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Although we didn't say much to each other, it was nice just sitting with Levi and knowing that, when it came to it, he would be there for me to lean on. And I guess the same could be said for Chris. And looking at it another way, I also knew without a doubt that both of them could depend on me in the same way. I'd never been close to someone like that before.
"Doug? You might want to get out your map. I think we're getting close." Chris called out suddenly.
I snapped out of my thoughts and looked around to see if there were any signs to tell us where we were.
Once I spotted a mile marker, I turned on the dome light so that I could see the map.
Levi leaned over and I showed him where I thought we were.
"You should be seeing a sign to enter the Ontario State Park pretty soon. I don't think anyone said where she is in the park, so we may have to look around after that. This place looks massive." I said as I looked up from the map.
"One of you guys go in and ask her where we're supposed to meet her. It'll be a lot faster than me driving around not knowing where I'm going."
"I'll go. I think I've seen enough of the map that I'll be able to figure out where we need to go." Levi said quickly.
"Thanks, Levi. That'll help a lot." Chris said gratefully.
I smiled at him and watched as the expression in his eyes went from warm to vacant.
"How long have you two been friends?" Chris asked quietly.
"Oh, let me see..." I said as I sat forward and tried to sound like an old man remembering his childhood. "...Me and Levi, we must go back near on to fourteen hours, now."
Chris laughed at my poor acting job, then said, "I just got the feeling from the way you guys get along that you're old friends."
"Nope. New friends. But Levi's really easy to like."
"You're not so bad, yourself." Levi said, once again making me jump.
"You've got to stop doing that. You're going to give me a heart attack."
"Listen. Emily said that she's near the second entrance. They close the park at night, so if you'll pull in there and stop, she'll walk to meet us."
"Thanks, Levi. We just passed a sign. We should be there in a minute or two." Chris said seriously.
"Thanks for doing this, Chris. Emily really appreciates it." Adam said as he spoke to us for the first time in hours.
"I'm just glad you were there to help her deal with things."
"It's really okay that she's coming with us, isn't it?"
"It's fine. But when we stop, I'll need everyone to get out so I can reconfigure the seating."
"What does that mean?"
"There are two more seats, folded down in the back. Right now we have luggage stacked on top of them, but everything should be able to be shifted so we'll have a place for Emily to sit."
"Do you mind if I sit with her? She may still be afraid."
"As soon as we've got her, I'm going to be looking for a place for us to stay for the night. That is, if we can get anyone to rent us a motel room. Chances are that they won't even know that we're there."
"Levi and I rode the bus a few times today and it wasn't any problem." I said quickly.
"Yeah. I didn't even think about that." Levi said in surprise.
"It looked to me like when it's a situation where they wouldn't notice us or think about us anyway, their 'habit' kicks in and they don't treat us different from anyone else." I said carefully, hoping that I wasn't making too many assumptions.
"We'll give it a try. Is this the right entrance?" Chris asked suddenly.
I looked up at the sign, then said, "I think this is the first one. Adam said it was the second."
"Yeah. There should be a little house, like a guard shack, right by the road as you pull in." Adam confirmed.
We were all quiet as we watched for the next sign.
* * * * *
Chris had done just as Adam had suggested and pulled up in front of the little guard shack house thing. We all got out and helped Chris take our luggage out of the cargo area and put the rear seats up before carefully restacking the luggage into the much smaller cargo space.
Once that was done, Chris shut off the engine and we all sat in silence for long minutes, waiting for something to happen.
Although there was a street light by the little cabin, it only seemed to make the darkness that much deeper around us.
The sound of a knocking on the passenger side door made all of us jump.
Images from all those slasher movies that I wasn't supposed to have watched filled my mind in that instant.
"Open the door." Adam called out from the seat behind us.
When we had all gotten back into the SUV, Chris had locked the doors. And considering the graphic violent images that were flashing through my mind, I didn't have any problem with that.
Chris quickly fumbled to release the electronic lock, and a moment later Adam was climbing over Levi to get out the door.
"It's you! I was afraid it was all a dream!" Emily cried in relief as she pulled Adam into her arms.
The rest of us held back and waited until she had calmed down.
I don't know how long that took. I suppose it doesn't matter. The rest of us were waiting there, watching in the dim light as the girl held Adam close and soaked in the sense of safety and security in his arms.
Finally, Adam released her slightly and said, "Emily, I'd like for you to meet my new friends, Chris, Doug and Levi."
Emily let loose of Adam just enough so that she could wipe the tears from her eyes, then shyly said, "It's nice to meet you. Thank you for coming to get me."
"It's no problem, Emily. It's nice to finally meet you." Chris said gently, then quietly added, "Why don't you get in, and we can talk on the road."
"If you want, you can sit in the back with me. We made a place for you." Adam said as he pointed to the back seats.
"Thanks." She said in a whisper, then started to climb in.
"Do you have any luggage or anything you need to put in the back?" Chris asked as he watched her.
"No. I was so scared that I didn't think about taking anything with me. I just had to get out of there." Emily said quietly.
"That's fine. You're safe now. I just wanted to know if I needed to open the trunk."
