"Wait. What? What did you just say?" I asked. I certainly didn't see that one coming. "You killed your mother? Are f'n you serious?"
"Yeah, you heard me right," Zach said quietly. "I mean, I didn't stick a knife in her stomach and rip out her spleen or kidneys or anything, but yeah, I'm responsible for her death."
"Holy shit. Okay, so if you didn't stab her, then how'd she die?"
He took a deep breath and started shakily. Indy sensed his discomfort and started licking the kid's hand. "I came out to her at breakfast yesterday. It seemed like the time was right. There's been so much stress and drama going on in our house lately that I just blurted it out without really thinking. I reached my breaking point, you know? And besides, I've been thinking about it for a while and, well, I needed to get it out."
"I get that. It's scary because you never know how someone will react. You hope for the best but brace for the worst."
"Exactly. In my case, it didn't go over very well, and Mother basically went all ninja ballistic on me. I'd never seen her like that. She was screaming and yelling – which isn't anything new – but then she started beating me which she'd never done before. Then she started chasing me around and around the house waving her cane, cussing me out, and even though I'm bigger than her, I couldn't hit her back, you know, because she's my mother. So, I just took it."
"Is that how you got those bruises on your back?"
"You know about that? How?"
"I saw your reflection in the mirror in the foyer when you were drying off. I felt so bad for you, and I wanted to help, but…Shit, Zach. I'm glad we're talking about it now."
"Yeah, she did that to me."
"Why didn't you defend yourself? Or run away? Wasn't anyone else home?"
"No, it was just her and me. Our housekeeper hadn't shown up yet. And anyway, how could I defend myself? Like I said, she's my mother, and I couldn't hit her back. I just couldn't. And where would I go? She's my only family since my dad took off."
"Okay, I get that, I guess. Tell me what happened next."
"She had me cornered in the living room. I was crouched down behind a sofa, trying to protect myself as best as I could, when I had a scary thought. It was the strangest thing. It was like a bomb went off in my head and I realized if I didn't do something, and do it quickly, she'd probably kill me. With that realization, this energy charged through me and I stood up real fast…and I guess I caught her off guard…and I crashed into her. Hard. She fell backward and hit the back of her head on the wood floor. I can still hear that clonk sound and the air whistling from her teeth."
"Oh, God, Zach."
"I know. I guess it only stunned her because there wasn't any blood or brains or anything icky when she got back up after a minute or two. For a second, I thought she'd go all Walking Dead on me, but thankfully, she didn't. She shot daggers at me and then wobbled to her bedroom. She didn't even use her cane, which was weird. She slammed and locked the door while I ran to my room and locked the door behind me too. I was so scared I pushed my dresser against the door because I had no idea what she'd do next, especially since we have firearms in the house. She was so furious. Like she was possessed or something. I'd never, ever, seen her like that."
"Since you were both locked in your rooms, why didn't you call the police? Tell them your mom was having a, I don't know, an episode or an attack of some kind. They could have gotten you out of there and her some help."
"I guess I should have done that, but I was too scared and not thinking straight. I'm such a pussy."
"Zach, don't talk like that. You're not a pussy. You were scared, and you were trying to sort out everything that was going on. You were overwhelmed. If I were in your place, I'd probably do the same thing you did. Even though I don't have any experience challenging a parent, at least that I can remember. I can only imagine how difficult it must be. So don't blame yourself."
"Tell me what happened next."
"A couple of hours went by, I suppose, maybe longer. I don't really know how long it was, but it seemed like forever. I was hiding in the closet, alternating between shaking and crying, trying to figure out what I should do when I heard Isabella – that's our housekeeper – downstairs in the kitchen. I figured she'd know what to do. I got up and quietly moved the dresser away and then peeked out into the hall to make sure Mother wasn't waiting for me. It was quiet, so I raced downstairs to the kitchen. When Bella saw my face, she looked so startled. Luckily, she hadn't seen or heard my mother, so I was able to tell her everything that had happened."
"What did you guys decide to do?" I asked.
"She didn't believe me at first until I showed her my back. Then she got mad. Pissed like I'd never seen before. She grabbed a wooden spatula – which seems kinda funny now – and said to follow her upstairs because we were gonna confront my mother. Bella is the sweetest woman. She always looks out for me, unlike both my parents. Truth is my parents were way too old to have a kid. Mother's sixty-eight for shit's sake. Anyway, we yelled and yelled as we pounded on my mother's door, but Mother didn't say anything or open the door. It was so quiet. I had a bad feeling about that, and I guess Bella picked up on it too. Bella told me I had to bust the door open. I mean, why not? Let's just piss off Mother even more, right?"
