Hanging bridge surrounded by trees


Cole Parker


I was not a happy camper. Actually, I wasn’t a camper at all. I was a twelve-year-old boy who was entirely a homebody. I know, I know. At that age boys are adventurous, risk-taking extroverts. Not me; I was none of those. What made it worse was my mother had recently died. I’d been very close to her, much more so than I was to my dad. He was a macho he-man. I knew what he thought of me. Wimp. Sissy. Mama’s boy.

Well, there was some truth in that, but throwing demeaning names at me wasn’t likely to fix it. There probably was no way at all to ‘fix it’. I was who I was. And that wasn’t like most boys my age. I didn’t fit in at school, in the neighborhood, anywhere.

My favorite thing in the world was to sit in my room on my bed and read a book. Before Mom died, I’d talked to her about the stories I read, and she’d make cookies or a pie, and we’d sit in the kitchen and talk about all the adventures or dramas or mysteries or sci-fi stories I’d read. I like reading; I didn’t want to take part in the stories for real, just vicariously.

We talked about more than those books. She was my friend, my confidant, my support. When I started feeling things at eleven, I told her about them. I had nothing to hide from her, nothing to be embarrassed about. We discussed if I might be gay. She said if I was, I was, and I’d know better in a year or two. In the meantime, she thought it would be better if this weren’t mentioned around my father. I wholeheartedly agreed.

Her death about destroyed me. My grief was boundless. Dad was quieter than usual for one day, and then, within days, he had a lady visiting several times a week and then moving in. As I said, he was a macho guy, and things like washing clothes and making beds and buying groceries and cooking, those sorts of things just weren’t who he was. That was woman’s work, and Dad didn’t do woman’s work. It was beneath him. For two weeks after Mom died, he never once cooked anything. We had a lot of pizza delivered and ate at McDonald’s and Sizzler and Denny’s and places like that.

When the lady moved in, I wasn’t even told in advance. Suddenly she was just there. And then they’d take to sitting on the couch together, getting real comfortable. I was still grieving. It made me physically sick seeing that. It was like my dad had already completely forgotten my mother.

Dad hadn’t related to me at all while Mom was alive and became even more distant afterward. I didn’t measure up to what he felt a son should be. He had the sensitivity of roadkill, and he’d mostly stopped trying to understand or manage me. The woman had no interest in me, either. So I was alone with my grief and all other aspects of my life.

That’s probably hard at any age. At twelve, needing support with my grief and daily existence and not getting it, it was devastating.

One day soon after the arrival of the woman, Dad saw me moping at breakfast. I hadn’t spoken a word to him in a week, nor he to me. He got angry watching me. Anger was one of the emotions he had down pat. Love, caring, sympathetic sentiment, empathy—none of those were in his arsenal.

“You have to stop this, boy,” he said, shoving into his mouth some of the sausage his woman made for him every day. Eggs and sausage, fried potatoes, white toast and black coffee. I had cereal with milk—when we had that.

I looked up at him but didn’t speak. Even if I did, he wouldn’t hear me.

“You need to get out, get some fresh air, build some muscle. Hey, I know just the thing. One of the guys I work with—” he did construction work and they were building a new tract of housing at the moment “—said his boy was in a group that was going on a hike and overnight camping trip this weekend. You need to go with them! Perfect for you. Just what the doctor ordered. I’ll set it up.”

I balked, of course, but as I said, he didn’t listen. So Saturday morning at the ungodly hour of 6 AM I was in the school parking lot. I’d had no idea what I should bring with me, and Dad hadn’t bothered to find out, so I had an old canteen he’d found in the garage with water in it. I was wearing a tee shirt and jeans, my ratty sneakers and that was it. I knew it was supposed to be an overnight thing, but Dad just said I could share with someone, whatever that meant. I was still in mourning, just dragging around and not really with it. I was hoping that whoever was leading this expedition into the wilderness would see how ill-equipped and unprepared I was and leave me behind.

