Reaching into the bottom of Marcus Powell’s briefcase, Susan Mavern dusted off the book that sat at the bottom of it. She wasn’t sure why it was at the bottom, but since it didn’t have a pretty or eye-catching cover, possibly, she thought, it had found itself relegated there through neglect for its aesthetic appeal. For this reason, she felt inclined to show it some love, and that’s just what she did while her husband Jim read through other stacks of papers, which had been filed in manila folders for years and years.
When she opened it up, she found that the book’s inside was just as nondescript as its outside was. In fact, it was just typed lines with no pictures to give anyone a clue about the contents. As a whole, it looked more like something that would be printed for a conference at an office supply store like Staples than even a print on demand book from a place like Createspace. Still, she felt compelled to look inside, and give this book some love. There, she found an official letterhead notice from Random House. As she read the message from some guy named Garrison Bronstein, she noticed the message that she had been told reflected how it would be better as a fictional comic book movie.
“There definitely has to be better ways to send a rejection letter than giving someone the tone that they should jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” she moaned.
“Short, sweet, and to the point, I guess,” her husband Jim said. “Unless there’s constructive criticism, skip the offhand remarks, I say. Just say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
“Yeah. I don’t think this is constructive unless they want someone to quit his dreams. That’s why I always burned the rejection notices I received when I didn’t get the job.”
“Someday you’re going to wish you kept them.”
“Wake me up when that day comes.”
“So what do you think that’s in it that’s so far beyond normal?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not even a guess?”
“I’ve got nothing. After reading about the Standall Brothers’ Saloon, I’m ready to believe anything,” she said staring at it in a way that seemed like she was waiting for some great answer from the universe.
“Why don’t you read it and see?”
“Well, OK. Here goes nothing,” Susan said, and she opened the tome up.
In the late spring of 1999, Colin Jameson was ten years old. For the most part, he was a good kid, but he was at that awkward stage that many kids have where they aren’t an adorable toddler or quirky little kid. In addition, he seemed to be lost in the shuffle of life since almost everything he did was average. However, Colin, as he would soon find out, was anything but average.
Like most kids realize in their early days of school, there were the smart kids and the dumb kids. He was pretty much right in the middle when it came to intelligence, at least in what most people think passes for intelligence as manufactured by brick and mortar test taking facilities that run on the principle of give the customers what they want or will accept without arguing. With Colin, he passed his tests, and he did OK with all of his classes, but it wasn’t like he could compete with his sister’s straight-A report cards. In this, it wasn’t that he couldn’t do better or that he didn’t care about school; it just seemed to take him a little longer to get “it,” and when he did, he was golden, but until then, he was average.
When it came to stature, Colin wasn’t by any means short, but he most definitely wasn’t a big kid, like some of those students who were in fifth or sixth grade either. Every day in the hallways of fourth grade, he got lost in the shuffle of all of these other kids who rushed from their lockers to the lunch room or to get out of the building for a chance at afternoon play and the freedom that went with it. In many ways, he wished that he was getting ready to go up through to the junior highs and middle schools, where he would intermingle with the other kids who he desperately wanted to be like, but right now all of those kids were too caught up in things that he couldn’t really relate to since he was “too young.” This wasn’t so much for not understanding them, but rather, it was for having no experience with these more “mature” kids with their “older” ways. Right now, everything for him felt like wait until you get older. Sadly, it seemed like the only thing he was old enough for was not believing in Santa Claus or playing with his toys.
Additionally, unlike many obnoxious and annoying kids, Colin was a more reserved kid despite the fact that he still had a sense of fun and mischief, but it was buried somewhere between his almost three-year old brother Donald, who was adorable and quirky, and his fifteen-year old sister Mary, who was long since ready to make the next transition into high school in the fall. While the three of them were close as siblings, there was still a sense that they were three completely different people, so in the back of Colin’s mind, the attention paid to his sister’s grades and his brother’s charm and enunciations of multi-syllable words in incorrect ways led him to often wonder where he fit into the grand scheme of things.
For that, the summer between his fourth and fifth grade years was going to be a challenging one. His mother and father were constantly working and shuffling life between their jobs in Baltimore, Maryland, and their home just west of Lock Haven Reservoir. Having multiple kids meant going to appointments, meetings, events, and all of the have-to things that came down the pike. They were a close-knit family, and everyone had something to do at all times. For the most part, these things were fun or time-filling ways to pass the day, but there were always bigger dreams for Colin to fulfill than a day hanging out in the basketball gym or playing in some mall arcade.
The only thing stopping that was that Colin had no idea what these dreams of his grand future could be. Everyone else had their thing, but he wanted to have something that was all his own. The only thing close to this was the fact that he enjoyed playing football, even if he never could imagine himself being able to run a sub four-second forty with a 240-pound frame that could drive through defenders for the game-winning touchdown. Besides, lots of kids had football as their “thing.” He wanted to be unique, and that was hard when it seemed like every boy in his class was getting a football for Christmas or his birthday. Going out for the team just seemed like another thing that his parents made him sign up for.
In the beginning, he, like every other boy on the team, wanted to be the quarter back, running back, or the wide receiver, but instead of offense, Coach Fred Rouse had him on defense. To him, that sucked, and he told his parents about it in that many words.
Seeing as he was in his first year of football at age nine, this was a non-issue, and he just needed to give it time, but still, Colin found himself wanting to quit even more when the coach made him the “weak-side” linebacker. Instead of hearing the job duties, he heard the word “weak.” Something inside Colin always hated that word. He knew that he wasn’t. In fact, he could carry eight or nine plastic shopping bags of groceries at a time, and if that didn’t prove that he was tough, he couldn’t remember the last time that he cried. Compared to Doug Wylick, that was something to be proud of. After all, he was the best athlete in the whole fourth grade, and he was known to having crying jags and tantrums a lot.
The first couple practices that his team was on the field, Colin just stood there thinking the angriest curse word strings that his ten-year old mind could think of. Each time, the defensive coach, Lou Honig, huffed and puffed on the sidelines, getting visibly louder each time until Rouse walked onto the field and put his hands on the young boy’s shoulders.
“Do you know what your purpose is on my field?”
Colin looked at him.
