Chapter 2: The Final Visit
The stench from the fish mixed with the insects was enough to make Charlie consider hurling. The fish were so slimy and the insects were just so dry. It was not a good mix.
Charlie kept filling the bowls. They would be poured into the cages to feed the baby alligators. He hadn’t been back to see the little ones since the field trip. He was simply too uncomfortable with them, but he wasn’t sure why apart from the obvious. He would have to get used to them if he were to continue to work at the alligator farm once the season began.
“Still getting used to the smell, huh buddy?” Dax asked behind him.
“Yeah, it smells like sewage in here. It’s like an above ground sewer.”
“I’m going to try my best to avoid asking how you know what sewers smell like.”
“You don’t want to know,” Charlie said with a slight shake of the head.
Dax chuckled. He had a very full, deep laugh. Keith on the other hand cackled like a hyena. Charlie hated to admit it, but he preferred Dax to Keith. Keith came across like a best friend, while Dax came across with welcoming authority, like a teacher.
“We’re gonna miss seeing you once the summer begins. Are you sure you don’t want to say goodbye to the little ones in person?”
Charlie bit his tongue. Spending the afternoons at the alligator farm had given him an escape, an escape from school, the constant reminder of how he remained friendless, his episode during the field trip didn’t help matters, and most importantly an escape from his parents. While very proud of him for working and earning his own money, it drove them up the wall that he worked at the farm. He never asked why his parents were so vehemently opposed to alligators. Well, it wasn’t the alligators per se so much as it was the owners. They were two very nice gentlemen that treated him well and enjoyed his company. They didn’t call him ‘I cup’, something Ms. Witcher let slide because she found it amusing seeing as his parents weren’t doing anything about it.
Opening his mouth to speak, Charlie said, “Actually I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”
Dax pulled up a metal chair, which scraped against the stone floor. “I’m all ears, bud.”
“Listen…” he paused taking in a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking, why do I have to stop once break begins? I could be helpful here, I really could! Haven’t I been helpful this past week?”
“Yes, of course you have,” Dax reassured him. “You’ve brought a youthfulness to the mundane day-to-day work during the off-season, but-”
It was like time froze. There was always a ‘but’ and it ruined everything good. They got a break from school BUT they had summer assignments, or assignments over winter break. They got off of school for several snow days BUT make-up days extended into their summer break. He needed this, but he knew that Dax just wouldn’t understand.
“I think you need to spend time with your friends. Kick back, relax, avoid the summer readings as much as possible. I mean, you’re only in middle school. You don’t get too many summer vacations so you gotta take advantage of them for all they’re worth.”
“No buts! Enjoy yourself. This is not a bad thing.”
Charlie’s face dropped. He could tell he was beginning to pout, but he didn’t care. He was getting desperate.
“But, but, but Dax, I,” he paused embarrassed about what he was about to say. Admitting it was the only way he knew he could stick around. Finally letting go, he continued, “I don’t have any friends.”
“What?” Dax asked incredulously. “Oh, Charlie,” Dax said breathily, but with empathy. “I’m so sorry. I’m really sorry to hear that, bud. I know what that feels like because I went through that in high school after I-” he stopped himself midsentence.
“After you what?”
“Nothing. You’ll understand when you get older, but for now just hold onto that innocence as long as possible.”
“I hate innocence. I hate being gullible.”
“Well, gullible is an annoying trait. Keith’s very gullible, you know? I’ve exploited that numerous times.”
“See?” Dax continued. “I knew there was a smile brewing up in you.”
Charlie’s face turned sour again. Beginning to cry, he spited himself for being so emotionally open. “I am such a loser,” Charlie said to himself.
“Oh, no, no you’re not,” Dax said getting up and hugging him.
Dax locked eyes with him and he felt safe. He felt he could tell Dax anything and he wouldn’t be scolded or looked down upon. It was a safe place that was slipping away through his grasp.
“Why can’t I just hang out with you? And Keith?” he added as an afterthought.
“But what about that Everett kid?”
