Crossroads & Stepping Stones
A Short Story by: Dustin Brackbill & Ryan S. Graybill
“No waiting, darlin’.”
It being a woman’s voice caught Ashlyn off guard - which adequately portrayed the aggregated events leading up to this particular moment.
“And, seriously, you’ll see ‘what’...soon enough.”
With that unconventional exchange, the taxi burned rubber and left the helpless and mostly hopeless young woman stranded by the side of the road. Fortunately for her, the road was not busy. Hardly any traffic had come by the intersection, so she was not in danger from getting run over. On the flip side, she was now alone. Without a cellphone. Or wi-fi device. Ashlyn did not do alone very well, so the panic of that thought was now creeping in.
She also lacked the abilities of direction and decision. As with many in her generation, technology was in charge of the thinking and planning, she merely followed and dutifully reported back on social media. Without her cell phone, Ashlyn shouted out into the world her current status: “This sucks, this sucks! This SUCKS!” She repeated in an increasingly bewildered state. She reached for some pebbles on the street and threw them in frustration. Choosing her next step would not be a happy or easy process.
Fortunately, ...or not, after some time had passed, a large tractor trailer cab chugged slowly down the street. The reflection from the hot mid-day sun on the well polished surface of the truck gave a blinding glare to Ashlyn’s view, but she was optimistic for a rescue. Instead, she got a companion.
“Really?! Here? Come On!”
“Here and now buddy. Good luck and GET OUT!”
The middle aged black man hesitantly stepped down from the truck, a bit upset, surprised and depressed at his new surroundings. The truck pulled away slowly with some exhaust from its stack and a very loud honk for good measure. It was strangely both ominous and cheerful when the driver waved out the window.
“Now what?!” exclaimed Dwayne. It was a comment as much to himself as to the girl or to God above. He stared across the intersection at Ashlyn, who he noticed was unwilling to make eye contact with him and seemed desperate for the truck to return. With no stores around, no homes or signs of help, he was starting to feel some of her concern. But he was a practical man given to thoughtful work and effort, so no moping or fretting would avail to any good at this point.
“Hey, you, umm, do you have a cell phone?” Ashlyn half-heartedly yelled across the street.
“Nope. I was asked to leave it behind. Seems like I should have thought that through,” replied Dwayne. He wondered about crossing the street, yet wanted to wait until the girl was feeling safe enough so he wouldn’t need to worry that calling the cops on him would be her first priority - if she had a phone.
The minutes of silence between them stretched uncomfortably. Sweat was dripping down Dwayne’s back and the sun was burning Ashlyn’s freckled face. This was almost as lonely as going solo, she thought. But then another car approached. To her delight, it was a long stretch limo! What was that doing in this empty landscape? The anticipation as the heat waves rose off the road and the approaching car brought hope back to Ashlyn and curiosity to Dwayne. Both were making a plan for how to get in that limo - which no doubt had the A/C cranked.
In sync they both stepped bravely into the road and put up their hands to flag down the car. It would’ve been impressive to watch from an aerial view, right up to the part where the car kept speeding forward and they both had to dive back to their corners - bruised and rejected. Hope and curiosity seemed dashed, but the limo threw them another surprise and slowed to a stop about 100 feet passed them. Eventually the rear door opened and an Indian man in a blue business suit stepped out.
“Just a sec. It’ll be fine. I’ll get this all taken care of.”
Wanting - or rather, expecting a response - Anvay didn’t get one.
And before Anvay could even close the door, the disinterested chauffeur pulled away at the same speed as his approach. It startled Anvay, but he quickly recovered, smiled, and turned to the stranded pedestrians. Turning on the charm was second nature to him, so he switched gears and approached Ashlyn and Dwayne as old friends would.
The intersection now seemed crowded and the three wanderers began to converge at last.
“Hold it!” Ashlyn shouted not only catching the other two off guard, but herself as well. “Just hold it!” Her reiteration was not as loud, but her sternness was evident.
Anvay and Dwayne halted. Dwayne a little bit more easily than Anvay. It went against every fiber in Anvay’s being to take orders from anyone. Perusing his surroundings reminded him he wasn’t in corporate America anymore. It also reminded him, quite humbly, that if he couldn’t get the driver to stay put then perhaps a strange new reality could be forming. With this thought running through his mind and seeing this woman panicked and terrified, he submitted to her request. Remembering not everything comes back all at once, he motioned with his hand that he had no intention of moving.
Ashlyn, surprised that her voice was being heard, felt relief. Looking over at the other man across the street, Dwayne motioned as well that he had every intention of holding his ground.
“I just don’t think I’m ready. Yet.”
At this Anvay smiled his well-rehearsed business smile. His white teeth made Ashlyn pause. For a brief moment she felt in her gut that that smile was familiar, but quickly chalked it up to it possibly being a celebrity he reminded her of.
The three strangers sat at their respective corners of the intersection. Dwayne took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow while Anvay loosened his striped-pattern tie. Ashlyn sat, still on her guard, while visions of being taken against her will played out in her head.
They were silent for several minutes. Dwayne thought that if there were traffic lights hung across each route, they would have turned from red to green to red again a half dozen times. Time seemed to no longer exist. Having his devices and even his watched stripped from him, he had no idea the time. He wasn’t sure if the sun was ascending or descending.
Feeling there was no choice but to trust them – she felt her life would end either way – Ashlyn spoke. “How long did it take to get here?” Her voice had lost its demand from before. It was weak from both her inability to be tough in this situation and the unbearable heat. Neither Dwayne nor Anvay spoke. “I said…”
“No idea. No watch,” Dwayne stated while wiping his brow. “Did they take yours?”
“Yes, they did. Or she did. I think there was just one. Everything except my clothes was taken.”
Anvay interjected. “How long did it take you?”
“They blindfolded me, but didn’t tie me up. I could hear the radio station. Every hour they would seem to give the time. But that’s what is so peculiar. I would hear the time given on the hour, but by the next hour I heard...a more significant passage of time had passed.”
“So what time do you think you got here?” Dwayne asked.
“It was about four o’clock. In the morning.”
Dwayne was confused. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“I’m not lying!” She said defensively.
Dwayne put both of his hands palm-out. “I’m not saying you are.” He gathered his thoughts for a moment. “It just seemed like you weren’t here that long when I got here. I guess I’m the one not making sense.”
“I was here for several hours. When I woke up…”
“They drugged you!?” Dwayne asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t…think so.” His comment made her think. “I was just tired…”
Anvay stood. “So, you were both tired and travelled a long way. I get that. But I gotta tell you that time and energy are a bit warped here. We should get moving…” He said showing impatience. Stepping onto the road quickly got Dwayne’s attention.
“Easy, dude. No need for that. Step back and sit down.” Dwayne said looking over at Anvay who rolled his eyes but heeded the plea.
“It’s okay.” Ashlyn spoke up and looked to her left at Dwayne. “He has a point. We need some kind of a plan or we will roast out here.”
The three sat quietly for several minutes before Dwayne broke the silence.“Here’s what I know: They blindfolded me. Put me in the front seat. Must’ve been soundproof windows, cuz I didn’t hear a thing. Not outside or inside. The driver just muttered to himself once and awhile and slurped his drink.” Dwayne didn’t feel like saying anything else. There wasn’t much else. The reality was becoming more difficult to swallow. Especially with a parched throat. Dwayne thought for a moment about the muttering. It almost seemed like sometimes the driver was either attempting a conversation or giving advice. What was it he said? he thought to himself. Itineris?
Again the three were quiet before Ashlyn uncharacteristically initiated more conversation. Turning to her right, she looked across the road – not a single car had passed - to the Indian man who was now wiping his brow with his tie. “What about you? You aren’t saying much?”
Anvay squinted, not because of the sun (because it now behind his back), but rather out of confusion. During this, Dwayne and Ashlyn both looked at each other in their own bewilderment as to why their companion wasn’t answering.
“Are you okay, dude?”
Anvay stood and walked diagonally across the intersection so he was equidistant from them. He glanced back between Dwayne and Ashlyn looking more confused with each look. He finally spoke. “You two seriously don’t remember this?”
“Remember what exactly?” Dwayne said a split second before Ashlyn herself was about to ask the same thing.
“Ashlyn! Dwayne!” He looked at them as he said their names out loud. He had their undivided attention before he continued. “Remember being here before.”
Ashlyn blinked. Shook her head. Wondered if this was a dream after all and she simply needed to wake again.
Dwayne, however, did not take it so easily. In fact, there was an anger rising up that surprised even him.
“So, you are seriously saying that you know us AND know this place?! What kind of trick are you playing, man? Did you orchestrate this is any way? YOU certainly weren’t blindfolded or kidnapped or thrown in a truck. In fact, you DID look like you knew what was going on when you stepped out of that limo.” Dwayne’s fists were tightening. Not only was he ready to protect and defend this confused girl, but he felt a need for some sort of justice. He stepped forward two steps. “Explain yourself, Anvay.”
“Ah, so, you do know my name as well. Interesting. Maybe your memory is blocked. Hers too I would guess.” Anvay wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed or how much to divulge.
“Let’s say this much for now,” he continued slowly, “we need each other. While I am here freely and you are not, there is no doubt that we need each other to move forward.”
“Which way.” The soft clear voice of Ashlyn was back, certainly confused but seemingly ready. Ashlyn was once a decisive person. Once, as a child, she had created an elaborate scavenger hunt for her brother. It was meant to entertain both of them, and to keep him busy and out of her hair for a while. She knew the plan, the map, the clues, and the endgame as they developed like a polaroid in her head. It was a past that she could enjoy remembering. Then things all got so clouded and desperate and real. Now she faced a reality that seemed beyond her, but asking this question might have been the turning point to her fragile mind.
Unfortunately, Ashlyn’s partners were not much help on this point. Dwayne was all for making plans and getting going normally. He would be up before dawn to work with full dedication to his craft. Only problem was, he didn’t see much of a future. It was the old “one day at a time” scenario for Dwayne, and now all of his days brought him to this place. He had regrets, no doubt, and his share of pain inside and out. In fact, facing a disease like leukemia as a child was a shadow that hung over him. Even when he overcame it and was pronounced clear and healthy, Dwayne hung on to that shadow like a cloak. He knew there were silver linings aplenty, but looking too far ahead for him only meant the chance to see another storm. So he took it “one day at a time”, thankful and full of his best effort.