As soon as Emily was in her seat, Adam was following right behind, climbing over us to make his way into the back.
"Is everyone belted in?" Chris asked as Levi was closing the side door.
"Give us a second." Adam said as he tried to find the catch for his seatbelt.
Chris started the engine and waited until he could tell that Adam was ready.
I glanced into the back seat to see how Emily was doing to find that she was leaning into Adam and being held by him.
"Guys, keep an eye out for a motel or something. I'm not going to last much longer." Chris said frankly.
"I don't have any money." Emily said suddenly.
"Don't worry about it, Emily. As long as you're not planning to order room service or watch pay-per-view movies, I think I can cover it. At least for a night or two." Chris said assuringly.
"I won't order room service, but I'm really hungry."
"Adam and I brought some food. We'll get you something as soon as we've gotten some rooms."
"I brought some money, so I can help out with paying for things. But... you said 'rooms'. I don't know about anyone else, but I really don't want to be in a room by myself." Levi said cautiously.
"Me either." I immediately assured him.
"What about the rest of you? We need to know how many rooms we'll be getting before we stop." Chris asked, slightly louder, to be sure that Adam and Emily could hear him in the back.
"I'm staying with Emily. Someone else can stay in the room with us if you're worried about what we'll do, but there's no way I'm making her spend the night alone." Adam said firmly.
"Is that okay with you, Emily?" Chris asked cautiously.
"Yeah. I think that sounds great." Emily said as she hugged Adam a little more tightly to her side.
"So, how many rooms do we need?" Chris asked no one in particular.
No one else seemed to have an answer, so I carefully said, "If we've got enough places to sleep, just one."
"If you don't mind doubling up, I think we can manage that. Does anyone have a problem with that plan?" Chris asked curiously.
"I've never slept with anyone else." Levi admitted shyly, then hurried to add, "I don't have a problem with the idea, but I just don't know if I'll be able to sleep."
"It's the same for me, Levi." I said quietly, to assure him.
"Me too." Adam and Emily said at the same time.
"Just remember to be considerate of each other, and I think we'll get through this just fine." Chris said confidently.
"I think we can do that." I said with a grin at Levi.
"Well, I'm glad that's decided, because there's a motel. You guys hang tight and I'll get us a room." Chris said as he pulled up to the office.
* * * * *
"Thanks, Doug." Levi said quietly, breaking the silence.
"For what?" I asked curiously. It's not like we'd been having a conversation or anything.
"I remember when the school year started and you were in our class for the first time. I could see how nervous you were. I should have talked to you then and tried to make it easier for you. But I was afraid of what my friends would say, so I didn't."
"I was never angry at you for that. I didn't expect you to try and get to know me. I guess I just saw you as someone who was popular and I'd never even try talking to you because you were way out of my league."
"Well, I'm just sorry that we didn't get to know each other sooner."
"Yeah. I am, too."
Just then, the driver's side door opened and Chris quickly said, "We're in luck. I was able to get us a room with two regular beds and a fold out sofa."
"Did you have any trouble with the desk clerk?" I asked cautiously.
"No. It was just like you said. He's used to dealing with people that he doesn't pay any attention to, so we went through the motions of what he does all day long and I doubt that he remembers that I was ever there." Chris said as he started the engine.
"Just like every other person that's stopped in here tonight." I said with a nod.
"It's right over here. Room J-12." Chris said as he pulled into the parking place.
"I'm going to pop the trunk. You guys grab whatever you're going to need, because once I hit that bed, I don't plan on getting up again for at least eight hours." Chris said as he hit the automatic release on the cargo hatch.
Levi and I piled out first, slowly followed by Adam and Emily.
"Does one of you guys have something that Emily can wear to bed? All she's got is what she's wearing." Adam asked hopefully.
"I've got some sweats. They're not new, but they're not that bad, and they'll probably fit you." I said cautiously.
"If you'd rather, I have some pajamas that you can borrow." Levi said simply.
"Thanks, guys. I'll see what fits best when we get to the room." Emily said gratefully, then followed Adam to the back of the SUV, to gather his things.
* * * * *
I'm not an expert on motel rooms, so I can't really say if this one was normal. It looked kind of run down to me, but at least it was clean.
Once the door was opened, Emily was the first in, and went directly to the bathroom.
She may have had the most urgent need, but she wasn't the only one who needed to go. One by one, we all took our turns.
When Adam walked out of the bathroom, Chris looked around, then asked, "Who wants to sleep where?"
"You want to double up with me?" I asked Levi casually.
"Yeah. That'll work." Levi immediately agreed.
"Do you want to?" Adam asked Emily cautiously.
"How about you and I double up, Adam. That way Emily can have a bed to herself." Chris suggested gently.
"I don't want to be alone." Emily said as though she were fighting to get the words out.
"It's okay. You don't have to be." Chris said with an understanding smile at her, then turned to Adam and asked, "You don't have a problem with that, do you?"
"No problem here." Adam said with a relieved smile.
If I were going to guess, I would say that Adam didn't want to sleep alone any more than Emily did.