“Your purpose is simple. You do three things. One is that you find a hole and you go in there and put the quarterback on his ass.”
Colin smiled at that phrase for both the profanity and the aggression that he was permitted to have toward Wylick.
“Two is that you watch for the running back to come out of there,” he said, point to the side he would be cover.
“Then, you put him on his back before he gets over this line,” he said, running his foot over the ground.
Colin shook his head affirmatively.
“And three, if you can’t find a hole, you make a hole, and you get in there and you hit somebody,” he said loudly enough for the whole team to hear. “Not with your fist, but you tackle that sum bitch to the ground. Now, can you do that for your team?”
Colin shook his head again that he could.
“They’re counting on you. Your job is to stop the offense and get the ball back to our team. In life, a lot of people are going to tell you to play nice. A lot of things are going to piss you off. I know that being a middle kid upset me when I was growing up, and I’m sure it bothers you, but on this field, if you play by the rules, no dirty and low blows, you get to let all your frustrations out. But there’s a catch; these guys are going to let theirs out on you, too. It’s an agreement. You have to be able to be tough enough to receive it if you’re going to give it. When you go to the locker room, you unwind and come back out to the boy world that so many people see you as having to be in, but on this field you get to be a ferocious little dude. You got that?”
“Wolves eat that nonsense for a snack, Colin!”
“NOW GET IN THERE AND HIT SOMEONE!”
The first play in, something happened. Colin seemed to slow time down as he looked out at the offense and actually saw the way the hole would form. Then, in slow motion, he saw the quarterback, Doug Wylick, trying to sneak out toward his side when the other kids pushed in on the strong side. Immediately, he grabbed at Wylick, but as the boy’s body was in motion, it was hard to bring him down by himself; however, Colin managed to slow him down enough that he only got a yard over the line before Walter Ober ran over and piled on the quarterback. When they came up together, there was a high-five, and they set for the next play.
This time, Colin, who was still covered with dirt and grass from the last play, pushed in and ran toward Wylick, but the boy was faster than him, even after getting knocked down, so he escaped to the far side, trying to find someone to pass to, but eventually he threw incomplete when he couldn’t see any of the offense close enough to complete his pass to. This failure to tackle his nemesis again made Colin huff and puff.
Rouse saw this and called the boy over.
“What are you griping and moaning about, boy? You got a bee in your bonnet or something?”
“I couldn’t tackle him. He’s too fast.”
“I have two thoughts for that. Look at me.”
“One, you made him throw incomplete. The offense didn’t lose yards, but they didn’t gain yards. Sometimes, pressure is enough. Besides, when your teammates get good, that’s what creates interceptions. Until then, it forces them to punt on fourth down if they’re too far away to go for it.”
“Two is that you need to get fast. You need to get strong. You come to practice, and you do what you’re told. When you do that, you get big. When you do more of our workout exercises, you get bigger. Coach Honig and I are in the business of creating animals. If you trust in us, we will not let you down.”
“When the time comes, you’ll know what to do, and it will be so instinctive that you will just do it.”
The boy nodded and went back for another chance to plant Wylick into the ground.
At practice, the “cooler” kids would harass Honig about his taste in 1980s metal music. Colin wasn’t interested in being cool. He was happy to just be involved in a game that he liked and to be appreciated for who he was. All of these kids who kept pestering the coach about playing hip hop like Tupac or Biggie were taking away from his time to learn how to tackle better, practice more, or do calisthenics during their exercise sessions. For one, he was looking forward to that day when he looked in the mirror and saw a vicious beast, and besides, Colin liked the music Coach would blast, especially since Honig always played Motley Crue.
Like some of the other kids on the team, Colin really liked the one song that Lou said was entitled “Kickstart My Heart.” There were lots of lyrics in the song about getting all fired up to do really cool adrenaline pulsing things, and the beat was unlike anything that he had ever heard, at least until Coach brought in Metallica’s Black Album and played “Enter Sandman.” Coach was a Yankees fan, and he said this was their closer’s entrance song.
“Mariano Rivera became one of the best because he was given a gift. It’s called a cut fastball, and it does things that no other pitch can do. It drives fear into the hearts of opponents when it swerves inside and incinerates the small part of the bat when hitters try to fight it off.”
Rouse stood there listening to Honig’s words, and then he spoke, too, stating, “What are you doing to drive fear into the hearts of those things that want to take you down?”
All the boys thought quietly until Doug Wylick spoke.
“What should I get for my entrance song, Coach Honig?”
“Football players don’t get entrance songs. They go in as a team. We don’t grandstand. We push as a team to the end. When we win, we win as a team, and it’s Queen’s ‘We are the Champions.’ Then we go into a huddle and say that, ‘We are the champions TODAY.’ Tomorrow we either play like champions or someone else is the champion and we lose our right to that title. Sure, when we win, we can smile, but we don’t wear our heads so big that we get to be jerks. That’s not cool. In fact, that’s being more of a loser than the team who didn’t win,” Honig said.
“What about when we do lose?” Colin added.
“Silence. You think about what you could have done better, and you think about how to execute it. When you’re done, you write it on a piece of paper. When that’s done, you read it and throw it in the trash. If you commit it to memory and remember what it feels like to lose, that’s enough. You don’t carry your losses with you, or soon that’s all you carry, if you even can carry anything else with all that weight bearing down on you. You simply think about how to be better. Life is about preparedness. Think, practice, execute,” Rouse said.
“Yes, sir,” Colin added.
He went home and started to mentally prepare to do just that.
After his initial grasp on defense’s finer points, Colin realized that he may not be getting touchdowns, but a lot of what he was doing was what he wasn’t doing.
This was confirmed to him by his fourth grade teacher, who was a young Asian woman named Ms. Nguyen. At one point in mid-season, she once engaged him in conversation about his football game, knowing that was the only thing that was truly exciting him at that point in his life.
“Are you planning on playing basketball when football is over, Colin?”
“I don’t know. I’m not really tall, and besides, a lot of guys are going out for wrestling.”
“You like the tough sports?”
“I like pro wrestling when I watch it with my dad.”
“Do you know anything about ‘real’ wrestling?”
“Only that it’s for tough guys.”
“Amateur wrestling is really intense. My fiancé used to do it when we were in school together.”
