Extraordinary America Part III

by: Chris Thompson

A patron of wayfarers befriends the group, offering safe passage for a price….

You know, you can change direction anytime you want,” the grizzly bear with the snow-white paw growled at me.

“I can? How?” I eagerly inquired, gliding lazily above the cloud layer, enchanted by the soft carpet of white as it undulated silently below me. The sun at this height was brilliant, its warm, inviting caress rejuvenating my weary depths and I unfurled myself to fully soak in its radiance.

It’s simple Danny,” the grizzly bear continued, drifting in closer as we skated across the sky. He disappeared for an instant as a wisp of cumulus cloud engulfed him. As he came back into view, a thin, delicate coat of dewy vapor streamed off his dense fur. “Just put your arm out in the direction you want to fly and off you’ll go!” He demonstrated this for me by raising his snow-white paw, his hulking frame effortlessly banking sharply to the left.

“Whoa,” I called out, “Lemme try that!” Cautiously, I held out my left arm, abruptly feeling the rush of wind at my temples and the sinking feeling in my stomach as I changed direction, nearly crashing into the bear as he slowed to watch my attempt.

“Take it easy Danny-boy!” the white-pawed grizzly bellowed deeply, diving quickly into the roiling mass of clouds to avoid my maneuver.

“Sorry!” I laughed, the word bubbling forth from a deep-seated pool of joy. I instantly took off, exploring the sky, mesmerized by the effect that moving without a point of reference created. I was having the time of my life, twisting and turning above the clouds, laughing joyously as I flew, soaring high through wide-ranging arcs, tight-set loops and daredevil corkscrews.

Eventually I left the white-pawed grizzly behind and continued on alone, traveling in no direction in particular. In my dreams I had a passion for solitude and anonymity, and the wide-open expanse of the uncluttered sky suited me perfectly.

I flew further onward, fluttering in and out of a polar-bound jet stream, rocketing forward at breakneck speeds each time I waded into its fast moving currents. As I prepared to enter yet again, a flock of geese suddenly burst up through the cloud cover. The short, halting sound of their honking vibrated shrilly in the thinness of the atmosphere and intrigued, I leveled out and flew in formation with the geese. I drifted in close to the lead bird and the two of us exchanged inquisitive glances as we flew. Consumed by curiosity, I drew in closer, reaching out and letting my fingertips just brush the downy fringes of the lead birds wing. It craned its neck towards me in agitation, increasing its honking call briskly in both frequency and tone.

The surrounding geese took up the call, their restless honking rising to match their comrade’s. I looked around me, scanning for something amiss but the sky was clear. As their honking sound increased I suddenly became filled with anxiety, like I was standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down and knowing that I had to jump. The gentle warmth of my dream was fast dissolving, the comfort of its embrace transforming into an icy grip around my throat. The honking crescendo rose until it became unbearable, expanding to fill my head and I flew erratically, swung wildly left and right as I battled to expunge it from my mind. I tugged at my hair with my hands, flailed wildly with my arms and shrieked manically as I struggled to rid the sound from my head.

Before I knew it I was tumbling to the earth, passing through the cold, misty clouds and dropping below the sun to the foggy landscape below, my clothes ruffling about me as I plummeted like a stone. I could see the black tendrils of my reality rising up to trap me in their powerful arms, a phalanx of opaque blackness hurtling towards the sky. I screamed loudly, but the wild rush of the wind tore any sound from my lips. And as I fell I tumbled erratically, the honking of the geese filling my ears and the black tendrils of reality devouring the daylight, the roaring of the wind only serving to amplify the sounding of the geese. A moment before I slammed into the ground I threw up my arms reflexively, a desperate attempt at self preservation.

I awoke with a start, torn from the soft tendrils of my dream before impact. I sat up sharply in my sleeping bag, my heart racing, beads of perspiration heavy on my brow and tried to focus on the world around me. The campsite was still, the remnants of the fire smoldering faintly in the predawn light, and I could make out the shapeless masses of my friends, slumbering soundly under their blankets and coats. As I scanned the campsite my eyes became adjusted to the half-light and I noticed Cough a few feet away, doubled over and suffering through some sort of fit. His haggard coughing awfully similar to the honking of the geese in my dreams.

