Rick looks at the blue sky as they walk around the house with their fishing poles and tackle boxes in their hands. “It’s going to be beautiful day on the lake.”
Brad peers around the tree trunks. Branches dangle over the lake-shore and the water is still as glass. Rick kicks away dry leaves on the path leading down toward the boat sitting on a wooden ramp. When he reaches the boat, he lifts up the heavy motor, and dusts off all the dried leaves, and jerks the canvas cover off of the boat.
They both put their gear into the boat, and Rick rests his hands on the side rails. “Now, I’m going to push from this side, and you push from that side, and we’ll both push the boat down these tracks into the water.” He pauses, “But, there’s a trick to it.”
Brad glances nervously at him.
“The boat is going to start sliding fast, and when it hits the water, I need you to jump into the front to balance it. There’s a rope attached to the bow. I’ll pull you back to shore with the rope once it’s in the water.”
Brad’s not sure what to expect, and he doesn’t want to look afraid. Clouds drift apart, and Brad looks up at the sun shining in the sky.
Rick points across the lake. “Once we get the boat in the water, we’re fishing way over there. When we start pushing, don’t hesitate, just go with it and jump in.”
Teamwork, Rick thinks. Working together is the key to get Brad to trust him. It will show him he knows what he’s doing, and he won’t let him down. He starts the countdown.
“Three… Two… One… Push!”
Both men drive their legs and shoulders into the boat, and they push as hard as they can. The boat starts sliding down the ramp and Rick yells, “Jump in. Brad − Now!”
Brad feels like he’s running right off the shore, and he leaps into the air. He lands in the boat as it hits the water and glides into the lake. The momentum carries the boat further out into the water, and Brad jumps across the bench seats and grabs the motor to prevent himself from falling out the back. The deep waves rise and fall around him, and Brad stands up steadying himself in the boat. He looks back at Rick with adrenaline surging in his eyes, “We did it!”
Rick claps, “So how does it feel to stand on the water?”
Brad looks across the lake. It seems to go for miles. “Awesome!”
Rick pulls the rope and the boat floats toward shore. “We’ll see more of the lake soon enough.”
When the bow touches the sandy shore, Rick climbs in, and hops over the bench seats. He dusts off the cobwebs on the motor and examines it for any mechanical issues. “Hopefully it starts. Last summer it worked great, but all machines have a number before they’ll die, and I’m hoping this one doesn’t die today.”
Brad moves to a different seat. He watches everything closely.
Rick grabs the ripcord and pulls. The motor chugs once, and then dies. Rick twists a lever, and yanks hard on the cord again. Grey smoke bursts out the back as it chugs for oxygen to mix with the fuel, but it dies again. Brad feels his anxiety growing. He doesn’t want to go home after coming this far. Rick leans back, and pulls as hard as he can, and this time the spark plugs fire and the motor roars to life.
Clouds of exhaust shoot out the back. The smoke looks like ghosts rising across the water. Rick revs the engine; he yells at Brad over the noise. “The motor is just a little cold from the spring nights. Pretty soon it should sound a lot smoother. I think we’re going to be OK today.”
Rick flips the transmission lever forward once the engine is warmed up, and they begin slowly moving out into the open lake.
The tree branches slowly disappear, and the sky becomes full of yellow sun rays. Rick throttles the engine, and they steer out from the houses along the shore. Rick points ahead, “Sit in the front seat. The best view is up there.”
Brad sits up front and holds on. He studies all the details in this new environment, from the smallest ripple on the lake, to the largest puffy cloud overhead − and tries to soak in the experience. Life is different out here, he thinks. Being on the water is not like the nightmare he lives on shore. Waves splash against the side of the boat, and Brad looks over the edge. “How deep is it down there?”
Rick glances down at the dark blue water. “Twenty feet, I think, but I’ve heard they’re a few holes in this lake that go down 100 feet.”
Brad’s fingers clench the sides, and Rick, sensing the anxiety, points across the lake, “But don’t worry we’re not fishing in any of the deep spots. You see those yellow willow-trees across the lake?”