“Everett?” Charlie took a moment trying to recollect who that was. “Oh,” he said dragging the word out as it dawned on him. “He’s the new kid who was in school for this week. He’s cool, I guess. We haven’t talked much outside of that initial bus ride. He just turned 14. He’s a rising eighth-grader.”
“So he’s a little bit older than you, but I bet he doesn’t have many friends yet. You could be that for him.”
“I guess so,” Charlie said with an exaggerated sigh.
Dax beamed with a light laugh. “Tell you what. You can come here once a week and we’ll hang out during the non-busy periods. You can even bring Everett along if he’d like that sorta thing. Even if it’s not once a week though, never be afraid to knock on the door. We’ll always be there for you, through anything if you need to talk.”
Charlie had never heard an adult say that before. He knew what his father would say. He’d rant and rave about how inappropriate that was. Just the fact that the adult hugged him was considered treacherous to his father.
“Now, you’re sure you don’t want to say goodbye to the little ones in person?” Dax asked invitingly.
“I don’t know…”
“You’re not very comfortable with them, are you?”
Charlie shook his head.
Dax placed his hands on Charlie’s shoulders and leaned down to eye level with him. “I can’t really blame you. I’d probably have felt the same way, but I don’t know they just drew me back in. Would it be any more enticing if I let you name one of them?”
Charlie’s face lit up. “Really? I could name one of them?” he asked ecstatic.
“Of course,” Dax said getting back up. “We’ll make it your induction as a part of the clan of alligator breeders.”
Charlie watched Dax as his face tore, his eyes glistened, and his breaths came out short and tense.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” Dax said pulling himself back refocusing on Charlie. “No, you didn’t. I just need you to know that there’s nothing and I mean nothing righteous about this.”
“I only meant it to mean cool…” Charlie bit his lower lip.
“Right, right. I’m sorry, that’s just a point of contention,” Dax stopped himself. “Well I guess you don’t know what that word means. It just brings up a lot of bad memories for me is all. It’s nothing you did wrong. It’s all on me.”
Charlie nodded his head.
“So are we cool, bud?” Dax asked.
“Yeah, we’re cool.”
Charlie followed Dax down two hallways and a stairwell until they finally reached room 250.
“I don’t know why I never asked this before, but why is this place so big if it’s just you and Keith?”
“You’re very observant for your age.”
Charlie raised one eyebrow at him.
“It’s quite simple really. This used to be a school building. It’s been abandoned for several years. Vegetation grew through the walls, so we only restored a tiny bit of it, but we just thought it was the perfect location after we were forced to relocate. We don’t live here though. We share an apartment downtown.”
“Wait, you were forced to relocate? Why?”
Dax hesitated. “That’s another conversation to have when you’re older. Anyways it’s for the best that we moved here because now we can both call you our friend.”
Dax struggled through his keys before finally picking the right one that unlocked the door. The door creaked open the same way it would in a black and white movie. A breeze swept through the room. Charlie shivered his whole body, his head violently shaking to a sped-up drumbeat.
“Oh, Keith,” Dax said shaking his head. “What am I going to do with you?” he said to himself as he walked over and closed the open window.
Charlie barely acknowledged what had just happened before he walked over to see the little ones climbing over each other. There were so many of them, it was like the toilet had overflowed and released all of the supposed alligators in the sewers. One climbed up on top of all the rest and gracefully walked over to the cage, biting one of the bars closest to Charlie.
“Yes. The little love nibbler recognizes you. She actually imprinted on you and Keith, considering you were the second person to touch her. She thinks you’re its parent.”
“Now that’s disgusting.”
Dax laughed slightly. “Well, I appreciate your bluntness.”
Charlie locked eyes with the little nibbler. She was feisty. She seemed to dominate over the other little ones. They really did seem fragile if you looked at them individually, but collectively writhing about they looked like the hair of Medusa.
“That’s it,” Charlie whispered. “That’s your name, you little nibbler.”
“What? What’s her name?”
“Mmm, feisty. Greek mythology, that’s very fierce. I have to admit I hadn’t expected that from you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m full of surprises.”
Medusa gazed at him, her breathing shallow. He just wanted to pick her up and hug her and play with her like a doll.