It didn’t work out that way. The other kids were older, and the leader, whose name was Bryson, was just a little older than they were. The group seemed to be mostly 14 and 15; the leader couldn’t have been older than 16. At 12, I was obviously the youngest by a lot. They took a look at me and, from that point on, just ignored me. I was alone. Dad had dropped me off and left. Glad to be rid of me for the weekend, I was sure.

Bryson couldn’t ignore me entirely once we got going but did try to. First off, he spoke to us as a group, telling us we’d be walking for about four hours, then stop for a break and eat the snacks we’d brought, and at lunchtime we’d be at the spot where we’d set up camp, pitch our tents and gather wood for our fire. He said most of the hiking would be uphill, so he hoped we were in good shape. Then he said to follow him and took off walking.

Soon we were out of town into the hills surrounding it. He was right, we were then climbing. We walked through thin woods and open land, all of it uphill.

I was a sedentary creature, having spent most of my time on my bed reading. I wasn’t used to this sort of effort. Within the first hour, I was lagging behind. Bryson would occasionally look back, each time seeing I was farther behind than before. He scolded me, wanting me to keep up. I did the best I could, but by the time he called for the guys to stop for our break, I was way behind. It was a good thing we were on a path because I’d lost contact with the group. I didn’t even hear him tell the others this was where they’d rest.

He saw I wasn’t with them then and came back. It took him a few minutes to find me way back on the trail.

He wasn’t a bit happy about that. “What the hell are you doing way back here? I told you to keep up. Goddamit, you think you’re special or something? Stay with the rest of us. I’m not here to babysit you.”

I was exhausted. I had a blister coming on one foot, I’d already drunk all my water and was thirsty, I was sweating, and now this guy I didn’t know at all, who was supposed to be in charge of us, was swearing at me. I couldn’t meet his eyes. I just looked at the ground and didn’t say a word. I felt like I was about to cry and hoped I wouldn’t.

“Come on. We have to get back. You might as well eat your snack now because we don’t have any more resting time. It’s your fault you missed out. You’ll have to do better. Now, get a move on.”

He turned and started walking back the way he’d come. I began walking again, too, but he was a lot taller than I was and in a hurry to get back to the others. He was out of sight almost in less than a minute. I was left to stumble along by myself, wondering if there’d be any food for me later. I didn’t know where he thought this snack I was supposed to have was hidden. I didn’t have a backpack.

I was almost wobbling by the time I reached the others. “’Bout time! We’re ready to go.” Bryson said. Then, speaking to the group, he informed everyone, “We have to get across the bridge by noon, and we’re behind schedule. Mount up, everyone.” To me he said, “You’ll just have to keep up!” He said that much louder, and all the other kids looked at me. I was totally exhausted. The rest of them stood up. “Let’s move out. We’ve got a long way to go yet. Time’s flyin’, guys.”

And with that the group took off. I didn’t. Couldn’t. I sank down. I had to rest. I still didn’t have any water. So, I lacked food, water, energy, and mostly the will to go on.

Ten minutes later, I tried standing up. I looked ahead, and then looked back the way we’d come. Neither looked possible. I wondered how far the rest of them had gone. He’d said they had to get to a bridge. Putting together everything he’d said, I guessed that was about an hour and a half’s walk from here. That meant more like two hours for me. From what I could see, more uphill climbing. Could I do this?

What choice did I have? It was a longer walk back.

It took more willpower than I thought I had, but, once started, I kept trudging along, accepting the pain in my heel, keeping my eyes on the trail one step ahead of another and never looking up, fighting the rise ahead of me, wondering if it would ever flatten out, my mind lost into a vast gray miasma, thinking of my mother, my pain, my life, one foot in front of the other, again and again.

