Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Courage Test

James Preller

Square Fish

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


CHAPTER ONE


OFF THE MAP


 


My mother pushes me out the door, and I don’t know why.


“I don’t want to go,” I tell her.


“I know,” she says.


“But why now?” I ask again. “All-Stars starts this week. I don’t want to miss it.”


“We’ve been over this,” she says.


She might as well say what every parent resorts to when they run out of good answers: Because I said so. There’s no explanation, no more discussion. It’s time for me to go.


I feel ridiculously, stupidly, helplessly annoyed, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I see in that instant my mother is getting old. Stray gray hairs, wrinkles around the down-turned corners of her mouth. She looks tired and thin, sick of arguing with me. I carry a fully loaded metal-frame backpack on my shoulders and a smaller gym bag in my right hand—stuff for the long drive, all my technology’s in there. I don’t want to go, but I can’t stand here forever. So come on, Mom, let’s do this.


“You’ll have fun,” she says. “It’s good for you and your father to spend time together.”


“Please, Mom.”


“He’s the only father you’ve got,” she says.


I give her nothing in return. Not a nod. I’m not even listening. I turn my back to her.


“Bye,” she says, and adds, “I love you, Will.”


I walk away like I don’t hear.


“Will?”


I raise my hand in good-bye without looking back.


My father waits in the car. He steps out as I approach. I nod to him, hey. None of this is my idea. I have no say, no choice. I refuse to be happy about it. I’m not going to make this easy.


“Here, um, let me help you with that.” He reaches to take my backpack.


“No, I got it,” I say, leaning away.


“Oh, okay, sure,” he says.


He stands there, not knowing what to do.


“Are you going to pop the trunk?” I ask. Because: obviously.


Flustered, my father moves to the driver’s side door. He fumbles in the front pocket of his water-resistant khakis, drops the keys on the road, stoops to the ground. I glance sideways, slyly, to check how this is playing from the front window. But my mother is no longer watching.


She’s gone.


*   *   *


“Ready?” my father asks. His body is half turned in inquiry, one hand on the steering wheel, the right gripping the ignition key.


A question with no true answer.


I don’t have a choice. So, sure, Dad, I shrug, I’m ready. But the truth is I’m not. He knows it, too, yet asks anyway. And away we roll.


It is awkward all around.


This is the man who moved out of the old house fifteen months ago. He started a shiny new life—soon featuring a new girlfriend—while my mother and I got stuck rebuilding the old one.


As the car slides forward, I spy my friend Yoenis on the sidewalk. Tall and dark and slender, he juggles a soccer ball on his foot, tap-tap, tap and pop, and he snatches the ball between his hands. A bright smile sunbeams across his face. He’s a guy who can do anything he wants. Yoenis glimpses me through the car window, and his smile drops. He waggles a finger skyward. His head shakes. I don’t know what it means. Is he pointing to the sun, the sky? Is he gesturing to God above? Or is he just saying, no, don’t go, you’ll miss everything.


I wonder if he knows something I don’t know?


*   *   *


Thwap, thwap, thwap.


I am sprawled, unbuckled, in the backseat—my choice, not his, more legroom—playing catch by myself. A glove on my right hand, a baseball in my left. Yeah, I’m a southpaw from Minneapolis. I’m making a point. He can drag me away from the game and All-Stars and from all my friends. But he can’t make me forget it—and I won’t let him, either.


I don’t forgive easily.


“Meri, please,” he says, “not in the car. It’s a distraction when I’m driving.”


There is a pause now, a moment that stretches out for a mile or so as the car zooms past the windblown grasses of the prairie landscape. West, west. And then I start up again.


Thwap, thwap, thwap.


When he checks the rearview mirror, he can see my grin.


“And don’t call me Meri,” I say. “Please, Bruce, it’s annoying.”


I’ve never called my father Bruce before, and I watch as his eyeballs register the disrespect. Blinking, thinking, not responding.


We are headed to a place near Bismarck, North Dakota, where I guess there’s a museum or fort or old Indian village or something. Dad says I’m going to love it. But I think, Not if I can help it.


As if reading my mind, my father says, “You can’t stay angry the entire trip.”


Want to bet?


He passes back a bag of Doritos. I agree to eat them, crunching loudly on the orangey goodness. Being a jerk is exhausting. My father knows how to inch over to my good side. It’s through an extra-large bag of Doritos.


