It was our third to last day on the trail.
For eight hours, Buckeye, Fredo and I tried in vain to pull away from the sycophantic, parasitic Peaches. The perky pair of cousins had somehow persisted, display a disturbing, preternatural sense of perseverance, a—
It was Buckeye. His boyish grin, bushy red beard, and blazing blue eyes emerged out of the darkness, bobbing beneath the warm glow of his headlamp.
“First of all, my eyes are brown. But never mind that. What are you doing? Do you really think anyone cares about the Peaches, or your cleverness as a writer, this insufferable ‘perverse predilection’ you have for consonance and alliteration?”
Competitive and long-distance runners often talk about hitting the wall. I’d hit the wall before. This wasn’t that. This was more like hitting the fourth wall.
“What are you trying to say, Buckeye?” I asked, my head swimming. I felt like I was losing it.
“You’re not losing it,” Buckeye snorted. “Well, not yet. I mean, you might be. But you definitely will, once you get back to the real world.”
The real world. That gaping maw of doubt and uncertainty waiting to swallow me whole, less than a week away. But I had so much to look forward to.
“Stop!” Buckeye winced.
Getting back to my family…
My friends… Megan…
And then there was my secret plan, which, admittedly, wasn’t very secret, since I had already told everyone—
Buckeye slapped me in the face, then cursed in pain and shook his hand. “Look, are you quite finished? M.C., you’ve been out here living your dream, having a jolly old time, but you’ve had your head up your ass the entire time!”
“Is that a commentary about my scatological preoccupations?” I asked warily, rubbing my jaw.
“You mean how you’re obsessed with poop?” Buckeye couldn’t keep a straight face. “No, but that is funny. I love poop.
“No, actually, I meant it to be a commentary on how, while you’re physically out here—“ Buckeye gestured around at the enveloping wilderness, at Fredo, who waved, “—your mind is a million miles away, already off dreaming and planning your next hair-brained adventure.
“Meanwhile, Megan is out there living her life. Alone. Did you ever stop to consider what she wants? What her dreams are?”
I didn’t know. Have I?
Was I selfish? Am I that selfish?
I always thought we shared the same dreams, just as we shared the same obsessive tastes in food, beer, literature, politics… That our existence was a folie à deux.
You’re telling me that’s not true?
I thought I was being romantic.
“No,” Buckeye sighed. “Life’s not a game, M.C. You can’t hit the reset button or upend the board when things don’t go your way—“
“Nice metaphor,” I rolled my eyes.
“Actually, it was pretty corny, but— Hey, don’t change the subject! Where was I?”
“Life’s not a game.”
“Right. Or a novel. Or a blog. Or a movie, or any of the stupid things you write. And you’ve got to stop thinking of it as one. You want everything to be perfect, to conform to this arbitrary narrative that only you’ve decided upon, for everybody you meet to play some role you’ve already assigned them in your head.
“Some horribly clichéd, probably misogynistic role, I might add.”
“You’re a jerk,” Buckeye shrugged.
“I admit, I’ve been an idiot—”
“I’ve? I have? You’re using the past tense?”
“All right, I am an idiot,” I corrected. “And will probably continue to be one.”
“Yes. But you’re also a man. A flawed—deeply flawed—sexy, disgusting, hilarious, shit-obsessed, thoughtful, hateful… wonderful human being. Of a man.”
“With his head up his own ass,” added Fredo momentarily.
We all laughed.
Buckeye. Fredo. My friends. My brothers…
“Don’t get sentimental on me now,” warned Buckeye. “I’m not finished.”
“Let me tell you how this is going to play out.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to walk out of this godforsaken Wilderness, and cross Abol Bridge. We’re going to celebrate, like a bunch of six year olds, by drinking soda and eating candy bars. Then we’re going to hike on to the Katahdin Stream Campground.
“And you’re going to pretend to fall into the stream as a joke, only then you’re really going to fall in, so, really, joke’s on you—“
“Sounds pretty realistic so far.”
“Don’t interrupt. We’re going to hitch a ride outta the park at that point, probably with some crazy old coot with a hook for a hand and half his teeth, whom you’re going to later—and rather unfairly—characterize as an escaped ax murderer.
“And then when we get into town to meet your friends?”
Becca and Megan were coming up. My heart swelled at the thought.
“They’re not going to be there.”
“Because that person you trusted, that you thought had your back through thick and thin? Turns out she’s just as duplicitous, self-absorbed, and inconsiderate as you are.
“That she can’t be trusted. Or counted on.
“And this will irrevocably alter your friendship. If not end it.”
“It also means we won’t have a ride back to the park the next morning,” added Fredo helpfully.
“Yes, Fredo, thank you, I was getting to that.
“Anyway, you’re going to be heartbroken and sullen, and your shitty mood is going to nearly ruin everything for the rest of us.”
“I’m sorry,” I half mumbled, half choked.
“As well you should be. But—I don’t want to be ungracious, apology accepted.