Here and now, there was no plan and too many questions. Dwayne was angry and confused and most definitely indecisive. Looking after Ashlyn gave him a focus, but he had no answers. He had only a shrug for her and a strong stare for Anvay.
“Do you know what my name means?” said Anvay with a sincerity that could
be real or practiced, and most likely both. “In Hindi it means joined or intersected. This was very relevant to me as a child, for I was born with a conjoined twin. She did not last through the first day after a very difficult delivery. My mother would hold me as a baby and weep for the loss of one child, while crying tears of joy for the survival of the other child. Can you imagine that?” Now there was real heart in the speech that Anvay was sharing. It was not planned, in fact, the memory had not been uttered in many years.
“My parents moved us to America when I was still young, for my health care, education, and success. I was often reminded of the path we made and the rewards, hardships, and decisions that came as a result of my birth. Now, Ashlyn and Dwayne, we are here at a crossroads. As I said, we have been here before. And I am afraid to say, we may be here again. For our destiny is joined. While our past and future may be time away from us, this moment is ours. And so is this decision. So, I turn it back to you… which way?”
Ashlyn avoided the question, making Anvay a bit uneasy. “So, we all know each other. Right?”
“Yes.” Anvay responded, his frustration more transparent.
“But not necessarily as adults.” This caught Dwayne’s attention. So much so, that he felt inclined to step even closer to his present company. Ashlyn continued. “I knew I recognized that smile. As soon as you stepped out of that car I knew it. It lost itself to arrogance and perhaps greed, but I remembered it. It was a smile that lit the room.”
Anvay listened more intently as she went on, seemingly enlightened by the story she was unfolding. He felt strange, or rather, the memory felt strange, disconnected. His eyes became wide and tears almost fell. All of the sudden, he knew. He knew why he was being overcome with emotion and awkwardness. It was a real memory. A memory from his very own life – before everything happened. Reaching out his hand, he almost touched Ashlyn’s arm. Not to harm her, but to link the connection that was being revealed. Stopping short, he realized what only a small touch could and would do. He retracted his hand and kept listening.
Ashlyn smiled. “You were one of my best students.” She laughed through her nose at the memory. “I was your teacher.” Caught up in flooding memory, she paused. Dwayne and Anvay continued their stare. “You were new that year. It was November and unlike most other new kids, you won over the class. It was your charm. It drew people in. The strange thing is…my memories are out of order after that.”
“And?” Dwayne insisted she explain.
“The things I remember happening in my life after that…”
“Yes?” Dwayne persisted.
“I was younger.”
“What do you mean?!”
“When you look back on your life, you know their order. Someone knows they played varsity soccer after field day in third grade. My memories aren’t like that. The chronology of everything that I’m starting to remember is out of order. The next memory I have I was younger, but I’m certain it happened after,” she looked at Anvay, “being your teacher.”
Dwayne furrowed his brow. “Maybe you were around the same age as you were when you were a teacher. You know how things that happened close to each other can be easily confused? Like if they’re marked by a significant moment."
Ashlyn stared out into the empty intersection.
“Are you sure they’re out of order?”
“Yes. Because when I look back I go from being a teacher to living on Glacier Street.”
“How old were you?”
“Eight.” She was caught in more detail of the specific memory. “We had a park nearby, Nickel Mine Park…” Dwayne’s eyes widened again. “There was this huge tree there…”
“We wrote our names on it,” Dwayne interjected. Ashlyn jerked her head towards him. Eyes big. Heart elevating. “You didn’t have a knife. I didn’t have one either, but you had a…”
“…a permanent marker.”
“We didn’t carve our names, but we wrote them with a Sharpie.” Dwayne showed for the first time he was capable of smiling.
“We were best friends.” Ashlyn and Dwayne looked at each other. Feeling emotional due to the memory, they stepped towards one another and were going to hug.
Ashlyn and Dwayne froze and looked at Anvay.
“You don’t want to do that. A touch, of any kind, could send us away.”
“Isn’t that what we want?” Dwayne inquired.
“It’s not that simple. It will send us away, but like you said before, Ashlyn, the chronology of everything is screwed up. We don’t know when we’ll end up.” He turned around, put his fists on his hips and stared at each corner of the intersection that lay in front of them.
Ashlyn spoke. “What is it? What are you thinking?”
“Don’t ask me how I know this, because the truth of the matter is that I don’t know this. I only feel it.” Anvay turned back around. “We need to touch.”
“What?” Dwayne asked quickly and slightly frightened.
“No, remember, a touch could send us away. If that happens, we need to find each other. No matter when we are in our lives, we need to find each other.”
“I hate to be the pessimist here,” Dwayne said, “but how in God’s good name are we supposed to do that?! It’s a big world out there. There’s no way of knowing when or where we’ll end up.”
Anvay responded. “We need to have a place in mind where we can…”
“Glacier Street,” Ashlyn declared.
“Exactly!” Anvay agreed. “We know the both of you will be there and if you grow up to be a teacher there’s a possibility you teach nearby, which means eventually I will show up in the picture.”
Dwayne thought out loud, “Ignoring the fact that seems a bit too easy, let’s say that all works out. Does it make things better if we’re all different ages? There’s a vast amount of time and events and occurrences that happen between all of us. I know, I’m not making any sense…it just seems like whatever we’re to do, we need to be the same age.”
“I don’t think it’s about age. I think it’s about meeting each other. We are here because of our choices, correct?” Anvay asked.
“I didn’t choose to be here.”
“Right, Dwayne, but our choices led us here one way or another. It seems to me, we need to find each other and keep each other on the right path.”
“If we do that,” Ashlyn chimed in, “then we don’t get blindfolded and stripped of our devices?”
“I don’t know. But we have to do something. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Ashlyn said more confidently than Dwayne.
“So what happens when we get to Glacier Street?”
Anvay looked at his future teacher of long ago and then looked at Dwayne. “We wait for each other.”
Ashlyn looked out into the direction of the mountains and made a decision. Pointing in the opposite direction of the majestic ridges she said, “We need to go that way.”
“How do you know?”
“Because Glacier Street is nowhere near mountains. We need to find civilization and when we touch…well, we can only hope somehow we remember this conversation. Everybody okay with that?”
Impressed with her decision-making, the other two agreed and the three then set off away from the mountains and hopefully back into each other’s lives. After their first few steps, they linked arms, and that was the end of the first intersection.
Glacier Street lacked the visual beauty that it’s name implied. It was really an isolated narrow road, with storage units on one side and abandoned industrial buildings on the other. There was, however, an old withered tree, proudly standing guard over a young lady. When Ashlyn woke up, the first thing she saw was the tree, rooted there by the curb as if it was waiting for her to finally arrive again. She appreciated the shade of the old oak tree, as it was a hot mid-summer day. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember much more about her location - not the why or the where or the how of her situation. Ashlyn was alone in a memory that she didn’t know she was reliving.
She did sit up and the first thing she saw was… her name! Written in faded black on the smooth bark next to her was “Ashlyn + Dwayne = Amigos Siempre!” There was a flicker in her head, like a radio song coming in through the static on an AM station. This was more than coincidence, but not quite deja vu. Ashlyn touched the tree, walked around it, and explored it hoping for another clue or a clearer signal. But there was nothing, she was left with a maze of unanswered questions and no where to go. She leaned against the tree, closed her eyes, and sighed.
When she opened them again, she heard a sound coming from a storage unit to her right. The door was just rolling up, and a woman was fumbling with some keys and her purse. The lady was dressed in a colorful purple robe with an orange sash, yet she seemed gloomy and her shoulders sunk with an unseen burden. Ashlyn was watching her closely, but not sure that she should interrupt her to ask for help. However, the woman clearly knew about her spy and turned with a sad, welcoming smile and gestured Ashlyn to come over.
“Hello, dear. Are you waiting for something? May I help you?” It was exactly the question Ashlyn was hoping for, but she wasn’t sure at all what to answer.
“Uh, hi. I’m really not sure,” said Ashlyn. “Do you know the best way to get out of here? I think I am lost, but Glacier Street sounds familiar.”
“Certainly. I can help you. Let me find what I need in here somewhere, and I will guide you out. My name is Ahsan. And this is my only son, Anvay.” Much to Ashlyn’s surprise, a boy appeared from the shadows at the edge of the storage unit. He was small and quiet, but when he smiled there was another flicker in Ashlyn’s memory.
“Hello, my name is Ashlyn.” She said it with the calm confidence of a teacher on the first day of school, even though Ashlyn’s insides were churning much like that teacher greeting her new class. Was this practiced, innate, or a new gift? Either way, it wasn’t immediately working for Anvay. He hid his hands in his robe and his face behind his mother.
“Forgive my shy son, he is used to staying near my shadow.”
“That’s ok. Everyone needs a place that’s safe. He will find his time to shine in his own way, I am sure.” Ashlyn believed her words, even though she couldn’t believe much more about this scene at this time. Where could this all be leading? For now, all she could do was stay and absorb the moment.
“Somewhere in here is a piece of my past,” said Ahsan as she began rooting through boxes and bags, “but I guess most every door on this row could say that. Things that end up in storage units are somehow too important to throw away and too insignificant to keep at home. It is a strange mix of stuff. I know that I should be able to let go of everything here, yet I feel connected to the contents. They hold memories, and these boxes are my way to not lose those times. Good times and even … devastating times.” She picked up a soft, dusty pink blanket and seemed to fade to another place.
Ashlyn continued to quietly take in the scene, understanding what the woman was saying, but also appreciating that she had a totally different perspective and place in life. So much of time is about perspective, she thought. As this search was happening, Anvay made his way outside. Ashlyn was of no use inside for Ahsan, so she slid out into the sun and humidity.