"Okay. Then I've got the couch. I'm going to be out as soon as my head hits the pillow, so you guys work it out." Chris said as he started picking up cushions.
"I'm going to get some food out for Emily." Adam said softly.
"Go for it." Chris replied absently, then turned and said, "He said this had a pull out bed."
I looked over at the couch, devoid of cushions, then said, "He lied."
"You can bunk in with us if you want. I think these beds are big enough to fit three." Levi offered quickly.
"First, let me see if I can manage to sleep on this couch. If it turns out to be too uncomfortable, I may take you up on that." Chris said as he started putting the cushions back on the couch.
I thought about going over to Adam and Emily and getting some food, but then thought better of it. Although I was at a point where I could eat, I wasn't really what you would call 'hungry'.
"I'm going to take a shower, does anyone need in before I go?" Levi asked as he dug through his suitcases.
"Were you going to loan me something to wear?" Emily asked shyly.
"Sure. See if that will work." Levi said as he handed her a pair of pajamas.
"These are nice." Emily said with a smile.
"Do you want to go in and change before I take my shower?" Levi asked her curiously.
"No. Go ahead. I'll get mine when you're finished." Emily said as she petted the soft fabric.
"I won't be long." Levi said simply, then carried his things to the bathroom.
I slowly went through my things to gather something to wear to bed.
I don't think I own any 'official' pajamas, I haven't since I was about six. What I usually wear is sweat pants and a T shirt, unless it's too warm out. Then I wear some gym shorts or something like that.
I didn't even realize it, but as I sat down on the bed to await my turn in the bathroom, I started slipping into a daydream.
* * * * *
It was no surprise when I looked around and saw the parking lot and the white stone path. I've been seeing it all my life, and since I've been seeing so much lately, it's as familiar to me as home.
The one difference this time was that I wasn't alone.
I don't mean that the others came with me. So far as I know, none of them were daydreaming at the moment. But as I looked around, there were dozens of other people there with me.
Some of them looked as solid and 'real' as anyone you'd meet on the street. But others of them were blurry or ill-defined.
I felt drawn to go to them and strike up a conversation, but I held myself back.
Whatever I was seeing and experiencing, was probably something that the others should be involved in.
Although I really didn't want to, I forced myself to go back to the waking world.
* * * * *
"Guys." I said as I came back to myself.
Adam and Emily turned to look at me curiously.
"Hang on." I said, then walked to the couch and gently placed a hand on Chris's shoulder.
"Are you asleep?"
"Not even close." Chris said as he remained perfectly still with his eyes closed.
"I just had a daydream and if you're up to it, I'd like for you to go back there with me."
"Yeah. I might as well. What's wrong?"
"I don't think anything's wrong. But it's different. It'd be faster if you could see it for yourself."
"Okay. Just give me a minute." Chris said as he wearily pulled himself into a sitting position.
"You guys up for a little daydream?" I asked Adam and Emily curiously.
"Is it someone else in trouble?" Adam asked with concern.
"No. At least, I don't think so."
"I'm ready. Do you want to take us in?" Chris asked as he walked to my side.
"Yeah." I responded, then sat on the edge of my bed and easily returned to my daydream state.
* * * * *
Just as before, I found myself in the parking lot, looking at the white path.
I thought about Emily, Adam, and Chris and sort of willed them to join me. It's hard for me to explain, and I guess it really doesn't matter. But all I did was give one little mental 'tug' and there they were.
I was surprised to see that Levi was there, too. I could tell from the expression in his eyes that he wasn't sure about what was going on.
Then I noticed something curious. I could see Chris and Adam clearly. Levi and Emily were there with us, but somehow, not entirely. They appeared to be transparent and less substantial than the rest of us.
As I looked around at the twenty or so other figures standing around the parking lot, I notice that they also seemed to exist in varying states of 'realness'.
Some of them were looking around in confusion, others in wonder and a few seem to be in absolute bliss. I made eye contact with a girl about the same age as Emily. She gave me a joyful smile, then turned her attention back toward the path.
I found it curious that with so many people gathered around, that no one was speaking, then again, I didn't feel any desire to say anything either.
It's not like I couldn't talk if I wanted to, it's just that I didn't feel any desire to break the silence.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Chris looking back at me.
He gave a tilt of his head, which indicated to me that he was ready to go.
With no effort at all, I let go of the daydream and let it all silently slip away.
* * * * *
"What do you think that's all about?" Emily asked curiously.
"I don't know, but I don't think it was something bad." Adam said slowly.
"I think those were other people like us." Chris said consideringly.
The bathroom door opened and Levi walked out, barefoot and dressed in his pajamas.
"The next time you guys are going to do that, would you mind telling me first?" Levi asked as he tried to restrain a grin.
"No promises." I said with a smile.
"Emily, I hope there's enough hot water left for you. Thanks to that little trip, I was standing there for however long we were gone, spacing out with the water running."
"I'll make it work. Thanks for trying, though." Emily said as she walked to the bathroom.
"I'll take my shower in the morning. I'm wiped out." I said as I started to undress.
"Same here." Chris said as he went back to the couch.