“Damn Cough, you okay?” I asked, struggling to find my voice as I ran a trembling hand through my sweat-streaked hair. I stood, slightly perturbed with the notion that Coughs ailments had penetrated the sanctity of my grizzly bear flying dream, and made my way over to him.

“You know, you were yelling in your sleep Fawcett.” Cough said between haggard, struggling breaths. “I should be asking you the same question.”

I put my hand on Cough’s shoulders, helping to support him as he struggled to regain his breath. After a few moments he seemed to improve and whispered a hasty ‘thanks’ as he lumbered off to find some water. Volumes could be written about people like Cough, I thought as I watched him fumble with his water bottle. He was the sort of person where the slightest ripple in the placid waters of their being could have wide-ranging implications. The very fact that Cough was out here with us, camping out under the stars, was a wonder. Every plant. Every leaf. Every insect and every flower represented a danger to him and this early morning fit was further evidence of his fragility.

But I couldn’t be upset with Cough. I figured the two of us were more or less the same, only he wore his damages on the outside while I buried them deep within. You had to hand it to the kid though, he was out here with us, doing the one thing that most people like him avoided at all cost; being adventurous. I’d give him a pass for whatever inconveniences his presence created for that fact alone. He had guts. Had been dealt a bad hand at birth and despite all his afflictions he was still making a go at it. You had to respect that.

I wasn’t the only one roused abruptly from their slumber by Cough that morning. He had the rest of us up a few moments later, a marathon round of sneezing befalling him, startling the rest of our group awake with a staccato-sounding clamor of a-choo’s. It was just as well, we had to be packed-up and ready to go by six that morning anyway so Simmons’s uncle could give us a ride the remainder of the way to the lake.

Simmons’s uncle Herman picked us up at six fifteen sharp. The glowing suggestion of a rising sun was painting the sky in pastel hues of dull purple and lavender pink and as his truck crested the rise in the road we stood stoically at the end of the path. A box of blueberry Pop-Tarts was making the rounds as we waited, and we munched silently on our sugary snacks, a current of quiet anticipation buzzing among us. I stared off absentmindedly at the horizon, watching as the first rays of light broke over its edge, and listened in as a pair of mourning doves cooed softly in the trees above.

“Hey! Uncle Hermes!” Simmons called as his uncle pulled his faded blue Chevy to a halt by the side of the road. He had the trucks window down, and his darkly tanned forearm, awash in a sea of faded tattoos, hung out the side. As Simmons approached, his uncle reached out his gargantuan hand and swallowed his nephew in a one-armed hug.

“Lentil! You little punk-ass! How’s your mother?” His uncle inquired, his voice deep and raspy, like sandpaper passing over weathered timber.

“She’s fine. On the road more often these days though. She’s with Estée Lauder now and her business takes her out of the country a lot. But we’ve got a housekeeper. She makes me whatever I want to eat. It’s great!”

“You know, your mom always was the fancy one in the family, never understood where that came from you know? It’s like she got all the sophistication, the drive and sociability and I got what was leftover, the wudda’ call it?” Simmons’s uncle cocked his head for a moment as he searched for the words, then smiled when he found them. “The eccentric rebelliousness, that’s it. But I wouldn’t trade it in for a minute kid, the life I’ve lived! The stories I could tell you would make your eyes go wide!”

“Well hopefully this’ll be another chapter in your book Uncle.” Simmons said, trying vainly to wriggle himself free from his oppressive grasp. Hermes ended their embrace suddenly, Simmons falling clumsily to the gravel, and exited his truck, the thick soles of his motorcycle boots soundly loudly in the gravel as he walked briskly to meet the members of our group.

“My names Herman, but my friends call me Hermes,” he said, stopping a few paces in front of us, the bare, muscular arms of his sleeveless flannel shirt folded upon his chest. “And any friends of Lentil’s,” he said, scanning the faces of our half-awake crew “are friends of mine.”

“Excuse me, why do they call you Hermes?” Erica inquired, her easy-going voice rolling over me in waves. I noticed that she had her hand raised eagerly, as if waiting to be called upon in class, and as I looked over at her she smiled.