*   *   *


To pass the time, my father tells fifty miles of cringeworthy jokes. Each one is worse than the next. He’s trying really hard—I can see that—but still. This is making my ears bleed. Then he says, “I read this one in a magazine. Let me see if I can remember it.”


He says this before every single joke he tells. “Let me see…”


I’m slumped in the backseat, barely listening. This is going to be a long, long ride.


“Oh, yeah, okay,” he says, snapping his fingers. “A man and a woman are watching the news on television when the announcer says that six Brazilian men died in a car accident. Upon hearing this, the woman starts sobbing hysterically. She can’t stop. ‘It’s sad, honey,’ the man finally says, ‘but accidents happen.’ After a minute, still sobbing, she asks, ‘How many is a Brazilian?’”


Before I can help it, a small laugh escapes my lips. I hate it when my father says something funny when I’m trying like crazy to stay mad at him. He’s not making this easy.


*   *   *


Where in the world are we going?


Good question.


Right now we’re on a highway headed west toward North Dakota. My father says our trip really begins there, at Fort Mandan, where the explorers Lewis and Clark and the entire Corps of Discovery hunkered down for the winter of 1804–1805. After that, they went into the unknown.


Uncharted territory.


Disconnected from the so-called civilized world.


My father is a college professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He’s obsessed with American history. For the past ten years, or nearly my entire life on the planet, he’s been trying to write a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. He even has a title, Off the Map, which I think is not half bad. Whenever I ask him how much he’s written, he shrugs and looks away. He says he’s been “focusing on the research end of the enterprise,” whatever that means.


He has a girlfriend now. So maybe that’s part of it. A blond-haired lady named Susan. She’s okay, I guess, for someone I almost hate. She tries too hard and smells like apricots. Every time I’m over there, Susan wants to cook my favorite meals, play board games, “enjoy together time.”


Who plays board games anymore?


She’s always right in my face, asking, “So how are YOU today?”


How is anybody supposed to answer that? I say, “Fine,” and my father gets mad at me for not answering politely. Nothing I do or say is good enough. I’m supposed to be a “new and improved” version of my old self. But really, I just want to go into my room and shut the door.


My dad is always asking me to give Susan a chance. I don’t know how to answer him, exactly. It feels like a pop quiz every time I go over there, and I keep flunking it. I’m trying to be myself. Sorry that’s not good enough anymore.


When my parents got divorced, it came as a big surprise to me, because what kid ever thinks about that stuff? Parents are just there, like a mountain or a river. A natural fact. You don’t question it. Then one still-wintery day in March they sat me down for a talk. When they finished, they solemnly asked if I had any questions. I said, “Can I go Yoenis’s house? He got the new FIFA game.”


They were like, “What?”


I don’t know. What was I supposed to say? What did it matter anyway?


I didn’t even cry until a week later. And even then, hardly at all.


Spilt milk, you know.


The main thing as far as I was concerned was that I could stay with my mom. At least most of the time. My father is okay, but he’s one of those not-really-there types. It’s hard to describe. His mind drifts. He’s not into sports like I am. He works too much, reads too much. And now there’s the irritating girlfriend added to the mix.


To be brutally honest, I don’t think he actually wants me around. My mom is the one who has always taken care of me. She’s a big Twins fan, and we always shared stuff like that, eating ice cream and watching the games on television. She actually stands up and yells at the TV sometimes. It’s pretty funny. I remember once a reliever gave up a walk-off, three-run homer and she threw an entire bowl of popcorn at the screen. Ha, too funny. Even though they lost, it was worth it, just to see her go a little crazy like that. Popcorn everywhere! I think that’s what makes a true fan of a team. You have to scream a little bit. My mom says that if the Twins don’t rip your heart out every once in a while, then you just don’t love ’em enough.


I sometimes go to my father’s apartment for weekends. It’s not a regular thing, maybe once a month. He gets super busy. We go to Angela’s restaurant most Wednesdays; they make the most excellent chicken Parmesan. I could eat that stuff forever. It’s totally delicious—I order it every time. Sometimes I wonder if I could only eat one food in the world for the rest of my life, what food would that be. And I always end up saying, “Angela’s chicken Parm!”


Yoenis says he’d pick Slim Jims. You know, the meat-like, stick-shaped, processed-food substance. Tasty, sure, but I think it would be a big mistake. After about four years of nothing but Slim Jims, I told Yoenis, a guy might lose his mind.