"Oh, man. That's kind of scary. Was it hard to break the door down?"
"Not really. Our house was built in the early 1920s by some big-name fancy architect, but the lock was kinda flimsy, I guess. It took me a couple of tries, but then it banged wide open. And there she was, propped up on her big fancy bed with all these huge, fluffy pillows, as if she was watching Wheel of Fortune. But she wasn't. Her eyes were wide open and looking at something across the room, and she wasn't blinking. This bubbly, barfy stuff had come out of her mouth and dried on her chin. Then I noticed her hand was holding an almost empty bottle of scotch. Lying next to her were two half-empty pill containers, some of which had spilled out all over the covers. She was this ugly blue/gray color, and she wasn't moving or breathing."
"Oh shit, Zach! I'm so sorry." I reached over to rub his leg to comfort him.
"I felt her wrist like they do in the movies, you know, but I didn't feel anything. I guess she had been gone for a while because she was kinda cold. She smelled kinda weird, too. After I wiped my hands on my jeans, I just stood there looking at her. I couldn't comprehend that she had killed herself all because of me. I mean, it was like I was there but not there."
"I can't even imagine that, Zach. I'm sorry you had to see that. But you can't say for sure she killed herself over you being gay. There's got to be a lot more to it than that."
"Maybe." We sat there in quiet silence, me stroking his leg and Indy licking his hand. That was enough until he pressed on with his tale.
"Eventually I realized Bella was standing next to me crying, and I sort of came to. Strange thing was, I started to get mad."
"Because Mother fucked up everybody's life! Don't you see? She took the easy way out. I mean, on some level I know it wasn't just me coming out. You're right about that. Maybe that was her final straw, and she just couldn't cope with everything anymore. My life's been super-shitty for the last few months…years, maybe…but this. Now I'm basically homeless, Bella's out of a job, all because Mother couldn't cope with my stupid-ass dad. And now she's dead. Everybody's gone. My parents are such total losers."
"Dude, I'm so sorry. What's the deal with your dad? You've referenced him a couple of times, but I don't know anything about him. What did he do to you and your mom? What was so bad that it caused all this drama?"
Zach let out a big sigh. "My dad's a B-list movie and theater producer. He splits his time between his production offices in Studio City and Manhattan. You know that #MeToo movement? Six months ago, accusations started popping up that he was groping and fondling a bunch of young actresses in exchange for parts in his movies and Broadway plays."
"I think I heard something about that. What's your dad's name?"
"Same as mine, only he goes by Z.G. Dumont. But everybody calls him by his nickname, Ziggy."
"Shit! No Way. That's your dad? Wow, Ziggy Dumont. I had no idea."
"Yep. That's the douche."
"Didn't he make those cheesy radioactive piranha movies? The ones where everyone is half naked all the time? The ones where the girl's boobs are about to tumble out, and you can totally see the outline of the guy's junk in their speedos and tight shorts?"
"Don't laugh. Dad made a ton of money on those movies. Anyway, I guess he really did all that stuff they said he did because he came home one weekend, locked himself in his office downstairs and –"
"Oh, God," I interrupted. "Tell me he didn't…"
"No, he didn't do that."
"Oh, good. You scared me there for a minute, dude."
"I wish he had, though. Turns out he was going through papers, selling assets, cashing out lines-of-credit, things like that. He even took the money in my college fund and maxed-out all the credit cards. He transferred all of the money offshore where nobody could get it. Then he took off. He didn't even tell us goodbye. One day he was here, then he wasn't. He bailed on me, Mother, his friends, his business associates and all his employees at his companies. Everybody. Mother was livid when she finally realized what he'd done."
"Holy shit. You're so right. He is a douche."
"Correct. What was really terrible was Dad took the payroll money too, and his employee's paychecks bounced after he split. That's when the media climbed over our fence and showed up on our doorstep. It was so bad I almost got into a fistfight with an old bitch reporter from CNN trying to bust in the backdoor. I hate those people. Mother had to pepper-spray them to get off our property. Too bad you didn't see that on TV. It was crazy. I wish I had recorded it. Mother almost went to jail over that because the reporter wanted to press charges. Seriously, it was a fustercluck of epic proportions. Now I refer to my dad as the Squirt Leader of the Douche Patrol. SLDP for short."
