Eventually you figure out there’s no luck in birth or in the life that follows: you don’t always get parents that have a clue or live in a town that offers many reasons to stay; milk doesn’t always make you strong and hard studying won’t magically make you smarter; and no, the bully doesn’t always back down when you stand your ground and punch him in the mouth.
There comes a point when your pop tells you it’s time to grow up and you realize his face, his hunched back, his gray hair and wrinkles, the screaming matches and lamp throwing at your mother, you realize it’s a prophesy of the future—your future—and it’s out of control, storming at you like a smoky train with no brakes.
And then instincts set in and you clutch at thin air. Fight or flight. Sink or swim. Change or be changed. That’s what being a kid is like, and sometimes you just decide you’ve had enough and it’s time to cut your losses.
My best friend Sammie Curtis did exactly that. He walked, ran, flew away from childhood and he never came back.
Florence Bishop saw him while she bent over, varicose veins bulging, and watered her dying petunias. Brad Chaser noticed him as he pulled out of the driveway for another twelve-hour work shift at minimum wage pay. Many people observed Sammie’s getaway, his brown skin shiny with sweat, his stumpy legs flopping in his Levi jeans, his white t-shirt and dead Gramps’ baseball cap barely outlining his motion. He ran and he ran and he ran until he reached the edge of the woods that bordered the town and like a deer that smells escape from the freeway, he made one final jump that made the air seem thick and time seem slow, disappearing into the mist.
Just more silliness from that Curtis boy, was the general consensus from those who were there that day. No, Sammie wasn’t a stranger to trouble and recklessness. He always gravitated towards rusty nails and never looked twice when crossing the street. When a cherry bomb cracked the piping of the eighth-grade bathroom it didn’t take much deduction to figure out who had the disposition and sheer smarts to do it.
“I don’t know what the big deal is. My Gramps used to do stuff like that when he was in school,” he said when confronted by the principal afterwards.
“Goddammit, Sammie, this town is halfway dead and broke. Do you know how much this damage is going to cost? It’s time to grow up and I suggest you do it willingly before someone makes you do it by force.”
But Sammie was stubborn and, damn, he was clever. He didn’t see the same illusion most kids saw concerning adulthood. Things weren’t easier. Life wasn’t happier. The problems of the world wouldn’t simply disappear if you sat upright and quoted Shakespeare or picked your nose with a Kleenex instead of a raw finger.
And so he used his cunning and found a way out.
“Do you have any idea where he went? Do you have any idea why?” his mother asked me when I went to her house to pick up comics I’d left. While my parents could’ve just asked her to send them to us, I know now they wanted me to look her in her wild eyes and be scared, to be shaken to my bones and not want to be what Sammie was. They wanted me to feel my blood rage through my temples when I had to tell her that I didn’t know why her son left. That he had seemed happy. They wanted me to witness the terror that came with random tragedy and they patted me on the back as we left, walking past Sammie’s father on the front porch, his eyes fixated on the dark woods in the distance.
But I wasn’t scared. No, if anything I became consumed by a dizzying curiosity. I wanted to know. I needed to.
It wasn’t hard to retrace Sammie’s last steps. Everywhere the police had gone, I went, hoping for some unique perspective. But there was nothing to find. If Sammie had found some escape, some loophole to inevitable adulthood, he took it with him and left me behind.
“This is your comic, right?” the librarian asked me during the study period, a month after I’d accepted there was no answer to Sammie’s disappearance. I nodded when she handed it to me. She pointed to a thick book on a corner table. “It was hiding in there. Next time read the books you’re supposed to and leave this trash behind.”
The comic was one that Sammie had borrowed before he left. I checked out the book it had been in—Local Choctaw Indian Mythology—and opened it to the folded page that served as a bookmark. It was the story of the Rainwater Fox Forest, the same woods that still surrounded the town. When Choctaw boys came of age, the Rainwater Fox would appear to them and lead them into the forest. There they would face a choice: leave the forest a man ready to be a leader in his tribe, or stay in the forest as part of the stream, forever young and cold, nurturing the growth of others but never growing older himself.
I didn’t need a fox to tell me I was ready. Later that day I stood before the woods. After making sure no one could see me, I walked through, my muscles straining against what felt like an invisible barrier. I stepped on dried leaves and berries and over ants that gnawed at a dying worm. I came to a trickling stream that felt cold when I ran my fingers through it.
I took a drink and made my decision.