So it came as a big surprise when my split-up parents suddenly decided that I was going away with my father, without the dreaded Susan, on this trip to nowhere along the Lewis and Clark Trail. I was like, “Excuse me?” And then I was like, “Oh, no I’m not.”


But here I am.


I mean, rewind. It’s not the trip that I’m mad about. We’re going to do a lot of cool things, camping and rafting and hiking, stuff I haven’t done since Boy Scouts. So all of that is fine. Better than fine. It’s the timing. I made All-Stars this year. Coach says it’s a commitment. You have to make every practice. You can’t miss games. That’s never been a problem for me in the past. I love All-Stars. But this year, out of the blue, my parents made other plans. Thanks for nothing.


I’ve been in the car for three hours now. I have to pee, but I’m not going to be the first one to say so. He checks, and I grumble back, “I’m fine.”


I can’t help but wonder what’s going on here. I mean, why is it suddenly a big deal that I go on this trip? This isn’t normal for my broken family. Suddenly my father wants “together” time? Pretty strange. So, yeah, what’s up with that?


*   *   *


Now about Lewis and Clark: I’m not Joe Expert on the subject, but my father actually might be, so I have the basic plot. You can’t hang around my father for long without him going off on his favorite topic. That’s why Thomas Edison invented headphones. Or was that Dr. Dre? Never mind! I’m zoning out here in the backseat.


MY SUMMER ASSIGNMENT


by William Miller


This summer I went on a road trip with my father. We followed parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail. At first, I thought it was the most boring idea in the world. I’d rather go to Disney World. Well, buckle up, here comes the part where I tell you about it and you give me an A for effort.


When Thomas Jefferson was president, a lot of North America was unexplored. No white American had ever seen huge parts of it. The maps back then had all these details about the country out east where everybody lived—the names of towns and rivers and mountains—but beyond, like, west of the Mississippi River, the maps were basically blank. Just big, empty white spaces, not filled in at all, like an outline drawing in a coloring book you find on the shelf of the dentist’s office. Way off to the left of the map it would be like, “Oh, and that’s the Pacific Ocean somewhere out here we pretty much think!” They color in that part blue.


After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States government realized they owned all this land they didn’t know anything about. Basically, Jefferson told Meriwether Lewis, “Dude, look, you have to go out there and check it out.” Jefferson hoped that Lewis could find a water route across North America all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Great Northwest Passage! That would be good for trade and—ca-ching!—profits. Jefferson thought there might even be mastodons wandering around, huge ground sloths, mountains made of salt, and Indian tribes that spoke Welsh. They really had no idea. True fact! Lewis realized it was a huge job, so he teamed up with his old army pal William Clark. They hired about thirty rugged, adventurous guys and set out looking for the heart of America. The plan was to start in St. Louis and go north up the Missouri River and try to float all the way to the ocean.


Oh, and by the way, there might be “hostile Indians” out there, so they brought guns, ammunition, and a lot of trinkets to give away. They figured the Indians were into bling. Beads and mirrors and stuff. What the Native people really needed were guns, because to them guns meant safety, and guns meant power. Their world was becoming a dangerous place. Jefferson instructed Lewis to tell the Indians they had a brand-new, powerful father—the president of the United States. Nobody was too sure how that news would go over with the Indians.


What a mess!


We wake up in a Budget Inn in Bismarck, North Dakota. We rolled in last night in the dark after driving more than 425 miles, 94 West practically all the way. My eyeballs burned with boredom and screen haze.


My dad did a bunch of yoga on the hotel room floor when I was trying to watch TV. He says I should try it, too, but I’m like, “Yeah, not really.”


This place doesn’t even have a pool.


My mother forgot to pack my toothbrush. Two weeks without one might be harsh.


And, even worse, my father snores like a walrus, which is just terrific.


He explains that yesterday’s endless drive was a “necessary evil” and that the real adventure begins today. It’s funny. He’s actually excited in a way that’s not normal for grown-ups. I also think he’s trying extra hard to get on my good side because when he asked about breakfast he mentioned that there’s a Denny’s not far from here.


He knows I could live at Denny’s. I mean, literally, I could live there. If I was in a booth, of course. I’d kick out my legs and lie back for a little snooze until the next glorious meal. Are they fast at Denny’s? Good question. Yes, they are fast. You say your order out loud, and literally before you reach the end of the sentence there it is, steaming hot on the table in front of you. How is that possible? No one knows. Pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. The Grand Slam, partner!