"I'm glad you have a sense of humor about it."
"I have to. Otherwise, I'd go insane."
"Wow. Your dad totally sucks. Where'd he go?"
"They think he went to Morocco because they don't have an extradition treaty with the U.S. That's where the trail went cold. Mother hired some private investigators to find Dad before what little money she had ran out. He could be anywhere by now. Probably on some oligarch's mega-yacht sailing around the Mediterranean drinking champagne and banging pretty European models while figuring out his next big movie. He's a dual citizen and has a French passport in addition to his U.S. one, so we'll probably never see him again. He's the biggest lying shit-bag ever. I can't believe he spawned me. Sometimes I think I'd be better off being raised by chimpanzees."
"Zach, I'm so sorry. That must have been tough on you."
"Don't be sorry. I'm glad he's gone. He was a big-mouthed asshole who either ordered me around or totally ignored me my entire life. Like I said, my parents were too old when they had me. They didn't love each other, so how were they going to love me?"
"That totally sucks. But sometimes couples think a baby will make them closer. How did your friends treat you after that? And kids at school?"
"I don't have too many friends, and the few I had their parents made them stop talking to me when all that shit came out about my dad. But strangely enough, besides no one talking to me, it wasn't so bad at school. Weird thing. Some of the girls actually tried to come on to me, while some of the jocks would give me the thumbs up when the girls couldn't see them. I guess the guys admire assholes like my dad. The teachers and administrators, on the other hand, would give me weird looks. Like all of a sudden, I'm gonna grope old lady Smith in Physics, or stick my hand in Coach Johnson's jock in P.E. while we're playing basketball. Right, like that's gonna happen. It was kinda surreal there at the beginning."
"Wow. I'd laugh, but that's just too crazy. Is that when your mom started losing it?"
"Yeah. At first, Mother worried that my dad had mental issues – funny coming from her – but as time went on, she heard more and more what he did, Mother got frustrated. Then angry, and lately, she started drinking and popping all kinds of pills to cope with it. Red ones, blue ones, rainbow colored ones, you name it. The worst part is she started taking it out on me. Like it was all my fault."
"It wasn't your fault at all, Zach. None of it was. The way I see is this: Your dad's a stinky, smelly douche for molesting those women. He's a chicken-shit for running away from it. And he's a fuck-headed moron for taking all of your money and leaving you and your mom penniless. Especially the last part because he had to know your mom didn't have the coping skills to deal with his mess."
"Yeah, you're not wrong there."
"Hey listen, it's really, really late. You've got to be exhausted. Do you want to get some sleep, or do you want to keep on talking for a while longer?" I asked. "I'm up for whatever you want to do."
"I'm not tired. Actually, I feel a little bit better telling you all of this stuff. You're a good listener, Jeremy, and well, I feel safe talking with you. I'm sorry you have to hear all this shit, but thank you for listening to me. The twins are lucky to have a guy like you in their life."
"I don't know how much I'm helping other than letting you get this all out. But I'm not tired either, so let's talk some more. I have like a billion questions to ask you," I said.
"I bet you do. But, um, first, can we have just one more shot of that whiskey? It's really relaxing me and, well, it's still kinda my birthday."
"Ordinarily, I'd say no, especially after what your mom did, but after all the shit you've been through, I guess one more won't hurt. I'll go get us some chips or a snack or something, too. Do me a favor and let Indy out for a minute for me?"
"Sure. C'mon, pretty girl."
It was still cold, but it had finally stopped raining. Water was still slowly, silently dripping off the eaves when I looked out the kitchen window to see what Zach and Indy were up to. The kid was standing under the porch, arms wrapped tightly around his chest as he waited for Indy to finish her business. He was staring away blindly at the sky, and I had a sudden urge to grab him in a big hug and pull him tight into me. I felt so sorry for the poor dude. I couldn't imagine how he was keeping together all the crap he'd just gone through as well as he was.
They weren't outside very long before they both hustled into the kitchen. "Man, it sure is cold out there. So weird for the start of summer," Zach said.
"No kidding. Usually, all we get is the June Gloom. I hope this isn't going to be one of our infamous bummer summers. I hate those. You want some pizza rolls? I need something hot and full of cholesterol."
