The soft rumbling of my mother’s old jeep sent faint vibrations through my chest as I stared at the glowing screen of my phone. A sunny back yard and a pool dotted with people stared back at me. Soon enough, the familiar face of my friend, Tony, appeared in the frame with a wide grin.
“Hey, man! I’m at Sandy’s right now. She’s throwing a sick pool party the gang’s all here,” he paused for a moment to point the video camera in another direction, “and they miss ya!” The camera shook a little bit in the grip of my excited friend, but I was able to see the multitude of waving hands and wide smiles directed to the phone’s lense.
After a moment, Tony turned the camera’s view back to him. “Her parents are out, so we managed to sneak booze and weed here. It’s awesome: Henry is so wasted right now!” He laughed and seemed to be looking in what I assumed to be Henry’s direction.
“Anyway, summer’s ending, so we’re living it up. But dude, just imagine how cool we’ll be when we join the football team once school starts! I can’t wait to meet some cheerleaders.” Tony winked at the camera and ran a tan hand through his unruly, dark hair. “Tell us how your summer house stay is, and tell your sister I said, ‘wassup’. That sleep-away camp in the jungle must be rad! Well, gotta get back to the party. See ya, Rus!”
I sighed as the image of my friend faded to an inky blackness. My body twisted around as I turned to look through the back window. Dull eyes watched as dust flew up from behind us. I couldn’t tell if it was gratitude or dismay that I felt at the time. I knew for sure that I was unhappy with my family and my social life.
We were currently driving to the summerhouse. Thankfully, I would be away from the pressure to try whatever “treats” my friends got high from. On the other hand, I would be stuck with my mother and stepfather for the next three weeks. Before we even arrived at the house, though, we were going to take a detour to visit my stepsister at her sleep-away camp; it was on the way to our destination.
My stepsister didn’t exactly bother me, but it was my stepfather that I disliked. He barged into the family-which consisted of only Mom and I-and swept her off her feet in just two years. He expected me to be warm and welcoming when he told me his proposal plans, but I was furious. I hated the way he looked at Mom. Only Dad should’ve been allowed to do it, even if he can’t anymore. I resented the way he would always bring us things from his business trips, as if he thought that it would win me over, even if it
did make my mother squeal in excitement. I didn’t care how much he tried, but he’d never be accepted by me. He’d never be Dad.
The atmosphere in the jeep was slightly awkward. I didn’t have to take my earphones out to know that they had been flirting in whispers and glances, since they knew how angry it made me when they openly acted like lovebirds. Ugh. Even at that very moment, disgust roiled in my stomach, and my foul mood only increased. I rolled my eyes and stared out of the window at the blur of multicolored, tropical trees that our jeep rolled by. In the distance, a tall sign stood proudly in front of what seemed to be the entrance of the camp. “Welcome to Camp Wilde: a haven for young campers and wildlife!” was carved into the clean wood.
A nearby man with a safari hat and rolled up sleeves strolled up to the window of the driver’s side. I turned down my music a little to hear what he had to say.
“Welcome, welcome,” he chimed, “I assume you’re the Bradies?” I winced at the new surname that Mom and I now adorned. My stepfather flashed him an easy grin and stuck his hand through the window for a handshake.
“That’s us, alright. I’m Bert, and this is my lovely wife, Linda.” He motioned to her with his free hand and his eyes lingered on her form just long enough to make me grit my teeth.
Bert looked back in my direction and sighed when his brown eyes landed on my earphones. “Rus, why don’t you be polite and introduce yourself?”
I held back a snort and simply stared back at him. He frowned and turned back to the man at the window. “Sorry about him, he’s had a rough drive,” he paused for a moment to clear his throat, “we’re here to visit Layla during her free hour before we continue driving. I’d like to arrive at the house within the next three hours, you see.”
The man nodded in understanding, and sweat dripped from his brow. “Of course. Follow me, please. You can leave the vehicle here for the next hour.”
Mom smiled and thanked him before popping out of the jeep. She opened my side of the door. “Come on, Rus. This’ll be fun!”
I offered her a fake smile, which turned out to be a grimace, and then slowly slid out from the car. Sunlight glinted off the screen of my phone. Bert joined my mother’s side, but frowned once he saw that I had brought my phone with me.
“Russel, leave the phone in the car. You’re addicted to it.” This time, I was unable to rein in my “You can’t tell me what to do,” I snarked. Bert narrowed his eyes and puffed his chest.
“I’m your father, and I am telling you to put the phone in the jeep before I take it away. Now.”
How dare he call himself my father! I yelled out in anger. “You’re nothing to me! Get out of my face and leave me alone! All you do is bother me.”
His face turned a grapelike shade of purple and he snatched the phone from my hand. With a voice that rivaled a bout of thunder, he spoke, “You are grounded. Until we reach the house, you are not to use this. You will be pleasant and kind. Do not disrespect me. I’m running out of patience for this!”
Mom grimaced and watched the scene with wide eyes, and the man who greeted us swayed awkwardly in place. Blinding rage consumed me and red bled into my vision.
“Whatever! I’m leaving. Screw you!” I ran in a random direction and paid no attention to the shouts that sounded out from behind me as I barged through crowds of stocky trees and prickly bushes.