During breakfast, my father talks about our trip. “Will, I know this got suddenly dropped on you and I’m sorry for that”—he looks at me over his western omelet, and his apology seems real—“but I need you with me right now.”


I keep eating. What can I say? These pancakes are delicious. There’s nothing remotely healthy about them. It’s just pure, fluffy deliciousness. When my mom makes pancakes, she’s always trying to sneak in oat bran or spinach leaves or protein powders or other “healthful” ingredients. You don’t get that at Denny’s. So I’m shoveling food into my face super happily. Glomb, glomb, glomb. Still, I’m listening, and I don’t completely get what’s going on.


He needs me? Since when?


“What do you mean?” I ask.


My father leans back, stares at the ceiling for long minutes. He’s a college professor, so he’s used to thinking that everything he says is a huge, big deal. He builds a lot of dramatic pauses into everyday conversations.


Then he surprises me.


“You know I’ve been working on my book for the past thirteen years,” he says.


Thirteen? It was worse than I thought.


“I made the classic mistake: I kept researching long after I needed to start writing. Now I feel like I know too much, like”—he looks up again, as if the words were written on the ceiling—“like I’m wandering around inside a warehouse filled with facts.”


Okay, sure. I imagine the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. All those rows and rows of boxes.


“And you think I can help,” I say. “Because I don’t know anything.”


“Exactly,” my father says, smiling with his big horse teeth and sunken cheeks.


At least he’s honest.


“When Meriwether Lewis came to these lands, he had no idea what he’d find. Sure, there were stories and rumors and wild guesses, but that was it. He had never seen a prairie dog before, Will. He had no idea they even existed. Or a magpie. Or a coyote! Or a pronghorn antelope! Lewis and his men were seeing a new world for the first time. I am hoping,” my father says, and now he pushes his plate away, signaling for the bill from our helmet-haired server, Loretta, “I mean, I am asking if you’ll help be my eyes.”


I think it over.


I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something, but I don’t ask. I get a sense that he’s holding back. Or maybe he’s just lying to me. There must be another reason for this weird vacation, but for the moment I can’t figure it out. All I say is, “Next time, can I order bacon on the side?”


“All you want,” he says, smiling wide.


He thinks I believe him.


*   *   *


My dad pulls over, says over his shoulder: “Won’t be a sec, don’t disappear on me,” and hurries into a store.


I sit in the passenger seat and don’t disappear.


Not really an option.


There’s always that debate about which superpower you’d rather have, flight or invisibility. That’s an easy one for me. I’d gladly vanish into thin air.


On the sidewalk, I see a black-haired teenage girl in a bulky blue flannel and dark pants. She’s got a heavy, colorful cloth bag slung over her shoulder, and she’s holding a thick rope. Attached to the rope is one of the biggest dogs I’ve ever seen. A Newfoundland, I’m pretty sure; it looks like a small domesticated bear. The girl is walking in my direction, so I watch her coming like a sunrise. Her long hair has been parted in the middle, but not expertly. Some falls across her face, which is too bad, because it’s a good, pumpkin-shaped face with wide cheekbones and brown skin. The dog doesn’t strain or pull, just matches her stride for stride.


As they reach the side of the car, the dog stiffens and stops, looks at me through the window. The girl tilts her head down and follows the dog’s gaze to meet my eyes. That’s how we first meet. She glances at invisible me, looks through me as if through a window in that briefest instant. There is no expression on her face, not even surprise, as if nothing in this world could surprise her. Her eyes are round and brown. She says something to the dog in Spanish, a soft, clear voice: No es nada, and gives a tug. In a graceful movement—the shift of a hip and the dip of a shoulder—she slips the strap closer to her neck and trudges on up the road.


A moment later, I’m startled when my father opens the car door, breaking the enchantment.


My father and I didn’t start at the beginning. We didn’t have time to retrace the whole entire Lewis and Clark Trail. The expedition officially began in May 1804, out of St. Louis and up the Missouri River, against the current. They traveled by a specially built, fifty-five-foot-long keelboat. It had a mast and sail for when the wind was right, but most days the men had to pull on oars or get out of the keelboat, walk on shore, and haul the heavy, awkward barge across shallow sections by thick ropes. It was brutal, backbreaking labor. They also traveled with two pirogues, which were like big rowboats. Some days they made twenty miles. Other days, far less. The farther north, the deeper the group traveled into the untamed American landscape—buffalo country and Indian territory and the great grasslands—where they encountered the Otos, the Arikara, and the Sioux. There were some awkward, tense meetings. Where the Missouri turned west, Lewis and Clark decided to winter near the friendly, curious Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. They built a fort and hunkered down. It was early November, and the frozen months were coming down hard. They had traveled more than 1,500 miles—every inch of it upstream, the current pushing relentlessly against them. But in many ways, their journey, like ours, had just begun.


