Griffin, the kinder of our two guides, had stopped the hike when he saw we weren’t all wearing vests. We hated the orange hunting vests. Of course, Dylan threw a shitfit, upset because he’d buried his deep in his pack, and had to unload the contents onto the trail until he found the vest. I quietly untied mine from a strap on top of my backpack, which I’d figured good enough to avoid being mistaken for a bear.
“I was clear on this at morning circle,” Griffin explained. “We wear the vests every time we hike now, until the end of hunting season.”
Dylan crawled back on the trail, clutching his water bottle like a football. Blood and dirt streaked down his cheeks, from coming face to face with a briar. Some tears were mixed in, too.
“So why did you wait until now to tell us?” he asked. “This would have been so much easier to do at camp.”
“Natural consequence,” Griffin answered, falling back on one of the program’s moral pillars. “If you’d paid attention at MC, you wouldn’t have had to empty your pack on the trail.”
I thought letting him get shot would be the real natural consequence.
We all held our breath, but Dylan cinched his pack back up and within a few minutes, we resumed our hike. The night before, we’d camped out alongside a creek, in a grassy clearing surrounded by rhododendron. So far, the trail hung close to the creek, mercifully flat terrain.
If we weren’t hiking straight uphill, I could sometimes zone out, allowing my mind to wander out of my body and all its attendant miseries: the suffocating weight of the loaded pack, damp-booted blisters, the itch and the smell accumulated after ten days estranged from modern plumbing.
I thought about the hunting vests, and Dylan, and how, if he did get shot, they’d probably shut the program down and send us all home. It was perfect, in a way. I fantasized about my father getting the phone call from the program’s director.
“Mr. Mendoza, excuse me, Senator Mendoza. Your son is safe, but a tragedy has occurred involving one of his groupmates.”
“He was shot by hunters.”
Then Dad would need to explain it all to my mother. This was the best part: the point where the entire family story would shift from my misbehavior to his recklessness - his cruel selfishness in shipping me off to this shithole of a program.
I felt some guilt about building my fantasy around Dylan’s death, or at least, injury. In fairness, I’d considered killing myself, especially that first day in the program, when it hit me that no one was coming to rescue me, and I freaked out. But even if I had the guts to go through with it, suicide was problematic. Yeah, they’d feel sad, and probably guilty, too, but ultimately it would confirm that the locus of the problem was within me, instead of them.
“He had problems,” they’d think. “Emotional problems. We were doing our best when we sent him to that program, but obviously he needed more help than they could offer.”
Suicide wouldn’t cut it. It might work if the hunter shot me, especially if I didn’t die, although it was worth considering that my Dad was enough of a prick to find out I wasn’t wearing a vest as instructed and buy-in to the whole natural consequence premise. If I died, maybe he’d be too guilt and grief stricken to blame it on my carelessness, but then I wondered if any of this would matter if I died – that is, it’s not like I would be some ghost floating through the funeral exacting satisfaction for proving my father wrong. As best I could tell, I’d just cease to exist.
It occurred to me, as we attempted to cross the creek without getting our boots wet, that these were the type of things I used to think about when I was high.
Colin said distraction was like a drug. I doubted that someone who’d ever tried drugs would say some corny shit like that. He tried to make a metaphor of everything; it was some kind of radical therapy he’d studied. Nothing was just that thing. The group was our family, the campsite our home, the forest our neighborhood. The primitive wilderness skills they forced us to master, the fire-building and trapping, that was schoolwork. Food was a drug. Daydreaming was a drug. Oversleeping a drug. Pretty much anything good was a drug.
Dylan yanked me out of my trance, calling out “five,” somewhere between a whisper and grunt, and then before any of us could respond, throwing his backpack down on to the trail and screaming “five, five, five” over and over again, as if we’d heard him and refused to stop. Like dominos, the rest of our packs hit the ground, everyone’s save for Griffin’s and our other guide Mike, who kept theirs on while they started the timer on our five-minute break.