“I just want to do whatever will get me good at football.”
“How many touchdowns did you score this year?”
“I don’t run the ball.”
“Do you throw the ball?”
“No, Doug is the quarterback. I’m defense.”
“So what statistics do you have? I’m sorry. I guess I’m too much of a girl to know all the terms and stats you guys know,” she said and smiled.
“I sometimes tackle the guy with the ball. Mostly, my job is to make sure that other people don’t do their job right. If they don’t score because the quarterback is afraid of me tackling him or I block a runner, I’m in the right place, and I get an ‘attaboy.’ I like when that happens.”
“In the Tao, the Tao isn’t what it isn’t. It’s the space in the bowl where things go or don’t go, not the bowl itself.”
“What’s the ‘dow’?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s a philosophy that I was taught in high school when I had an English teacher who was too smart for the room.”
“OK,” Colin said snickering.
“I guess I was saying that you define the offense by keeping their space empty, both in statistics and on the scoreboard.”
“So I’m making nothing happen?”
“Not at all,” she said looking at him, and then they both started laughing really loudly.
“Colin you have a lot of potential. You’re a quiet leader. I know how you are with your brother. I see how your sister has done at school, and she’ll go far, too, but sometimes, young boys don’t know their potential until the opportunity comes to use it. You have a lot of potential.”
“I mean that, but next time you spend time in my class thinking about football instead of the solar system, just remember you’re getting distracted and opportunities are going to pass you by and other people will score them. It’s your job to score on opportunities.”
“You’re right. I will.”
“Because if you don’t, I’m going to have to plow over you and take the ball to the goal line when I force a fumble. You know what that is, right?”
“No, a letter to Mom and Dad.”
“Oh, and one other thing since you didn’t make fun of me for quoting ancient wisdom on you. ‘A good commander achieves result, then stops and does not dare to reach for domination, achieves result but does not brag, achieves result but does not flaunt, achieves result but is not arrogant, achieves result but only out of necessity, achieves result but does not dominate.’”
“Is that the dow, too?”
“Yes, and it’s called the Tao te Ching. It only sounds like a D, but really it’s a T. Someday, you might like to read it when you get older. I got more out of it in my twenties than I did when I was sixteen. I guess I just needed a little more life experience first.”
“There seems to be a lot of stuff waiting for me when I get older.”
“Colin, there’s still a lot of stuff I’m waiting for when I get older. We both should be happy to be young while we can. A lot of that other stuff is more stress than it’s worth. Enjoy the now.”
“Is that the Tao?”
“No, that’s the Nguyen!”
They both smiled and laughed again.
The last game of his fourth grade year, Colin’s team was winning by a touchdown on what was set to be the last drive of the game, unless their opponents scored, which would take the game to overtime, and nobody wanted that after all of the grueling play that already happened. The field was muddy from a light drizzle earlier in the game, and it was very nasty, but the boys were enjoying the mud bowl much more than their parents, who were still dutifully watching the game, though they were doing it while grumbling from underneath umbrellas.
The uniforms, which were once a nice bright white were now brown, green, and black, and all of the boys seemed to be doing more to enjoy the sliding around than the game. This infuriated Colin, who went back into the defensive huddle to call out his teammates.
“The Bears are closing in on us. They keep getting first downs because we’re not doing our job,” he said, conscious enough to avoid using the word “you.” “We need to stop them here. Tighten up guys.”
“Shut up, you asshole!” a boy on his left side said.
“I want to win, so let’s do this,” Colin replied. “If we win here, we finish with a winning record. We’ll be 5-3. If not, we’re 4-4. That’s not a winning record.”
“Yeah!!” the voices called from all around.
“All we have to do is hold them here,” Colin stated emphatically.
Something in the performance, his first commanding moment, showed that the boy had stepped up and matured as something more than what he had ever been before. As a result, the other boys all clapped and screamed “RAH!” to head to the lineup.
As they stood there, it started raining harder again. Colin was playing the middle linebacker in this game, a position he had just graduated to after his earlier switch to strong-side linebacker. He had once again moved when his speed increased as it had throughout the season.
As he stood there directing traffic, he screamed to his teammates, “GET IN THERE AND HIT SOMEONE!”
This caused a nervous cheer from the audience, but a bigger one from the replacement players standing around the bench. More than anything, it made everyone including the parents forget about the pouring rain.
As the play began, Colin drifted slightly back as the tight end went out to the field, but he quickly changed direction and moved forward as he saw the running back take off forward.
It seemed instantaneous when Colin reached out and caught the boy who went down in the mud extra hard under Colin’s weight. Instantly, he heard a noise unlike anything he had ever heard before. Something, wasn’t right. The cry and squeal of pain confirmed this.
Instantly, Colin stopped playing and became concerned for the downed boy’s well-being. As he did, Colin didn’t notice that the ball had slipped loose as the opposing coach yelled “FUMBLE!”
But nothing that could be done or said would break Colin’s concern for whether his former opponent was safe, not even the opposing team recovering the ball, so all of the other boys ending up in a huge pile as time ran out on the game.
While Colin looked with concern on his adversary’s fallen frame, the young boy who once held the last ounce of opposition to the win, Colin could only think to say, “I’m sorry. I hope you’re OK,” as he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
The other boy stopped crying for a few seconds.
“I’ll be OK, but I think I broke my arm,” he whimpered, holding back tears.
“Can I sign your cast then?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
“What’s your name?”
“William Jacobs, but my friends call me Billy.”
“Cool. I’m Colin Jameson. I’m just plain old Colin.”
From that moment on, the two were best friends as later the next day, Colin went to the boy’s hospital room and watched superhero videos with him, talking about Legos, Motley Crue, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run chase, and who had the cutest girls in his class. In the end, neither could agree, so they chose to eat pizza and drink sodas while driving the nurses crazy until the end of visiting hours.
Nothing the nurses could do would prevent that victory of sorts from happening.
Colin never did go out for wrestling that year. There was a certain fear inside of him that he had a capability to inflict pain in others that he was in competition with. For all of his newfound strength and growing ferocity on the gridiron, he was still a gentle giant. That said, it wasn’t like he stopped exercising, but he noticed that he had more strength than those who surrounded him, and he really didn’t like the memory of the sound that was Billy’s bone breaking.