“Medusa…” he called out. “Medusa. Oh, little Medusa, how I love you.”
The journey to the pastor’s office was wrought with grief. Charlie hated that he was forced to go to church every Sunday. The service was so boring and he lost his precious sleep that he so desperately needed to catch up on the weekends, but for appearances sake he was forced to come.
Every Sunday he would try to hide, hoping his parents didn’t find him and force him to the car. He didn’t like how he had to go to extra ‘fun’ activities, which were either rated G or completely devoid of any real conversation. Having to come for counseling was the worst. It made him sick. None of the kids understood him and they never would. They would mock him endlessly behind their parents’ backs because he was forced into it. He just wanted to spend all his time with Dax and Keith.
Pulling into the church parking lot, Charlie again attempted to beg his parents not to force him into this kind of therapy. He really didn’t think it would help him and it would only ostracize him more from the other kids than he already was.
Ordering him out, Charlie spat on the gravel not caring if he was defacing church property. His parents drove off. He hoped they had seen him spit. He hoped it made them reel inside.
Stepping into the building, he was greeted by Pastor Reid who extended his hand.
“Charlie! So good to see you.”
“Wish I could say the same,” Charlie muttered under his breath.
“It’ll just take me a second to get my office ready. Can you give me 2 minutes?”
“My ride left, so yeah, you have plenty of time.”
“Ok, good,” Pastor Reid said sounding like a game show host encouraging a contestant.
Charlie whistled to himself trying to pass the time. It was all so pointless. He knew he wouldn’t get anything out of this time and that Pastor Reid would say that the only way to fix the problem was through prayer. Yeah…it was gonna be one heck of a counseling session.
Everett walked out of the bathroom in the main hallway. Charlie couldn’t believe his eyes. He stumbled for the words to say, only making wheezing sounds.
Everett finally saw him, embarrassed. It was nice to see that someone else was as embarrassed as he was to be there.
“What are you doing here, Charlie?” Everett asked.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“Technically you just did,” Everett sassily replied.
Charlie glowered at him.
“I was simply pointing out the obvious,” Everett began. “Never mind. I’m here because-”
“Ah!” Pastor Reid exclaimed when he came back. “I see you two have met. Charlie, this is my nephew Everett.”
“Your, your nephew?”
Everett put his index finger to his mouth. Charlie got it immediately. They could discuss this later because nobody wanted to discuss this in front of the pastor.
“Are we gonna chill later?” Everett asked.
“You’ve met before?” Pastor Reid asked.
“Yeah, on the bus to school last week,” Charlie answered. “Yeah, let’s meet up at the alligator farm tomorrow.”
“You got it,” Everett said as he walked down the hallway and down the stairwell.
“Shall we step into my office, then?”
“Ok, Pastor Reid,” Charlie belligerently conceded.
“Just call me Reid. I can’t stand all the formalities one-on-one.”
“All right then. Reid,” Charlie choked on the word. It felt strange calling him by his first name. Apart from Dax and Keith, Reid was the only adult who solely wanted to be called by their first name. Reid being in a clear position of authority, not only over himself, but over his parents as well made it especially freaky to call him his first name on such a personal basis. There was typically a wall the size of the wall of China between a pastor and the children of the church, but Reid had just opened the door. It didn’t feel right. It felt improper, but he liked it.
Reid motioned to the seat opposite from him as he sat down in a black swivel chair. Charlie sat down on a red felt chair. It didn’t swivel so that was disappointing, but at least it was comfortable.
“Well,” Reid stated with the cheesiest beam plastered across his face. “Why don’t you start by telling me how this week has gone?”
Charlie bit his right cheek. His cheek had become raw. It could easily start bleeding if he bit hard enough, but he stopped himself because he didn’t want this conversation to be any weirder than it was already going to be.
“It wasn’t a major suckfest, I guess. It was pretty chill,” he added in an attempt to not sound so glum.
“That’s good. In what ways was it ‘chill’?” Reid asked with air quotes.
“I spent a lot of time after school helping out Dax and Keith.”
Reid looked mystified. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who they are. Are they peers? Do they go to the church?”