“So we’ll get a room at the Trail’s End Hiker Hostel or whatever it’s called, and, naturally, the first thing you’ll do is complain about the contents of the hiker box, before stealing a pair of camo pants. Oh, and the owner will yell at us for nearly burning the entire building to the ground after we try to make our dinner indoors. And, thus banished from actually cooking anything, like men, with fire, we’ll be forced to eat microwaved eggs for breakfast.”
“How do you microwave eggs?”
“I don't know. You don't. Not really. It's gross.”
“We’ll also challenge each other to drink a gallon of milk in less than an hour,” offers Fredo. “Buckeye and I will drink strawberry milk. Only Buckeye will shit himself.”
“Why don’t you just let me narrate this part?” snapped Buckeye. “I mean, yes, weird stuff starts happening to my intestines, but there are bathrooms at the hostel. Bathrooms that will be totally unoccupied at the time I need them, and for an hour and a half afterwards. Got that?”
“Meanwhile, the Peaches will be picked up, randomly, by a passing millionaire,” Buckeye growled, “And will spend the night in coddled luxury at his mansion, sleeping in four-post beds and being waited on hand and foot. Because of course they will.”
Fredo and I both cursed the Peaches under our breath.
I should never have given them my leftover oatmeal.
“Are you ever going to tell me about Katahdin itself?” I asked, growing increasingly uneasy. “About the confusion we’ll feel upon reaching a seemingly impassable boulder, how we’ll spend five minutes trying to figure out a way around before realizing that it has metal rebar poking out of it for a reason, and that, after two thousand, one hundred and seventy odd miles, they actually intend for us to scale a cliff, with naught but an inch of rusting iron between us and certain death, or worse?”
“Were you going to tell me about the exhilaration we’ll feel reaching the tableland, of finally seeing the sign marking the end of the trail peeking out through the fog?”
“No, actually, I wasn’t,” said Buckeye. “Haven’t you ever heard of an air of mystery? Can’t we leave anything to the imagination?”
“If I told you exactly how it was, how it will be, down to the last stubbed toe and overturned pebble, then what’s the point of actually going? Might as well just pack up and head home now, right?
“Besides, everyone already knows what happens at the end. It goes without saying. Like ‘The Odyssey.’”
“You mean ‘The Illiad.’”
“I would have used a more current example,” offered Fredo. “Like the movie ‘Titanic.’”
“Fredo?” Buckeye glared at him, implicitly threatening him with some vague bodily harm.
“So no,” Buckeye continued. “I won’t tell you how this ends… But I will tell you what happens after.
“Fredo’s going to shave his beard.”
“Hey, it might be hard to tell, now, but underneath all that hair and the two inches of dirt, Fredo is actually an astonishingly good-looking man.”
Fredo blushed. Or at least I assume he did. It was hard to tell, what with all the hair and the two inches of dirt.
“Don’t do that,” interrupted Buckeye. He was talking to me. “You’re ruining it.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“Anyway, in a couple of years, Fredo won’t even be Fredo anymore. He’ll be Miguel Alejandro, eminently respectable and upstanding member of society, college grad, working professional, loving husband to a beautiful wife, family man, and part-time underwear model.
“In short, he’ll be everything you aspire to be, only much, much, much better looking. And I couldn’t be prouder.”
“Aww, thanks man,” grinned Fredo.
“Dude,” Buckeye shook his head, impressed. “You’re awesome.”
He and Buckeye hugged. For a long time. It was the manliest of hugs. Then it went on, and became something more. Awkward?
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Buckeye. And they stopped.
“This never happened,” I blurted, uneasy, after coming to the sudden realization that it hadn’t.
“What do you mean?” asked Fredo, untangling himself from Buckeye. “You mean this? How we never really got to say goodbye?”
I wasn’t ready for that.
“What about you, Buckeye?” I asked, trying to delay the inevitable. “Tell me what happens to you.”
“Me? Buckeye? Itinerant ne’er-do-well, bohemian, world-traveler? I bounce around a lot, going from odd-job to odd-job in between the random adventure, always popping up where you’d least expect me, both geographically and on social media.
“If I cared about fame and fortune, like certain other unnamed egomaniacs with raging inferiority complexes,” Buckeye said while looking straight at me for some indiscernible reason, “Or had the desire to do it, or any talent, uh, for it, I would write my autobiography, ‘Shitting Around the World’ by Jimmy Lambert.
“Basically I’m like you, your Id run rampant, unbound by any sense of familial obligation, social propriety, or ethical… Whatever it is ethics has.”
“I can’t believe you haven’t figured this out already,” interjected Fredo. “We’re foils, Buckeye and I. We’re real people, yes, but we also represent the dual or dueling nature of man, and of yourself.”
“Stop!” Buckeye cried. “Didn’t I just finish telling him that life isn’t a story? That he can’t make people assume these pre-assigned roles?”