"Yum, that sounds great. I never get to eat those," Zach said as he settled in on a barstool and wiped his wet glasses on his sweatshirt. He didn't grimace like he did last time, but the look on his face said his back was still painful.
"Is your back hurting?"
"Just a little. It's all right. I have a high tolerance for pain."
"If you need it, I've got some pain cream I can rub on for you. The guys use it when they come home from soccer all banged up."
"Okay, thanks. That's cool the twins still play. Where is everybody, by the way?"
"The family's renting a farmhouse outside of Barcelona for a few weeks. That's the twin's graduation present. The guys are in a soccer camp slash Spanish language immersion school with the goal of being drafted into FC Barcelona. My sister is taking cooking classes while my brother-in-law is working remotely from the farmhouse. The best part is they're gone for six weeks, so I have the place to myself. I miss them, but it's nice to have a break, you know? Some peace and quiet."
"Wow. I know the twins were good, but are they that good? Good enough to get onto a team like that? I'm so happy for them."
"Randy is an awesome goalie, and Ricky could be too if he put his all into it. We'll see. Zach, listen. While that's warming up, can I ask you a question? I have a lot, but this one's really bothering me, and I can't stop thinking about it."
"Sure. What is it?"
"Well, it's about your mom. Is she still lying there in bed? Dead?"
"Oh, no. I couldn't do that. I called 911, and when the cops showed up, they sent out for the coroner. Lemme tell you, those guys were bizarre. They smiled the entire time. They took some pictures, and for a minute I thought they were going to take a couple of selfies with her. After that, they zipped her up in a black bag and handed me a receipt. It took all of five minutes. I didn't know what to do with the receipt, so I stuck it in my suitcase with a bunch of other papers I found in my dad's office. It's not like I have the money to bury her or anything."
"Oh, good. I was worried you just took off."
"I was going to the second everybody left, but Bella said I needed to go around the house and collect everything important because I might need it for some reason. I don't know why since I don't know what any of it is. It's overwhelming. One day you're a kid, and the next you're an adult. No one tells you how to deal with a dead parent and a financial mess you had nothing to do with. It totally sucks."
"It does, buddy, it really does. But we'll get you through it, I promise. We can take a look at that stuff tomorrow. Well, later today. Maybe I can help, and if I can't, we'll find someone who can. The main thing is your mom isn't still at home. That would be super creepy."
"Yeah, it would be."
"I'm also thinking we're going to have to talk to an attorney to deal with some of the other stuff you have going on. Does your family have one?"
"Oh yeah. There's plenty of 'em. One for this, one for that. But that's their problem, not mine. I'm walking away from all that. I don't want anything to do with any of that pile, and I'm not going into that house ever again. Besides, I think it's in foreclosure."
"Yeah, I guess you could walk away, but I'm thinking since you're eighteen now, it may not be that easy. There might be papers to sign or something like that. You might be a trustee or something, I don't know. And anyway, you're going to have to go back there and get the rest of your clothes. That little suitcase couldn't possibly hold all your stuff."
"Crud. You're right. I forgot about that. Jeremy? Will you go with me? Please? I can't go back there alone. I just can't."
"Of course I will, buddy," I said, sliding a plate-full of steaming pizza rolls in front of him. "As much as I hate to say this, maybe we can get Trevor to take all the guns, too. They shouldn't be in an empty house like that."
"That makes sense, actually. There's a lot of them, and I'm not so sure they're all legal. Plus, some are loaded and not locked up. They shouldn't have been there in the first place because Mother's nuts and my dad's paranoid."
"Good to know. Okay, on to the next thing. So, no offense, but I looked through your wallet when I was drying your clothes, and I spotted all that cash. I didn't count it, but however much you have, it won't last long. If your house really is in foreclosure, we should find stuff to sell so you can get as much cash as possible. You're going to need it. Maybe hock your mom's jewelry if she has any."
"That's a great idea. You're so smart. Thanks. I'm glad I came here."
"Me too. You're not mad at me for looking through your stuff?"
"Heck no. I would have done the same thing. You didn't know who you were letting into your house. I get that."
"Good. I wasn't trying to get into your space, but Trevor didn't give me any idea what was going on with you. One more question. What's the deal with the driver's license? At first, you told me you didn't have one, but there's one in your wallet. What's up with that?"