As time went on, Colin let it slip to his parents that he wasn’t going to go out for football, but then he found that Billy was going to be moving in with his dad for the following school year, so he would be coming to his school to play on his team. This excited Colin, but still, something in him lacked the killer edge that he had developed the previous year.
This worried both his parents and his coaches, who were really impressed with the boy’s mental and physical growth since the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t that they wanted him tackling kids and breaking arms. None of them did, but they saw how he responded and matured to the sports program, and they still saw how much he enjoyed staying on the off season exercise program. While he was too young for serious weights, he did a lot of running and pushups and sit ups, and he started to really get into the monkey bars as well as going swimming with his father, but he didn’t seem into lining up on the field again.
Finally, his mom, Linda, realized that there was a good option for him.
“Why don’t we send him to spend some time with my uncle Bart in Minnesota?”
“The one with the horse farm?” Anthony, his father, asked.
“Why not? There’s woods and animals and a huge lake for swimming, and he gets all of the attention instead of dividing things between five people, plus we can have some us time while Mary is at camp and Donald is with his grandparents.”
“You don’t think the bears will get him, do you?” his father joked.
“I’m sure Bart can keep him safe. He’s still got all of his old military skills and connections. Any bear would have to be stupid to mess with him.
“It works for me if Bart will take him.”
“He will. I already called, and he agreed to have him for all of July. We’ll just have to get ready to fly him into Minneapolis after our family beach trip ends. Bart will pick him up and give him some fresh air and a new perspective on things.”
“With his high school football stories, he could get him excited about the gridiron again”
“I was thinking with his Army background. Maybe he can influence Colin to overcome what happened on the field.”
“I’m sure you’re right, but he and Billy are best friends because of the accident. Good things come from bad ones. You’d think that the no permanent harm, no foul rule would be in place. Then again, maybe we’re too close to him to do something, and he always did like Uncle Bart, so hopefully he can straighten him out.”
“Let me ask him what he thinks.”
“Sure,” she said, and then she yelled out. “COLIN! GET YOUR BUTT DOWN HERE!”
The boy came running into the room.
“What’s up Mom?”
“How would you like to spend a month in Minnesota this summer with my Uncle Bart?”
“I thought Uncle Bart lived in Wyoming.”
“He moved his ranch to Roseau, Minnesota, two years ago. We haven’t seen him since you were four, but you liked riding his horses,” Anthony said.
“I have the picture in my room.”
“Yes, you do,” Linda added.
“OK?” Anthony asked.
“Okee dokee, Dad!”
“OK, it is! Summer horseback riding, swimming, hiking, and ranch work, here you come,” Linda smiled.
“You don’t think he’s going to let you stay for free, and besides, that will be a great way to stay in shape for football,” Anthony stated, matter of fact.
“Can I call Billy and tell him? He’ll be so jealous.”
“Sure, but why don’t you go down in the playroom and see how Donald is doing first?” Anthony added.
Immediately, he went downstairs, banging down the stairs as he was running so hard.
“Do you think he’ll be OK up there in the Great North Woods?”
“I would think so. Maybe they can take him to Canada while they’re up there. Winnipeg isn’t far away. Besides, he’s going to have to fly in there since it’s too long and too many connections to go in anywhere else.”
“Is your uncle going to be OK with a kid being up there for all of July?”
“Sure, he never had kids of his own being a colonel in the Army and being here, there, and everywhere. A single guy like Bart will have a lot of fun regaling a young boy with his heroic actions and deeds, whatever they were. Besides, he loved Colin when he saw him when we were out there in Wyoming during our trip to Yellowstone.”
“But that was four days. This is four weeks.”
“I’m sure he’ll find stuff for the boy to do. You know my uncle.”
“That’s kind of what I’m worried about. Your uncle is proper and by the books, but he’s a wild man at heart, especially when he lets his guard down.”
“Maybe that’s just what Colin needs.”
“You don’t think that Bart will have him drinking Yukon Jack and firing a .357 magnum at empty beer cans, do you?” Anthony laughed.
“I’ll be sure to warn him about that,” she smiled and then chuckled. “I have no idea where you come up with these things.”
“It’s my special talent.”
“It’s something,” Linda smiled.
Anthony laughed a little, and then he said, “OK, he can go, but if he sends Colin back early, the difference in flights comes out of your savings.”
“And if it doesn’t, then you need to go take another look at those diamond earrings I’ve been thinking about.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“Yep. I know,” she said and smiled. “And I’m going to look really hot with them, so you’ll get to have an arm candy trophy wife! Think about that when you pony up for a helping of extra bling.”
“If you live in Minnesota, how comes I flew into Canada?”
“Winnipeg is less than half of the distance from my ranch as Minneapolis is. I didn’t think you’d want to spend over six hours in a car after flying for a couple hours.”
“No, probably not.”
“So what do you know about Minnesota?”
“The real ones or the football team?”
“The football team.”
“You a fan?”
“No, I root for Seattle.”
“At least you’re not a Ravens or Eagles fan.”
“No, they stink.”
“I agree completely,” Bart said. “So, what do you think of Denver? That’s my team.”
“My dad liked John Elway. He sounded like a really great player when he was younger back in the day.”
“Back in the day?!! I sometimes forget how young you are with as tall as you are.”
“I’m not that young. I am ten now.”
“I know, I know. I guess I just forget how old I am.”
“How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better, but that doesn’t mean I do. Old enough to have seen a lot of things, but still not old enough to have seen everything. Old enough to be able to teach you a few things, young man!”
They both laughed.
“Are you still young enough inside to listen to Motley Crue?”
“I’m ‘hip’ enough to know who they are, and yes, I like some of their stuff. ‘Home Sweet Home’ is a good song, but as for me, I grew up listening to country music. On my wilder days, I’ll get some Neil Young going. Do you know who he is?”
The boy stared at him.
“‘Rockin’ in the Free World,’ ‘Like a Hurricane,’ Powder Finger,’ ‘Cortez the Killer,’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl?’”
“Doesn’t ring a bell. Can you work out for football to it?”
“I never tried to, but I wouldn’t think so.”
“Uncle Bart, do you miss Wyoming?”