Though nice enough, those two were like that, luxuriating in all the parts of the wilderness we hated: hiking uphill with heavy packs, sleeping on the ground, shitting into freshly dug holes. They’d woken up early that morning to bathe in the freezing creek, rolling up to the campsite with wet hair and raving on the benefits of cold water immersion. They were the kind of guys who, when we got apples once a week at resupply, ate their cores to reduce trash, and said shit like “the peel is the most nutritious part.”
Dylan was the kind of kid whose mother probably peeled his fruit for him, even at sixteen. Technically, he was our leader, because he’d been here the longest, and the program worked like that, but it was hard for us not to see him as the weakest link. He was greedy for the little bit of power he did have, mostly the ability to ask for hike breaks or call “circles,” and I was pretty sure that, before I’d arrived, he’d suffered under the regimes of the previous group leaders.
I could live with the hiking breaks, even if they broke my trance, and meant we sometimes didn’t arrive at our next campsite until after sunset, with no time to work through the journal assignments and “feelings worksheets” that made up the program’s curriculum. The circles did grate on me; he called them whenever he could sense the rest of us getting pissed at him, but the more we opened up about being pissed, the more upset he became, and the more time we wasted on “reflective listening.”
But the thing I really hated about Dylan was that I hated him, that the forced teamwork of the program made his weakness my problem, too. In my real life, I wouldn’t have been mean to him, or ever given a shit that it took him ten times longer than the rest of us to break down a tent or pack up his belongings. If we’d interacted at all, it probably would have been for me to sell him some weed.
Not that I ever told him I hated him, or even said much about feeling frustrated, even when he called a circle. We had Marco for that.
Although he started the program eleven days after Dylan, Marco was the de facto leader of the group, and Dylan’s loudest critic. Seventeen, and six-three, Marco didn’t seem to have any trouble with the physical parts of the wilderness, although he still joined in on our nightly bitch session in the tent, after we thought the guides had gone to sleep.
We slept three deep in four man tents, and the guides rotated the tent assignments daily to prevent us from forming cliques. Before I showed up, the group had to sleep four and one, because program rules prohibited any two students from being alone in a tent together. I thought it hilarious, that they thought what a bunch of male teenage delinquents forced to live in the woods wanted to do was fuck each other. Then one night when Dylan was in the other tent, Marco told Jackson and me that before we got there, Dylan tried to arrange a circle jerk.
I kind of doubted it. I didn’t know if Dylan was gay, or if you even needed to be gay to participate in a circle jerk, but he didn’t seem like the type to risk being bullied by proposing something like that. If anything, he seemed like the kid who’d go along with it even if he felt uncomfortable, just to please someone popular like Marco.
I kept my mouth shut about all of it, letting Marco assume I thought Dylan was a circlejerker, and Dylan think I agreed with whatever he was bitching about, too. Sometimes I could barely stand to not say anything, but it seemed like a trick, like the program manipulated you into participating in the conflict. I thought of MTV’s “The Real World,” how I’d always imagined producers behind the scenes stirring up drama, except if the guides here were the producers, they never really caused the drama, they just kept pushing us to talk about it.
Since it was Monday, we powered through multiple fives until we’d hiked to our layover, a campsite close enough to the road for a supply drop-off and staff exchange. We got to stay here from whatever time we arrived on Monday until Wednesday morning, when we’d head out for another five days of trekking. On Wednesday, Mike and Griffin would go home, and a fresh pair of guides would come on shift, lugging a week’s worth of food for the entire group.
After we’d set up the campsite, Griffin lit the propane cook stove with the cigarette lighter he kept locked away in his pack, along with the rope, medicines, and patient charts. On the second to last night before resupply, our meal was a depressing stewed hodgepodge of our least beloved ingredients: grits, dehydrated vegetables, and a handful of freeze-dried beans.