"Oh, yeah. That. I didn't lie when I told you I don't have a license. What I should have said is I don't have a real license. That one's a fake. I don't even know how to drive."
"You've got to be kidding me! That looked totally real. Where'd you get that?"
"Here," he said, grabbing his still soggy wallet off the counter and fishing out the card. "Take a closer look at it. Man, I'm sure glad Trevor didn't run it through his computer in his cop car, or I would have been toast."
"Yeah, you're probably right. This looks real to me, but I'm sure Trev's trained to spot a bogus one. That's your real name, right?"
"Unfortunately. Keep going." Zach kind of smiled at that.
"Your address looks right, too. You live in the richy-rich area overlooking the park."
"The picture looks like you, but the blue background behind you looks a little off."
"You're getting warmer. There are at least two more things wrong with it." The kid was starting to giggle at this.
"Okay, let's see. Oh, wait. This says your twenty-two! Holy shit! Looking at you, there is no freakin' way you're a year older than me. But still, this is an awesomely good fake. What's the other thing?"
"Look at the long row of letters and numbers at the bottom. See that teeny little line? Try and guess what the letters spell out."
"All right. Y G G I Z U F. Isn't that Cat Stevens Muslim name?"
"I have no clue who that is."
"A singer that played recently at the venue where I work. Seriously, I don't have any idea what that spells. What am I looking at?" I asked. I was stumped. Word games weren't my favorite.
"Read it backward, out loud." Zach was laughing now.
"F U Z I G G Y. Oh shit! It says Fuck You Ziggy. That's your dad."
"Right! When I was about to turn sixteen, my dad said I needed a license. He told me that he'd take care of it. I didn't think much about it because my mother drove me everywhere and always told me I couldn't drive until I was eighteen. They'd even buy me a car for my eighteenth birthday. Obviously, that didn't happen. Anyway, dad comes home one day all happy and smiley, acting like he'd just won the father of the year award, and says he has a surprise for me. He never does that. He hands me that and tells me now I can start going to the clubs with him to meet pretty ladies. As if."
"Are you serious? Where'd he get it?"
"He had a prop master at one of the studios he uses to make it for me. Dad – wait!" Indy woke up and barked.
"What? What the hell, dude?"
"I'm going to stop calling him dad. He's Ziggy from now on."
"Okay. That's good. That means you're moving on. But try not to get all rambunctious on me, dude. You scared the crap out of both the dog and me for a second when you yelled."
"Don't be. Just mellow out. No more whiskey for you, mister."
"Okay. I think Ziggy probably slipped the prop guy a few big bills to do it, but obviously, the guy hated him. That's the only reason I can come up with for the line at the bottom. I think it's kinda funny, though. Guess everybody knows," he yawned, "Ziggy's a big old hairy douche."
"No kidding. C'mon, dude. Let's get you to bed. You're exhausted and getting kinda zesty, and I'm about to drop right here on the floor. We can figure out all this stuff later on."
"Yeah, all right. I don't think I've ever stayed up all night before. Thanks again for listening to me, and well, letting me stay here."
"I'm glad I was here to help you out. I'd hate to think where you'd have ended up, especially if Trevor arrested you. It's a sketchy world out there."
"True. But when you're in my position, you don't worry about any of that. All I wanted was to get as far away as fast as I could. I'd eventually find my way."
"I get that. But I have to thank Trevor, as much as I hate him, for bringing you here. You going to be okay staying in the guest room?"
"Oh, yeah. At this point, I could sleep anywhere."
"Okay, good. Follow me." I showed Zach to the guest room and pointed out a new toothbrush and floss in the adjoining bathroom. Indy decided she was going to bunk with Zack, and when I left, I said, "Looks like Indy's going to hang out with you. Try not to step on her if you get out of bed. If you need anything, I'll leave my door open. Don't worry about waking me up. I'll leave the light on in the foyer so you can find your way if you need me."
"Thanks, Jeremy. You're the best friend a guy could have. Goodnight."
"Sleep tight, buddy."
It wasn't more than fifteen minutes later when I started hearing a light tapping sound on my door, and Indy's tags ringing as she came up to the side of the bed.
"Um, Jeremy? Do you think it'd be okay if I slept in here with you? I know it's kinda weird, but I'm lonely, and it's kinda scary in that big, dark room. I didn't think it would be, but… I can sleep on the floor with a blanket or two. It's okay if you say no. I was just wondering…"
"Get your ass in here, buddy," I said, as I held the covers up to let him in bed with me. He didn't waste any time and slid in tight next to me. "That better?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm really sorry for being such a big wimp."