Finally, after just about forever, I broke out into the light, out from under the thick canopy provided by the trees shading the path. I was also at the top of the rise I’d been steadily climbing. Lying in front of me was the bridge the leader had mentioned. What he hadn’t said was it was a hanging bridge over a deep ravine. I’d struggled all the way to the top, and now was met with a bridge crossing a span of forty or fifty yards. From where I stood, I could only see more trees and brush, but I had the feeling what lay below the middle of the bridge, masked by all the growth closer to me, was nothing, a sheer drop into an abyss. I’d just climbed for hours and hours. I knew how high I was. That meant I also knew how far down the bottom of the ravine could be.

I stared at the bridge, at the ravine, and if my spirit was aching before, now it was ten times worse. The bridge was a hanging one supported by two steel cables on which wooden planks were laid, probably fastened to the cables. They weren’t abutting each other but separated by about eight inches or so with nothing but air between them. Two other cables were about four feet above the planks. I was sure they were meant to be handrails. The entire structure looked horribly unsafe to me, sloping down somewhat into the ravine for the first half and then climbing back up to the opposite wall across from the one where I was now standing.

I was expected to walk across the bridge. The group was on the other side, and it looked like they were busy setting up camp. None of them were looking at me.

I sank to my knees, then rocked back so I was on my butt. This was as far as I could go. I didn’t have the energy to walk back down to the town. And I definitely couldn’t cross that bridge.

When I’d been five, my father had taken me to the top of the tallest building in town to show me what it looked like from above. Then he grabbed me and said, “Let’s see if you can fly,” and fake tossed me over the side. I’d screamed and wet myself, and he had to carry me back down. I was too shaken to walk. I even sucked my thumb, something I’d given up a year earlier. All the way down my father kept telling me how disgusted he was with me not being able to take a joke and still be scared about it afterward.

Ever since then, I’d had a terrible fear of heights. I was petrified looking down even only ten feet. I couldn’t go off the high board at the town’s swimming pool. Just looking up at it from the pool’s deck scared me.

The bridge was a walk too far. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.

I sat there for probably twenty minutes before someone happened to see me. It was one of the boys. None of them had spoken to me since we’d met. Even now, the boy didn’t call out to me. He simply looked over, saw me, stared at me for a couple of moments, then went to tell Bryson.

The leader walked to where the bridge met the hill on his side and looked at me. “Get over here,” he called. “What’re you sitting there for?”

I guess he expected I’d either get up and walk across or call back to him. I didn’t have the energy to walk across or even to call across. So I did neither. I dropped my eyes and just sat there with no idea what would happen next. I’d given up.

He called a couple more times. The last time he told me I could just sit there as long as I wanted. Then he walked back to where the tents were now arranged.

A tent was something else I didn’t have. Nor a jacket, and it would probably cool off at night.

I thought of a way out. I could walk to the edge of the ravine and just keep walking. That would solve every one of my problems. I think the only thing that kept me from doing it was that fear of heights I had. Dying didn’t sound all that bad. But falling? No. I couldn’t do it that way.

Could I turn around and head back? It would be at least a six-hour walk, and I knew I couldn’t make that. Even one hour would be too much. I’d have to stop, and the light would go, and it would be cold, and . . . I had to think of something else. But my head seemed full of sawdust. I couldn’t think clearly. Too tired, too thirsty, too hungry—too, too much.

I don’t know how long I sat there. I wasn’t really in the moment, and what pulled me out of it was a smell. I guess I’d been dozing or so deep into a daydream I was totally out of it. But then my nose woke me. I looked around. It was much later. Early evening. And the smell was from across the ravine. The boys were standing around a small fire, and they were cooking hot dogs they’d skewered on sticks.

The smell made me ravenous. My stomach started hurting. I tried to stand up but was too weak and fell back down. Maybe I was dehydrated. I’d read about that. Dehydration kills people more often than hunger does. Maybe that was my way to go. I wouldn’t have to do anything to die that way. I could just lie here, go back into my mental fog, and eventually I’d just be gone. That sounded very good to me.

“You hungry yet?” Bryson didn’t sound as angry as he had before. I couldn’t imagine him being worried about me. If he was worried about anything, it might be what I’d say about how I was treated when I got back. He probably didn’t realize I didn’t have anyone to give a care about it. No one gave a hoot about me. He certainly didn’t know I was thinking about not ever going back at all.