"Then I think I'll use whatever hot water's left when Emily's done." Adam said shyly.
"Sounds like a plan." I said as I stepped out of my jeans.
"So, what was going on in the parking lot?" Levi asked curiously as he watched me pulling on my sweats.
I glanced over to see if Chris wanted to answer, but he was snuggled under a blanket with his eyes closed.
"If I were going to guess, I'd say that what we just saw were other daydreamers being drawn to the same place that we're going." I said frankly, then finished dressing for bed by pulling on a t shirt.
"This is just crazy." Levi said with a weary chuckle.
"The world is crazy. Let's get some sleep." I said as I closed my suitcase and moved it off the bed.
"Yeah." He said with a grin, then pulled back the covers on his side of the bed.
* * * * *
As I curled on my side and tried to let myself drift into sleep, I felt the bed shift, then felt Levi's hand on my side.
"Sorry." He whispered as he pulled away.
A little bit later, I felt him shift, and then one of his feet was pressed against one of mine.
I decided that we were going to have to work something out, or neither of us were going to get any sleep tonight.
It didn't help that the light by the other bed was still on, probably so Emily or Adam could find their way to bed when they were done showering. I hadn't kept track of who was showering at the moment.
I turned over on to my other side, so that I was facing Levi.
"Just tell me what's wrong."
"I don't know. I'm not used to sleeping with anyone else, and I'm trying to keep my hands and feet over on my side, but everytime I move around to try and get comfortable, I end up touching you again."
"Just try not to worry about it. Once we're both asleep, one or both of us might end up cuddling up against the other. If that happens, I won't freak out or anything. And if you want, I'll promise never to talk about it."
"Good. But you need to do one thing for me first."
"Put on some socks. Your feet are like ice."
"Yeah. Okay." Levi chuckled, then got out of bed to put on some socks.
* * * * *
When I woke up the next morning, I found Levi using my shoulder as a pillow.
It wasn't weird or anything. It was kind of nice.
Well, except that I needed to go pee.
Regretfully, I scooted Levi's head off my shoulder and onto the pillow.
Then, as quietly as I could, I made my way to the bathroom.
When I walked out of the bathroom, I could see that Chris was not only awake, but his hair was damp. He must have been up for a while.
"If you're wanting to take a shower before we go, you should probably do it now." Chris told me quietly.
I nodded, then went back to my side of the bed and gathered what I would need.
* * * * *
The shower was nice. The sandpapery towels, not so much.
By the time I was out of the shower, everyone else was awake.
Adam slipped in past me before I could even clear the doorway.
"I thought we could stop by a store for something to eat once we get on the road." Chris said casually.
"Yeah. I'm seriously ready for some breakfast." I said as I carried my sleep clothes to my side of the bed.
"I think we all are." Chris agreed with a smile.
As Adam walked out of the bathroom, Emily rushed in next.
"Check around and make sure you don't leave anything behind." Chris warned as he zipped up his suitcase.
"Just let me get my shoes on and I'll be ready to go." I said as set my suitcase on my side of the bed.
"I'm going to need a few minutes." Levi said quietly.
I looked over at him curiously and realized that he was still in bed, under the covers.
The way he had the blankets gathered around him and the strategic way he was keeping his hands folded in his lap gave me a pretty good idea of why.
I walked around to his side of the bed and picked up his suitcase.
He watched me cautiously, not knowing what I was up to.
"When you go to the bathroom to get ready, you might need this." I said as I handed it to him.
He looked at the suitcase curiously, then down to his lap before I saw the realization light in his eyes.
I smiled as I went back to my side of the bed and gathered up my things.
* * * * *
It seemed to take longer than necessary for all of us to be ready. But we finally did get everything together and made our way out to the SUV.
I can't speak for the others, but I wasn't at all concerned by the three people gathered at the car next to Chris's SUV. But what nearly freaked me out is when they turned in unison and looked at us. They looked at us and SAW us.
I froze in shock, I'm sure, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. Then one of the three, a girl, walked up to us and looked directly at me as she said, "You're the guy we saw last night, aren't you?"
It took a second for the words to sink in, but finally I got what she was saying and realized that she was the girl I saw in my daydream last night (technically, this morning).
"Yeah. In the parking lot." I cautiously said.
"Wasn't that incredible? I've never felt anything like it." She said happily.
"My name is Michelle, the guys call me Mitch." She said cheerfully, then motioned for the two boys to join her.
"I'm Doug. This is Chris, Levi, Adam and Emily." I said as I indicated each one in turn.
"Nice to meet you." She said as she looked around, then continued, "This is Rabbit and Augie."
"Rabbit?" I said with a grin as I looked at the slightly older teenager. If I had to guess at his nationality, I'd guess Japanese, but I really suck at things like that. Just, from the look of him, I'm betting he wasn't Irish.
"Yeah, his name's really Thomas, but we call him Rabbit because he's always hopping around with his never-ending supply of nervous energy." Mitch said with a giggle.
"Nice to meet you." I said with a smile at him. Even though he was standing still at the moment, something about the way that he carried himself made me believe that Mitch's explanation of his name was probably right on the mark.
