“Are you sure about this,” Stevie asked. “Running away… I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“And I don’t think you know him like I do,” Michael said. Michael grabbed a handful of his boxers from his drawer and shoved them in his large faded green duffel bag that lay crumpled on top of his bed.
“But,” Stevie struggled to say, “where are you going to go?” Stevie wouldn’t dare stop Michael from leaving. Michael was thinner than Stevie, but Michael knew how to punch.
“I’ll figure it out,” Michael said, stewing. He grabbed two pairs of his jeans and stuffed them in the bag.
“What about school,” Stevie asked as he watched Michael pace back and forth, retrieving the essentials.
Michael paused in mid stride. “Why are you here,” Michael finally asked. It was the first time he had made eye contact with Stevie since he walked in the house.
Stevie shrank in his corner as he saw Michael clench his fists. “I…” Stevie began slowly, “thought you needed a friend.”
Michael’s face softened. His hand fell slack. “Thanks,” Michael said, “but I don’t need your help.” Michael began pacing again, but slower than before. This was progress. If he said the right words, he could get Michael to stop packing. “I don’t need school. I don’t this stress. I don’t need this house and I don’t need him.”
Stevie knew he had to tread carefully. One false word could tarnish their friendship forever.
“Maybe you could stay with me,” Stevie said as his face lit up.
Michael stopped in his path. “And what? Stay in the treehouse?”
Stevie chuckled nervously. “Wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Would it?”
Michael paused in thought and shook his head. He continued packing and picked up his pace. Stevie looked on in dismay. Not good. “No. I can’t stay in this town. My dad… my father is here.”
“Well maybe, you can stay with family,” Stevie said.
“Six states away,” Michael finished Stevie’s thought.
“So, what are you going to do,” Stevie pled. “You’re just going to walk?”
“Have you thought this through?”
“Yes, Stevie! I’ve thought this through! For the last five years, this is all I’ve thought about Okay?”
Stevie dipped his head. Michael and he had been best friends since they started going to school. Other friends came and went. Stevie knew he had it better than most kids. He always stood with Michael, even if it meant losing other friends. “What about me,” Stevie asked finally.
Michael sighed in frustration. “What about you,” he asked as he zipped his duffel bag. He stepped into the bathroom across the hall to get his toothbrush. “Let’s be honest,” he said aloud. “Two years left of high school. You and I aren’t going to the same college. You’ll be off to a very expensive ivy league school where the ocean is warmer and beach is filled with pretty distractions.”
“I don’t have to go to an ivy league school,” Stevie said.
Michael smiled and bowed his head. “It’s nice to have options,” Michael said with a nod. “You don’t wanna go where I’m going.”
“And where are you going,” a deep voice said from the doorway.
The boys spun their head to see Michael’s dad in the doorway. His body fit well within the doorway. Michael’s dad had on his camouflage pants and boots on. Stevie always thought Michael’s dad was more intimidating when he wore his boots.
“I’m waiting for an answer,” Michael’s dad said.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Stevie said quietly.
Michael’s dad nodded and motioned with his head for Stevie to leave.
“Okay,” Stevie said quietly. Stevie kept his head down and left instantly. He didn’t know if this would be the last time he would see his friend.
“Father,” Michael said.
“I’m not going to repeat myself,” the father replied.
“I don’t know,” Michael said, slinging his duffel bag over his shoulders. “Haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“Five years thinking about this moment and you can’t fathom what happens next,” the father asked.
A tension grew between the two men as their troubled history of father and son played out in their heads; the worst parts. The father stood up and his fist relaxed leaving the doorway open for Michael to leave. Michael expected an argument, but maybe his father wanted him to leave. Maybe he was disappointed in everything he ever did. The hardest step was the first one. Momentum kept Michael moving until he left his bedroom, the stairs, the house, the porch, the front yard and the property.
With each step, the distance between he and his father grew, Michael knew not to turn around, for turning around would change how he was feeling at that moment. He had never done this before. The twilight hour was set and the street lamps had come on. Not something Michael was used to. Neither was the door to the house he lived in slamming shut in the distance. This was new ground.