He hands me a white paper bag. “A small gift,” he says, “for our journey.”


Inside there’s a marbled composition notebook and a halfway-decent pen. I look at my father, wondering what this is all about.


“It’s a journal,” he said. “I want you to—”


“Dad, no,” I interrupt. “We’re on vacation. I’m not keeping a diary.”


He raises his hands, the way a rancher might calm an agitated stallion. “You don’t have to write anything, Will,” he says. “I just want you to have it in case you change your mind. Recording what you see and feel, that’s a big part of any trip. Journals were an integral aspect of the original expedition. Lewis was actually a terrific writer. Clark, too. Several of the other guys wrote books about their adventures.”


He names names: Gass and Ordway and more.


“In some ways,” my father says, “the journals were the greatest legacy of the expedition. They saw things that had never before been seen by white men. Their journals became documents. Artifacts. Records. Without the writing, the trip wouldn’t have mattered half as much.”


His cheeks grow flushed; he’s waving his hands excitedly, like he’s been bitten by red ants. I tuck the notebook and pen into my gym bag in the backseat. He watches this, but says nothing.


“You know what’s interesting?” my father asks. He opens the glove compartment, mutters absently. It’s stuffed with papers and junk. I don’t ask him what’s interesting, because I have a feeling he’s going to tell me anyway.


He says, while still searching through the glove compartment, “Lewis had to plan for a two-year-plus trip when he had no idea exactly where he was going or what, or even who, he would encounter. It was an ultimate, impossible grocery list. For months, he made list after list. Adding new items, scratching things off. He had to think of everything. They brought a hundred ninety-three pounds of practically inedible soup! Guns, ammunition, tobacco, knives, sewing needles, gifts for the Indians, tents, shirts, blankets, shoes, whiskey, scissors, rope—and on and on.”


“That’s a lot of stuff,” I say, because at this point somebody besides my father has to say something. If I knew how to whistle, this would have been the perfect spot for it. A musical “big wow” from my lips. I don’t feel like absorbing a life lesson right now. So I imagine that I have a shield made of vibranium like Captain America’s—anything of educational value that my father says bounces right off.


“And along the way,” my dad drones on, “they ran out of nearly everything.” He ticks them off on his manic fingers. “They ran out of booze, coffee, tobacco—even gifts for the Indians, which would have been very useful to have by the time they met the Blackfeet, believe me. They ran out of everything except for paper and ink! That’s how important it was to write, Will. It wouldn’t have been the same remarkable, astonishing, courageous trip if they hadn’t written about it.”


He pauses, and says almost to himself, “Without the words, it would almost have been useless.”


I hear him. I do. Some of his words actually get through my superhero defenses. I just don’t want to let him turn my vacation into homework, but that’s what teachers do. Today’s next assignment: things I did on my summer vacation. So I nod my head and fake a smile.


I offer this crumb: “If this trip ever gets interesting, maybe I’ll give it a try.”


“Oh, no worries about that,” he tells me. “The whole world is interesting, William, if you look at it the right way.”


“I saw a girl,” I disclose, to my surprise.


“Oh?”


“She had a huge black dog.”


Now it’s his turn to not listen. He’s plugging an address into the GPS, which he finally located tucked under the driver’s seat. And I’m left remembering that girl walking down the street, like a melody in my ear. Somehow I know that I will see her again.


*   *   *


In the museum gift shop, I grab a random postcard. It has a photo of the fake fort on front. One of these days I’m going to get stamps and mail this sucker.


The soldiers on the expedition built a fort here, but it’s long gone. So the tourist board built an exact replica. Whatever! The tour guide told us it got as cold as 45 degrees below zero that winter. Brrrrr, chilly. The soldiers almost ran out of food, but fortunately the people of the Mandan tribe were super friendly. They had corn to spare! Otherwise those guys might have starved. We’d all be like, Lewis and Clark? Nope, never heard of ’em. Ha!