I drifted away from their argument, and started to wonder how things would turn out for myself. What would I become? What would I learn from all this, if anything? Would I emerge a changed man? Would this truly be the transformative experience I had been promised? Who promised me that anyway? Or had this entire ‘ordeal’ just been a five-month long vacation? Was I setting myself up for a lifetime of success and happiness, like Fredo? Or was I merely deluding myself into thinking that any of it—that anything—had a higher meaning, as Buckeye attested? My thoughts turned to my parents, growing increasingly frail, fragile in their old age. Who would take care of them? I’d have to get a job. My God, how would I get a job?!
I missed my friends. I missed my kitty. Attila. Tortoise-shell calico. Conquerer. Destroyer of worlds. Annoying. Adorable.
I especially missed Megan. Superhero. Philosopher. Alien robot sent to Earth to learn about human emotion. She saw beauty—maybe—and goodness in me when I thought none existed. She told me, once, a long time ago, that she thought I was wonderful. Wonderful. She lifted me up, woke my conscience, opened my eyes to the nearly infinite possibilities, and shortcomings, of the world. All I wanted was to make her happy, to make her proud. But unlike in my dreams, she would not be there the next day, or the day after. Reality was… Reality was cold, and crushing, full of sadness and disappointment.
These past few months had been some of the happiest of my life. And I could always come back to the trail. But there are some places to which you can never return…
“M.C., are you okay?”
It was Fredo, kneeling in front of me, his hand on my shoulder.
“I didn’t want… I don’t want things to end this way,” I croaked.
“It doesn’t have to,” said Fredo, glowering at Buckeye, like it was his fault or something.
“Like this is my fault,” complained Buckeye.
“He’s right, though,” Fredo whispered, ignoring Buckeye once more. “Life is not a game, or a story, or any of those other things, and one day you will have to face a reckoning, and account for all you’ve done, all the mistakes you’ve made.
“But this also isn’t exactly life. I mean, it’s more or less true to life, minus all the—“
“Shitting in public,” I quickly finished for him. Because none of that really happened. “Or all the crying, the nervous breakdowns.”
“Right. And all those times you stole trail magic, and that one time you left that guy a note pretending to be a buddy of his, telling him that his entire family had died, causing him to quit the trail and fly back to Portland—“
“Woah! Fredo, that wasn’t me,” I assured him. I mean, it sounded like something I might have done.
“No, I know, I just made that up,” said Fredo blankly. “Because—and this brings me back to the point I was trying to make—this is also a story.
“And if you don’t want us to leave, we don’t have to.
“If you want the Peaches to be spontaneously carried off by rampaging Pterodactyls…”
A pair of shadows swept past the moon just then, while an eerie screech born on the wind sent shivers down my spine.
“No,” I said quickly. “That’s okay, they can stay.”
The Peaches smiled at me from their log besides the fire.
“You have really pretty eyes,” one of them cooed.
“Don’t make me change my mind,” I warned.
“And if you want to see your friends again,” continued Fredo unabated, “You can.”
“Hey!” shouted Caveman—Caveman!?—“I’ve no idea why I’m here—where’s here?—but I brought Funyuns!”
Caveman dropped his pack by the fire and ran to hug me.
“Look what else I brought, M.C.!”
And Caveman motioned behind him.
Bandito, P-Nut, Redwing, Lil Dipper, Merf, Veggie, Freeman, and Nature were all sitting around the fire. Even Hobbes was there. They all shouted in surprise.
And for a few happy moments it was bedlam. Everyone hugged and chatted, catching up, enjoying eachother’s company once again. Caveman whipped out cans of Steel Reserve, then started surreptitiously slipping a bottle of Southern Comfort back and forth with Fredo. Buckeye sat down to roast marshmallows with the Peaches, his anger quickly fading in the warmth of their renewed attentions.
“M.C.!” squealed Bandito, shaking a vaguely blue and orange box in front of me. “I brought Boggle!”
“What the f— is Boggle?”
And—why not?—my parents were there too, with Hot Sauce, inexplicably drinking tea and beer in a quiet corner by the shelter, probably doing a crossword puzzle.
“I wanted to get that band we both secretly love,” Redwing was saying, “But I didn’t want to risk any potentially dated pop culture references.”
“Plus they do the same thing in that movie,” added P-Nut helpfully.
Finally, Megan arrived, and she had brought Attila—“She likes being outside!”—whom she promptly set free to roam and chase fireflies in the moonlight, and for whatever reason this seemed totally safe, reasonable, and morally acceptable, and not-at-all heinously irresponsible or dangerous, and didn’t freak me or her out in any way.
And then the rest of my friends showed up, bringing pizza and birch beer, fresh rolls of toilet paper, and biodegradable, contractor-sized garbage bags to ensure this great, fictional party strictly adhered to the rules of Leave No Trace.
And I stood by the fire, warmed by the glow of their collective love. Or maybe that was the fire.
“I’m going to wake up soon,” I said to Fredo, my voice quavering. “I need to wake up.”
“It’s okay, M.C.,” said Fredo, wiping an errant drop of SoCo from his chin. “You know where to find us. Still… It's nice here, isn't it? Can't you stay a while longer?
“Why not stay a while?”
Stay a while. Why not?