"Don't be. And you're not a wimp. Dude, listen up. You're not a wimp, a pussy or a dork or any of the other things you've been calling yourself all night. You're just a very young man trying to make his way in the world. Your life's all mixed up right now, and you're trying to figure it all out as best you can. Nothing wrong with that. Everybody goes through that at one point or another. For some, it's easy, for others, not so much."
"Thanks for saying that."
"Anyway, the twins have spent many a night in here with me when they were little, especially when they weren't feeling well or were scared for some reason. Sometimes you need to huddle up with someone you feel safe with to know you're not alone in all of this. Nothing wrong with that."
"That makes sense. Both my parents were cold as ice. The only one who gave me any affection was Bella. I'm going to miss her so much now that she's gone."
"I bet. Do you think your housekeeper can find another job?"
"I don't know. I hope. Bella's so awesome. She's worked for us since I was a baby. I feel bad she got the shaft like that. And she's the best cook ever. She taught me so much since my parents don't cook. I'm going to miss her more than my parents."
"I'm not sure about this, but I might have an answer to that. We've been talking around here about getting a housekeeper for a while now since my sister has decided she wants to become some sort of decorator, do more yoga, that kind of lady stuff. Plus, now that the guys are driving, they don't need their mom as much. Sis needs to focus on something new to occupy her time. Think Bella would want to come work for us?"
"Hell to the yes! That would be so great. She has like, I dunno, five kids and a thousand grandkids she takes care of. All boys. And she's a great cook like I said. If she weren't around, I'd starve."
"Awesome. Okay. Put that on your to-do list, okay?
"Number one with a bullet."
"Would it be all right if we cuddled up? I've been wanting to give you a big hug all night."
"Oh, please. Please do. Nobody hugs me."
"Okay, scoot up here." He zoomed right up against me, and I wrapped my arm tight around his chest. He surprised me when he put his hand over mine and pulled me even tighter. "How's that?"
"This is so great. Thanks. Thanks for everything you've done for me tonight."
"No problem, buddy. Now get some sleep. You need it."
I was just drifting off again when he said, "I can't sleep."
"Why not?" I asked, blinking my eyes. Indy sneezed.
"Um, well, crud. This is gonna sound super weird."
"Just say it. I really need some sleep."
"So. Your um, your crotch? Pressed up against my butt? Even though I can't feel it…the proximity…it's um…making me –"
"Bone up. I get it. Here," I interrupted, as I grabbed a pillow from behind me and wedged it between my crotch and the kid's backside. "There. Now we have a boner shield. That okay?"
"Yes. I'm sorry I'm such a dork…"
"Don't be. And I've told you to stop calling yourself names. Thoughts are things."
"And boners? Or thoughts of boners? Nothing wrong with that. Don't freak out. Boners just happen. A wise friend of mine told me once that's the best part of being a guy. He said, and I quote, embrace it, young buck, but use it wisely."
"Okay. Great advice. He sounds cool. Thanks for saying that."
A couple of minutes later, "Jeremy?"
"Yeah, bud? Another boner issue?"
"No. I still can't sleep."
"Okay," I said, taking a deep breath. I didn't even bother to open my eyes this time. "Let's try something. It always worked for the twins. Do you have a secret place? A place that's just yours?"
"A secret place? No. My mother would always find me. Even when I was hiding in the attic or the basement or way out in the backyard behind the hedges. She's like a bloodhound. Was, I mean."
"That's not the secret place I was talking about. A secret place in your mind, someplace where you're safe and can be yourself. An imaginary place that is anything and everything you want, safe, secure and happy but best of all, it's all yours."
"Cool. I always dreamt about running away and becoming a five-star chef, though. Does that count?"
"No, not exactly, at least in this instance. But I think that's something you should work on. You can do anything you want now. Anything at all. You can even be on Chopped. I love that show. Okay, so close your eyes. Let's try this."
"Take a few deep breaths slowly in through your nose and let it out through your mouth, then start relaxing your body. Start with your toes and slowly work your way up. Relax your feet, your ankles. There's no rush, buddy, so take your time."
"Okay. Your voice makes you good at this. You should be on the radio."