"What about Augie? Is that short for Augustus?" Chris asked curiously.
Mitch and Rabbit laughed as Augie patiently said, "My real name is Winston, but my parents called me Augie almost from the day I was born... something about beach party movies... I really don't get it."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Augie." Chris said with a genuine smile.
"So, are you guys headed for that place, too?" Mitch asked hopefully.
Before anyone could answer, Rabbit ran to the other side of the car and quickly got something out of the back seat.
None of us responded to Mitch's question, waiting to see what Rabbit was doing.
"Here." He said as he thrust a sketch pad at Mitch.
"This place." She said as she held up a hand drawn sketch of the parking lot.
"Hold on." Chris said as he walked to the back of the SUV and opened the cargo area.
He got something out of one of the bags and it took me a few seconds to recognize it.
"It's really real." Mitch gasped, then held out the picture for Rabbit and Augie to see.
"I've been there." Chris said quietly.
"So you guys are going?" Mitch asked hopefully.
"Yes." I answered immediately.
"We don't know where it is, we just know it's kinda that way." Rabbit interjected quickly.
Yeah. Rabbit was a good name for him. His nervous energy clearly came out in his voice.
"I can point it out on a map for you, if you like. But you're welcome to travel with us." Chris said simply.
"Yeah. Strength in numbers." Rabbit said quickly.
"If everything goes well, it should take about two days of driving to get there. And traveling together would seem to make sense, just in case one of us has car trouble." Chris said seriously.
"I'm sold." Mitch said then glanced at Rabbit and Augie to see if they had any opinion.
Rabbit nodded his wholehearted agreement as Augie seemed to be carefully considering.
Everyone held their collective breath as they waited for his decision.
Finally, Augie slowly nodded and said, "Yeah. I guess."
"Awesome! Are you guys ready to go?" Mitch asked happily.
"Almost. We need to get gas and stop at a grocery store for some food for the trip." Chris said frankly.
"What do you eat?" Mitch asked carefully.
"Organic produce. Nothing else tastes right." Chris said slowly.
"That's what we thought, too. But Rabbit figured it out. The organic thing works because pesticides is one of the things we're sensitive to. But other things are artificial growth hormones, antibiotics, additives, preservatives, artificial colors and genetically modified ingredients." Mitch said seriously.
"That explains a few things." Chris said with a nod.
"We've found out that the trick is to get the food that's closest to nature. The more processed it is, the worse it tastes to us." Mitch said seriously.
"Which means organic produce." I said regretfully.
"No. It means free range chickens and eggs, grass fed beef and milk, and... well, you get the idea." Mitch said cheerfully.
"Would you guys have time to go shopping with us?" Chris asked hopefully.
"Hey, we need to pick up some road trip snacks, too." Rabbit chattered happily.
Augie slowly nodded his agreement.
Chris looked back to us and said, "It sounds like we've got a plan. Let's get our stuff in the car so we can go."
All of us jumped into action, with renewed energy and purpose.
* * * * *
I don't think anyone planned for things to work out the way they did. Or, at least I didn't. But the way it worked out was that Emily and Adam automatically got into the back seat, just like the night before. Levi and I got into the middle seats, and Chris was left to ride up front by himself, without anyone in the front passenger seat.
We rode to the store that way, then automatically did the same when we were done shopping.
I didn't realize it until we were out on the open road, and it was really too late for us to trade places... not that I really wanted to. But I felt bad for Chris.
I quietly told Levi about my concerns, and he agreed to help me make Chris feel included in whatever conversation came up.
At one point, Adam asked if there were any way that we could turn on the radio. It was left to me to explain why that probably wasn't such a good idea.
Even though conversation was sparse at times, I still didn't have the urge to go into a daydream until sometime after noon.
When I mentioned it to Levi, he said that he'd stay behind and keep Chris company and go when I got back.
Although it might have been nice to go with Levi, I supposed that we would have plenty of chances, and that it was good that he was being considerate of Chris.
* * * * *
As I looked around the parking lot, I was surprised to see even more people gathered. Like the night before, everyone was silent and staring toward the white path. We were waiting. For what, I don't know, but all of us were being drawn here and we were all waiting for the same unknown thing.
As I stood there, I realized that I was also being energized.
There was an underlying sense that I was doing the right thing. I was going the right direction. That as long as I kept going, everything was going to work out alright.
I felt like I was being reasonable, not like there was something controlling me or influencing my actions. But there was still a doubt lingering in the back of my mind.
Did the world really go crazy, or did my perception of the world suddenly change?
As I was pondering that, I saw a woman and a small girl appear out of nothingness in front of me. Two more people had just joined the collective daydream.
I looked around in time to see another person wink out, returning to reality.
But with each passing day, reality seemed less and less real to me.
What's been happening this past week has shown me what a flimsy construct reality is.
I suppose it doesn't matter at this point.
Deep inside, I've made a choice. I've chosen to go to the unreal and accept it. While I fear the consequence of my choice, I don't regret having chosen.
Although painful at times, the journey has been necessary, to make me let go.
And now, I have.