The program required us to build daily fires, either with flint and steel or something I’d yet to master called a bowdrill, but the lighter and campstove were off limits, for reasons of safety. It was one of the many paradoxes. The guides didn’t let the students use rope or string, for fear we’d try to hang ourselves, but regularly trekked us along the steep edges of the mountainside. We wrote workbook assignments on forest stewardship and low-impact camping until our hands hurt, but left shallow holes full of shit wherever we stayed. I thought the best way to “leave no trace” would be not forcing a half-dozen juvenile delinquents to spend seven weeks living in the woods.
Griffin laid the bags of food in a line by the stove while the creek water dribbled towards a boil, and walked a few feet down from his makeshift kitchen to inspect the lines on the group tarp we’d set up in the center of camp. I put down my journal to watch him, worried– if he ordered us to redo it, Dylan would freak, and I didn’t have it in me to withstand another of his fits before dinner. Instead, before Griffin said a word about the tarp, Dylan started shrieking from the other side of camp.
“Bear,” he yelled in a tone so high it sounded like he was saying ‘beer.’ “Bear, bear – there’s a bear in the kitchen.”
I swiveled my head from the tarp over to the stove, and to Dylan’s credit, watched a blur of dark fur dart across the campsite with a bag of dehydrated veggies hanging from its mouth. Never having seen a bear in the wild before, my first thought was that it looked a lot like a dog.
“It’s a dog,” Marco reported, after the beast settled under a nearby tree to try to open the bag.
Most days, Dylan would sooner swallow a bag of raw lentils before admitting Marco was right about something, but as soon as he heard the word dog, he sprinted over to the tree.
“Puppy!” he yelled.
Mike appeared, almost out of nowhere, and put his body between Dylan and the dog.
“Please don’t run up to a strange animal,” Griffin called out from under the tarp. “That’s really not safe.”
“It’s not a strange animal,” Dylan whined. “It’s a puppy.”
Mike turned around and shooed the animal back into the woods, using the end of a hiking stick like a poker.
“Leave the dog alone,” he ordered Dylan.
We struggled to put down most of the program’s food unless we could load it with parmesan and pepper. That night’s hodgepodge stew was close to inedible without it. Since he’d carried the spice sack that week, Dylan helped himself to an massive portion of the powdered cheese, leaving the rest of us to divvy what looked to be about an eightball. Marco volunteered to go without.
“Hero,” Dylan accused. “He’s being a hero.”
“Chill,” Marco said. “I’m not being a hero, you just left so little that if we split it five ways we’d barely even taste it.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked.
“No!” Dylan replied. “It’s his pattern. Ask anyone, ask… Colin.”
That night I ended up sharing a tent with Marco and Jackson, and they told me the nickname they’d come up with for Dylan.
“Bitch boy,” Marco said.
“But we don’t tell him,” Jackson explained. “We just start dropping BB’s whenever he’s acting like one.”
“Pay attention tomorrow,” Marco said.
Colin, our therapist, showed up right after we’d finished our lunch the next day, packets of tuna smeared on tortillas that were crumbling after six days spent jammed into a backpack. Dylan made the biggest deal of his fandom, stressing out the guides when he dropped his tortilla on a rock and ran beyond their vision in order to meet Colin down the trail, his feelings log clutched to his chest.
Marco said Dylan went through the same ritual every week, but by the time Colin left on Thursday afternoon, Dylan would be pissed at him, furious Colin failed to appreciate all of Dylan’s emotional growth that week, and scared shitless he’d give a bad report to Dylan’s mother. Though he talked shit, even Marco swung all over Colin’s sack when he arrived at the site, complimenting his Patagonia rain jacket.
Colin handed out letters from our parents, and then walked down to the creek to setup his tarp, where we’d take turns having sessions. Like the food, the group fought over the order of these sessions, and Dylan held the ultimate authority. He always chose to go first. Unlike the food, I didn’t have to pretend not to give a shit about when I saw Colin, because I really didn’t.
I waited until Colin and Dylan walked down to his tarp before I unfolded my letter. I’d received two other letters from my parents since they’d shipped me to the program, but this felt like the first real one. My mother sent a quick note my first day at the program, right before I’d freaked out, telling me more or less that she wasn’t coming to get me any time soon.