“Sometimes, I miss my days in Cody, but I like northern Minnesota, too. At least when I’m staying out of trouble here.”
“Do you get into a lot of trouble? Before football, I was always getting into trouble.”
“Trouble finds me more than I find it.”
“Oh. What do you do when it finds you?”
“Do my best to avoid it.”
“That’s what my mom says to do.”
“She’s a smart person.”
“What do you do when you can’t avoid it?”
“I persuade it to avoid me.”
“How do you do that?”
“Look into these eyes,” Bart said, making a wild face. “Would you mess around with this?”
“No way, Uncle Bart.”
“You’re damn right you wouldn’t,” the older man said laughing as the boy joined in with him.
“Is there a lot to do where you live?”
“If you like going out in the woods, there is.”
“My uncle Todd and I sometimes go out, but that’s all walking uphill and through trees. We don’t always see stuff, but sometimes, we’ll see a deer.”
“Did you ever see a bear or anything big and scary?” Bart said, making a ghost noise, which caused them both to laugh again.
“Only in zoos and in books.”
“Do you read those Goosebumps books or like scary stories?”
“How scary do you like your stories?”
“My parents let me watch Freddie Krueger when he’s on regular TV. That’s pretty scary.”
“Yes, it is, but that’s not real.”
“I know, and I’m glad. I wouldn’t like to see an undead killer or a zombie, even with as slow and awkward as they walk around.”
“Up here, we have something that is real. It’s called the wendigo.”
“Is that like Bigfoot?”
“No, a wendigo would kick Bigfoot’s ass in a fight. Easily.”
The boy looked at him with utter disbelief.
“No, really. The Native Americans up here are called the Inuits. They have been scared of him for years. They call him ‘The evil spirit that devours mankind.’ He has been known to kill and eat people. At least he did when there were lots of woods and places for people to go deep into when they were first settling this state. Some of them wouldn’t come back. They’re still looking for some of them.”
“You’re messing with me.”
“Only in part. They’re missing, and the wendigos got them, but people know better than to go back to some of these places. Now, most people stay away from wendigo country.”
“Where would they have been likely to live?”
“All over northern Minnesota.”
“Did you ever see a wendigo?”
The man looked at him while driving up the highway and made another of his crazy tough guy faces.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?!!”
“You’re a hoot, Uncle Bart!”
“Yes, yes, I am. I’m a hoot owl!” he said, making another of those faces and both of the car’s passengers laughed.
“Everyone starts out mopping the floors. Your job is just that and shoveling shit. You help me move things, we fix fences, and I show you how to take care of the cattle and the horses. The better you get, the more you can do, which means you earn more. Savvy?”
“It’s not fun, but…”
“Work generally isn’t. If it was fun, they’d call it fun and not work, but you have to start somewhere. Plus, you get paid to work. At least you do after I subtract room and board.”
“How much is room and board?”
“Not that much. Besides, you’ll save more than enough for a ten-year old. Now, let’s start with the five horse pens. Trash is over there,” he said pointing. “The mops, shovels, and brooms are over there. You can get hay for the horses over there. Call me when you’re done.”
“No problem, Uncle Bart.”
“So let’s see how you did.”
The older man walked around the horse’s pens and looked at what he saw.
“Good, good. Definitely cleaner than they were. If you keep working at these until the end of July, the horses will think they’re living at the Palace of Versailles.”
“One of the most amazing castle homes I ever saw. It’s outside of France, and it’s huge and ornate with really fancy decorations everywhere.”
“So then that’s a good thing for the horses.”
“Yes, it is. It’s just you’ll just make me have to hire a ranch hand on since they’ll get so spoiled that they’ll be expecting the red carpet / white glove service every time.”
“In the military, we used to inspect for dust with white gloves. It showed the offending traces of dirt easier.”
“Do you want me to start you on military training with white gloves?”
“You ever think about the military when you’re older?”
“It would be cool to be a Navy SEAL or Special Forces soldier.”
“You’ve probably watched a lot of movies.”
“I watch a lot of movies and read comic books when I can.”
“To be one of those guys, you need a lot of training.”
“I know. They’re really strong.”
“Do you think I’m strong enough to be a Special Forces soldier?”
“You’re big, but you’re not Rambo.”
“We can’t all be as tough as Stallone, you’re right, but we don’t all have to be that muscular. We just need to be big enough.”
“Are you big enough for Special Forces?”
“So why weren’t you Special Forces?”
“Who says I’m not?”
“You never said you were.”
“You never asked.”
“Were you Special Forces?”
“I was, and I am.”
“Aren’t you too old to be in the military? Most of those guys are in their twenties and thirties.”
“I do contract work now.”
“I assist and I lead when something top secret needs done.”
“And they call you for that? That’s awesome.”
“Sometimes it is. Sometimes, it still scares the crap out of me.”
“But you’re a big tough guy. Why are you scared?”
“Some things are bigger and tougher.”
“So are some of the guys on the football field.”
“Are you scared of them?”
“Not really. I know the rules of the game, and I’m getting good at it, so I do what Coach Honig and Rouse tell me to do, so I know I’m OK. They wouldn’t send me into danger.”
“You’re strong for your age. Football has been good to you.”
“I know, but I’m kind of nervous about how strong I am sometimes. I broke my friend’s arm.”
“I heard, but that wasn’t you. That was mud and fate. You just happened to be the first one who fell on top of him when he hit the ground. It was what it was going to be. Besides, that boy. What’s his name? Billy?”
“He’s your buddy now. He’s not upset with you. He knows it’s the nature of the beast and the name of the game. You should, too. As long as you’re not taking cheap shots or trying to break bones.”
“Good. You can do enough of that when you become as big as Rambo or are you more of a Rocky kind of guy?”
The boy smiled.
“Did your coaches ever talk to you about the understanding all football players have where they agree to be hit if they’re going to hit people?”
“People get hurt. It happens. That’s why the pro players look like sasquatches. They have to since muscles work as padding.”
“That makes sense.”
“Now, let’s go ride these horses. They need some exercise.”
Two weeks later, Colin and Bart were off walking in the woods.
“Why did you bring your pistol, Uncle Bart? Are you worried about bears? I heard a ranger tell my family that they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. If we just get loud and big while holding our ground, they’ll go away.”
“Are you going to hold your own against a bear that is five times your size?”
The boy looked at him in a dumbfounded way.
“I didn’t think so, Rambo!”
Colin laughed at that statement.
“Out here, the wildlife is a little bigger and a little less friendly. We’ve got bears, but we’ve also got moose, wolves, deer, elk, and big eagles that fly over us and watch what we’re doing from high above. In Minnesota, there are all kinds of nasty things.”
“That monster you were talking about: ‘when goes.’”
“Oh, you mean wendigos.”
“So what do they look like?”
“They have huge deer antlers, but instead of a deer’s face, it looks more like a deer’s skull. The body sort of looks big and thick, like an elk, but where deer walk on four legs with hooves, wendigos walk on two legs with huge claws.”
“That sounds pretty bad ass.”
“It is, but what’s worse is their temper.”
“Are they really mean?”
“They’re cannibals. They were once people that ate people and now they’ve turned into a demon because of it.”
“How do you kill ‘em?”
“Bullets. Well-placed, high-powered shots to the head. Like zombies, it’s best to destroy their brain, but enough other well-placed shots are said to work, too. I always figure that it’s best to do it in one shot rather than messing around with lots of bullets.”
“Is your pistol high-powered?”
“It’s a .44 magnum, so Dirty Harry would say so.”
“A Clint Eastwood movie character. He was a tough as nails police officer in San Francisco during the early 1970s. He took no crap and he gave no sympathy to the bad guys.”
“Maybe we can watch it if you have it on tape.”
“I’m sure I do.”
“Did he shoot wendigos?”
“No, he shot bad guys. Jack Fiddler shot wendigos.”
“Who was he?”
“He was a Cree Indian who shot fourteen wendigos. When he shot the last one, he was arrested for murder, since it was a person who he said hadn’t turned into a wendigo yet. People thought he was crazy.”
“I can’t say. I wasn’t there.”
“Do you think he was crazy?”
“Well, he was pretty sane about every other aspect of his life than thinking about bizarre creatures that aren’t supposed to exist. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt if he was eliminating wendigos from the everyday world we live in.”
“Have you seen a wendigo?”
“What do you think?”
“They sound about as real as Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t. What do you think?” Bart said while making that crazy face again.
As with the other times, Colin laughed loudly.
“What do you say we stop wondering about wendigos for a while and go check out this waterfall?”
It wasn’t long before the two guys were standing at the High Falls of the Pigeon River, which was crashing 120 feet down into the pitch pool at the bottom.
“I thought you’d like that.”
“Yeah, that’s cool. I’ve seen waterfalls, but never one this big.”
“This is the biggest one in the state.”
“We’ve still got a couple weeks left. I’m sure there’s more good places and times to come. Can we go see some more waterfalls, Uncle Bart?”
“Sure, but how about for now we spend some time enjoying this one?”
The next trip wasn’t to a waterfall. This time, the boy and his great uncle were up in the Lost River State Forest. The hike was their longest journey so far, and they wandered back into a beautiful thick part of the forest with a creek flowing through it. Immediately, Colin felt drawn to the water, and he asked if he could check it out.
“Fine, I’ll be up here. Besides, I need to water a tree, so just walk straight back to the trail when you’re done. Don’t stray too far. You don’t want to run into any lions, tigers, or bears!”
“Oh my,” the boy laughed, and he was already off and running.
As Colin wandered through the brush, he tried his hardest to keep a straight line, but he moved left and right, around thick sticker bushes and rocks, and as he moved forward, he eventually came to the creek some five minutes later.
“If I walk straight back, I’ll hit the trail because it’s par-lel to the creek,” he said, remembering his math vocabulary.
“I’ll just need to go perp-dicular,” he added, refreshing himself to more math he would need in the fall.
As he looked at the white rushing water, tumbling quickly over the rocks, he forgot about the basics of geometry altogether. Soon, he had his walking stick in the water to balance himself across the rocks to a particularly interesting rocky formation. As he went through, he heard a sound.
At first, it seemed like a bull snorting, but he wasn’t really sure what it was. It was just something noisy. Thinking about it, he was sure it wasn’t a bear huffing, which is something his uncle told him to watch out for. When he was done contemplating this, Colin looked again, but he didn’t see anything, though the sound was repeating itself far away.
“Uncle Bart!” he called out, but he heard nothing back, so he moved back away from the noise when suddenly, he saw movement and a big monstrous shadow fell across his path. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but he thought he saw horns in his field of view. Whatever it was appeared around him so quickly, he didn’t have much time to think.
Still, there was no noise to confirm that this sound was all just his uncle playing a trick on him, but he now heard more snorting and growling as well as a rustling of leaves.
Whatever it was, it was getting closer, and he could feel it. The weight of some huge thing’s presence, a thing that he couldn’t ascertain, but that he could feel breathing on him was causing his skin to crawl, and instantly, he felt paralyzed as the shadow came across him, and he saw the face of the most hideous form he had ever known.
“But grandmother, what big teeth you have!”
It’s odd the things we feel when fear confronts us, but at that moment that Colin saw the image of the wendigo, the horns, the snarl, the saliva, the bones, the muscles, the fur, and the screaming desire inside the beast to kill him, he thought of the story of Goldilocks, and then he froze as the beast came into his path. Slowly, it moved around and it cornered him back against the rocks. To the right, there was a rock strewn path. To the left, there was a smaller wall than the huge mound of rocks behind him.
“When the going gets tough, what do the tough do?” a voice said inside of his head.
As he focused on the monster in front of him, there was a vicious, uglier image than the one that his uncle told him about. As Colin looked at it, he saw the monstrous creature go hazy as the voice surrounding the vision of the death he might face became identifiable to him. It was Coach Rouse. In his mind, he could see his coach’s face replacing that nightmare vision, just waiting for a response.
“GET TOUGH!” the boy screamed out loud as the monster looked at him, startled at first at the words that it heard.
“What do we do when the play goes off and the quarterback yells ‘hike’ to his offense?”
“We get through their line and hit someone,” he whispered, visibly aware that the beast was closing the last feet of distance between him.
And as he felt his muscles filling with adrenaline, a whistle, the coach’s whistle, which Rouse would blow to start the drills where they would practice leaping forward into that big heavy piece of equipment that Colin could never remember the exact name of, went off in his brain, and he immediately sprang forward, bursting into the beast.