I just looked at him and didn’t answer. I doubted I could say anything loud enough that he could hear it from over there. My throat was parchment paper dry. And raising my head to look at him made me a little woozy.

He shook his head but then started crossing the bridge, headed toward me. I watched as the bridge swayed with each step he took. My fear returned.

He came all the way across and stood over me. He didn’t look angry when I took a quick glance at his face before looking down again. When he spoke, he didn’t sound angry. He actually sounded a little concerned.

“What’s the matter with you? You stayed alone all day. I thought you were friends with these guys, but I just asked them why you were sitting over here and found out they didn’t know you at all. Is that why you were hanging back?”

I tried to answer but couldn’t. My throat was too dry. So I whispered instead. “Water?”

“You’ve got a canteen,” he said and reached down to where it was hanging on my belt and shook it. “Oh. It’s dangerous not to have enough water.”

I just looked up at him. He got the point and handed me his canteen. I didn’t even worry about germs. I just drank and drank. He eventually grabbed it. “You’ll throw up if you drink too much too fast. Slow down. You can have more in a bit. Now, is that why you were hanging back all day, you don’t know those guys?”

I shook my head but stopped quickly when that made my vision swim. “No. You were all walking too fast. I couldn’t keep up.” My voice sounded very funny to me, weak as I was and scratchy. It hurt my throat to talk.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“You were gone by then, and when you came back you were angry,” I forced myself to say. “I don’t do well with angry. That’s all I hear at home, and I’ve learned to freeze up when it happens. You yelled at me and then left.” I had to swallow a couple of times after saying all that but found it difficult to do so.

I risked a quick look at him again. I thought he’d be angry again, but instead he looked sad.

“Well, I’m sorry. I should have talked to you. I’ve never done this before, and I screwed it up. I can see that now. I should have been paying more attention, but I didn’t know you were having problems, and I guess I was too busy being the boss. Anyway, I understand now. But you must be hungry. Just a snack hours ago isn’t enough food after hiking all day.”

I shook my head but didn’t say anything. My dad always said I was a whiner, and anything I said now would sound like that. So I kept my mouth shut.

I could feel his eyes on me, and when I looked up, he kind of wrinkled his forehead. “You did have your snack, didn’t you?”

“I haven’t eaten anything since dinner last night when I had a bowl of cereal.”

“Oh my God! No wonder you’re sitting down. No water, no food, and a long uphill hike. Look, let’s go across to the camp and I’ll get you fed. Unless the boys have eaten everything. Damn. We’d better go. Come on. If you’re weak, I’ll take your arm.”

He stood up. I didn’t. I was just sitting, wanting to shake my head but unable to.

“What’s the matter?”

“I can’t cross that bridge. I’m afraid of heights. Not just scared of them. Terrified. I can’t walk across there. I can’t, and I won’t. I’d rather sit here, and maybe if I freeze tonight, everything thing will be over.”

I don’t know if what I said made a difference, but I’m pretty sure the sound of my voice got through. I was defeated, and he had to hear that, but even more so, I was terrified just thinking about being on that bridge, and that was transmitted in my voice, too. My face and body language weren’t telling a happy story, either, I was sure.

He didn’t say anything for a spell. He was looking at me, which probably didn’t help at all. Finally, he sat down next to me again and said, “Things aren’t easy for you, are they?” He said it softly, kindly. I wish he hadn’t. I started to cry. He was the first one to say something nice to me since Mom had died. In the state I was in, I couldn’t handle it.

He put his arm around me, and I sobbed. I don’t know how long. But he waited, and eventually I stopped.

“That’s okay,” he said. “And I figured out what to do. I’ll carry you across. Piggyback. If you keep your eyes closed, you should be all right. We’ll be across in about twenty seconds, maybe thirty. Count to thirty just in case, and we’ll be across. Think hotdogs. There’d better be some left. Okay?”