The other letter, a laundry list of my crimes called an “Impact Letter,” I’d been forced to read in front of the group on my fifth night. After I’d read, I sat silently while the group passed the talking stick around the circle and took turns saying shit like “thanks for sharing” and “that really reminded me of my Impact Letter.”
I knew when I heard those comments that the letter was bullshit. Even though I’d done all the things they mentioned, the way my parents talked about it in the letter sounded fake, like the way parents talked in the kind of TV shows that mine never watched. If it reminded Henry of his Impact Letter, I was sure it was because Colin probably told all the parents what to write.
Despite knowing better, I felt a bit of hope as I read the newest letter, or at least curiosity. I figured it would be the first letter from them that wasn’t basically written by Colin.
Colin tells us it’s ok if we write to you about some of things that are going on back home. We figured you’d want to know. We also figured, knowing you, that you’d want to hear the bad news first.
So here goes:
The Marlins are dead last in the NL East. That’s probably not a big surprise to you, considering they were second to last when you left. But they just traded Acosta to the Orioles in return for two infielders I never heard of. I don’t know if this will be good or bad for the team, but you know I like having Cuban players to root for.
The good news is that Dad got endorsements from the governor and Mayor Martinez (not to mention much needed donations), so he’s looking like frontrunner heading into the primary next month. I hope you’ll be back to watch the results with us. I don’t have to tell you how big of a deal this is for our family.
That’s about it. Things are busy, busy, busy. Bertie says you’re lucky to be away from all of this, to get to spend some time camping and decompressing. Please tell us what it’s like. Hopefully the weather is cooler in the mountain.
Mom and Dad
What a crock. She’d pretended the previous letter they’d sent didn’t exist, like I was a kid away at summer camp, and not someone yanked from his room in the middle night, shipped off to a rehab in the woods, and forced to read a gory list of his most embarrassing mistakes in front of complete strangers. They sent me out here to face down difficult truths, be alone with them in the solitude of the wilderness, but they took the very first opportunity to look away from them. And even she wasn’t airheaded enough to think we were out here “camping” and “decompressing.”
Colin walked by, in between sessions with Dylan and Marco, right as I put the letter away in the brain of my pack. We stared past each other for a moment, I thought awkwardly, as if we both knew we should say something but neither of us knew what.
“How was your letter?” he finally asked.
“You didn’t read it?”
He paused, I thought trying to gauge my reaction to knowing he read my letter, wondering if I was the type to make a shitshow about some violation of privacy.
“I did,” he said. “We have to read them.”
“But I’m not you – I can’t read between the lines, you know,” he added, grinning.
It hit me he might not have read my letter at all, that he paused to see if I felt hurt by his disinterest.
“Anyway,” he said, starting to walk away, “I know we’ll get to talk about it in our session later.”
On Tuesdays, our guides disappeared down the trail and returned bearing plastic tubs bulging with food and other supplies. They did the heavy lifting themselves to prevent us from getting a glimpse of whatever tentacle of civilization we’d trekked within reach of, so we wouldn’t be tempted to run. Sometimes we could hear trucks in the distance, but Marco said not letting us see the road was an insurance liability thing, our parents couldn’t sue them if we escaped on a road we found ourselves.
They’d leave the tubs in the middle of the trail until we’d emptied the contents out and repacked them in our backpacks. Dylan’s seniority put him in charge of deciding who carried what. Everyone got pretty worked up about it, although I didn’t really care enough to bitch. I just showed up when he called circle and hoped my indifference didn’t earn me a week of carrying the grits. Technically, they weighed less than the fruit or the sack of pre-mixed beans and rice, but everyone hated the grits, so the bag didn’t get lighter as the week went on.
Dylan was eyeing the bag of grits, seconds away from assigning them to me, I felt certain, when the dog strolled back up the trail. Because we stood in the middle of the trail, it was difficult to tell if the dog was walking towards us, or following the established path. I found myself wondering if dogs were aware of trails, whether they could make out any distinction between the cleared out area and the forest at large.