“It’s not fair. It’s not my fault.” These were the first quiet words that Anvay had uttered. He was not saying them directly to Ashlyn, but he knew that she heard them.
“I know,” said Ashlyn with the same gentle regard.
“Sometimes I wish I could fly away. To another place far away. Maybe a magical world with dragons and giants and castles. And, and... I would be the hero who fights for those who need me.” Anvah was still speaking slowly without looking at Ashlyn. Then he turned and looked at her with a sparkle in his eyes and a question on his face. “Will you take me away?” Then his voice turned to a child-like whisper and his eyes widened, “I am ready for adventure!”
He reached out for her hand, and she was ready to take it, except for a clattering sound down the street. It started out as a dropped piece of glass; then it was a sound of metal screeching. Then plastic and coins and a cacophony of destruction which couldn’t be ignored. The young hero and the unsure mentor turned and headed to the unit three spaces down, right by the tree where Ashlyn began.
Ashlyn and Anvay both involuntarily sighed with relief after they had stepped out of the searing sun and into the stuffiness of the storage unit. Ahsan, absorbed in past memories, did not seem to notice.
Ashlyn sat down on the cement lip of the unit and invited Anvay to do the same. The garage-style door still provided adequate shade. Static was still bogging her mind, but through the muddle there seemed to be some hint of familiarity. Anvay’s smile gave her a sense of belonging even if temporary and not at all comprehended.
“So you like adventure?”
“Very much. My life is dull without it.”
Ashlyn chuckled appreciating the response.
“Do you like adventure?”
“Hmmm,” Ashlyn thought a moment. “I do.” She widened her eyes a little. “More so in books than in real life I think. Although I can’t help to feel I’m in the middle of one right now.”
“How exciting! Let me join you, please! I would make a good sidekick.”
This time Ashlyn burst out laughing, but it was quickly stifled by more clanging of clutter from several units down.
“That’s Mr. Forrester. He’s angry.”
Ashlyn maintained her seated position, but leaned over and peered down the row of storage units. She wasn’t certain if she wanted to see anything or not. “At what?”
“Who knows?” Anvay answered. “Mother says rummaging through old memories can help people remember things.” They could both hear more clanging accompanied with a verbal outburst. “And sometimes, it’s things they’d rather not remember at all.”
Ashlyn, intrigued by Anvay’s vocabulary, was curious. “You’re very well-spoken for a…what grade are you going into?”
“Fifth. I’ll be the new kid in school this year.”
“Oh...well, there you go! Sounds like a grand adventure in my book.”
“You must be joking.”
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fine. I think once they see that smile, they’ll realize they’re in the presence of greatness.” Ashlyn smiled and nudged Anvay. Anvay exhaled through his nose and smirked.
“Do you know who your teacher will be?”
“Not sure, but I heard she was nice.”
Some of the static in Ashlyn’s mind cleared, but rather than create clarity it created confusion. The moment rang a bell. Resonated within her. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she was overcome with the need to figure something out.
“Ma’am?” Ashlyn turned towards Ahsan who was staring longingly into an unframed picture. She felt badly for interrupting, but her sense of urgency was building. “Ahsan?” No response.
Ahsan inhaled sharply. “What? What?”
“I’m so sorry for interrupting, but I have to be going. What’s the best way out of town? Is there a bus or…?”
“No bus until evening. You may have to walk a few miles and hitch a ride. Depends on where you want to go. Don’t go hitching around here though. You’ll have nothing but troubles along the way.”
“Unless,” Ahsan interrupted, but then got caught up looking at another photograph.
“Well, there’s a grumpy gentleman that lives just up this alley who runs a taxi. If he’s home, he may be able to help.”
“Great! Which house exactly?”
“Take a few steps back and you’ll see the attic window above all the other rooftops.”
“Thank you very much.” Ashlyn knelt down next to Anvay. “I hope I see you again. Have a great year in school. I have a feeling your teacher will love your adventurous spirit.”
To this, Anvay smiled and acted as though he wanted to give her a hug, but just managed a good-bye and a very quiet, “I would have made a good side-kick.”
Ashlyn stood and ruffled the hair on his head. “I believe you would.”
Glacier Street was horseshoe-shaped and had three different alleyways that connected it. The alleyway Ashlyn walked up might as well had been an alleyway in the deepest, darkest part of Detroit or Chicago. Although vacant of people at the present time, there were signs of life that Ashlyn figured would occur once the sun went down.
Upon arriving at the house with ‘the attic window that stood above all other rooftops’, Ashlyn once again felt the static in her mind clear. Still feeling as if she were in a dream or had jumped through a photograph, she hesitantly ascended the stairs. With her thoughts more fluid and curiosity racing, she knocked on the blue wooden door below a faded sunflower.
Remembering her mother loved sunflowers, she took a step back while waiting for someone to answer. Everything about the house struck a chord with her, but Ashlyn still couldn’t put a finger on it. Then she noticed something and she immediately knew that strange things were happening. The static had all but gone leaving quiet voices. Voices from her childhood.
About five feet above the door upon which she knocked she noticed someone had started to paint the house a dark blue, but only got about half way across. When she was about seven or eight, she stood below the ladder where her dad stood painting the house. She had helped pour the paint. Ashlyn specifically remembered telling him that there was no more paint left. That’s how they left it. It was never finished.
The realization that this was her childhood home brought on a heavy sense of pensive sadness. Her first thought was that she was somehow drugged and taken to this location on Glacier Street where now she stood in front of her house. The second was even more ludicrous: she was back in time.
The only reason she didn’t shake off the latter was because her childhood home was bulldozed a year after they moved out of it. Ashlyn stood in her twenty-five year old body and decided to do something she never thought she would do again.
Opening the door with caution, she was astonished to find everything was exactly how she remembered it. “Hello?” Her call went unanswered as it echoed through the halls. “I need some help? Anybody home?” No response.
Ashlyn walked through the halls and rooms of her former home, taking it in with all of her senses. The stale aroma made her yearn for her mother’s scented candles. Going up the stairs towards her bedroom, something put a spark in her movements. She sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs and into her bedroom. Lifting up the rug and placing it off to the side, she proceeded to remove the floorboard. Her secret hiding space.
Reaching down, she pulled out a shoebox filled with artifacts from her childhood: field day medals, perfect attendance award and the cross she hand-carved at summer camp. Briefly getting caught up in the nostalgia of her past she placed everything back in the box. Before putting the lid back on she noticed something. A folded piece of paper.
Opening it, she realized it was a letter. The fact that it was addressed to herself obviously didn’t strike her as odd. It was most likely a letter from a boyfriend or her dad, whom she remembered enjoyed leaving notes for her in the morning.
She quickly realized it was neither. It read:
What I am about to tell you will seem extraordinarily bizarre to say the
least. At this point I don’t have all the answers myself, but what I do
know, you must listen to the fullest extent. The space-time continuum
depends on it. Do I have your attention? While time isn’t completely
of the essence, connections do need to be met in order to restore
normalcy in your timeline. Confused? It’s okay, where I am
now…where WE are now, I feel we’re getting close. Just trust your
gut. The strangest feelings are the ones you need to tune in to. Following
your gut is key. That I’m sure of it. There’s one thing you should be
aware of. There are three
“Three of what! Three of what!” Ashlyn shouted into the empty bedroom completely bewildered why the letter stopped there. She searched with desperate earnest to find another letter in the box or just lying in the space beneath the floorboard. To her disappointment, there wasn’t any.
Standing, she started to pace when something from her past caught her attention. She opened the window and looked out across the three rooftops that separated her and the tree in which she had woken underneath. It was a bike. Purple, pink and white. She would remember and recognize it from anywhere. A young girl was holding it.
Leaving the house, she ran back down the alleyway and stopped at the corner of the storage units. The tree – and the girl – stood ten feet away. A boy of similar age and holding a marker was with her. Ashlyn felt like she was watching a home video.
“But we used a marker last time and it washed off,” the girl spoke while rubbing her hand up against the tree.
“I have a knife.”
“No! No, knives. You know how I feel about violence.”
“It’s a tree.”
“Okay, well, I have a permanent marker too. We can try that.”
“Perfect,” the girl said perking up. “Let me write it this time.”
Once she was done, a crash of what sounded like junk…a lot of junk interrupted them.
“He’s back again, Ash.”
“Let’s go. He scares me.”
Ashlyn stood mesmerized by what event just replayed itself right in front of her. She had already walked into a home unannounced, so why stop there? Ashlyn took a deep breath and walked towards the violent noise.
The destructive noises were coming from a place of anger. Not just within the storage unit, but also within a man whose battle with anger had led to many harmful things beyond normal manners and behaviors. The irrational, lashing out at random objects - the unfortunate tools needed to release his outbursts - had become routine.
In truth, his anger was not in its infancy stage. The feeling was becoming much more familiar - embraced even - in the last few years of his life. There were certainly reasons, mostly justified, but not shared with anyone. A solo burden which had squashed out uplifting things such as friendship and joy. Dwayne knew those feelings, but it was anger that was controlling him.
As with many things, the negative feeling started as a drop in a bucket and steadily dripped from his gray cloud until it was overflowing. As a sick child he missed many events that other youth took for granted: trick-or-treating, field trips, and even bike rides. Then, just as Dwayne reached a healthy physical state, his parents’ divorce and the loss of dear friends left him struggling with emotional distress. When a mental breakdown from all these events haunted him, he no longer could count his bucket as half full. Optimism was fading, and Dwayne knew he had maybe one chance to get it back. But the odds were against him (as they often were), and it had already taken time and effort which he couldn’t get back.
“If I knew where that stupid thing was, I could get out of this dump.” Dwayne muttered more, and then kicked another box in frustration. Ashlyn watched in awe from behind him. Then she made a move that only a true former friend might make.
“Do you need a hand, sir?!”
Dwayne Forrester reeled around and almost fell into the pile of junk behind him. He eyed up the young lady in front of him like she was either going to be a nuisance or his next target. For the moment, he chose to be dismissive.
“Go away. This is none of your business, and I don’t want what you are selling!” He turned around and hoped that was the end of that. Ashlyn, however, had things to say which could be considered a release of her own frustration.
“Well, yes sir. I will go. But I am not sure exactly where. See, there is a lonely boy over there who is getting ready to run off with me, but he is afraid of you. And there was another boy and girl who sat by that tree over there until they heard loud noises from here. Well, I hope they all found safe places to hide, but the place that I would hide doesn’t seem to be mine anymore, even though I lived there a lifetime ago. Now it belongs to some grumpy old taxi driver who is my only ticket out of this mess, except that again, I don’t know where to go next!” Ashlyn finally exhaled and realized that she had been getting progressively louder and more frantic as she spoke about her situation.
Dwayne exhaled too. This girl had just given him the diversion and change that he needed. Rummaging had proven to be counterproductive. He faced her again. “Alright then. Let’s go. My cab is around the side. And then you can explain why we share a house.”
“Wait, what?!!” Ashlyn exclaimed, “Do you mean that you are the ride that Anvah mentioned, and that you live in the house with the attic above all the rest?”
”Yeah, that’s me.” The man, in a subdued manner, extended his hand. “Dwayne Forrester.”
Accepting the handshake, Ashlyn felt another loud and clear memory come to her. In this case, it was one that she just re-lived. “You and I just wrote our names on that tree!!”
Regretting the handshake, Dwayne’s conquered anger now resurfaced with added disbelief. He growled, “Listen, miss, I think you are officially a lunatic. There can be no possible way. The only boy who wrote on that tree was me thirty years ago, and I have no doubt about that. I had just gotten a clean bill of health from the doctor, only to find out that my best friend was moving out of town. And she isn’t you for a lot of reasons, especially ‘cause her name is...”
“Ashlyn Sojourn.” There was a strange certainty in her eyes now, as she watched Dwayne’s face. “I remember that we were scared of your father, who was coming home jobless and drunk. We ran… and that was the last time I saw you. Well, until today.” Then she said to herself, “Several times today, in fact.”
Dwayne was exhausted. Now that the anger had let go and moved on, other emotions surged forward and filled the void. Sympathy, pain, sadness, happiness, and even relief all mixed together and came out in a single tear rolling down his cheek.
“I needed to find a cross. It belonged to that girl… I mean, you.” There was such disbelief and relief in his eyes as he realized his quest was no longer a solo mission. “I think it’s my ticket out of here. It was my best hope, until now. Can… can you help me?”
“More than you know,” she said, “let’s go home!”
The reacquainted strangers walked side-by-side not sure of what to say to one another. It was obvious to both that they each felt uncomfortable in their current surroundings.
Several yards passed the younger versions of themselves along an unpainted curb and some dusty dirt with patchy grass sat Dwayne’s cab. Upon reaching the tree of where their childhood stood, Ashlyn considered attempting a conversation. The two now were playing catch. While struggling on how to go about talking to oneself when said self is in a physical form – not to mention back in time – young Dwayne threw the ball over Ashyln’s head. Seizing the opportunity for an ice-breaker, older Ashlyn picked up the ball and tossed to herself. “Those crazy curves. Hard to catch sometimes, huh?” Little Ashlyn not only acted as if she wasn’t being spoken to, but she also reached down to pick up the very same ball that the other Ashlyn picked up. Or thought she had.
“No curves, remember?” Young Ashlyn shouted out to Dwayne.
“Right. No violence and no curves.”
“You act like we just met or something.”
Ashlyn looked upon the youthful game of catch. Shaking her head, she turned to Dwayne. “I don’t get it. I just picked that ball up for her.”
“They can’t hear us and they can’t see us. We can interact with their world, but just not with them. At least not all the time. I haven’t quite figured out why there are certain times that we can interact. Now, after meeting you, and seeing this memory play out before us, I’m confident in thinking that since this was a significant moment for the both of us, it cannot be altered in any way.”
“Confident or not, you sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
“I’ve been here… a looong time.”
“How is this possible?” Ashlyn shrugged and stared curiously into Dwayne’s eyes.
“Even if I knew that, I would venture to guess that I wouldn’t have time to explain it to you.”
Ashlyn turned once again and watched the moving memory in front of her. “So, they are shadows of our past.”
“I don’t think so. I think we’re the shadows. We don’t belong here, they do. We’re the ones visiting.”
Ashlyn scratched her head while pacing away from Dwayne.
Noticing her frustration, Dwayne said, “I’ve been here awhile. I don’t know how all of it works, but it’s going to be okay.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I guess a more appropriate question would be, ‘How many times have I been here?’”
“You’ve been here more than once?! How many times?!” Ashlyn retreated to her original spot next to Dwayne.
“I’ve lost count.”
“Why do you keep coming back?”
Dwayne almost chuckled. “Well, I don’t have a choice.” When saying this, Dwayne seemed to have a revelation. A look of both fright and anger appeared in his eyes.
“What is it?”
“I do have a choice. That’s what this whole thing has got to be about!”
“It’s gotta be! Like a rat in a maze. They put a rat at the same starting position every time. And every time the rat chooses which direction to go. Sometimes it’s the same. Other times it’s not. But the rat keeps choosing different paths until he’s on the right one.”
“Yes!” Dwayne shouted smiling for the first time in a very long time. The revelation had seem to give him a rebirth of hope.
Ashlyn looked distraught. “Don’t you see, Ashlyn? That’s what we have to do. That’s why we’re here! We’re here because of our choices and it’s by our choices…” Here Dwayne smiled and looked deeply into Ashlyn’s eyes convincing her that what he was revealing was true. “…that we get back.”
“Don’t you remember? Think. How is it that you know me? Not me as your childhood friend, but don’t I look familiar as a grown man?”
Ashlyn squeezed her forehead with her hand.
Dwayne continued. “We were kicked out of a vehicle and stranded on a corner of an intersection seemingly out in the middle of nowhere.”
Ashlyn shook her head.
“It will come back to you. Believe me. It will.”
“I do believe you. I just…”
“Take my cab!”
“I can’t come with you?”
“This version of me doesn’t belong back there on that intersection with you. When you remember, you’ll remember me, but I’ll be much younger. I know what I need to do now. It won’t be long until I’m taken away again and I’ll be right back here. But this time I know what to do.”
“You mean this version of you knows what to do? What about the version of you that comes back here?”
“I’m sorry. I may be wrong. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“But that’s just it. You do know. You’re right I won’t know. At least not right away. Not until the static clears anyway. Oh, brother! I can’t keep living so long here.”
“Wait, you said…”
“What’s twenty-five years?”
“Every time I come here, I stay for twenty-five years.”
“Why so long? I mean, why haven’t you made this revelation before about it being about choices?”
“I chose anger. Each and every time I choose anger. It’s what has prevented me from any revelations that may get me to where I need to be. When I come here and the static wears away, I remember my previous visits. Now I realize that each and every time I do the exact same thing with my life…and it never gets better.” He turned towards Ashlyn and gently grabbed her shoulders. “Don’t you see? If we keep making the same choices, nothing changes.”
“How do we know what choices we need to change?”
“I don’t know. Different for everybody I guess. For me, I’m realizing now, it’s something that’s been gnawing away at me for a long time.”
“My wife.” Here Dwayne paused with a look of chagrin. “My ex-wife. I never…I never treated well.”
“That’s great! You’ll be able to be with her, treat her right and not get a divorce.”
Dwayne pondered this, but he knew the reality. “I don’t know if I can save my marriage, but I can save myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I said, I come back here to this time in the past, but I’m already divorced from her. That’s why I’m so angry. I never accepted that our marriage was over. I never accepted that it was my fault. And…I never forgave myself.”
“Well, it seems like you want to do all those things. So, that’s a good start. Right?”
“It is.” Dwayne sighed and looked down at the ground.
“I’m still not sure how I’m going to recall all of this when I get back here. I have to be able to remind myself of the revelations that have been brought forth.”
“Write a letter.”
Dwayne looked at her and began nodding enthusiastically. “Of course! A letter.”
“You can put it in your storage unit.”
“Perfect! Thank you, Ashlyn. If you never approached me I would continue through this maze for who knows how long. Go! Take my cab. Look out for other shadows to interact with. Think about what different choices must be made…regardless of how much they may hurt.”
Ashlyn hugged Dwayne and by doing so felt some hope be restored. “How do I know that it’ll all work out for you?”
Dwayne pulled her away and looked into her eyes. “You’ll know because once back at the intersection, different choices will have been made.”
“How do we end up at the intersection anyway?”
“By our own doing.”
“Until we meet again.” Dwayne smiled as Ashlyn turned and began to leave. She turned and waved once before situating herself in the driver’s seat of the cab. Peering out the window towards the tree with the names on its trunk, she rolled down the window and shouted to Dwayne, “Hey, where did we go? I didn’t even see us leave.”
Dwayne looked at his watch. “Probably school. Which is where that young boy you were talking to is. You know the young boy you interacted with.” Dwayne winked.
Ashlyn had her own revelation. She had talked to the boy, Anvay. She was convinced that meant it wasn’t a memory and perhaps he wasn’t from this time either. If not a memory, that one interaction could mean something. With that, Ashlyn felt a little bit closer to home.
“Oh… Hey, Dwayne… check under the floorboard in the attic. You might find the object you were looking for. It might even get you back to that intersection.”
“The cross? Up there?! Well, I’ll be! Thanks! Safe travels.” Dwayne waved and headed towards their home. Their temporary purgatory.
Ashlyn, on the other hand, sat behind the wheel of the beat up old taxi and wondered where Anvay the boy might be at this point. She drove ahead to the nearest intersection and waited for a sign. She didn’t need to wait long.
“Psssst… hey, what were you two talking about? Doesn’t he scare you?!” The young voice came from the back seat. Gasping before turning around, she saw Anvay crawl off the floor with a hope glistening in his eyes.
“Well, hello there, Anvay!” Ashlyn chuckled at her overreaction. “No, he isn’t so scary once you put yourself on his path and get to know him. Apparently I have known versions of him before. I learned that the same may be true for you. Let me ask you: Why are you here, Anvay?”
“I told you. I am ready for an adventure. I am tired of being lost in the shadows of my parents.”
“I understand that. Let’s try this question: how long can you remember being here?”
Anvay pondered the question. Time for a child is only a fraction of an adult’s view, but just as relevant. The question did make Anvay realize something that he took for granted but could no longer remember: his past. It was now just stored information, mostly from what his parents told him. They were pre-loaded memories, if you will; like seeing old photos and knowing that you were there even if you can no longer hold the memory of the occasion.
“Yesterday. That’s the best that I can come up with. We were settling in to our new home. My parents were very stressed, but they kept alternating between ignoring me and fretting over me. I was both suffocating and starved, and I said some things that I shouldn’t have said. I am ashamed now, and afraid to move forward and say anything else to them. How do I share my love for them and my love for adventure and find happiness? Instead all I feel is guilt and shame and pressure to be the perfect son.”
It was quite a speech for a little boy, but Ashlyn could tell that he had wisdom beyond his age to go with the heart of a leader. She was also getting a reason for his place in this world. She couldn’t help but wonder what her reason was for ending up here. What had she done wrong? What did she need to take back or fix? Ashlyn wanted to send a message to herself she thought. Sooner, or later, or never - she would need to do just that.
“Anvay, are you ready to try something with me? I think we are at a crossroads and need to settle upon a new path. I think we need to find a place that we belong, and I think this will definitely be an adventure! Are you with me?”
“Most definitely! What do we do?”
Ashlyn didn’t really know, but there was an instinct that guided her. She knew that they both believed in the impossible and she knew they were both ready to make the leap. With that, she reached across Dwayne’s cab to the back seat and took Anvay’s trusting hand. “Hold on, and I will look for you soon.”
There was a short blackness - an extended blink - and then they had moved on.
The sound of a school bell brought Ashlyn’s eyes open in a flash. This was a scene that was a fundamental part of her - students talking, laughing and walking into the old two-story brick building. Busses were grunting away after unloading, while the parent lane and parking lot were full of rushing students and staff trying to hold the world in their backpacks and bags and binders. Ashlyn could breathe the spring air and feel good about her surroundings. Then she remembered something about being on a mission to save two long lost friends. And she joined the masses of books and bodies streaming into the front doors, all with survival on their minds more than enlightenment.
She took a right and headed into the office. Hopefully things would clear up in her head, because she needed answers, and she felt a sense of urgency.
“Good morning! Can you please help me find a student? I think his first name is… uh… Anvay! Yes, that’s it! I am afraid that I don’t have a clue about his last name. Any ideas?” Ashlyn gave her best smile and pleading look to the secretary in front of her. But there was no response. Not even a glance up from her computer and stack of inter-office envelopes.
Ashlyn tried again, “Hello? Is there someone else that I should talk to? Is there a computer that I can do it myself?” When that got no reaction either, she felt strangely out of place (or time). She turned and headed back the hallways. As Ashlyn wandered past a group of boys who were looking at a girl by her locker, she tried waving in front of them, but they looked right past her. She wondered if the girl wished she was invisible too.
Then a little further down the hallway she saw a boy slumped over on the floor. He was half asleep from working the night before and his drink fell out of his hand as his backpack slid off of his shoulder with a crash of papers and pencils. No one came to his rescue; in fact, no one seemed to care. Ashlyn helped pick up the mess, thankful to be a participant instead of just observing the scene. She wondered if the struggling boy wished he was not invisible, and empathized deeply with these neglected and vulnerable students.
“Watch out ma’am. I can clean this mess up.” The voice behind her was old and gruff, but tinged with compassion. It also sounded like a certain angry man from her past!
“It’s good to be acknowledged! Can you help me?!”
“Sure thing. But you look new here. Are you a substitute teacher?”
“No, I don’t think so. I feel like a shadow. And you… are you Dwayne?!”
The gray haired man felt a surge of joy build up inside him. He was glad to be recognized, known, and hopefully understood! “Yeah, you know me?!”
“Sure, I am Ashlyn Sojourn. We met… before. Do you work here as a custodian now? I am trying to find a boy named Anvay. Maybe you remember him?”
“Yes, I am the custodian here. Crazy thing to be in charge of cleaning up when as soon as I clean up stuff it looks like a mess again. But there isn’t a boy named Anvay here that I know of.”
A man was strolling down the hallway behind them. He seemed to be humming to himself, when he suddenly thought he heard his name.
“Excuse me,” he said in a jovial tone. “Are you looking for me?”
There he was! Ashlyn couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The shy child with the adventurous spirit and the smile that lit up the room was now standing broad-shouldered and confident right in front of her. “Anvay?!”
Anvay extended his hand, not recognizing Ashlyn. “Yes, Anvay Bantra. How do you do?” He noticed Ashlyn’s longing stare. “I’m sorry,” he said releasing his hand, “do we know each other?”
Dwayne, who had stayed to pick up some litter left behind by some chattering teenage girls, had begun to recognize that name. Wiping his hands in a flip-flap motion on his pants, Dwayne extended his hand.
“Mr. Bantra. Dwayne Forrester, sir.” He turned to Ashlyn. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Mr. Forrester. A pleasure.” Anvay, still gripping Dwayne’s greeting hand, looked back and forth between the two strangers. Stopping his stare at the janitor, he asked while releasing his hand, “Do…we know each other?”
Ashlyn’s eyes were wide. An exclamatory and resounding “Yes” was forming at the tip of her tongue, only to be drowned and smothered by Dwayne.
“No, sir, we don’t. We have not met, but, indirectly as it may be, I owe you my gratitude for my job, sir. I can’t tell you enough how much it means to me.”
Recovering from her disappointment that her two companions didn’t recognize each other, Ashlyn was again thrown off by Anvay’s body language more than his actual response. “Of course. Always need someone to clean the floors.”
Dwayne chuckled, not noticing what Ashlyn had seen, which was the smugness that all of the sudden protruded from Anvay. She wasn’t convinced his reaction was meant to be humorous. She shook it off figuring the static and fog weren’t quite depleted from her time-traveling and was consequently misconstruing her perception. Besides, there was something else that struck her that she felt necessary to address.
“So…” Her attempt was interrupted.
“I didn’t hire you personally?”
“No, Mr. Bantra, but if you didn’t own this school…I don’t know…who’s to say I’d even be here right now.”
Anvay nodded, but didn’t say anything. Ashlyn found a chance and spoke again.
“So, you don’t remember each other?”
“No,” Dwayne said, “I was saying that…”
“I know,” Ashlyn interrupted waving her hand. “I mean, you don’t remember each other from before? You don’t remember me? Us?”
“Before when?” Anvay asked.
“What do you mean ‘us’?” Dwayne inquired with a furrowed brow.
A school bell above them sounded. Ashlyn looked around the hallways and noticed a vacant room. “Come in here with me.”
Both intrigued, the two men willingly followed Ashlyn into a classroom that was garnished with drawings no doubt created by a class of primary-aged children.
Feeling that the fog lifted, Ashlyn wanted to jump right in the conversation about how the three of them knew each other, but it finally registered what Dwayne had just said. She looked at Anvay. “You own this school?” To own and operate a school was a noble pursuit. A commendable dream. For some reason, that Ashlyn could not explain, it rubbed her the wrong way. Something seemed off.
“I do, and it was an amazing turn of events that made it all possible. I invested a lot of time into diversifying my income. Struck gold, so-to-speak, allowing me to buy this school which has been running strongly for almost twenty years now.” Anvay smiled his winning smile. Ashlyn wasn’t convinced that it was a smile of genuine character. There was something door-to-door about his smile that concerned Ashlyn as she thought back to the young boy that wished to fly away into the skies of adventure.
“So, you’re the administrator?”
“Not exactly. I have my own administration that run the day-to-day operations. I’m more behind the curtain.”
Ashlyn was feeling more and more put-off by the conversation. She supposed it was due to the fact that nearly forty years had passed in a matter of minutes and she was struggling to see the boy in the man that towered over her. Baiting her hook, Ashlyn asked, “How are test scores? Is it a close-knit community?”
Anvay, who struck Ashlyn as someone who usually didn’t struggle with words, didn’t say anything, causing a few awkward seconds to pass.
“I feel the community is pretty strong. I sense that teachers, parents and students are happy.”
Ashlyn looked from Dwayne towards Anvay. “Is there a reason that your janitor knows more about this school, the school that you own, than you do yourself?”
Anvay’s smile seemed miles away. Instead, his lip tightened and agitation spread across his eyes. “Ma’am, I feel I’m wasting my time. Whatever reason you had for looking for me is lost on me right now. Perhaps we’ll meet again at a more conducive time.” Anvay straightened his suit jacket, grumbled under his breath and headed towards the hallway.
Ashlyn doubted her response would garner any interest, but as Anvay headed towards the hallway – which now had many students scrambling about – she couldn’t afford to lose him. Seizing her doubt, she blurted, “I knew you when you were younger!”
While capturing Dwayne’s waning attention – for he was about to walk out himself – it did no such thing for Anvay who was now several meters down the hall, seamlessly blending into the routine rush of students.
“Help me find him! Please.” She told Dwayne and proceeded to follow Anvay. Dwayne curiously followed.
Catching up to him the best she could through the swarm of students, but still too far behind him, desperation forced her to call out. “You took a ride in my taxi!”
Although Anvay continued around the corner seemingly not hearing her, Dwayne did stop. When Ashlyn turned to face him, she recognized his look. He was remembering.
“That wasn’t your taxi.”
Ashlyn smiled. “I missed you, Dwayne.”
“What am I remembering exactly?”
“Just give it a moment. It will come to you. We have to find Anvay!”
“I will you help you find him, but I need a minute.” They made their way back to the empty classroom where Dwayne sat down with a sigh.
“Can I get you anything? Water?”
“No, I’m fine.” Dwayne’s breath quickened. He looked Ashlyn in the eye. “I remember all of it.”
“I remember too.” The voice from the doorway startled them. “I remember Glacier Street.”
Ashlyn stood and walked over to Anvay. “I was really hoping you’d say that.” She took his arm and led him over to the table where Dwayne still seemed to be catching his breath. When they all were sitting, Ashlyn, with the two men on either side of her, reached out and touched their hands in a comforting gesture. Attempting to ease the stress of the situation, Ashlyn jovially stated, “Now that we know each other… again…” Anvay and Dwayne’s serious disposition dissipated slightly as they both managed a smile. Ashlyn kept her hands on theirs. “We really need to figure this…”
She never finished what she wanted to say. At the moment she started to speak, both Dwayne and Anvay placed their hands on Ashlyn’s causing their existence in that world to cease.
They were each dropped off in the same order as before. Ashlyn first. Followed by Dwayne and then finally Anvay. The sweltering heat greeted them like a cold-shouldered neighbor. As they sat at the familiar crossroads gathering their thoughts, shedding the fog and static, frustration elevated.
Ashlyn broke the uncomfortable silence. “It was you, wasn’t it! I knew it. That smug, fake smile. I knew something wasn’t right.”
Anvay stood. He looked at Ashlyn then to Dwayne and then back to Ashlyn. “What are talking about? What wasn’t right?”
“You!” Ashlyn shouted back while taking a step out into the intersection. The traffic light dangling above her head. “He…” she said pointing at Dwayne, “that it’s all about choices. It’s our choices that gets us home.”
“Maybe this is home,” Anvay answered.
Ashlyn flew her arms in the air. “Why would this be home?!”
“Explain to me how it’s my choices then that got us back here.” Anvay’s voice was loud. His annoyance clear.
Ashlyn continued to walk closer to Anvay. “Tell me why you bought that school. Tell me why someone would buy a school and know nothing about it. Tell me how a young boy with an appetite for adventure has become passive and seems content with letting life roll right on by without laying a finger on opportunity.”
“I bought a school! It was opportunity. It not only knocked, but I broke down the door answering it! I built a school! My money! I built a school with the idea of an environment that would harness children’s imagination rather than jam the lie that good grades are everything down their throats!”
Dwayne had made his way across the intersection without the other two noticing. “I think what Ashlyn is trying to ask is where is the adventure for you if you build a school, but don’t dive in and interact with the students and community? She’s right. We are here by our choices. We need to ask ourselves if our choices were made with selfish or selfless ambition. A choice may feel good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not misguided. Misinterpreted.”
“What about you, Ashlyn? You’re so quick to blame me. What about you?”
Ashlyn fell silent. She realized she jumped to a conclusion and it was she who was selfish. She turned and walked back to her corner of the intersection. Sitting, she put her elbows on her knees and placed her face in the palm of her hands.
Dwayne followed her. Sitting beside her, he spoke. “I think we’re getting closer. I was where I needed to be. Where we just were. I know I was at the place I needed to be. I felt it. I can’t explain it, but I felt it. Now, I’m guessing you didn’t have a lot of time in that place, but I’m willing to bet you felt something. A tug pulling to where you needed to be. We need to find a world where your choices help you to follow that tug.”
Ashlyn kept her face buried. “I’m sorry I got us right back here. I’m sorry my choices…”
“It’s not just your choices.” Anvay stood behind Dwayne. Ashlyn, using her hand to block the sun, looked up. “You are right. I built that school for the wrong reasons. I lived my life being told that nothing…nothing at all, no birthday parties or school dances were more important than education. Forced to study hours every night, I grew to resent my parents and their force-feeding education style. I raised money, a lot of money, none of it legal, with one goal. To build a school. A school where education was important, but the students were more important. I built it out of a vehement disgust of what I was put through as a child. I built it and sat back and watched. I enjoyed what I saw, but I didn’t have that feeling that I knew everything was okay. That everything was right. I knew my choices, my actions, weren’t of the character they needed to be in order to move beyond whatever this place. I know what I need to do now.”
Ashlyn reached up and touched Anvay’s hand. She didn’t say sorry, but Anvay knew that she was.
“I think I know…what I need to do. I felt what you were saying. I felt that tug. When I entered that world I heard a school bell then the rush of students in the hallway. I may not know what choices I need to make, but I do know my ultimate destination.”
“Begin with the end in mind.”
“Exactly, Dwayne. Exactly.” Ashlyn stood still holding on to Anvay’s hand and reached for Dwayne’s.
They once again exited the intersection, down a new familiar path.
Ashlyn saw bunk beds as she cleared her head and woke up again. In fact, she was reclining on the top of one furthest from the door in a row of five. The smell of sweaty clothes, mildew, and assorted sprays was in the air. She felt the delightful morning sun gleaming through the window and the gentle breeze coming from the opened windows and screen door. Even while she had this warm sense of the past, there was a dread in the pit of her stomach, too.
Looking around further convinced her that she had somehow entered one of the critical summer destinations of her youth - summer camp. This was cabin 3A, a place with as many mixed memories as any in her childhood. Ashlyn glanced at the walls and saw everything that showed up in her dreams even years later. There were the sleeping bags and pillows decorated with trendy characters and sayings. A banner hung from the wall that read “We 💟1 Corinthians 13 ❣” In the corner was a janitor’s wide broom and a bookshelf. She only went to Camp Trinity for one year, about three years after she moved from Glacier Street. What she most remembered was that it was a lonely time. She heard some sobbing coming from the bunk below her and realized that she was not alone.
As if on cue, there was a knock on the screen door and a counselor came in. The counselor seemed to ignore her, so Ashlyn dared to peer over the edge and see who was below. She should have known; the sound of despair below had a sad tune that only she could sing. Ashlyn was looking at herself, and her heart was breaking all over again.
“Why did they leave me here? Why couldn’t I go home with them? I miss them so much,” said the adolescent Ashlyn into her pillow and away from the concerned counselor.
“Do you want to know the truth, Ashlyn?”
“How would you know? Did they tell you something?”
The twenty-something female counselor knew many things, and had much more to learn. After all, she had been here at camp every summer since she was a kid, so there were years of experience and memories to pull from when giving advice. However, she was not yet a parent, and had the ability to detach from those she mentored for a week but then lost to the world for a year. So, Janet took a breath, said a quick prayer, and trusted that the words would be what the homesick camper needed.
“Well, Ashlyn, I have seen parents come and drop off their children over many weeks now. For some it is a time of joy and excitement as they each get freedom for the week! That is, I must admit, how it was for me. I liked the adventure and definitely needed the independence. For most families, though, it is a time of anxiousness. Full of hope that all will be wonderful, and that they are prepared for the separation but will ultimately cherish the week. Do you get that feeling, Ashlyn?”
Ashlyn heard her words and had seen those families, but that was not her experience, and she was not ready to open up to this advisor quite yet. “Anxious maybe, but what happens if that feeling never goes away and grows into fear or sadness or anger?”
Janet was ready for that. “So, you have just hit on the third kind of family and camper that I see. It happens a few times every year, and I am always sorry to see it. The family comes with fake faces of cheer, when inside they are torn up and looking for an easy escape from their fear. They tell the camper that everything will be perfect, without recognizing that this is a false hope for everyone involved. And then they shove their child away before the camper can persuade them otherwise. This leaves the camper… maybe even you… with a desperation to retreat and go home, which often leads to that homesick sadness, which often ends the week before it really began.”
Silence enters the cabin as they both think about this reality. The grown Ashlyn on the top bunk can hear birds chirping and kids running off in the distance, while her heart was beating out of her chest at the recollection of this moment.
“Ashlyn, I hear your sadness and know of your worries, but I need to tell you something else. You are also full of potential at this point. There is potential to collapse and wilt under this sadness, or you can seek a path that leads to growth and gives a chance for peace and happiness. I am not saying that the choice is a simple one, Ashlyn. These are life choices, and sometimes we get many of them, and sometimes they only come around once. I wish you would chose to trust the process and let camp work in you and for you.”
Trust the process. This was what Ashlyn realized had always been her problem. When she was trying to figure out this time travel thing, the others were confused, but she was mainly full of doubt and fear and loneliness. When she was younger and they moved, she became an introvert because she didn’t trust her parents choices or her new school. And when she was all grown up as a teacher, she failed to trust her peers or her students to do their best and to support each other. Had this moment at camp, where she doubted her parents and the whole camp experience, been that turning point? Top-bunk Ashlyn sat up on the edge of the frame and nearly shouted, “Choose Trust!!”
Bottom-bunk Ashlyn rolled over finally, and wiped away a tear. Choices are not easy, and neither is change, but on this day, Janet had shown her a new path. “I’ll try” was all she verbalized for now.
“Great!” Janet said. “The girls are around the lodge now, learning how to whittle and carve. Want to make a symbol of faith, hope, and love with us?”
The camper and counselor slowly moved into the sunlight, leaving Ashlyn with a whole new feeling in her heart. Dwayne and Anvay had wondered about her choices and her problem that needed fixing. Frankly, Ashlyn was worried all along about that without realizing it. She needed to care and guide for her friends before trusting herself. It was just how she operated and prioritized. Some would say it is also what makes her an excellent teacher someday.
For now, Ashlyn looked around at the broom and thought of Dwayne at the school. She notices the bookcase full of texts and thought of Anvay’s knowledge. Potential was all around her, but she wasn’t ready to travel just yet. First, she would need to find her partners, wherever they ended up in this place. But even before that, Ashlyn had an urgent need to find a notepad and scratch out a message for herself. She felt that it was the only way to trigger a series of choices. So she reached down under the bunk beds and looked into the red suitcase that her father had once trusted her with. Sure enough, there were notes from her parents and sibling with more reassurance and encouragement than she ever realized. And there was a notebook underneath all that.
How to write this and have it make any sense? Trust your gut, she thought!
What I am about to tell you will seem extraordinarily bizarre to say the
As Ashlyn wrote the note, she nervously peered out the window to make sure the coast was clear. A strange, uninvited adult at a kids’ camp searching through suitcases would not go over well. When she glanced out the window she noticed Janet and the young Ashlyn had stopped just a few yards away. Recalling what had just unfolded moments ago with Janet’s life-coaching, she was actually surprised how much she remembered everything from that one summer at camp. However, she had no recollection of the conversation taking place right outside. Realizing that life – not to mention alternate lives as well – gives you insurmountable memories, she knew it was impossible to remember every intricate detail. She did remember walking off into the woods after the conversation in the cabin only to be found later by another counselor. It was after that she whittled her cross during free time rather than the designated arts and crafts time. Curiously, Ashlyn crept across the cabin floor closer to the door in order to be in better listening range.
“I almost forgot,” Janet put her hand on Ashlyn’s shoulder. “There’s something I would like you to do for me.
Ashlyn didn’t say anything. Being asked to do a favor meant someone else had confidence in her that she would actually be successful in whatever they were asking of her. Being asked this forced her inhibitions and low self-esteem to surface.
Sensing a rising barrier, Janet continued. “There’s a young boy being dropped off at the camp…”
“In the middle of the summer? Why is he coming so late?”
“Well, Ashlyn, that’s kind of why the staff and I thought you would be perfect for what I’m about to ask.”
“He’s like me isn’t he?”
Janet smiled. “For one, if he is like you then that would be a wonderful thing.” She lifted up Ashlyn’s chin and smiled again hoping it would be reciprocated. “The truth is we don’t know much about him other than his family life is a lot like yours. And when it came up in a staff meeting I immediately mentioned you. I think it’ll be a good thing.”
“So, what am I supposed to do with him?”
“Just be friendly. Welcome him. Show him around. Be there so he’s not sitting alone at mealtime or around the campfire.”
“What do you know about his family?”
Smiling again, “I think that’s something you and he can talk about.” They continued their walk up to the pavilion where campers were whittling away at the wooden crosses.
Older Ashlyn was floored. With no recollection of the conversation she just eavesdropped on, she couldn’t wrap her mind around the strange sensation she now felt. It was a strange mix of emptiness and joy. Either one, she couldn’t explain it to herself.
She walked back over to her note. As she picked up the pen, something struck her. A thought. Trying to shake it off and render it ridiculous, the tenacity of this thought seemed to be tethered to her subconscious. She was still a novice and couldn’t begin to explain all the ins and outs of time-traveling, but just through the experience of it all, she learned. Certain emotional adjustments were made through these experiences, but she was completely unaware of them. Similar to blowing bubbles or riding a bike, it’s tiny adjustments that keep you from spitting your gum out or scraping a knee. You aren’t necessarily conscious of it all, but it’s the experience that forces them upon you while you remain unaware. Unaware until you’re blowing bubbles and riding bike at the same time. Unaware until a thought like the one that Ashlyn was having comes out of nowhere.
Ashlyn considered for a moment the repercussions or the effects of their time-traveling. She wondered if not only certain events change, but also that certain events are created. She wondered if right choices were being made somewhere on the their life’s timeline then different events, such as the conversation her younger self just had with the counselor, would occur. Maybe, she continued to explore this tethered thought, the new events are a sign that all three of them have reached their specific destination with the right choices in tow and it’s a sign of going home. For good.
Even after delving into those possibilities, Ashlyn still had a remaining desire to abandon the whole idea. But she still couldn’t shake it. She was on to something.
Ashlyn, realizing time was sensitive, began once again writing a letter to her younger self, but immediately became distracted by an old-sounding horn followed by screams of curious children. Just as curious, Ashlyn looked through the window towards the main lodge. All she could see was a swarm of campers. Forgetting herself, she stepped outside to gather a better look. Soon she realized she was an uninvited stranger walking towards a group of kids. Feeling a slight panic, she looked around. Fortunately everybody, including counselors, were fascinated by what appeared to be a colorful and oddly painted tractor and wagon.
Ashlyn noticed a hat and a counselor’s shirt hanging on a nearby wash-line. They were slightly damp – most likely the effects of the afternoon’s water-balloon battle – but still dry enough. Pulling it over the shirt she already had on, followed by the hat, Ashlyn did her best to continue to walk towards the crowd and seamlessly blend in with the camp community. It worked.
“Hey! Stop standing around and get in here!” The angry shout startled her. It came from the kitchen doors that were located in the back of the main lodge.
Ashlyn pulled her hat down and turned around. “Me?”
While his shouted had startled her, his obnoxious and joyous laugh about knocked her to the ground. “Ha! Ha! I’m only kiddin’ with ya! Just having fun. Are you tonight’s kitchen duty?”
Ashlyn raised her head so she could get a good look at the man that stood a few inches taller than she was. With wide-eyes, she took off her hat and hoped against all hope that Anvay, the camp’s cook, would recognize her.
“Ashlyn?! Ashlyn, is that you? You’re here?! Wow, I can’t believe it!”
“Hi, Anvay,” Ashlyn said smiling and chuckling. “I am remembering the very first time I saw you and I gotta say, I never thought I’d see you wearing flip-flops, a T-shirt and holding a spatula.”
“Stranger things have happened! Believe you me!”
“I’m sure they have.”
“Come inside and help me out. We’re servin’ burgers and dogs after their hayride.”
The two friends chatted while preparing dinner for what would be a large amount of salivating campers. While the burger flipping and frying of fries took up most of their time and didn’t allow for too much conversation, there was a sense of comfort and a sense of destination-completed between them.
When Ashlyn was able to tell him about the strange thought she had had, his reaction was comforting. “I felt it too! I felt the exact same thing, Ashlyn. And let me tell you, we’re getting close.”
Ashlyn smiled and dunked the potatoes into the grease. Through the sizzle, she lost her smile. “We’re just one short.”
“Don’t be worrying about that. He’ll show up.”
“If he backtracked…digressed, I mean…then we’re not any closer to getting back to that intersection.”
“Hon, it’ll be alright.” Anvay gave her a toothy smile that eased her worries.
“It’s good to see you smiling, Anvay.”
“I smile all the time chicky-baby!”
Ashlyn laughed at her friend’s silliness. It felt like a long time since she had seen him happy.
“I’ll tell you all about it after dinner while the kiddos are around the campfire. In the meantime though,” he banged the spatula against the metal counter. “Chop-chop!” he shouted. “I need those fries, lady!”
The ravenous campers returned from the hayride through the forest and along the river about twenty minutes later. It only took them two seconds to barge through the doors into the mess hall. Ashlyn, still with her borrowed shirt and hat, stood behind the counter ready to serve looking for her younger self. She was one of the last ones and was quickly invited to join one of the tables. She talked a little, but barely cracked a smile. She appeared more disinterested than sad. Ashlyn then noticed her younger self kept looking outside in the parking lot more than engaging in conversation.
“Anvay, come here a second.”
Anvay carried over some platters to the counter as the counselors were leading the campers in a song of prayer. “Recognize that little beauty over there?”
“Well, yes I do! And you know what? I knew there was an Ashlyn here and I didn’t even think about it being you.”
“I’m worried about her. She doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. She just keeps looking out at the parking lot.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. She’s just looking out for the new arrival who…actually, should be here any minute.”
Several minutes later, the campers, along with the counselors, gathered around a campfire just a short walking distance away from the lodge. The crackling flames accompanied by the chorus of crickets invited everyone into a tranquil yet deep and spirited state. One counselor, with his acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder led the kids in a song. And while they sang about asking for oil in their lamp, Anvay and Ashlyn stood at a distance.
“Ever think about the intersection? Just seems so strange that it ever really happened?”
Anvay kept his gaze on the fire while tapping his foot to the song the campers were singing. “To be honest…not much.” He interrupted himself as he began to clap along. “That surprises you doesn’t it?”
“I suppose a little. It’s just that…I seem to always think about it or not think about it, but always know it’s there and…whether you’ll get back.”
“I know what you mean and to be honest there was a point where I was, I guess you could say, obsessed with it.” Anvay paused here and appeared to Ashlyn as reflecting upon something as if being there side by side made something in them or perhaps around them seem stronger and more evident. “I’ve worked here at this camp for twelve summers now. For the first year, I admit, I kept an eye out for the both of you every day. I waited and waited, but then something happened. I became absorbed in something that I never paid much attention to before.”
“What? What was it?”
Anvay chuckled. “Myself.” Ashlyn didn’t reciprocate his smile. “Let me explain. Remember when Dwayne talked about beginning with the end in mind?”
“For too long I thought that the end was the intersection. So all my focus was on that. But the intersection is not the end. At least not for me and I don’t think it is for any of us. It’s serves more as a stepping stone just like all events in our lives are. So I, and being here at this camp really helped with this, turned my focus on me. I became absorbed in discovering who I am and what I was meant to be. I learned to take each stepping stone whether tragic or exhilarating and chose joy above all else. I now know what I need to do to back to that stepping stone where we all met for the first time.”
While what Anvay had said penetrated through Ashlyn’s consciousness, she noticed the necklace he was wearing. She stared at it before finally asking, “Do you think there is some kind of strange person or dynamic force behind all of this…what we’ve been through? What we’re going through?”
“I do. And that force is same for everyone.” Anvay noticed Ashlyn looking at his hand-carved cross. “That’s what I believe anyway.”
Ashlyn reached out and held the cross in her palm studying it.
“I became quite the whittler during my stay here,” Anvay grinned widely.
Ashlyn began to speak, but was interrupted by the crunching of stones beneath tires as a taxi with an Arizona license plate pulled into the long lane leading up to the lodge and eventually parking beside them.
Before anyone even stepped out, Ashlyn knew exactly who it was.
The young boy who was headed to the popped trunk to retrieve his suitcase, stopped and faced Ashlyn. “Yes, m ’am. I’m Dwayne. Thank you for letting me come so late in the summer. I really appreciate it m’am.”
“Oh, umm…sure,” Ashlyn stammered realizing the boy thought her to be the camp director…or even someone that actually worked there. “We are…so excited to have you here. We’ll get you set up with your bunk really soon.”
“Thank you m’am. They said you were paying the fee?”
Anvay interjected. “Yes, that’s right, young man and we are more than happy to do it.”
“Thank you, sir. I hope the driver is okay. We were chattin’ away the whole time and as soon as he pulled into the drive he started crying.”
Anvay stepped over the driver’s door and knocked. He noticed the driver’s shoulders were hunched over a bit and his hands were covering his face. His breathing seems irregular. “Sir?"
A few seconds of awkward silence passed before the click of the door was heard. A big foot stepped out onto the stone parking lot belonging to a large and tall man.
Ashlyn gasped. “Oh, my good heavens!
The driver removed his hat and stared at Ashlyn.
“Dwayne?!” Ashlyn wrapped her arms around her long lost friend feeling once again the way she did back in the cabin. Something amazing was happening.
It wasn’t the only “Dwayne” that was shouted out at that precise moment. Another person, this one being from a young camper, was also spoken. “Dwayne?!” young Ashlyn, coming up over the tiny hill from where the campfire was set, called out. “Dwayne?!” she repeated. This time she was in a full sprint towards the young boy. It was the same young boy she had written on the tree with back on Glacier Street. For the first time in three years, they were reunited.
“Ashlyn?!” young Dwayne spoke while embracing his friend. “I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you’re here…I never thought I would…”
Ashlyn pulled away. “I never thought either…but, at the same time I did.”
Dwayne belly-laughed. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Anvay placed a hand on the shoulders of each of his friends and spoke to the younger Ashlyn. “Ashlyn, why don’t you help carry Dwayne’s thing to his cabin for him. He’ll be in C2.”
While the young friends gathered everything out of the taxi’s trunk, the older Ashlyn turned Dwayne. “Did you know that he was…?”
“Yes.” Dwayne smiled.
“Does he know that…?”
“But you knew the whole time?”
“Yes, m’am.” Dwayne smiled again sounding like his younger self.
“Wow! We have a lot to talk about!”
“We do, but there’s something I need to do first.” Anvay said starting to walk towards the campers at the campfire. The traditional last song, One Tin Soldier, had just finished. “Heeeyyy, campers!”
“WHAT NOW?!” They all shouted back in a purposeful snooty way.
“Are you HUNGRY!?” Anvay responded.
“NOOO!” They shouted back again.
“Well, are you REALLY HUNGRY?!”
“DO YOU WANT SOME FRIED WORMS?”
“DO YOU WANT SOME FRESH COW PATTIES?”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT THEN?”
“WELL WHAT ARE YOU WAITIN’ FOR? COME AND GET IT!”
Ashlyn chuckled at the rehearsed exchange and felt a rush of joy run through her body at seeing Anvay with a great big smile and laughing along with all the campers. It was the Anvay-smile she had waited so long to see again. He was still that young boy she had met on Glacier Street. Here at Camp Trinity, he had found his adventure.
“And the two of you,” Anvay looked at Dwayne and Ashlyn, “can help serve.”
With their ice cream cones decorated with toppings of their choice, the campers licked away their dessert while the summer evening heat wrapped the melting treat around their hands. It didn’t damper conversations. The hums of their conversations filled the lodge porch nicely accompanying the buzzes of nature.
The three well-traveled friends sat at nearby picnic table enjoying the atmosphere. Enjoying the another reunion.
Ashlyn couldn’t keep her curiosity chained any longer. “How in the world did you manage to find your younger self and then drive him…in a taxi…and end up here?!”
“Believe it or not, taxi-driving is my life’s work. It’s my niche. At least in this time it is. When we last left each other, I was happy. I was doing a service and to be honest I struggled with the fact that that last trip didn’t send us home. I know, or at least I feel that all three of us need to…have found our niche so-to-speak. I didn’t take long however to realize why being a janitor wasn’t going to take me home.”
“What was missing?” Ashlyn asked.
“I had dealt with my anger by serving others. Being a janitor won’t ever be my dream job no matter what world I’m in, but I learned to treat it as a stepping stone.” At these words, Ashlyn subconsciously sat up straighter and looked at Anvay. The words stepping stones struck a chord with her. In listening to Dwayne speak them, she felt a sense of relief that these travels were not in vain but actually served a purpose. She recalled what Janet had told her younger self a few hours earlier about trust.
“So what does driving a taxi offer that being a janitor didn’t?” Anvay inquired.
“It provides a two-way street rather than just a single lane. You see, I’m a long-distance taxi. Will only do long trips. Twenty-thousand miles just in the last three months. I not only take passengers from point A to point B, I become invested in their lives. On long trips you have some deep conversations. I find not only does it peel off layers of the passenger, but peels them off me as well. We talk about life. From pitfalls to the joy. Everything in between.”
“So you’re a traveling therapists?” Anvay smiled in approval and appreciation.
“Yes, but it’s more than that. It is true that great friendship is also great therapy, but therapy is like the janitor. It’s one-sided. Here, I get to share and open up as well. You should see how the people change from the beginning of the trip to the end. When they get a sense that they have helped me you can see the pride well-up. One man, we were no less than a thousand miles into our trip – I think he was basically running away from his life – and he asked if I would take him back. Our conversation helped put things into perspective for him and he went back home. I keep in touch with every single one of my passengers. That particular passenger has since renewed his wedding vows and made amends with his children.
So I’ve been doing that for several years now. When somebody asks what do I do for a living I tell them I take road trips with friends.”
Dwayne inhaled deeply.
“What is it?” Ashlyn asked.
“Then one day I get a call. As always I write down the address, but this address hit me hard. Ashlyn, do you remember when I moved away where I was going?”
“San Diego, right?”
“Right. This wasn’t just San Diego. It was my home address. I stared at that address and I almost called back, but then I thought of you guys. Something told me something special was going to come out of this. Sure enough when I pulled into camp here I just knew it was the two of you standing there.”
“What did you talk about?” Ashlyn asked while noticing their younger selves talking and smiling with one another.
“Everything and anything. But here’s the strangest thing of all. I never went to camp. I know I must’ve blocked out a lot of my childhood, but I know one thing for certain, I never went to summer camp.”
“How do you explain that?” Feeling pieces being fitted together in ways she could not explain, Ashlyn reached over and touched Dwayne’s arm thirsting for an explanation.
“I can’t explain anything with a hundred percent certainty. I can only try to explain how I feel. Somehow I think certain moments that we experience in these travels are created for the purpose of being a…road sign…or something that tells us that we’re headed in the right direction and…” Dwayne struggled to find more words to supplement his thoughts.
Anvay interjected. “And we use those newly created memories as leverage to hoist ourselves up onto the stepping stones.”
Dwayne nodded with a grin. “I think that’s it.”
“I think so too.” Ashlyn had an epiphany. “It is it! But there’s more to it than that. I witnessed a new memory just earlier today and what you said about them fits perfectly, but as I reflect on how I felt during that moment I realize another purpose – at least for me. Before that memory a counselor was telling my younger self about trust and that new memory gave me a swelling of reborn hope. That hope told me – or reminded me – there’s a purpose behind all of this. We may not understand it all and we may not be done with it all. It may not be our time to be back at the intersection. But we have to…”
“…Trust the journey,” Dwayne concluded.
“Exactly.” Ashlyn struggled with a thought. “It’s not easy though. It seems like I’m the one holding us back. You too seem that you’ve experienced everything you needed to earn your way back there.”
Anvay tried to console her doubts. “This journey is not meant to be over until each of us have lived and experience what we’re meant to live and experience. If there’s another stop along the way then so be it.”
“There’s always more to learn. There’s always more stepping stones,” Dwayne said.
“Trust the journey.” Ashlyn smiled and looked at each of her friends. She stretched her hands out and placed her hands upon their shoulders. Their moment in time disappeared.
Dwayne’s cruise control was set fifty-five. With traffic being as light as it was he could’ve jacked it up more, but timing was important. This car ride served a purpose. Wanting to hear the sounds of the world whizzing by, he rolled down his window, slurped the last of his drink and glanced over at his passenger who didn’t seem to be in the mood to talk.
Anvay sat in the passenger seat and chatted away like a giddy school boy. He knew his destination. He knew the driver. He knew the person responsible for getting him here. He felt it in his bones. Saw it in his dreams. His driver couldn’t go fast enough.
Ashlyn was antsy. She sat in the back being shushed at every attempt of speaking. She couldn’t see her, but she was certain her driver was a woman as she would tap her nails on the dash along with the music from a mixed cd.
Being blindfolded was one thing, but not being able to talk or even hear an explanation was torturous.
Before letting out a scream the car slowed to a squeaky stop.
Ashlyn turned the music off while the car came to a stop. Turning towards her passenger in the backseat who was about to lose she told her, “You may get out of the car. Carefully.”
The passenger reached up to remove her blindfold.
“No, no. Not yet. You need to get our first.”
The passenger slid across from the middle of the backseat and felt around for the door handle and opened it. Setting her foot on solid ground gave her a sense of relief although the fear from the car ride was hard to shake.
Ashlyn rolled down the front passenger window and called out to the passenger after she had closed the back door. “Hey, Darlin’? Step closer.” The passenger obliged. “When I drive away you may remove your blindfold, but only when I drive away. Clear?”
“And Darlin’, one more thing.
“What?” The passenger said somewhat indignantly.
“Trust the journey.”
With those words hitting the passenger like a rock, Ashlyn resumed down the highway through the green light at the intersection.
Ashlyn, hearing the car pull away, removed her blindfold slowly with caution rather than ripping it off her head. The words from her driver made everything around her slow down. With the blindfold removed her eyes remained closed. Inhaling deeply she repeated the words, “trust the journey.” With the words fresh off her lips and off her tongue and out into the open air, she knew her driver. More importantly, she knew herself.
Opening her eyes, a moment was needed to soak in the atmosphere. It was where she had thought about through every one of her journeys. In front of her were the intersecting roads – the same, but very different. Then she saw them.
Dwayne and Anvay stood at diagonal corners having just removed their blindfolds. Ashlyn walked towards her two friends as they both noticed each other and Ashlyn at the same time. Converging in the center of the intersection with no words spoken, the three embraced in a long hug.
With arms wrapped around each other their feet stayed on the solid ground beneath them. Their biggest stepping stone.
Releasing each other and wiping their tears, Ashlyn, with the two men on either side of her, locked her arms with theirs. They proceeded to walk just a block down the street where they would sit at a family-owned café and discuss trusting the journey ahead of them.