“No and no. They run the alligator farm.”
“Oh, right, right,” Reid said quickly. “They’re an interesting pair. I haven’t gotten to talk with them much. I’ve only really met them in passing and heard how some of the church members have interacted with them.”
“They’re really nice.”
“I bet they are. Do you feel comfortable with them?”
“More comfortable with them than with members of the church?” Reid prodded.
Charlie wasn’t sure how to answer. If he answered honestly it would make the church look bad, but if he told Reid what he wanted to hear, then that didn’t help anybody. He shook his head. Furious with himself for starting to take the counseling session seriously, less than 30 seconds in, he said, “Yeah. I don’t feel comfortable with any of the congregational members.”
“I had a feeling you were going to say that.”
“You don’t think I hear things? You don’t think I’ve been watching you for the past 3 years since I’ve arrived here? I’ve watched you grow and slowly mature. You were one of the only kids who was comfortable with me when I first arrived, but as others became more comfortable with me being here, you grew more and more distant.”
Charlie was floored. He hadn’t realized that everything Reid said was absolutely true until it was verbalized for him. How could he have been so oblivious?
“You know what I think?” Reid continued. “You must have heard that hiring me was controversial and tensions rose amongst the congregation. You’ve consistently been drawn to controversy though. That’ll probably never change, but once the controversy around me died down, you felt no need to stick around.”
Hanging his head in shame, Charlie avoided eye contact with Reid. This wasn’t counseling it was all some lame attempt to gut him so that he would break down emotionally. He hated that it was working. Reid handed him a tissue as he started sniffling.
“I’m sorry, Charlie. Sometimes I forget how young you are. You weren’t ready for this conversation, that’s obvious.”
Pride took over. Charlie wiped the tears away.
“No!” he shouted at Reid. “Don’t you say that. I can handle anything.”
“Yes…” Reid dragged the word out, obviously withholding his true feelings.
“Go on,” Charlie dared. “I’ll give you a dollar if you tell me what you really think.”
Reid burst out laughing. “I don’t need your money, I just fear how you’ll react if I give you the truth.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, let’s just say I’m glad there’s no glass table in my office.”
It was a low blow, but the man had a point. Disgruntled, Charlie slouched in his chair pouting.
“Mom and Dad forced you to this, didn’t they?” Reid asked.
“How’d you know?”
“Because it’s reading all over your face. Thoughts?”
Charlie remained silent. He hoped if he looked miserable enough that the conversation could end.
“All right then. Listen, I think you’re a bright kid, but an unusual one. You struggle to maintain friends and you’re not really sure where you fit in with the church, and that’s ok. We don’t have to continue to meet up. I don’t think you’re inherently violent. I just think your lack of community with peers is severely hindering you and it’s causing you to make dire decisions that are negatively impacting those around you.
“I’ll promise you this. My door is always open if I’m in the office. Always. You may not like what I’ve got to say, but I’ll always be honest with you. Are you feeling all right now?”
Charlie remained still, motionless.
Reid sighed, scratched behind his left ear, and said, “You can go. You’re off the hook.”
The car keys jingled before Todd turned the ignition. Lynn was taking a brief nap in the back seat, while Charlie stared out the window continuously. They hadn’t eaten out as a family for a few years. Money was tight and none of them felt the need to go out for anything apart from church related activities.
There was a peace about stepping out of the house every once in a while. The locally owned Indian restaurant had been passed down for three generations. Amita Emani, who also happened to be a church member, owned the restaurant.
Todd wasn’t keen on Indian food or any foreign food for that matter, but he went out of his way to support his brothers and sisters in the church any way he could. Charlie seemed to always like it, at least from what he remembered. He had been distant recently. The violent outburst seemed to be a fluke, but the clear separation was undeniable. This was something that could easily be rectified and what better way to patch things up than over a meal?