Michael had no resources other than the contents of his bag. It was getting late and he was hungry. He decided to walk to the diner and have a small meal by himself. Perhaps eggs and bacon for dinner. From there, he would decide to take a train or walk to the next town. Train would be safer at this time of night. But walking would save him some cash. And he needed cash.
Michael had taken two steps out of the diner, regretting his decision to have breakfast for dinner because the runny eggs didn’t sit well with him. He contemplated going back to use the bathroom when he hears a sharp whistle. From the corners of his eye, he could see a group of men hanging by a car under a street lamp. He could see a several puffs of smoke rising from the car and the men. There was about five of them from what Michael could count.
“Hey,” the stranger yelled from down the street. “You got a light?”
Bathroom or train station? Michael’s stomach rumbled. Bathroom it would be. Michael turned around to see the diner waitress had turned the lock tight. She shook her head and mouthed she was closed for the night.
“What’s in the bag,” the other stranger said.
Michael remained silent. He really needed a bathroom and not having any type of protection in the night wasn’t ideal.
The stranger threw his cigarette on the ground and pushed off from the side of the car he was leaning on and walked quickly to Michael. The other strangers followed. Michael knew he had to act fast. He couldn’t lose the bag. His life was in that bag. His identity was in that bag.
It was only a few moments until the aggressors closed the gap between them. The lights of the diner shut off and a pocket knife came out and swiped at Michael’s midsection. Michael backed up and landed a punch in the guy’s jaw the four others swarmed him and clobbered him into the ground.
“Get the bag,” the guy grunted. One obeyed and swiped the handle and flailed away with the weight of Michael’s bag in tow. This was all a mistake. Michael knew he shouldn’t have left.
The thief had taken two steps into the street until he was hit by a silver pickup truck. The lights had been off until contact had been made.
“Gentlemen,” the driver said, resting his arms above the driver side door. The passenger from the vehicle grabbed Michael’s bag. The thief clutched his legion the pavement. The leader of the aggressors released Michael and pulled out a gun and pointed it at the driver, resting on his door.
“Drop the bag,” the leader said, aiming.
“Cause it’s your bag,” the driver asked, smiling. “Mike, you alright?”
“Yeah,” Michael said, panting. He couldn’t believe he was only good for one punch. He had no idea who these men were.
“I said drop it,” the leader repeated.
“No,” the driver said. “You drop it.” Four other men revealed themselves from the truck and pulled out their firearms. “Now, I don’t know if you boys know a game called chess, but if you don’t, this game doesn’t look too good for you. You wanna play?”
The aggressors ran and left Michael limping behind. “Who are you guys?”
“Friends of your dad,” the driver said. “I’m Gabe.”
“Nice to meet you, Gabe,” Michael said. “Can I have my bag back?”
“Why’d you run,” Gabriel asked.
“Because my father hates me.”
“You think your father hates you,” Gabriel said. “Your father called me up in tears because you left and he was powerless to stop you.”
“Powerless,” Michael said in shock. “Tears?”
“Contrary to popular belief, your father does have emotions and he very much cares about you. As soon as he called me, we acted on his behalf.”
“Doesn’t feel like he cares,” Michael said.
“Well then your emotions shouldn’t really be the deciding factor, should it,” Gabriel said. “Your emotions nearly got you killed. Has your father ever threatened your life?”
“Look at the results, you’re fifteen. You went to school. Raised you, clothed you and fed you. You may not agree with his methods, but that man cares about you. Even when you decided to leave him, he still looks after you. And he won’t leave you or abandon you.”
Michael looked at the other men towering over him in the chariot of victory.
“Listen to me, there are evil people in this world like those men. With your father, they won’t ever touch you.”
“How do I go back to him? I feel stupid now.”
“There’s no place for shame, when you got love, Michael. Let us take you home. Apologize and all will be forgiven.”