What I was, who I was, how I was, it's all gone. I can let it go.
What I'm faced with now is what I can be.
I have no idea what that is, but I can't wait to find out.
* * * * *
"Good daydream?" Levi asked when he noticed that I had returned.
"Yeah. Good one."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. Why don't you go, now. I'll stay and keep Chris company."
"Thanks." Levi said quietly, then rested back in his seat.
I watched as the awareness left his eyes, then turned to see Chris watching in the rear view mirror.
"How are things going here?" I asked curiously.
"I know that I should be tired, but I'm really feeling okay."
"Good. I don't think I ever thanked you for everything you've done to help me."
"You've thanked me plenty of times. And besides that, it's my job. It's what I do."
"What you've done to help me goes way beyond your job."
"If you mean driving a group of minors across state lines without their parents' permission, then I'd have to agree with you."
"You know as well as I do that with the world the way it is right now, no one cares about that."
"I know. But it still bothers me. I've put myself into a really bad position."
"I know. Thank you for that, too."
Chris smiled briefly, then quietly asked, "What's up with you and Levi?"
"We're becoming friends."
"Friends? In what sense of the word?"
"Just the same way that you and I are friends."
He seemed to think about that for a moment, then slowly said, "I didn't mean to imply anything. I guess I'm so used to everything being so sexualized that I automatically assigned motives to your actions that weren't really there."
"I know. And I can't say that I haven't thought about that. But I don't have those feelings for Levi, and I don't think he has them for me, either. It's hard for me to explain. I don't have words for what I'm feeling."
"I think that maybe the words that you want to use have been corrupted to mean things that you don't feel."
"Yeah. But it doesn't matter, because I'm pretty sure that Levi feels the same. And as long as we understand it, I think it'll all work out."
"I think you're on the right track." Chris said with a smile, then thought to ask, "How are Adam and Emily doing?"
I glanced into the back seat to confirm, then said, "They're asleep."
"Good. I think both of them can use a little extra rest."
I nodded my agreement.
* * * * *
"Are you going to need to stop soon? It's getting dark." I asked with concern.
"I think I'll be good for a few more hours." Chris said tiredly.
"I've noticed that Rabbit, Augie and Mitch have been taking turns, switching drivers every time we stop. Maybe we could ask if one of them could trade out with you to give you a break." Levi said hopefully.
"I may talk to them when we stop for the night, to see if they might want to do that tomorrow. But I'm still good for a few more hours."
I shared a look with Levi and we silently agreed that we'd be combining our efforts to keep Chris awake.
* * * * *
"Do we have anymore of that plastic juice?" Adam asked as he leaned forward, between our seats.
I smiled as I realized what he was talking about. The bottled water that we'd bought outside Ontario had a definite plastic taste to it that was hard to overlook. Even though Adam might be the youngest of us by a year or so, he was sometimes a little ahead of us when it came to wit.
"I'll get you one, but you'd better make it last. We can't be stopping for pee breaks every fifteen minutes." I said in a mock serious tone.
Adam rolled his eyes as he said, "Yes, DAD!"
"And do your homework." Levi said in a screechy, falsetto voice.
"Yes, MOM!" Adam said with another eyeroll.
I released my seatbelt and climbed up between the front seats to fish a bottle of water out of the ice chest.
"How you doing?" I asked Chris, while I was up there.
"I think it's about time to start looking for a motel." Chris said in a low voice.
"Got it. Hang in there." I said, then moved back and handed the bottle of water to Adam.
"Thanks." Adam said quickly, then withdrew into the back seat.
"Chris says it's time to look for a motel. I think he's really starting to feel it." I said quietly.
"You're better at the daydream thing than I am. If you'll tell someone in the other car that we need to stop, I'll keep Chris awake." Levi said seriously.
"I'm on it." I said immediately.
My plan had been to keep watch for the next motel. It's good to have someone you can count on.
* * * * *
It's funny how when you don't need a motel, there seems to be one every mile or so. But as soon as you decide to stop for the night, they all go into hiding or something.
Anyway, we finally did find a place to stop.
Even though Rabbit, Augie and Mitch had taken turns driving, all of them looked every bit as exhausted as Chris.
None of us seemed to be in much of a mood to chat.
Chris and Mitch went in to get rooms while the rest of us got out of the cars to stretch our legs.
Levi and I took the opportunity to talk with Rabbit and Augie about the possibility of one of them switching off with Chris, so he wouldn't have to drive the entire distance himself.
Rabbit immediately volunteered to do it and Augie seemed perfectly willing to let him.
* * * * *
When we got to our room, I was happy to find that it had three beds. At least Chris wouldn't end up trying to sleep on a couch.
The exhaustion was apparent as everyone went through their nighttime routines in a weary haze.
Just like with the seating arrangement in the cars, there was no discussion about the sleeping arrangements. Emily and Adam ended up together, Levi and I were in the next bed, and Chris was on his own.
I felt bad for Chris. I mean, I know we weren't doing anything but sleeping. But it still seemed wrong that after giving so much to help us, Chris didn't have anyone beside him at night to let him know that he wasn't alone.