At once, the beast recoiled, not knocked over, but surprised that something so little would challenge something so horrific and dominant. Instantly, it realized that the boy had pushed into it, attempting somehow to escape its clutches. Compared to the strength of the wendigo, the hit wasn’t hard, since the boy was roughly a quarter of its size, but it was hard enough to knock the wendigo’s game plan off-track and into one of reconfiguring its next move. As the cryptid did that, the boy was running off across the stream without his walking stick, which he had dropped after hearing the noise for the second time. Both of his feet were now soaked, but that didn’t matter. He had a head start, and he was a good thirty feet away when the beast once again began to pursue him.
For boys his age, thirty feet of a head start in the fifty yard dash was an insurmountable distance. However, if he were running the 440, the coaches would give them a solid head start and catch them every time. Nevertheless, here, Colin knew he only had a small chance if he huffed it out. At least he believed that he had to have a chance. Just like the only interception he had caught earlier in the season, a deflected pass that seemed to fall into his hands, he knew he had to run to safety as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, against the wendigo, there was no out of bounds or end zone. That game, there was no safety either as he made it about ten yards before he felt the spikes and fists retaliating on him for daring to think he could take away their momentum.
That time, he was surprised by everything that happened at once. He got the ball, and he completed the turnover, but he was immediately smashed down in a huge pile of bodies of elementary school boys. He remembered their hands grabbing for the ball, and he remembered feet kicking into him and sucker punches on his back and sides. He even remembered smiling at the fact that his arm was scratched up and bleeding.
“Do you need to sit out the rest of the game, Jameson?” Honig asked.
“No, I just need someone to get the referee’s seeing-eye dog so he can call the obvious penalties!”
“What they don’t see can’t be called against you. Let the referees break it up, but hold that ball. That’s your trophy. Don’t let any fool steal what belongs to you,” Coach Rouse had always said, and he knew it to be part of the contract he agreed to.
“Next round of defense, you need to go straight through their line. When you do, whether you sack the quarterback or not, tell them, ‘Don’t poke the bull!’ and then make a mean face while spitting on their field. When you do, they’ll never pull that shit again.”
But this time in the woods of northern Minnesota, he was off and running because there was no smack talking this thing. The beast was coming. He could clearly hear that. He heard the splashing across the stream, and he heard the sounds, the guttural, monstrous sounds roaring from deep inside. They were evil and ugly, but he would get away from them, and he would do his best to lose them and the creature they were coming from.
With that, he found himself starting to slant left and then right, dodging fallen trees and rocks at his feet, not bothering to look back since that would cut time off his head start. Losing his advantage wasn’t good, and he could feel the bad temptation calling to him, the one that said, “Give in and look,” but still he ignored it and ran forward, harder and harder.
This extra effort was good as the monster’s strides were longer than that of this ten-year old boy. Still, thirty feet became twenty-five and then twenty and then fifteen. Now, Colin could hear it gaining and screaming. It seemed to be calling out for him. Still, the “ferocious little dude” ran on, knowing that somewhere, somehow, out in the woods was Uncle Bart.
The thought ran through his mind, and he screamed it as loud as he could, hoping that his mom’s uncle could hear it through the thumping and rustling.
He heard another sound up ahead. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he heard it.
“Is there another one of these things?”
His heart was beating so quickly now. He couldn’t stop it. It felt like it was coming out of his chest as he heard the cryptid again. This time, it lurked behind him, getting closer. Ten feet now. He ran harder, but he felt himself getting tired.
“Can’t stop now! I have to push it,” he whispered.
Then he heard the voice again.
“If you stop now, you’ll never know how far you could have gone if you never gave up.”
He ran harder now as Coach Honig’s voice was encouraging him.
“See the goal line. Visualize it. It’s getting closer. It’s your safety. They can’t tackle you in there.”
“Tree. In front of me. Cut right,” he spoke, directing himself as he listened to the phantom voices of his coaches and navigated reality.
He did that, then, just as he told himself, and as he did, he made up a foot, two feet of distance, he reckoned, since the monster was too big to take the quick turns that he did. Instead, it was pummeling down trees that stood in its path.
“Where is the trail? It can’t be that far from here.”
And as he thought about it, he heard the noise in front of him.
“Uncle Bart?” he said, more wondering if it was him or the monster getting a jump on his movement in some different way.
Once again, there was no response.
This time, his words came out differently. It was like they were pained and scared because if it wasn’t Uncle Bart, then it surely was another one of these things, and if it was one of these things, he was as good as dead.
“Dead? What’s dead? Like my grandfather Charlie lying there in the coffin when we went to his viewing? Don’t think about this now; RUN!” he thought, and then he remembered what might be ahead.
And as he looked, he saw it was Uncle Bart, and the man was holding that pistol, the big .44 magnum, in his right hand, steady, and as Colin saw the trail that had been obscured before, he saw his uncle looking back at the beast as his hand pushed into the wooden inlay on the grip while his index finger pulled the trigger in one swift motion that would initiate the creature’s ultimate destruction.
The bullet soared off to Colin’s left and above his shoulder. He felt its force ripping through the air, even though he was safely out of its way, but he still worried that he was too close to it for comfort. As he came to this understanding, Colin hoped to God that he wasn’t hit, and when he realized that the bullet went by him, he turned around and he saw that thing. And as he saw it, he knew that wendigo that had been following him was dead on the ground.
At least he assumed it was dead. Its head was ripped open, and there was blood everywhere. Colin didn’t want to go see it up close for fear it was still alive, but something in him just knew that this beast wasn’t coming back. Unlike his video games, there was no reset button on this one.
“You’re OK, Colin. I got him,” Bart said, still holding the revolver, pointed up as its smoke floated into the air.
The boy paused for the first time in what felt like hours. As Colin did, he threw up on the side of the trail.
“You’ll be fine. I know. It’s a lot to face all at once.”
As he continued vomiting, Bart spoke again.
“I threw up after the first time I saw and killed one, too.”
“A big tough guy like you gets freaked out?”
“Yes. I’m sure Rambo did, too.”
“How many have you seen before?”
“That’s my fourth.”