After my father left us, we had some rough times. I guess I acted creepy, but what can I say? I felt creepy. And it wasn’t an act! I didn’t try to get into trouble at school, trouble just found me. Stupid stuff, mostly, like falling off chairs, being disrespectful to elders, running when I should walk. My big crime? I had a bad attitude. I got to know the principal’s office pretty well. The chairs are comfortable, I’ll say that. It always got a gigantic reaction from my college-professor father—he went bananas, claimed I was ruining my life, and so on and so on. Maybe I enjoyed torturing him a little bit. My mother didn’t react half as much, claiming that she refused to water the weeds.


There was a time, right when it was first happening, when it hurt to look at my father’s face. I mean, it physically hurt. I’d want to heave. Maybe I’d done it for too long, watched him slurp cereal for too many years, blow his nose with the same fury, pick his nasty toenails. I mostly got tired of his face. His eyebrows don’t match for starters, and one eye, the right one, is slightly square. His earlobes don’t hang loose—he’s got the attached kind that grow directly into his neck. When I look in the mirror, I see those same defects in me. It’s discouraging. How am I ever going to meet a girl with this mug? My father sometimes runs his tongue across his giant teeth and emits a high-pitched sucking noise. It sounds like the mating call of a swamp toad.


He can’t throw a ball. How is that even possible, I wonder, for a man—an ex-boy, supposedly—to be unable to throw a ball? You just grip the thing, rear back, and let ’er go. But for my father, somehow the elbow gets involved and everything collapses like a folding chair. It’s hard to explain. Imagine a pink flamingo trying to throw a curveball, and that’s pretty much my dad. He steps spastically forward on the wrong foot—his right, insanely!—no matter how many times I’ve tried to explain it. Hey, numbnuts, you step with the opposite foot! A person having a catch with my father literally has no idea where the ball will go. It could be seriously anywhere.


One thing my father can do is hike—quickly, jerkily, tirelessly—neck extended, head jutting out, elbows flapping, chest thrust forward. It looks like he’s about to fall with a face-plant to the ground. But he never does. He just keeps motoring along. Effective, but definitely not athletic. Dad can walk a blue streak. When he thinks no one is watching, he digs around inside his nose with a thumb. No, not digs; he excavates, like he’s an archaeologist searching for King Tut’s cousin’s tomb—buried inside his actual nose! His socks are always wrong, his shirts never match his pants, and don’t get me started on the fanny pack! Who even wears fanny packs anymore? Nobody! Except for my dad, who swears by them.


On the positive side (to be fair and balanced), he’s like a mild, G-rated version of the honey badger. My father doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Craziest of all, most of that stuff doesn’t bother me anymore. A year ago it made me crazy. Now it’s just … typical Dad, doing what he does. I guess I’m stuck with him.


I do wish he could throw a ball, though. That might have been nice.


*   *   *


Once again, annoyingly, we are driving forever. I know that I should feel appreciative and amazed—and Montana is beautiful, for sure—but I’m restless and bored.


I suppose this would be a great spot for me to describe what I see, the big sky and grasslands giving way to low-sweeping hills and mountains in the distance, but, um, yawn. Instead of what I see, how about what I feel? The answer to that, I’m sorry to say, is not much. Sorry, Montana!


I don’t feel a thing, as if a dentist had given me too much novocaine. Numb to it all.


I only miss baseball, and my friends. What else is there?


“Meri, I mean, Will? Could you please put down the phone for a minute?”


I am in the middle of a tricky part. I have spent the last twenty minutes trying to reach the next level. I’ve almost got it.


My father speaks more words. There’s an edge to his voice.


“One sec,” I mumble.


I can sense the heat rising from his body like steam from a street grate in January. “Will!” he nearly shouts.


I give up the game and look up at him. “What?”


“For the past two hours, all you do is stare at that stupid phone. You don’t talk, you don’t even look out the window.”


I slowly pivot my head and make a big point of looking out the window. Count to sixty. One full minute. “Happy now?” I ask.


He reaches for my earbuds, tries to yank them out of my head.


“Hey, ow!” I saw, jerking my head away. “What are you doing?”


“It’s rude,” he says. “It’s like you’re not even here.”


But, Dad, I am here. You made sure of that. This is what you wanted, not me.


I turn up my music. Way up. I want to drown in sound.


I want him to stop talking.


Just drive.


“Give me that phone,” he demands.


“No. It’s my phone.”