* * * * *
While we were getting ready to leave the next morning, Chris asked me to go next door and tell Mitch and let her know that we were about ready to leave.
Rather than do that, I thought I'd try to do it the easy way first. I found all three of them already in a silent daydream, staring at the white path. There must have been over fifty people gathered around, and they all seemed so tranquil. A few of the people nearby noticed my arrival. They didn't do much more than glance in my direction, but at least it showed that they were aware of me, unlike much of the waking world.
When Mitch, Augie and Rabbit were looking at me, I tilted my head, indicating that it was time to go. All three of them nodded, and we vanished together.
* * * * *
When we left the motel room, I was surprised. Not that Mitch and the guys were outside waiting for us, but that there were six other people talking with them.
As we cautiously walked up to them, Mitch started introducing everyone to each other. Mitch and the guys had apparently been daydreaming for quite a while when I found them. And just as had happened with us, they had met these people for the first time in the daydream, and 'for real' when they left their motel room this morning.
Chris seemed surprised when Rabbit walked up to us and announced that he was going to be driving us. It took a few minutes, but Chris finally seemed to be at ease with the idea. At least until Rabbit was in the driver's seat and ready to pull out. That was when he happily announced that it had only taken him three tries at the driving test to get his license.
I was riding shotgun and Chris had taken my place, sitting next to Levi. I looked back to find a look of resigned anxiety in Chris's eyes, but to his credit, he didn't say anything aloud.
So, after a stop at the nearest store and a few minutes to quickly eat, we were on the road and heading south, now with four vehicles in our caravan.
* * * * *
I have never, at any time in my life, been around someone who could talk as much as Rabbit.
It's not that I'm saying that it wasn't sort of fun and entertaining. But for the entire seven hours that he was driving, I didn't get to say a single word. I don't think he even took a breath.
Every now and then I'd look into the seats behind me to find Levi and Chris talking quietly. When they noticed, one or the other of them would give me a sympathetic smile. But then Rabbit would say or do something to draw my attention back to him. He didn't just talk constantly, he also demanded my undivided attention the entire time.
* * * * *
Sometime after noon, we eventually stopped for gas, bathrooms, and more food. In the past hour or so, I had noticed an unusual number of abandoned cars along the road. While we were stopped, some of our new friends had struck up conversations with some other people and it seemed that they had invited them to join our caravan.
By the time our rest break had ended, there were seven cars in our caravan with a few extra people in each, who they'd picked up while we were stopped.
Of course, we didn't get anyone extra. With Rabbit, the SUV was filled to it's seating capacity.
Chris was now driving, and I was still riding shotgun. Rabbit had taken Chris's seat beside Levi. As Chris drove, I realized that it was unusually quiet in the back seat and found Rabbit and Levi both lost in their daydreams.
"How are you doing?" I asked Chris quietly.
"We're almost there."
"How long do you think it will be?"
"Five hours, maybe. I guess it depends on the roads."
I nodded, then quietly asked, "How are you feeling about what we're doing?"
"I was feeling really afraid and uncertain as we were leaving Portland, but now I'm just excited. It's like, that decision's been made and the door is closed behind us. We're committed to what's next, no matter what it is."
"Yeah. I got to that point yesterday. I'm glad that you're not feeling nervous."
"I'm still a little nervous about the details, but not about going and doing this."
"Yeah. Me, too."
"Levi and I had a chance to talk this morning." Chris said as he spared me a glance.
"What about me?"
Chris smiled to reassure me, then said, "I talked to him, in very general terms, about what you said to me yesterday. I hope you're not mad at me for talking to him about it, but I thought he needed to know."
"What did I say?"
"He's been struggling with the feelings he's been having, especially toward you."
I nodded that I understood what he was saying.
"So I basically told him that you had said that you felt for him something like what you feel for me. I assured him that you weren't trying to seduce him into your bed, but that you really enjoy his company and want to spend time with him."
I nodded as I thought about my feelings.
"There are some things that I think you also need to know. After I talked with Levi, I asked and he said that I could tell you."
"Okay." I hesitantly prompted him to continue.
"As I'm sure you've noticed, Levi's an extremely attractive young man."
"Because of that, for years now, there have been people who have 'wanted' him."
I remembered the few times that Levi and I had brushed up against that subject and he had told me that he had felt pressured to do things that he didn't want to.
"Unfortunately, there have been a few cases, when people weren't willing to take 'no' for an answer." Chris said even more slowly, glancing at me to be sure that I understood what he was saying.
I looked at Chris in surprise, hoping that he wasn't saying what I thought he was saying.
"He'll have to tell you about that if he wants you to know. But I thought it was important for you to understand that he's had his trust broken multiple times. Based on what's happened to him in the past, I would understand it if he became frightened and started to pull away from you."
"I guess so." I mumbled, hating the idea that Levi might not want to spend time with me anymore.
"What I'm really saying is, just be patient with him. Try to understand that something that may appear to be rejection on the surface, may just be him taking a step back to protect himself. I don't know that it will happen, but I wanted to warn you so you wouldn't get the wrong idea and give up on what might end up being a wonderful friendship."