That bastard! He always knew how to piss me off. How dare he try to control me, or tell me what to do, like he’s my father? Only one man would ever be able to do that, and he was gone. I felt my blue eyes sting, and tears peppered the earth as my feet tore through the ground. Although Dad died when I was only ten, I knew that I’d never forget the feel of his strong arms and the warmth that spread through me from his laughter. I missed the way his stubble would tickle my cheek when he wrapped me and my mother up in group hugs, and how he’d come home from work every day with arms spread wide for me to leap into.
Mom said that Dad was the ideal man. I wished so hard that I could someday be just like him. I knew that if he were here, he’d teach me everything he knew and help me grow. I had no father to teach me how to be a man, and I’d be damned if I resorted to asking Bert for help. Instead, I surrounded myself with boys who preached that I should be strong and wild, and that girls liked it too.
That’s what Tony always said being a man is about, anyway.
My lungs ran dry even as they gulped oxygen, and my legs gave out as I sank to the jungle floor. I had no idea how much distance my legs had just covered, but was too exhausted to care all that much. I laid down with my limbs splayed out and soaked in the faint rays of sun that peeked down at me through the treetops. Various twigs and pinkish, purple flowers caught in the tangles of my golden hair, but I was unable to lift a hand to remove them. Heat washed over me, and the natural perfume of wild berries and leaves wafted towards me from every direction. It was quiet, save for the subtle sounds of life working around me like a machine that was older than time itself. I sighed in relief as gratitude for the fresh air and space washed out my earlier anger.
It had felt like hours passed before I sat up. The sun’s rays had started to fade, and the surrounding area had darkened a little bit. I stood and stretched out, then turned in a complete in a three-hundred and sixty degrees as my eyes traced thick rows of trees for a clue of which direction I had came from. Unable to gather any useful information, a hesitant frown graced my face. Where did I come from? Wouldn’t there be footprints or something? I don’t think I was on a path, but there should be some sort of indicator.
These thoughts drifted through my thought process over and over. Tension had gradually begun to build in my body as I realized something that sent a frightening chill through my body, and I cursed.
“I’m lost in a jungle, and it’s starting to get dark. Damnit!” I cursed again and again as I ran around in a wide circle, and frantically looked for a way to go back to the campsite.
Earlier, I had been so angry that the scenery was the last thing on my mind. Bitterness consumed me. The blame could only be put on me. I had been a brat to Mom and Bert, and this could only be my punishment. Although peer pressure had been putting me on edge for the past year, I knew that in the end, it had been my choice to hang around that type of crowd. It was immature of me to take that out on other people, and I realized that Dad would probably be upset if he knew the route I had taken since his death.
Because I was lost, I was able to concentrate and process how I felt. Thoughts about my social life and family issues crept into my mind. As the hours ticked by, my conscience shamed me for behaving the way that I did. My anger issues tended to take over, and I knew that. I felt guilty. My dislike for Bert did stem from my reluctance to let go of my father, and for the first time, I began to feel badly for how I treated him. He always tried to reach out to me, but I pushed him away, with the thought that my Dad would have never wanted my Mom to let another man take his place.
Branches scraped my knees and sweat clung to my body as I trudged through the jungle in a random direction.
I sighed and thought of the distraught way my mother looked whenever Bert and I fought. All this time, I stuck to the belief that it was Bert who had been breaking up the family, as if my Dad still lived. In reality, was it me who was breaking everybody up? Maybe I should at least try to accept him, even though my pride told me not to.
After a long time of debating this, I decided to try and open up to Bert and Mom. It
was only fair to them, and who knows, maybe he could even teach me a thing or two. It’d take a while, but maybe over time I could finally get used to him.
“Rus! Is that you?” My eyes blinked into focus as my name was called, and I ran
towards the source of the voice. I saw Mom in the distance, and Bert was running towards my figure.
“Rus! Thank god you’re okay. I’m sorry that I exploded at you, my patience was just” I interrupted him when I hugged him. In this moment, I was just a scared kid who sought comfort of familiarity. I knew that it may have been out of character for me, but I was just too relieved to be reunited with my family again.
Tears dripped from my eyes and I quietly apologized to him, and then said, “Thank you for making Mom happy. It’s been hard for me to let go of Dad, but I can try harder to get used to having another guy in the family. It’s what he’d want me to do.”
I felt Bert freeze in shock for a moment, but then squeezed me back gently and whispered his thanks. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know that he was smiling.
The car rumbled once more as we continued our drive onward to the summer house. Although I didn’t get the chance to say hello to Layla, Mom told me that she misses me. I watched Mom and Bert act
goofily and sing out of tune to the songs on the radio. This time, when I saw them holding hands, I only felt a twinge of strange emotion in my chest. I was happy and sad at the same time; but somehow, I felt as if Dad would be smiling at both of them if he could see us.
Our tires hit the gravelly road once more, and begun to leave the dirt roads and camp behind. My experience there was both eye opening and refreshing for me, even if it did scare me a little. A small smile crept onto my face as I sung along with the duo, and looked back at the receding treetops for the last time.
It was really strange how something so odd and sudden could change the way one thinks. Even a boy lost in a jungle can grow from the experience. But, no matter how unlikely the circumstances were, I’m glad that it all happened. I watched the flaming sun and its purple clouds as it slowly sank down into the sea of green wildlife, and could have sworn that in the twinkling stars, Dad winked at me.