The only reason I didn’t balk was that I lacked the energy to do so. The keeping-my-eyes-closed suggestion sounded good. Also, over there I’d have food and water and wouldn’t have to sleep alone with nothing but what I was wearing. If I’d been more alert, I might have thought to ask him to bring his tent and some food over to this side and stay with me. But my brain wasn’t working well at all. I’d been through too much today. I was done thinking or objecting or anything else.

He got down on his knees with his upper torso vertical and told me to climb on. “How much do you weigh?” he asked.

“Eighty pounds,” I said. I wasn’t proud of being skinny and weak, but he asked and I told him.

“Okay. That should be fine. You all set? Okay, hold on tight and shut your eyes.” He stood up with me on his back and walked to the bridge.

“The first bit will be a little shaky because we’ll be going downhill, and then it’ll get smoother,” he said. “Think happy thoughts.”

I clung to him tightly. I knew when he stepped onto the bridge. It was shaky, and he wobbled a bit. I almost screamed. My eyes were as tight as I could make them. He walked down, and I could feel us dropping a scary bit lower with each step. I was counting to thirty, but it didn’t keep my mind off where we were. Had I been stronger, mentally and physically, I’d never have agreed to this.

We wobbled on every step. He wasn’t used to carrying my weight, and the fact I was on his back affected his balance. When I thought we were about in the middle because we were no longer going lower each step he took, I thought I might help by not leaning forward and pressing against his head so hard. I pulled myself back to a more upright position.

I don’t know if that affected his balance or if he simply tripped. But he staggered and then leaned to the side, and suddenly, I wasn’t on his back any longer. He stumbled, fell to the side, and his hip hit the side cable. The shock of that sent me right off his back and over the side.

Falling. The one fear that was the worst for me. I knew where we were, right where my drop would be the farthest and not slowed by any trees or bushes, right where I’d plunge onto whatever was under me the hardest. It hadn’t been dying I’d feared not all that long ago. It had been falling.

I flailed outward with my hands and arms in terror, and unbelievably my left hand hit the cable as I was falling past it. I grabbed it as hard as I could with whatever strength I had in me. I felt my weight arrested as it jerked against my hand.

I screamed. I was holding on with one hand, dangling over the abyss, and I knew I couldn’t hold on for long. I wasn’t strong enough, my left hand wasn’t strong enough, and I already felt it start to slip as it became wet. Wet? I opened my eyes to look up and saw blood running down my arm. I screamed again.

“Hold on!” Bryson yelled, and then his hands were on my wrist. My wet, bloody, slippery wrist. “Give me your other hand,” he shouted, the panic evident in his voice. I swung my free hand, my right hand, up and in the process felt my left hand losing its purchase.

Bryson grabbed my right hand and arm and let go of my left wrist, taking my right arm in both hands just as my left hand slipped off the cable. I was hanging over sure death with only the strength of his hands holding me.

“Ugh!” he said, and I screamed again, wriggling in the air, nothing to gain purchase on.

“Hold still!” he shouted, and then I felt myself being slowly pulled upward. Higher and higher until I was pulled toward the bridge and I felt the cable against my stomach.

“Don’t let go!” I screamed with what strength I had left in me.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” he grunted and kept lifting and pulling, and I flopped over the cable and crashed onto the planks.

I felt more than anything like rolling myself into a fetal position but also thought the safest position would be to splay myself out onto as much plank surface as I could. I was afraid if I tucked myself into a ball I might roll right off the planks.

My heart was beating way too fast, and I was gasping for breath. My mind seemed to be tumbling over itself, and slowly, inexorably, the world went dark.

< >

I woke up in a hospital bed. That seemed impossible to me. How could I be unconscious for the length of time it would have taken me to somehow get off that bridge and out of that hilly, woodsy terrain and into a hospital?

I was in a ward with several other beds, some of them occupied, some empty. No one was in the bed on either side of me.