I glanced into the back seat to find that Rabbit and Levi were both still out of it.
It was true, Levi was a beautiful sight to behold. But what I had told Chris before was also true. All I really wanted from him was his companionship. Understanding what Chris had told me made me more determined than ever that I would be there for Levi, to listen if he needed to talk and to talk if he needed to be 'the strong one' sometimes.
* * * * *
Night had fallen, but all of us were so excited about nearing our destination, that no one even suggested that we should stop.
Chris slowed the car drastically as he spotted people up ahead, standing in the road.
I quickly looked around and saw that there were cars parked along both sides of the road and that people were walking, taking whatever they could carry with them.
"I guess we're here." Chris said frankly.
Once we were stopped and out of the car, Mitch walked up to us and said, "If there's anymore driving, you get Augie. At least with Rabbit I have someone to keep me awake."
"That sounds fair to me." Chris said with a smile, then glanced curiously at the younger girl at Mitch's side.
"This is Karen. She joined us at the last gas station." Mitch said simply.
Introductions were made all around, then it was decided that we should gather what was most dear to us and start walking.
None of us knew how long of a walk it would be, but I also don't think that any of us really cared that much.
"Have you noticed that no one has a cell phone or GPS?" Mitch asked curiously as we walked.
"They probably wouldn't work this far out in the mountains, anyway." Chris said frankly.
"No. You don't get what I'm saying. Statistically speaking, how likely is it that a group of this many people would gather and that none of them would have a cell phone?" Mitch asked seriously.
Chris didn't seem to have an answer, so I interjected my own question, "How statistically likely do you think it is that in a group of this many people, every single one of them would be upbeat and have a positive attitude?"
"That's just because we're finally here." Mitch said dismissively.
"I don't think so. I can only go by what's been happening in our car, but I think that maybe it applies to everyone. These are all good people, I mean, like, the best people you'll ever meet." I said carefully.
Mitch looked around at the other small groups of people walking, including the groups that had joined us along the way, then said, "I don't know about gathering statistics about something that's more a matter of judgement, but I can see what you're saying. They're all so... joyful."
"We're joyful." Chris corrected.
Mitch smiled at him, then confirmed, "Yeah. We are."
* * * * *
I'm not much of one for judging distance while I'm walking. I'll admit that upfront. But I'm guessing that our walk was probably over half a mile. Of course, although we were all excited and anxious about finally arriving, none of us seemed to be in any particular hurry.
We walked mostly at a steady, casual pace, sometimes we'd slow down a little when conversation picked up, but we weren't overly chatty along the way... Well, except for Rabbit.
I suppose that carrying my suitcase and backpack should have felt cumbersome with such a long walk, but it didn't really bother me at all. I looked around to see that no one else seemed to be bothered by it either.
I suppose that when I'm not the entire focus of Rabbit's incessant chatter, I don't mind it so much. He's kind of entertaining to listen to.
"There it is." Chris whispered to me, then I saw the entrance to the park.
* * * * *
I guess either the first people to arrive had the foresight not to park in the parking lot, or maybe they realized later that people would need a place to stand, and they moved their cars. However it worked out, there weren't any cars at all parked on the blacktop.
I can't begin to estimate how many people were there. Hundreds, at least.
Unlike the daydreams, it wasn't silent. There was a low murmur of quiet conversations being carried out all around us. All of that was in the background, however. The most notable thing was the sense of joy and anticipation. It seemed to radiate from everyone in attendance.
I don't know what we were waiting for. But no one else seemed to be any more bothered about it than I was. We're all just gathered around in our small groups, talking quietly, and sharing our joy and anticipation about the incredible thing that we're all participating in.
* * * * *
The murmurs of conversation suddenly stopped as silence seemed to sweep over the gathering like an icy blanket. Automatically, we all turned toward the white path and watched as a lone figure started walking.
The air of anticipation increased as we all watched the person in the street lights of the park crest the hill and disappear from view.
Three more people, walking abreast, began walking up the path.
Fighting not to take my eyes off the path, I awkwardly reached down to pick up my suitcase, to await our turn.
* * * * *
I have no idea how long it took, and there's no rhyme or reason to how it was decided who would go next. Hundreds of people were just standing and waiting. Then, all of a sudden, a person or a group of people would start walking the path.
I think I was moving before I even realized it.
Chris was at my side, and Levi was walking beside him.
I diverted my gaze from the path just long enough to glance behind me. Adam and Emily were walking, hand in hand, directly behind us. Mitch, Augie and Rabbit were behind them.
I felt my heart racing with excitement and anticipation as I took my first step onto the white path. Even in my dreams, I had never dared to go there before.
I don't know if I was even breathing as I finally reached the top of the small hill. I glanced to my right to find Chris and Levi still with me, and felt assured that no matter what happened next, everything would be alright.
I know I have said evil things before when it comes to MultiMapper using those two words. But, this time I know there is actually a bit more to come, so I am not upset.
When I read the first couple of chapters of this story, I had absolutely no clue as to where it would go, but I absolutely love it so far, and it just feels so right.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher