Everybody is awkward at thirteen and unsure how to feel, think, or even comprehend what matters and why it counts. Some kids have issues talking to a cute classmate, while others have limited social skills altogether. No one ever explains there is no right or wrong way to approach life, and how we experience every breath should be up to each of us and no one else. Some people cry at a funeral while others may not shed a single tear, and there may even be that person who can't help but laugh in the middle of a miserable circumstance. None of those emotions are wrong or even correct; they're just real, and that's enough.
My greatest struggle as a teenager is connecting. All of my old friends from Cumberland Heights found their circle, and I'm searching for something, anything. Who knows why everyone scatters when they slip into middle school, but they do, and there's no way to stop it. Montgomery Central is like a different planet, and I'm lost somewhere floating above the atmosphere, attempting to conserve my oxygen. Luckily I've managed to remain close to my buddy Scott. We became friends when my mom watched him and his sister after school for a while. It worked out in the first place because I was thrown into an unavoidable situation with him. We didn't exactly hit it off, but things ultimately worked out because I saw Scott each day. Making new friends is terrifying.
Summer break is underway, and Scott invited me to a sleepover. It's fun going to his house because the air conditioning is excellent, and he has an Atari. Taking turns is supposed to work out under most conditions, but not so much for me regarding his game console. He'll play Frogger, Pitfall, and Asteroids for an eternity, and when it's finally my time, it's over in seconds. It could be the absolute most frustrating thing in the universe aside from meeting new people. More than likely, we'll sleep out in the camper tonight so we can sneak off somewhere and explore. Sometimes he'll stay at my house, and we'll throw a tent up behind the barn and camp. These little maneuvers keep us from getting caught when we're supposed to be sleeping. Our parents can't hear the sound of a door opening at midnight if we're already outside.
Scott's house is only two or three miles away, so the bike ride doesn't take long at all. When I turn off Mellon Road onto Bend Road, I can coast the rest. Going back isn't as much fun, but I'll worry about that tomorrow. After zipping down the driveway, Scott greets me outside with some news.
"Come on in, Chris. I want you to meet someone," he says as my excitement immediately morphs into fear.
"Who am I meeting?"
"You know Mike from school. He's staying the night with us."
Is he kidding! He can't just spring this on me like that. I didn't even have time to psych myself up for this. I'm doomed. "Sounds good, Scott."
After a brief introduction, the first thing we do is break out the Atari. Now I'm forced to take turns with two superior players; on top of that, I don't even know this guy. What a nightmare. This weekend has the potential to end tragically, and there is nothing I can do about it. My last friend all of a sudden has a new best pal, and I'll end up in a straight jacket confiding to myself about how I'm such a loser. I could go missing one day and won't even warrant a photo on the back of a milk carton because no one even knew I existed. We sat in the den for the remainder of the afternoon until supper. Both of them grow closer while I observe from a distance even though we're no more than a couple of feet apart.
Scott's parents took over the room after we ate and his little sister was off doing little sister stuff. It was dark anyway and time to make camp outside.
"Can we go yet?" I asked our group of three.
"No, we can't go. My parents are still awake," Scott uttered for the third time because it wasn't the first attempt I'd made to convince them. Mike offered his views on an early escape as well, but I'd already mentally turned his volume down.
"Let's go! It looks like all the lights are out," I insisted.
"Dude, they have to have time to fall asleep," Scott replied.
After a few more minutes of bickering, the coast looked clear, and we began our adventure on foot. A moonlit night offered to guide our path into the unfamiliar, and adrenaline started pumping. Anytime high beams popped up around a corner or from behind a hill to give us a warning, we'd yell, "Car!" and quickly retreat to a ditch or use a nearby tree for cover. No one in Salem is a stranger, so the last thing we need is to get busted by a neighbor who saw us wandering down the road at midnight. Not many automobiles whizzed by, but it was enough to keep us on our toes. We all bonded while pretending to be undercover spies or on the run from the law. Mike started to grow on me after discovering that he wasn't as dissimilar as I'd assumed.
By the time we made it down Mellon Road to the river bottom, deep conversations had taken over our expedition and proved to be enlightening. Of course, we weren't solving world hunger or cancer, but they were good talks for three kids attempting to figure out the world. Nighttime air, along with the sounds of wildlife resonating from the Cumberland to the ridge, can be inspiring if you let it.
My favorite discussions were always about who walked these paths before us. A bizarre feeling can take over when you consider strangers no different from Scott, Mike, or I probably did the same exact thing a hundred years before we came along. They had hopes, fears, and loves just like us three. And expectations of making a difference or maybe leaving a mark on the planet. None of them thought about tomorrow and felt immortal as they swung from grapevines over creeks and threw rocks into the muddy river water. Every generation has a shot at living forever, but that swift current is merciless and tends to scrub the banks before allowing reenergized feet to leave a print on the earth. There was a time that time belonged to those strangers, and we'll be the strangers soon enough.
"Hey, Chris. Would you eat a lizard for a hundred dollars," Mike asked.
I responded, "I'd eat anything for a hundred dollars."
Scott joined the conversation, "I bet you wouldn't take a bite out of your hand."
We all became close after that night. Realizing life is too short makes decisions a bit easier. The summer filled with new outdoor adventures, slinking into R-rated movies and wasting quarters at Funland. We never got caught sneaking out a single time, or at least none of our parents admitted to knowing. All I ever needed was a handful of buddies I could be real around, and that's enough. Now we can figure out the complicated stuff together because I don't think we are supposed to do that alone.