“Hey bubba, c’mon bubba,” Dylan made baby talk at the dog. “Here bubba boy.”
“That’s not a boy,” Marco pointed out, once the dog was close enough to tell. “Unless you’re not sure of the difference.”
“BB,” Jackson coughed.
Dylan let go of the grits bag, and kneeled to hug her. Marco reached an arm across the circle to stop him, but before it got there, it was clear the dog returned Dylan’s embrace, as she leaned her mangy white trunk and black spotted snout up against his chest, her skinny tail raking leaves back and forth on the trail.
“Oh, we should name her!” Dylan exclaimed, getting on all fours.
“How about BB?” Jackson asked.
“BB, Jr.,” Marco corrected. “We already have a BB.”
Dylan shot them a confused look, but was too in love with the dog to follow up in hopes of an explanation. I’d never seen a skinnier dog, although I’d never found a random dog wandering in the woods before. Bristly white hair covered her body, thin enough at spots for her to look pink instead of white, especially on her belly and haunches. She wore a light blue collar made of thick webbing, almost seatbelt material. Right under her neck, a tan plastic box was attached to the collar. At first, I thought it one of those little whiskey kegs they tie to Saint Bernards in the Alps, but I could see it blinked red about once a minute.
Griffin walked over, and tried to shoo her away, but Dylan wouldn’t let go. The instructor ignored Dylan, and started to wipe away some white hairs the dog had shed on the food bag, as if to passive aggressively show the hazard of keeping the animal around. Marco and Jackson looked at each other, grinning, but I wasn’t sure where they stood on the new group member. They’d take any opportunity to deny Dylan joy, especially when said joy caused him to make baby talk. But it also seemed extra cruel for Griffin to separate him from the dog, even by the standards out here, one more bit of needless brutality chalked up to ‘program rules.’
“What’s she doing out here?” Marco asked.
“Bear hunting dog,” Griffin explained. “See the tracker on her collar?”
“Bear? Where?” Dylan asked, gripping the dog tighter.
“Probably not close to here,” Griffin said. “Or this girl would be freaking out right now, instead of trying to fool you into feeding her.”
“BB,” Jackson coughed again. “Slut.”
Dylan stared bullets.
“This is probably a really stupid question,” I asked Griffin. “But you said this was a bear hunting dog?”
“So does the dog, like, kill the bear?”
Marco laughed. I couldn’t tell if it was with me or at me.
“The hunter kills the bear,” Griffin explained. “The dogs find the bear and tree it, and the hunters can tell by the radio signals when their dogs have a bear up a tree.”
“So the dogs do all the work, and the hunters swoop in for the kill?” I asked.
“Sounds like it!” Dylan yelled, petting his new friend.
“Well the hunters have to train the dogs,” Griffin countered, starting to Dylan’s job, divvying up the food bags between us. “Not to mention housing and feeding them, plus all the trackers and radio equipment.”
“Still what?” he asked me.
“It’s bullshit, it seems like."
“Mo, Colin wants you,” Marco said, pointing up towards the campsite.
I doubted anything Colin said could be more interesting than the scene between Dylan, Grifiin, and the hunting dog, but figured it was a bad move to keep him waiting.
“It was a…letter.” I responded to Colin’s millionth question about my Mom’s letter. He kept looking for different angles, asking how I felt after reading it, if it surprised me, and so on.
“I’m hearing something in your tone that says more than your words,” he replied.
“You feel some way about this letter.”
“What’s in here to feel anything about?” I said, handing him back the letter.
“You tell me.”
“It’s like a letter you write to a ten year old at summer camp. I think I did get this exact same letter when I was ten and at camp. There’s nothing here.”
“Oh,” he said, leaning back into his camping chair, eyes wide. His tone of voice changed, as if he legit felt surprised by the artificial “breakthrough” moment. “It’s what’s not in that letter that’s got you.”
“Got me what?” I asked.
“How are you feeling right now, Moses?” he asked. “One word, don’t think about it, just say it.”