Hermes, flashing a crooked, toothy grin, pulled back his graying shoulder-length hair from where it covered his neck and revealed a tattoo of a golden pair of winged sandals.

“Because I’m a messenger love,” he said, caressing the weathered skin about his tattoo with his long bony fingers. “You see, Hermes was the God of travelers and thieves. A mythical guide to the Underworld and a conductor of souls to the afterlife. And like me he was quick and cunning, moving freely between worlds, a protector of poets and orators, travelers and herdsmen, literature and wit.”

We all just stood there amazed. As if we were looking into the eyes of an actual mythical God. We had never encountered someone like him before and his presence filled us with awe. He was the type of man who made his own destiny. His deep set eyes holding a level of intensity that hinted at rebellion and daring, and his graying beard, coming to a point at his chin, hiding a remarkably youthful face.

When his nephew had asked Hermes if he could help transport our group to the lake the ‘yes’ was offered freely and without question. Kids should have a proper adventure, Hermes had said to Simmons as they ate barbeque off of paper plates at the family’s Memorial Day cookout. You should get out and see a bit of the world Lentil, figure out if there’s something out there waiting for you, away from the prying eyes of parents and rules, before the mold sets and your future’s been written.

The introductions over, the seven of us gathered-up our gear quickly and piled it into the back of the truck, Hermes easily tossing our bikes into the back as if they were made of balsa wood. He secured them with flexible straps to a frame of wooden slats he had built around the perimeter of his flatbed and then dropped the tailgate, motioning for us the climb aboard. There was room for two of us up front with Hermes, and Simmons and Cough offered to go. Simmons was excited to catch-up with his uncle and Cough was anxious for a respite from the swirling winds of the open flatbed. The rest of us situated ourselves the best we could in the back, pouring ourselves into what little space remained.

Before we left, Hermes came round to stand between the passenger side of the truck and the flatbed, sizing up his eager-eyed cargo. “Now you fellas have a wholesome adventure you hear!” he barked at us as he paced the ground slowly in front of his truck, like a general addressing his assembled troops. “I don’t want to catch wind that any of you shied away from this voyage. That is the price of my services, the fee for the prospect of flirting with Lady Destiny. Be bold and grand things will come to you I’ve always said. Now, one more thing,” he offered, lowering the tone of his voice and stopping dead in his tracks. He pivoted on his boot heels and turned to face us, our rag-tag crew of adventures hanging on his every word.

“Everyone should have trail name, an adventure name, a persona you take on for the road, you get me?” Hermes asked, pointing his finger directly at me. I glanced left and right, surveying my closely packed friends, looks of bewilderment in their eyes. “It’s the sort of name you puff your chest up real big when you speak it!” Hermes bellowed. “You slide it on easily like a mask on Halloween. The lucky ones, the ones like me, who decide to cash in their chips, check-out early and escape the confines of reality, never take it off. Now I want each and every one of you to think long and hard on this and when we get to the lake, I expect you’ll tell me your new name.” finishing his speech, Hermes walked to the back of the truck and raised the tailgate, Kimmel’s long, lanky legs skittering back quickly as it rattled loudly shut.

Seven pairs of eyes followed Hermes closely as he made his way to the drivers side door of the Chevy and stepped in. He fired up the truck and a series of quick, sputtering snarls erupted from below the hood as the engine tried to catch until finally, it came to life with a thundering roar. He looked over his shoulder, out the back window and smiled at us a second before he gunned the engine, pulling out from the roadside in a haze of blue exhaust and billowing dust.

The sudden acceleration threw us around like rag dolls and we had to grope blindly for something to anchor us, my hands alighting by chance on Erica’s shoulder. She responded by throwing her arms around my waist and burying her face in my chest as we rocketed ever faster down the road. A wild-eyed look of fear threaded through our eyes as we held firmly onto to each other, each of us providing the other with some semblance of stability. And in the rapidly shifting atmosphere of the trucks rear bed, as the miles fell quickly away behind us, I could’ve sworn I heard the cries of mythical souls on their way to the Underworld in the howling of the wind.

Read Part IV of Extraordinary America here!

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