice. That will help me have contacts once I graduate, so people will know how good I am.”
“That’s legit.” Gus drank the rest of his tea before continuing. “I want to head west. Get myself away from this town and everything that’s happened. I want something different. So I’m thinking of flying out to somewhere in California and finding myself a job. Maybe start pursuing a Master’s degree of some sort. But I’m sure I can do something in Cali. What about you, Art?”
“I’m going to go home and play video games,” he joked. “In all seriousness, I’ll review my psychology work so far. I want to make sure I know the material really well so that I can be the best counselor possible. Plus I should apply for my Master’s in Counseling soon. But I hope to become more studious, kind of like what Dad wants. But it’s not because Dad wants it. It’s because I owe it to my future patients to be the best that I can be.”
“Sounds like we all have lofty goals!” Mikey noted. “Too bad it means we’re all going our separate ways. I’ll be in Tennessee, Gus will be in California, and who knows where you two bozos will end up next year!”
“True, but none of that really matters,” Gus argued. “We have Facebook and texting and other various social media. We can stay in touch without a problem. We can plan to visit one another for holidays or just for the fun of it.”
“And we have this summer!” Art added. “We’ve made too many memories this summer to forget them! We’ll have to go on a road trip again sometime.”
“I’m down, but on one condition,” Neil replied. “We can’t visit our dads or anything emotional like that again. None of that.”
“Deal!” his friends agreed, laughing.
Mikey, Art, and Neil stayed for another night. They spent their last hours together playing video games and watching Parks and Recreation, snacking on junk food the whole time. When Dave and Ruby came home from work, they joined the boys in the living room. They took turns sharing stories from their road trip with them, but they kept the last week to themselves.
After a home-cooked meal of ham, macaroni and cheese, and green beans, the guys retreated to Gus’s bedroom to play cards. Life was about to return to normal for each of them, or rather, they were about to find a new normal. They reenacted each of their encounters with their fathers, with each of them playing the part of their father. They spent the next few hours laughing about their reenactments. It helped ease the hurt that came from their fathers.
Gus’s friends loaded up Mikey’s SUV and left the next afternoon. After a delayed series of bro hugs and good byes, they finally hit the road. When the vehicle disappeared from his line of sight, Gus returned to his bedroom and sat at his desk. He spun in his chair for a moment before noticing an envelope on his bedside table.
Picking it up, he saw that it was from a man named Lee Williamson. He was the father to one of Gus’s closest high school friends. Lee had been present at many of Gus’s cross country meets, since he ran with Lee’s son, and all of their academic banquets. Gus tore the envelope open and found a graduation card. The printed text congratulated him for a job well done, but it was the handwritten note that struck him.
I’m so proud of you, Gus. You’ve grown into one heck of a young man. Signed, Lee.
“How could I be so stupid?” Gus muttered to himself. Lee had always been there, even when Brock was gone. His mind flashed through all of the times Lee had encouraged him to perform at his best and praised him for his hard work. He remembered how Lee volunteered to hand him his high school diploma. He even wrote a recommendation letter when he applied to Central Illinois University.
Gus quickly rolled over to his desk and grabbed his notebook and a pencil. He wrote:
“Lee, I’ve had a crazy summer so far. I just now received your card because I was on a road trip with my friends. We drove around Indiana and Illinois, seeing some cool sights and making some good memories. It was a good way to celebrate graduation. Which reminds me, thanks for the card!
“But then Father’s Day came. My buddies and I ended up at a bar in Chicago (long story, I’ll have to tell you sometime), and the bartender was a cool dude named Zane. He told us how his father had sucked, but he also shared how he coped with that pain and eventually learned to use it to help others. After the four of us shared our own father issues (you know all about my history with Brock), he challenged us to face those issues. He said that we needed to take control of our lives from our fathers. So we came up with a plan to visit each of our fathers in turn so we could talk to them.
“Fast forward to two days ago. I went to Crawfordsville to find Brock for the first time in seven years. I found him, but he didn’t want to talk. In fact, he told me over the intercom at Home Depot that I should’ve tried harder if I wanted him around. He also said that he’s happy with his life now and that I’m no son to him. Needless to say, that hurt. A lot. So I ended up yelling in the parking lot to let all of that pain out. Then my buddies brought me home, where I happened upon your card.
“Which brings me to the purpose of this letter. I never realized until just now how much you were involved in my life. You were at most of my cross country meets and all of the awards banquets that we had. You constantly pushed me to do my best and acknowledged when my hard work paid off. Then you handed me my diploma at graduation. I actually have that photo in a frame on my desk here at home.
“The point is, you’ve been there. Not all my life, not constantly, but consistently. When Brock walked out, you were there. When I worked my butt off to earn his recognition, you were ready to give me yours. When I needed advice or someone to talk to, you provided a listening ear and useful advice, no matter what my problems were.
“I didn’t have the best father. Brock was never around in my life. But you were, Lee. While it’s not quite the same, it’s close. I realize that now. So thank you for everything you’ve ever done for me. I hope everyone with father issues has someone like you in their lives. And I hope they realize how important that person is. Not having a father sucks, but sometimes, if you look closely, you’ll find someone to fill some of that void. For me, that someone was you.
“So thanks. I hope that you’ll continue to be proud of me. Signed, Gus.”
Gus tore the letter from his notebook, folded it, and stuck it into an envelope. After labeling it with Lee’s address and a stamp, he went outside and stuck it in the mailbox. The postal service would take it from there.