“No, that’s too long,” he said when I didn’t answer. “You’re thinking about, scripting it, just answer from your gut.”
“Nothing,” I said. “I feel nothing. The same nothing that’s in this letter.”
“Got it,” he said, scratching his face. “And you wanted something else? Something more than the nothing.”
“I guess,” I said. “I mean, I want not to be here.”
“So you didn’t want a letter, per se, you wanted a plane ticket home.”
“I knew that wasn’t happening.”
“Say more,” he said, and before I could catch myself, I did.
“I know I’m stuck here until I finish the program – I’ve accepted that by now.”
“But they act like sending me here was this big, bold step, and then they send me a bullshit letter like this. It’s just obvious to me.”
“What’s obvious?” Colin asked, leaning forward.
“That this is supposed to fix me, or just keep me out of the way, while they do nothing, while they just focus on the same stuff they’ve always been focused on.”
I’d said too much, and I shook my head at Colin while I tried to beat back tears, wiping them away with a dirty sleeve before they could run.
“So what are you gonna do?” he asked, changing tacks.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re frustrated that they’re doing nothing, saying nothing, in their letter.” I noticed he tried to emulate my voice when he said nothing, the ‘th’ rolling out of his mouth in an uncharacteristic lisp.
“So what are you gonna do? What are you gonna write back?”
“Nothing, too, I guess.”
“No letter? Refuse the program?”
“No, hold on.” I said. “I’m not refusing – I’ll write a letter. It’s just gonna be a nothing letter like theirs. Dear Mom, thanks for writing, the food here sucks but the weather is nice. Love, Mo.”
“But isn’t that what you hate? Being fake? Doing nothing? You’re going to do the very thing you don’t like?”
I shrugged. That wasn’t what I hated, but talking to the therapist was like one of those Chinese finger traps. Every word, every time I pushed back especially, pulled me in tighter. Colin checked his watch. He looked satisfied with our progress. He said he needed to get down the trail before the sun set.
Later that night, after cooking dinner from the new food, macaroni and cheese with cut up bits of pepperoni stick, we had truth circle. Colin had left topics with the instructors, prompts about our parents that we were supposed to pass around, little trigger points he’d gathered from each of our individual sessions. Dylan, however, couldn’t stop talking about the dog.
“It’s not fair,” he said, hijacking yet another round. “He chose me, he walked right up to me.”
“You were standing in the middle of the trail with a tub full of food,” Griffin pointed out.
“BB,” Jackson coughed.
Dylan looked at him, but then turned around and trained his fire on Griffin.
“He never even tried to get the food,” he said. “He just wanted me to pet him.”
“Her,” Marco correct. “It was a bi-“
“Marco!” Griffin intervened.
“A girl dog.”
“Whatever,” Dylan went on. “Her. She. She chose me, and for the first time since I got sent to this stupid program something happened that made me feel happy.”
“You felt happy about the dog choosing you,” Griffin corrected. “Nobody makes you feel anything.”
“Support,” echoed Marco and Jackson.
“Fine,” Dylan conceded. “I felt happy about the dog. It was the only thing therapeutic thing that’s happened to me in this whole therapeutic program.” He put air quotes around “therapeutic.”
“So all the progress you talked about at last night’s TC, that was BS?” Marco asked.
“No, no, you’re putting words in my mouth,” Dylan exclaimed. “You’re projecting.”
“Let’s drop this,” Griffin suggested.
“I don’t want to,” Dylan said. “It wasn’t fair and now you’re trying to drop it.”
“It’s off topic,” Griffin said. “We’re supposed to be talking about our families.”
A moment passed, and then Dylan’s finger shot into the center of the circle, indicating that he had something to say.
“It’s a metaphor,” he said, excited. “The dog is a metaphor for me and my family. And that’s why I need to talk about it.”
“How so?” Griffin asked, clearly annoyed.
“I’m the dog, and I’m like, out here hunting for something. Something about myself.”