It didn’t take long before they reached the restaurant. It was only five miles away. While he appreciated the silence in the car as a time for internal processing, in this instance it wasn’t valuable. The peace only emphasized everything that was lacking between him and his son. He wasn’t sure what had happened. When he first held his child in his hands, he had been convinced that he could do no wrong. He would willingly give up his life for this precious child who he would protect as long as he was still breathing. Things were different now. Charlie was growing up faster than he felt comfortable with. With his maturing he demanded more and more independence and with that he kept pushing against the authority of the church. It wasn’t healthy for an 11-year-old to be this headstrong, but it was who God had given him as a son. He would figure out a way to connect with his son. He had to. He loved him more than he could have ever imagined, even in his push against authority.
As he pulled into the parking lot Lynn shook herself awake and Charlie turned his gaze toward the store’s sign. Todd tilted his head toward the door. Everyone opened their car doors and stepped out.
Todd looked around. They were the only car in the parking lot. He thought they would be open, but he might be wrong. He dubiously looked into the store windows to see if there were any lights on. Amita stood at the front, staring at an empty restaurant, her head propped up in her hands.
Todd opened the door letting Lynn and Charlie walk in before him. Amita perked up instantly, a smile slowly spreading across her cheeks. It gave him great joy to see that look of joy on her face when they walked in. Looking at Charlie, she became wide eyed.
“Oh my goodness, Charlie! How you’ve grown!” Amita exclaimed. “You’re my height now,” she added flabbergasted.
“Yeah…” Charlie uttered. “Freaky.”
Todd had to bite his tongue from laughing. It had been so long that Charlie obviously didn’t remember who Amita was.
“How long has it been?” Amita asked. “What like 5 years or something?”
“Wow, I guess it has been that long,” Todd responded.
“A lot’s changed with the business, obviously. It’s just one cook and me now. Actually this is our last week in business. You must have heard! I’m so glad that one loyal customer decided to stop by before we have to close shop.”
Todd felt awful. He had only seen Amita in passing during church Sunday mornings. He hadn’t heard of her financial troubles, but it seemed as if everyone in the community was struggling. The main reason they stopped going was because they could no longer afford the prices, but he felt he could make an exception. Looking at the place now, what once was a hopping restaurant where you had to make a reservation a week in advance now just seemed eerily empty. It hadn’t been that way for a long time. It was devastating. By the time they stopped going 5 years previously, they could easily just walk in whenever they wanted and be seated at a table, but then the restaurant was always half full.
“Do you want your usual table?” Amita asked bringing Todd back to his surroundings.
“Absolutely, for old time’s sake.”
Todd waited for Lynn and Charlie to pass him as Amita led them to their table. He was glad she did so because for the life of him he couldn’t remember where their usual table had been.
As they sat down, Amita walked over to the kitchen stating she had to tell the cook to start up the grill. Lynn breaking her silence said, “This is depressing. Why’d you have to pick here of all places? It’s been in the bulletin for weeks that Amita’s moving.”
“I’ve never seen it mentioned!” Todd defended himself.
Lynn rolled her eyes at him, which only made him angry that she thought he was so absentminded.
“If you read the women’s fellowship announcements, you would have seen that we’re throwing a going away party for her right before she moves to Virginia. I hadn’t realized when you said we were going out that you’d pick here. I won’t be able to enjoy my food at all. I’ll only be thinking about poor Amita. She has to start all over again. I can’t believe you did this to me,” Lynn said standing her menu up, hiding behind it.
“Don’t hide. Remember what we promised each other during New Years?”
Charlie piped up, “When is she coming back? I’m ready to eat.”
It disturbed Todd to see Charlie so unaffected by Amita’s terrible loss, but he was only a kid. He couldn’t understand what it would entail to start life over in a different state. He would let that one slide. Being more gracious was one of the things he wanted to rectify between him and his son.
“She’ll be back soon,” Lynn said.
“What are you planning on getting?” Todd asked Charlie.
“Who me?” Charlie pointed to himself. Todd nodded. “I was just thinking about getting the chole bhature.”
“I’m sorry, but we’re out of chole bhature,” Amita said startling everyone. It was like she had snuck up on them intentionally just to get a laugh. Todd was being spiteful. Amita was a good girl. Charlie stared at the table looking disgruntled.
“That’s fine. What do you have?” Lynn interjected.