I had no idea whether it was night or day. I was completely disoriented, and there was no one around to ask about anything. The one need I had at the moment was to pee, and, conversely, I was very thirsty. The need to pee was dominant, and I looked around for a door that might be a bathroom, but all I could see were beds on both sides of the room. There was a low tray table with wheels standing alongside my bed, and on it I saw a glass of water with a bent straw next to an empty plastic bottle.

I reached for the bottle and realized my left hand was bandaged from my wrist to my fingertips. Luckily, the bottle was on my right side, and then I saw I had an intravenous drip line going into the back of that hand. The line running to the drip was long enough, however, that I could reach the bottle and use it for its intended purpose. At least the purpose I was going to use it for.

When I was done, I had nowhere to put the bottle other than back on the cart. I found that a little embarrassing, but certainly nurses saw things much worse than a bottle of urine when handling their duties.

My head seemed to be clearing a little, and as it did, all sorts of questions arose. I needed to talk to someone. At the same time I felt sleepy and closed my eyes. The next time I opened them, I knew I’d been sleeping and time had passed. There were now two people standing by the bed, one a man in a white coat with a stethoscope hanging around his neck and a woman dressed as a nurse.

“I’m Dr. Turner,” the man said and listened to my heart. “You probably have a lot of questions. Maybe I can answer some before you ask. From what I gather, you went into shock after nearly falling off a bridge. You were transported here by helicopter and ambulance, which I’m sure you don’t remember. We treated a pretty severe laceration on your hand. It’ll take a little time for that to heal, and we’ll have to remove some stitches. You may be disoriented for a while—or not. We’ll keep you here at least until sometime tomorrow. Do you know your name?”

“Oliver Hagen,” I said. My voice was very raspy.

“And do you remember the hike you were on yesterday?”

I remembered it clearly, so clearly my heart started beating faster. I nodded. I think he could see the panic in my eyes and put a hand on my shoulder. “Okay, okay, you’re fine. Settle down.”

He spoke calmly, and I did settle down. I was lying in a hospital bed in some sort of gown. Evidently I’d been completely out of it for some time, and I’d slept, too. It was the day after the hike already.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Four in the afternoon,” the doctor said. “You seem to be doing well. This is nurse O’Connor. She’ll look after you. If you’re not showing any continued trauma, we’ll release you to your parents tomorrow. Incidentally, they haven’t put in an appearance yet. I’ll check that they’ve been notified.”

The doctor smiled at me and walked away. The nurse fussed around a little with this and that, then asked me if I needed a bedpan.

“I can walk to a bathroom, can’t I?” I asked.

“Let’s see. Now that you’re awake and can drink, I can remove the drip. You were pretty dehydrated when you came in, but your last blood test showed you were coming back into the normal range.”

She removed the needle from my hand, then had me sit up and dangle my feet and legs over the side of the bed. That made me feel a little dizzy, but I quickly got over that.

She then had me stand up, holding onto my arm as I did. “This is scarier with a 200-pound man,” she said, “but I think I can manage if you start to go down.” I frowned at her, and she giggled.

With her still holding on, I managed a few steps away from the bed and then back to it. I rested a few seconds, then did it again. The third time I did it, I felt much stronger.

She showed me where the bathroom was at the end of the ward. I’d have no problem walking there when I needed to.

When I returned to the bed, she showed me how to raise the top portion so I could sit upright rather than lie down. She asked if I needed anything, and I realized I was quite hungry. She said they’d bring dinner in a little under an hour, but she’d find me some Jell-O right away. I had water by the bed on the tray table, and I saw the few things I’d had in my pockets were on it as well. Included was my cellphone. As it was there, I decided I didn’t have to ask; if I couldn’t use it, they wouldn’t have put it there.

I was glad it was there. As I sat alone in the bed, all I could do was think, and I did that, a lot of that. Eventually, I picked up the phone, scrolled through my contact list, and made a call.

That evening, I had a visitor. She came bustling in, all energy and concern, and I couldn’t help but smile. This was her to a tee.

“Aunt Bess,” I said and felt my spirits jump ten feet high.

“Ollie,” she said, a large smile on her face. “You look good. I was so worried when you called!”

She pulled up a chair and sat down, taking my right hand in hers. “You said you’d tell me all about why you’re here if I’d come visit you in the hospital. Of course I’d come, and you look fine to me. Of course, after scaring me half to death I’ll have to beat you senseless after we get you out of here.”

We both laughed. She always had that effect on me. She was my mother’s younger sister by two years and my favorite relative by far.

“I have a lot to say, and the phone seemed too impersonal a way to do it. Thanks for coming.”

“It’s only a 90-minute drive. Anything for you, kid. Now, talk.”

I did.

After she left, I felt a lot better. Dinner helped, too. When my tray had been removed, it was early evening and I wished I had a book. I was surprised when I had another visitor.

“Bryson!” I said as he walked up to my bed, looking very awkward.

“I, I didn’t know if you’d want to see me or not,” he said. “I asked downstairs if you were allowed to have visitors, and they sent me up. I just wanted to say how sorry I am for not taking better care of you on the hike, and how because of me you came so close to dying.”

“Bryson, you saved my life. Yeah, I started off not liking you much, but then later you were kind to me, and you looked out for me, and I could tell you were worried about me, and when I fell, you saved me. And somehow after that, you even got a helicopter to come get me. I don’t know how you did that, but when I woke up here, I knew it had to have been your doing. You saved me, Bryson, and all I can say is thank you. I’ll always think of you as a hero.”

He didn’t stay long, but I was happy I had the chance to thank him. He seemed reassured when he left and was even smiling.

< >

We were in a courtroom. Aunt Bess and her husband and two boys, one just older than me and one just younger, were there, along with my dad. The woman he’d been seeing wasn’t there, and, in fact, was no longer in the picture. He had another one now, but she was working and hadn’t come to the hearing with him.

The judge looked at me and asked, “Is this what you want, Oliver?”

“Yes, your honor, with all my heart. At the same time the adoption is granted, I’d like my name changed from Hagen to Lancaster. Oliver Lancaster sounds much better than Oliver Hagen and fits me better, too.” I took a quick glance at my father. He was looking straight ahead and not at me at all.

Aunt Bess laid a hand on my shoulder. It felt good there.

The judge turned to my dad. “And you, Mr. Hagen, relinquish all legal rights and responsibilities to Oliver, and agree to pay child support till he’s eighteen?”

“No problem, judge,” he said. “Let them take care of the fag. I don’t want him.”

The judge gave him a dirty look but then smiled at me. “The order is affirmed, along with the name change.” He looked at my father. “Mr. Hagen, you are responsible for the cost of the emergency flight, the ambulance delivery and the hospital bill.” Then he turned back to me. “Good luck, son.” He winked at me and smiled again.

I grinned. My father had been happy to be rid of me, especially after I told him I was gay. He’d dithered and hedged when I told him I wanted to go live with Aunt Bess and be adopted by them. She’d agreed enthusiastically when I’d told her I wanted that. My father hadn’t been ready to give me up that easily, thinking it would make him look bad, his son wanting to get adopted to get away from him. That was easy to fix. I simply played the ace I had in the hole: I told him I was gay. That sealed the deal for him; having sired a gay son would make him look worse than just about anything in his eyes.

I’d already moved in with the Lancaster family. I did so when I left the hospital and stayed there while the adoption moved through the legal red tape and bells and whistles. That had taken a few weeks. During that time I confirmed that I’d made the right decision about living with them. I loved my cousins, and they had no problem at all with my being gay. They told me they had a couple of friends at school who were gay and that they’d introduce me!

The one thing that I remembered more clearly than anything else about that hike and my near-death experience was that when I was dangling from that cable and my hand was starting to slip, the thought that seared itself into my mind was—I wanted to live. Never again would I wish to die. I was through with that. No, I wanted to live. Perhaps I’d needed to be that close to death to realize how much I wanted to live.

The End

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