“This is so stupid,” Marco cut in. “Something can’t be a metaphor just because you say it is. Who’s the bear in the metaphor? Who’s the hunter?”
“SS, for five minutes,” Griffin said, pulling his feet into a lotus position. “Silent shavasana, and then GBB.”
We sat silently for five minutes, and when Griffin’s watch beeped, he opened his eyes and pulled a container of baby wipes from his backpack.
“Grundle, bundle, bed,” he said, handing the wipes container to Marco. It was the last thing we did before climbing in the tents each night, “GBB.” We’d clean ourselves with the wet wipes, place our boots inside our pants and tie them off, then hand the bundle to staff, so we couldn’t run away while they slept.
In the tent that night, Marco told Jackson and me to be quiet.
“Shhh,” he whispered. “Can you hear that?”
I strained to hear something. The fire, about fifteen feet away from the tent, still popped and crackled. Presumably, the instructors were sitting around completing paperwork, chronicling our therapy for the day. Beyond that, wind moved through the trees above us like a low whistle.
“I don’t hear shit,” Jackson said.
“Be quieter,” Marco ordered. “You’re moving around too much in your sleeping bag.”
We lay in silence. I think Jackson was afraid to tell Marco he had no idea what he was supposed to be hearing.
“Ok, you hear it now,” Marco said.
I could feel Jackson nodding from the sleeping bag next to mine.
“The sound of dirt and rock being kicked up, but far away.”
“No farther away than that. Plus it comes and goes.”
“No, a car,” Marco said. “We’re close to a road, and a pretty busy one at that. That’s where they hiked the food in from.”
It took me a while, but I fell asleep. For the first time, I dreamt not of home, but of the program itself. I couldn’t make much sense of it by the time morning came, something about a bear, Colin explaining that it was safest to confront the bear instead of running away, and Dylan not wanting to listen, running away from it, and putting us all in danger. I woke depressed, worried that from then on all my dreams would be in the woods. So far, sleep had been my one refuge. I wondered if people in prison only dreamed about prison.
By the time I crawled out of our tent, Griffin had a pot of water boiling for oatmeal. Dylan circled him, agitated, asking questions Griffin seemed to be doing his best to ignore. The dog had come back, and Griffin had chased it down the trail.
I retrieved my bundle from the instructors’ tent, and paced around the campsite, trying to get my feet warm. The daytime was warm in the forest, but each night the temperature dropped, and by time I got my bundle back the boots were always frozen. They numbed my toes, even through warm socks. Griffin told us that Colin would be back sometime around breakfast to pick up our letters, and then we’d be hiking on from there. I pulled my sleeping bag into a sunny spot by the trail, and wrote a letter home, shaking the pen with cold hands to try to get the frozen ink running.
As we ate our oatmeal, the dog showed up for a third time, curling up by Dylan’s feet. Colin had arrived, and Griffin let it go, not saying a word to Dylan or chasing the dog away. I assumed he was exhausted, and figured if it was enough of a problem Colin would say something. I caught Colin looking at the dog a few times, then looking at Griffin, and then finally dropping it. The two of them seemed to be involved in some kind of mutually reinforcing ignoring spiral.
“Got something good for me?” Colin asked.
“It’s not…nothing,” I said, handing him a folded letter.
Colin left and we began to pack up our campsite. Griffin ignored Dylan and the dog, and Dylan ignored the fact that Marco took his place and lead the group through morning routines and pack up. Two new instructors showed up, to replace Griffin and Mike. I’d never seen them before.
“It’s Kyle and Steve,” Marco told me. “Brace yourself.”
“Kyle’s funny but he’s a dick,” Jackson added. “I’ve never had Steve before.”
Dylan sat by his packed backpack, hugging too tightly onto the mangy dog. He eyed the new instructors with caution.
“Some students struggle with staff exchange,” I overheard Griffin explain to the others. “It can be really triggering, like they’re being abandoned.
I didn’t want to admit to myself that I would miss Griffin.