“No?” he repeats. I can see that he’s surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to him before. He isn’t sure what to do; I can see him thinking it over. “You don’t make the rules, Will. You didn’t pay for that phone.”


“No, Mom did,” I retort.


That shuts him up for a minute. At the mention of my mother, I feel an electrical current zip through me, my nerve endings supercharged. I am wide-awake.


He feels it, too.


“I’m your father, Will,” he says. “Like it or not. Now give me the phone.”


He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.


Now, this next part is funny.


Hilarious, almost.


And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight—a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe.


My right index finger presses the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.


I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window.


I look at him defiantly.


He hits the brakes, pulls over hard, stares back at me. “Will, what the hell?”


I cross my arms, thrilled. “I didn’t want to be here,” I tell him. “You never asked what I wanted. You didn’t care.”


He doesn’t seem to hear me. His hands on the steering wheel tighten and release, tighten and release. It’s as if he were counting to himself, trying not to react.


I say to him, “I want to be anywhere but here with you.”


I fear for an instant that he might hit me. A sudden, backward smack across the face. But that’s impossible. He never has, and he never will. For all my father’s failings, he is not a violent man. But in his eyes I see it, a darkness crossing. I also know that I might deserve it.


He sags for a moment, as if all the air had leaked out of his body. And then the dark clouds lift, blown away by a breeze. He faces the front window, puts the car into drive, flicks on the blinker, calmly adjusts his rear mirror, and hits the gas. A mile down the road, he shakes his head and a smile, of sorts, snakes across his face.


As if he’d thought of something funny.


Great.


Another joke.


Super.


I just threw my phone out the car window somewhere in south-central Montana. The joke is on me.


About fifteen minutes later, he pulls to the side of the road, eyes fixed on the hillside. He leans over to rummage in the backseat, lifts out a pair of binoculars from under his seat. “Have you ever seen a grizzly?”


This gets my attention. The fight between us has evaporated, rolled out like a morning fog. All I want right now is to see this bear. “I thought you said they weren’t in this part of Montana anymore,” I say. “You said they were more west, and north, up in Glacier.”


“I did say that,” my father says, handing me the binoculars. “But it looks like somebody forgot to tell this guy.”


“Where?” I ask.


He points at an outcropping of rocks up on the hillside, at eleven o’clock.


“I don’t see it,” I say.


“Keep looking,” he tells me. “There.”


He guides my hands, bends close to me.


I take the binoculars from my eyes, blink away the afternoon glaze, look again up the hillside. My eyes register movement. I bring the glasses again to my face, sharpen my senses, and there it is.


“I see it!” I exclaim. “A grizzly!”


“Amazing, isn’t it?”


“It’s so far away. How big do they get?”


“Oh, grizzlies have been known to get up to seven hundred pounds or more.”


“I wish we could see one up close,” I say. “That would be amazing.”


My father laughs. “That’s what the men on the expedition thought. But a few encounters with real grizzlies changed their minds.”


He reaches into the backseat to pull out a container of water. “Thirsty?” he offers.


I drink deep, thirstier than I realized. I’m curious now, because I’ve always liked survival-type stories. Killer tsunamis, killer earthquakes, killer sharks, killer anything. Maybe those survival stories happened for real, but they don’t feel like the dull history lessons of my father. Surprisingly, neither does this. “So what happened?” I ask. “Did anybody get killed?”


“Yeah, some bears died,” my father says, “but they didn’t die easily, that’s for sure. In some encounters, they took shots to the shoulder, the heart, the lungs, and still kept coming.”


“Wow,” I say, and try to imagine what it might feel like to have a massive bear charging at me, murder in its eyes.


“You have to understand, Will, these men on the expedition were all outdoorsmen. Soldiers, hunters, tough dudes,” my father says. “They took pride in their hunting skills. They were good shots. The problem was, it took them about a minute to reload their rifles. It was a complicated process, loading the powder, tamping it down, and so on. This was before the days of the repeating rifle when hunters could squeeze off a round one after the other.”


We leaned against the side of the car, the sun warming my skin. All the while, I watched the burly bear move off in the distance.


“Early on the journey,” my father continues, “the Indians warned them about these enormous ‘white’ bears. None of the men had ever seen a grizzly before. Lewis and Clark’s men were eager to see a grizzly and kill it. They figured it wouldn’t be so tough.”


“Wrong!” I say, laughing.


 


Copyright © 2016 by James Preller