“We don’t have much honestly. As you can see, well, it’s been a rough week. How about I just order you three specials?”
“That sounds good,” Todd replied.
“But Dad!” Charlie responded agitated.
Todd glared at Charlie silently demanding him to be quiet. Charlie looked away, folding his arms across his chest.
“Thank you, Amita!” Lynn called out after her as she walked away into the kitchen, tears brimming around her eyelids.
“I feel terrible for her,” Todd managed to say. He could tell his eyes were glistening. Her entire world was changing and there was nothing he could do to help her with it. Charlie was going to complain no matter where they went, but this, this just seemed too much.
“I just feel hungry,” Charlie said under his breath.
“Fine, Char. If you want to leave, then leave!” he responded disdainfully. Todd passed him a house key. “Walk home. If you can’t stop complaining, then I don’t want you here. Amita cannot handle you complaining like a toddler and she shouldn’t have to.”
Charlie picked up the key and placed it in his pocket. He stood up and walked away saying, “Whatever.”
The rock skipped across the glade. Everett leaned over and picked up another rock. Instead he just tossed it into the water and watched as the ripples spread all the way to the shore. There was something deeply therapeutic about sitting on a rock and observing the water as it twisted and turned, was fast, yet still, always moving, yet unmoving. He could manipulate the still to see what he wanted. Skipping rocks, or throwing them in, or jumping in would cause permeations that could be observed, but he was certain much smarter men than he had observed it all before. He simply wanted to observe it for himself.
A praying mantis crawled up onto his leg. He looked down at it. Trying to keep his leg as still as possible, he observed what the bug would do. He was a part of nature and the fact that the praying mantis was comfortable enough with him to crawl on him showed that nature had embraced him as one of the safe ones, one of their own.
The praying mantis was beautiful in its own way. Others could never see that, in particular his Uncle Reid would freak if he saw it, but that was primarily because his uncle didn’t appreciate nature. His uncle was too intensely focused on text that was over 2,000 years old. A text Everett was convinced didn’t apply to anything practical today. He missed who his uncle used to be. Uncle Reid used to be so much fun to visit over the summer, but somehow things had changed. He didn’t think he could ever tell him what he was going through, although he probably already knew since his parents had caught him. He was sure they told his uncle before he came down for the summer. Uncle Reid just had enough tact to not say anything about it.
Everett looked back at his leg. The praying mantis was gone. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since the insect left, but he took it as a sign. Nature had embraced him. There was no god outside of nature itself and it deserved the utmost respect because humans only had a temporary residence on the earth.
Looking at the sun in the sky, Everett could tell it was about mid-day. It wouldn’t take him long to walk back to the alligator farm and meet up with Charlie. In Everett’s experience there was no better clock than observing the weather, the placement of the sun or moon in the sky told him everything he needed to know. Late was an irrelevant term for the lesser minded.
The walk back was even more peaceful than the early morning walk. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the sun did not blind him. The shade from the leaves on the trees was all the protection he needed. Nobody was on the nature trail. He was at total peace away from human interaction. Humans were messy and seemingly destructive. He could rectify that. His generation could change everything, but he had a major fault. He loved humans, a little too much if he was honest. There was something odd about Charlie that he was particularly drawn to. Charlie wasn’t special, but he was mesmerizing. He wasn’t sure why he felt that way, but that was something he wanted to find out. He believed in sending the question out in nature. Nature would tell him what to do. It would guide and protect him. It was an absolute certainty.
Looking around him at his surroundings he had a feeling he wasn’t supposed to be going to the alligator farm, at least not today. Nature was calling him, beckoning him to return. He needed answers. This was something that Charlie wouldn’t be able to provide. Charlie was a fascinating human, but nature could teach him lessons about life and could help mentor him in the way he should go.
Charlie would understand. The breeze drew him off the beaten path towards thicker trees. The tree branches nicked his face a couple of times causing blood to smear his face a dull red. There was no going back now. He had made his decision. The only way to a truthful life was off the path. Exploring the unknown could be dangerous, but that much more fulfilling. Nature told him everything he needed to know.