The four instructors sat down in a circle, a few yards up the hill from the campsite. Before Griffin and Mike could leave for the week, they needed to trade out equipment and left over medications with Kyle and Steve. They also needed to give the new instructors the low down on each of us students. By normal conventions, this seemed rude at the very least, but none of them made any effort to hide the fact that they talked about us behind our backs. Dylan sometimes found excuses to linger within earshot, but whenever he did, Griffin would only speak louder. I went to pains to show I didn’t give a shit what they said.
“Circle!” Dylan yelled, once the instructors stood up from their meeting. “Intro and goodbye circle for instructors.”
We stood around the campfire and took turns offering appreciations to the outgoing guides. The fire produced no flames but still emitted some smoke, and I passed the time by poking the coals with my boot’s rubber toe, seeing if they were hot enough to melt it. I wanted to find some words to thank Griffin, without making it seem like I was okay with the program as a whole.
“You’re the nicest of the prisoner guards.” I said, wishing as soon as the words left my mouth I could take them back.
“And you’re legit clever,” Griffin said. “But don’t let it be a smokescreen.”
After they’d left, I sat alone staring at a blank page of letter paper. I didn’t feel abandoned, but I felt something shitty. Something about the staff exchange reminded me how alone I was out here.
I heard the sound of boots on dead leaves from down the trail, and thought maybe Griffin had come back, but instead saw two hunters walk up the trail by our campsite. When Dylan saw them, he grabbed the dog by its collar, and ran down to the creek on the other side of the campsite, hiding. The instructors were busy sorting the week’s meds and didn’t seem to see Dylan, only nodding hello to the two men dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles as they kept waling past our campsite.
Marco had walked down the trail, to take a shit. When he came back down to the campsite, he placed a folded wad of toilet paper into the smoldering fire. Kyle walked over to him and offered to pour water from one of the billy cans so Marco could wash his hands. After the hand wash, Marco leaned and said something to Kyle, motioning up the trail.
“Dylan!” Kyle called out. “Where are you? You need to be in sight!”
“I’m right here,” he said, reappearing up the side of the hill. He still held the dog by the collar.
“Bring that dog here,” Kyle ordered.
Dylan walked slowly.
“Hurry up!” Jackson yelled at him. “We need to get moving or we won’t get into the next campsite before its dark.”
Dylan walked the dog up to Kyle, and right before he was close enough to hand her off, let go of her collar and tried to shoo her away. She stayed by his side, despite a couple hard shoves.
“Don’t take her,” he protested.
“She doesn’t belong to you,” Kyle said. “I know you went over this with the last staff.”
“Please,” Dylan pleaded, tears starting to fall.
Kyle called Steve, the other instructor, up, and ordered him to walk the dog down the trail and return her to the hunters.
“Want to bust a feelings statement?” he asked Dylan.
Dylan shook his head, then buried it between his legs.
“BB,” Jackson coughed.
“BB!” Marco seconded.
“Stop it,” Dylan said, not lifting his head.
“We’re just saying goodbye to BB, Jr.” Marco told him.
“Stop!” Dylan screamed from between his legs.
“BB,” Jackson coughed.
“Cool it,” Kyle warned.
Dylan pulled his head up. His face was red, streaked again with mud and tears. Despite all the rage he held onto, it seemed clear to me that he wasn’t going to do anything, that he wouldn’t run down the trail to get the dog, or confront Kyle or the other students. I thought about what Colin said, about doing nothing.
“BB,” Jackson piled on.
“BB,” I said, watching Dylan turn his head towards me.
“Why are you saying that?” he asked me.
“It means bitch boy, Dylan. It’s their nickname for you.”
Marco gave me a wide-eyed look, somewhere between shock and respect. By the time he turned back around to face Dylan, it was too late. He’d lunged at him with a rock. Kyle, as he’d been trained to do, wedged himself between the two boys, attempting to shake the rock from Dylan’s hand, and wrap him into a therapeutic restraint.
I looked down the trail, seeing my opening.
Dear Mom & Dad,
I’m ready to make a change…