“That you saw?”
“That I killed. They seem to have an attraction to me.”
“This one got really close to me. I even have some of his drool all over me.”
“Oh…” the older man said, contemplating exactly what that meant.
“Were you ever that close to one?”
“And what happened to you?”
“He drooled on me, too.”
“Does the stink go away?”
“Yes and no.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that we can’t smell it, but they can smell their scent on us.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re marked, too. It means that they know you survived, and they will hunt you down if they can. We need to get you out of the woods. We need to get both of us out of these woods. Do you understand that?”
“Yes. So we’re marked for what?”
“We are marked, and we’re marked for death,” he said, and he paused. “How much running do you still have in you?”
“I’ve got some.”
“We’re three quarters of a mile into the woods. Can you do this in eight minutes or so?”
“I never timed myself, but I won’t give up if you keep the pace and sing Army cadences like we do at practice.”
“Good. Let’s go,” Bart said, and they were off. Six minutes later, they were in the car driving away, the sounds of profane Army cadences still running through the boy’s mind.
As they got out of the parking area, they both heard another of those evil growls.
“They found the body. They know,” Bart said, filled with a matter of fact knowledge of what that might mean to both of them.
There was a pause before the older man spoke.
“Now we go for ice cream and think about happy thoughts. When we go home, we watch some Dirty Harry.”
“That sounds good.”
And with that, both men tried to get the evil creature off their minds, which didn’t really happen, though it was still nice to think about and actually eat some homemade ice cream, which turned out to be the best mint chocolate chip ice cream that Colin had ever tasted.
“So how was your vacation with Uncle Bart?” Colin’s father asked him.
“Awesome. We rode horses, we went hiking and saw a big waterfall, I earned $250 shoveling shit, and we watched Dirty Harry.”
“What?” His mother asked.
“I earned $250 shoveling out horse pens and helping Bart around the ranch.”
“No, the part about Dirty Harry. That’s rated R,” Linda said.
“And you’re not old enough to say the ‘S’ word,” his father added.
“Oh, Bart has a pistol like Dirty Harry. A .44 magnum. He let me watch the movie to show me why he has it. Was that wrong?” the boy asked, trying to weasel his way out of trouble.
“Probably not,” his dad said. “As long as you didn’t get drunk and shoot beer cans with it.”
“Definitely not,” Colin said as Linda breathed easier. “I’m sorry, anyway. I guess we had too much guy time.”
“Guy time?” His mother said, shaking her head.
“He didn’t let you shoot any of his other guns, did he?” his father asked.
“No,” the boy said, remembering that his uncle told him not to talk about the wendigo or the beginning of his training with his mother. She wouldn’t understand him being allowed to shoot his rifles, shotguns, and .22 pistol. His father wouldn’t either. They were too suburban to get the need for military style attitudes. Additionally, his sister wouldn’t be interested, and he might give poor Donald bad dreams.
“You’re lucky he didn’t make you shoot that pistol. That revolver would have knocked you on your butt, boy!” Todd added.
“Yeah. He just told me about it. I was asking him about the Army, and he mentioned he sometimes still shoots his guns to remind himself about the days when he was a Colonel in Iraq,” Colin said, hiding the fact that they were definitely wrong about him not being big enough to handle those guns. The big thumping bear rifle didn’t knock him on his butt, but that’s because he held it super tight. He may not have hit anything, but he did shoot it, and that was something. He could do the same with the .44 when he was older, he was sure. He just needed to get older.
“I’m sure he has stories from back in the day,” Linda added.
“He still does. He’s a neat guy. I’m going to grow up to be just like him.”
“Yeah,” his father added and tried hard not to tremble as he wondered -about what the concept of guy time really meant and who Bart was now and when he served in the Army.
Other than mentioning to Colin that he was in the Special Forces, nobody really knew anything about the man.
The first practice back that next fall, Coaches Honig and Rouse questioned where to put the boy after what happened.
“I’d understand if he was reluctant to use his full strength again. After what happened, that’s a big thing for a young boy, even a ferocious little dude like Colin. Let’s go slowly with him,” Honig said.
“We don’t want to demoralize him. He was middle linebacker that last game.”
“I know, but…”
“Yeah, if he’s not up to it, we need to get Jason Jones in there. He’ll need the experience, and he’s going to be great, like his big brother Ike.”
And with that, it became Rouse’s duty to inform Colin of his position. When he did, the boy nodded appropriately. Weak side linebacker.
“Can you do it? Rouse asked.
Colin looked at him, and he spoke the word “OK” with an air of confidence, which confused the men. Was he happy with the demotion? Time would tell.
The first play Doug Wylick called was a quick pass to the tight end. In the end, Colin didn’t lose a beat between the last season and this one. As the boy playing tight end turned and caught the ball, Colin grabbed him around the middle and took him to the ground before the boy realized the ball was in his hands. By the time he knew he caught the ball, he was on the ground trying to recover a fumble, and another player scooped up the ball so the defense could recover it.
As Colin walked away, he whispered the words “planted him” as he went to his position again.
“Jameson! Honig yelled. “Get your butt to middle linebacker. Jones, I want you on strong side. Pedro, take weak side.”
The boys shifted, and that’s how they remained for the rest of the season.
Colin was back, and there was something different inside of him. He wasn’t out to hurt people, and he was still conscientious and helpful, but something had matured inside of him. He was no longer afraid to make the hits, ever again, and he was always there with a hand to pull his teammates or opponents up for the next round.
When asked about it by Rouse, the boy just smiled.
“When the wendigo drools on you and you walk away, you have nothing to fear except his revenge. It’s the rules of the game, just like the ones we have in football.”
“Boy, you need to quit reading those damn comic books and focus on your studies before I make you learn to shake off opponents trying to tackle your sorry ass!”
A decade later, he celebrated his nineteenth birthday by getting a wendigo face tattooed to his shoulder. It wasn’t huge, but it was impressive and very well done. It cost a lot of money, and he probably should have spent it elsewhere, but knowing that he had gotten away from the creature was a mark of pride, and besides, all of his fellow Navy sailors were getting tattoos to commemorate getting out of basic training, so for him, this was a reminder of who he needed to be as he prepared to ship out for SEAL training at the end of the wee