"Thanks for that. Picture all the stress squirting out your fingers and toes, like a fire hose or opening a champagne bottle or the lightning bolts we just saw. Get rid of everything that's bugging you. All that shitty baggage. Every last piece. Can you do that for me?"
"Yeah. There goes my mom's cane. I threw it in the street, and a trash truck just ran it over. Bye, bye, bye."
"Awesome. You'll never see that again. Now, picture your body limp as a cooked noodle. Just melt into the warm, safe mattress. Let the last of the stress go away once and for all."
"Since you don't have a secret place, I'm going to take you to mine. Is that okay with you?"
"Oh, yeah. Thanks. I won't tell anyone where it is. I promise."
"Good. Trust me. You'll like it there."
"Yeah! I can't wait."
"Remember, this is all in your head, okay? You can make it any way you want. But you have to totally focus on it. My Gramps always says to be mellow and go with the flow. Turn off everything else that's going on in your brain. Shut off all the chatter, the noise, and the fluff. The what if's and the what now's. Can you do that for me?"
"Yeah. I can do that. Is it weird I feel flat?"
"No, dude, that's perfect. All right, here we go. You're walking down a soft, sandy, warm path. You're barefoot, and wearing your favorite soccer shorts and a thin, baggy t-shirt. The wind is cool behind you, but the sun is warm on your shoulders. It makes your body tingle a little bit."
"It does. It smells nice, too. Like cinnamon French toast with lingonberries and tons of melted butter."
"Exactly. It's anything you want. It's very fragrant. All the scents that make you happy. It's the best smell ever. All the flowers are in bloom, and the birds are singing happily, darting around, scarfing up all that delicious nectar. When they see you, they're stoked, and they fly around to welcome you happily to their forest. If they could talk, they'd say 'Hey there, Zach, where've you been, buddy? We've been waiting for you.' No one's around but you, and you feel safe. Completely, positively, totally safe. Nobody's going to yell at you, nobody's going to tell you what to do. No one's here but you. It's just you and nature. And the best part?"
"You're in charge."
"You round a corner, and then you see it."
"What?" he whispered. "What is it?"
"It's huge. The biggest oak tree known to man. The old guy is super-ginormous. He's been growing here for hundreds and hundreds of years. He has humongous, beautiful limbs growing out every-which-way, the largest and strongest ones pointing towards the four compass points. The best part –"
"The best part is the huge platform swaying above the middle of an iridescent-blue babbling stream. The wooden platform is hanging from the tree by long lengths of strong, colorful satin fabric. Rainbows of colors are shining in the dappled sunlight from the rich, sturdy material. It's so colorful and bright that you want to shield your eyes. But you don't, or can't, because it's so, so beautiful and you don't want to miss a thing. It's entwined with magical colors and shiny, golden and metallic threads. The birds and the little critters are happy to see you, and they guide you to the base of the tree."
"Wow," he whispered. "It's so pretty."
"It is. It's the most beautiful, magical place ever. And it's all yours. Just for you, buddy. Every being in the forest knows this, and they revel in your wonder and happiness. The snakes, lizards and all the birds smile as they beckon you on, and you finally reach the huge, gnarly trunk. It's not scary, but stunning the way Mother Nature intended. One little bird, he's so cool. He's taken a liking to you, and he stays there right by your side. He flies around and points you to the secret way to climb up. You know he won't steer you wrong, so you start climbing up. He's right there with you, every step of the way. He's your champion."
"Yes. That's his name. Pete guides you way up high where the branches hold the fabric. He tells you in his bird talk – that for some reason you understand – to jump off and grab hold of the fabric. Hold it tightly with your arms and legs and slide down slowly onto the platform. Can you do that? It would make Pete so happy to share this with you. He won't let you fall, I promise. All the birds will catch you if you get into trouble. But you won't."
"Yeah. It's fun. It's so high up here."
"It is. Step out on the platform. Can you feel the way it slowly sways in the breeze? It's doing wide, lazy figure eights that you can't feel unless you're paying attention."
"Yeah," he said so low I could hardly hear him.
"See all those colorful pillows scattered around on that beautiful rug?"
"Go plop down on them. They're very soft and comfy."
"Just relax and let everything go. Pete and the birds, the tree and everyone else in the forest are going to keep you safe all night. That's their promise to you."
When he started to snore slightly, I whispered, "Sleep tight, buddy."
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