“Well,” Michael said, “I gotta say, that’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. I feel smarter and much better about myself.”
“You should,” Bryson replied. “Okay, who’s next?”
“I’ll go now,” Sarah said. “I’ll tell you guys about the time I tinkled on my aunt.”
Ten minutes later, Michael had the giggles and there was nothing to be done about it. Gerard certainly didn’t notice, sawing logs like a lumberjack over on his cot, but Nancy shushed them several times and told Sarah it was time to go to bed. Sarah promised that she would soon.
“There’s no way that happened,” Bryson said.
Sarah was adamant. “Yes, it did! I swear. She was sleeping on my grandma’s couch and I had a sleepwalking…issue. You can ask my parents when they aren’t stone dead over there.”
“But the physics of it,” Bryson countered. “I mean, how’d you balance?”
This set Michael off again, his face and chest hurting from laughing so much. He hadn’t felt this way since before Kaine had started haunting his life.
“I think we’ve dwelled on this subject long enough,” Sarah said. “It’s Michael’s turn.” She shifted against his cot, and the faint light coming from outside illuminated her eyes. “How’re you going to top those two stories?”
Michael had been leaning on his one elbow for way too long, and it hurt. He pulled up his legs and folded them beneath him, rubbing his shoulder. “I don’t know. Let me think a second.”
Silence settled on the friends, and Michael realized how long they’d been talking and laughing. There was an awkwardness in that silence, and Michael knew exactly why.
“It’s weird to think back,” he said. “I mean, I don’t even know what’s really a memory. Who knows if a lot of it wasn’t just programmed into my history?”
“Forget that crap,” Bryson said. “Your life is your life. Now tell us a good one before I fall asleep over here.”
Michael wrapped his arms around his knees, still thinking.
Finally, after a good several minutes, he announced, “Got it! The time my dad almost killed me with a rock.”
It was weird, telling the story. Since finding out that he was a Tangent, it had gotten to the point that he couldn’t trust even things most people took for granted. What his eyes saw. What his fingers felt. What he tasted, what he breathed, what he smelled. How could he ever know if any of it was real? Or ever had been?
But as he sat there on that cot in the darkness, the sounds of Gerard’s snores like a sound track in the background, he remembered. He remembered his life as a little boy, and nothing could ever take that away from him.
“My dad loved camping,” he said. “Loved it. Especially since we lived in the smoggy city. About once every other month, he’d gather up a bunch of gear, run around the house like a giddy little kid, then haul us into a truck, even Helga. Always Helga. She was as much a part of our family as any of us.”
“Where’d you usually go?” Sarah asked.
“Somewhere along the Appalachian Trail, up in the mountains, as remote a place as he could find. Sometimes we’d drive for hours and hours. It was before I was allowed to Sink into the Sleep, so I loved it just as much as my dad. It was an adventure.”
He paused, picturing it all in his mind. “I can smell the campfire—that was always the best part. The crackles and the popping and the glowing coals. My mom didn’t enjoy roughing it too much, but she endured it because I think she could see how happy it made me. And my dad, obviously. And Helga totally got into it. She was like a forest ranger out there, barking orders and gathering way more wood than we’d ever use. But also making sure we didn’t burn the forest down around us.”
“She’s tough,” Sarah whispered. Michael could hear the smile in her voice.
“So this one time,” Michael continued, “I think I thought I was an Eagle Scout or something, because I decided to go on my very own hike—I didn’t even tell anyone I was leaving. I marched down one mountain and up the next—they were more like hills, actually. They weren’t that tall. I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe that I’d discover some ancient burial ground or a handful of arrowheads, who knows. I was an idiot, like Bryson, I guess.”
“Good company,” his friend answered dryly.
Michael barely heard him, lost in that old, old memory. “Anyway, of course I got turned around. I didn’t have a clue where I was. I tried retracing my steps, but I’m pretty sure I was just going in circles, up and down the exact same mountain.”
“Yikes,” Sarah said. “How old were you?”
“Nine or ten. I was scared out of my mind because it started getting dark. I called for my parents and Helga, but they didn’t hear me. I was terrified—I remember I started crying and I got more and more hysterical. Finally, I was in some little valley, and I just…I don’t know. I didn’t exactly pray, but I tried to reach out to my dad. Begging him in my head to come and find me.”
Michael shifted again to lean back on his elbows, stretching his legs out in front of him. Sarah rested her arm across his knees and looked up at him. Her eyes were hidden in the dark, but he was happy she was facing his way.
“It wasn’t two or three minutes later when a huge boulder came crashing down the mountain from straight above where I stood. I heard it before I saw it, snapping trees and crunching undergrowth. I looked up just in time to see it come barreling through a couple of pines, on a dead-on course for me. The thing only missed me by an inch after I dove out of the way. It totally smashed a tree to pieces.”
Bryson and Sarah didn’t move and he could barely hear them breathe.
“Well,” he said, “I figured maybe it was a sign, so I followed its path back up the mountain. It was easy because it’d practically made its own road down the hillside. And I’m guessing you already know what it led me to.”
“Your family,” Sarah replied.
“Yep. I saw my dad first, and as soon as he laid eyes on me, he sprinted over—he had to jump over a couple of logs—and pulled me into a huge bear hug. I can remember my back cracking ’cause he squeezed so hard. And I’m pretty sure I squeezed just as hard. Then my mom and Helga were there, all of us boohooing and hugging and laughing. It was crazy, and I’ll never forget it. Especially one thing.”