“Fifteen feet out from that shore, there’s a weed bed, and that’s the best large-mouth bass spot I’ve found. If we’re lucky, a northern pike will occasionally hit your line as it swims through the weeds.” Rick sits back in his seat, enjoying the morning and fresh air.
“What’s a northern pike?” Brad asks.
Rick revs the throttle, “They’re the wolves of the lake. They’re on top of the food chain out here − big, powerful, fast fish. Big ones are rare in this lake, but I’ve seen a few pictures of ones that are almost as tall as you are.”
Rick leans back and enjoys the warmth from the sun as the waves hit the boat. “True story − my neighbor’s dog went missing last summer. It was this little, ugly white poodle that would go for a swim fifteen feet off of shore every night. Then one night, I heard it bark once in the lake, and I never saw it again. Guess what I think happened to it?”
Brad grins, “A northern pike.”
Rick nods and glances ahead, “That will tell you that there’s northern pike somewhere in this lake big enough to eat a small dog. So if you were a fish, what type of fish would you be?”
Brad flashes his biggest smile of the day. “Definitely a northern pike.”
Rick smiles, “Me too. I’m about to hit the gas, so hold on and turn your hat backwards or it’ll blow off.”
Rick cranks on the motor, and everything speeds up like they’re on an amusement park ride. The boat jumps up to 5 mph, to 10 mph, to 20 mph, and then the boat’s nose levels out and they slide across the water as the blue sky and clouds pass overhead above them.
The whipping wind hits Brad’s face and he squints his eyes. The motor roars in the background, and all the colors in the lake blend together ahead of him. Water splashes up in a white spray, and Brad let’s go of the sides of the boat. This must be what it’s like to fly, he thinks.
Rick remembers how fun it is to drive the boat after being stuck inside all winter. He pivots the motor and leans into a turn. The boat’s outer edge rises, and they carve a wide turn across the lake. Rick adjusts his posture, and then makes a similar cut-back turn across the waves.
Pockets of warm and cold air hover over the water as they speed across the water. A flock of seagulls rise up in the east, and a black loon dives underwater in the west. Rick cranks the throttle all the way up to max speed, and they roar across the lake toward the yellow-willow trees hanging over the beach. Brad’s heartbeat races as they hit top speed, and memories of his nightmare life back on land disappear on his mind. It’s like he’s now entering an awesome alternative reality, and he loves it here.
The boat flies to the other side of the lake. But like all great thrill rides; they come to an end eventually. Rick throttles down the motor. Deep blue waves roll away from them like diving dolphins as the boat slows on the lake’s surface.
Rick kills the motor and stands up. “Pretty cool, huh? Being alone out here on the water is one of my favorite places to be. I can almost hear God’s voice when I’m out here.”
Brad looks over the edge, and he watches the lake-floor appear fifteen feet below as they drift over a ridge of weeds. The weeds sway like dead alien arms in the waves. Brad imagines that an alien spacecraft could have crashed here, and the decomposing alien bodies are still hidden down there.
Rick points to the front half of the boat. “You start fishing up front, and I’ll fish back here as we drift over the weed bed.”
Brad unhooks a rubber minnow from his new fishing rod, and dangles it over the edge.
“Do you know how to cast?” Rick asks.
Brad opens the reel, “Yeah, I practiced in the yard last night.”
“With your dad?”
“He was there.”
Rick casts his line as he talks. “Your dad looks different than he did in college. He used to lift weights all the time, and was a lot bigger. I guess people change as they become adults.”
Brad draws his pole back whips it forward. Line zings out of the reel and a minnow flies through the air like a dragonfly and plops down in the center of some lily pads.
Rick turns around, “Nice cast. You know how to fish?”
Rick nods. “Fishing is like art. There is no perfect way to do it. Just follow your instincts, take the journey, and you will find your fish where your mind takes you.”
Brad suddenly feels competitive. He wants to catch the first fish and prove his talent to this guy.
Rick casts and jigs his line into the boat. “On the drive here I asked you a few questions. Do you want to ask me any questions?”
Brad’s lure clinks against the side of the boat. He doesn’t want to show too much curiosity, but he’s dying to know more about his prison experience. Brad ponders his strategies. He has to play this cool, because if he gives too much information, too fast, and this guy is working with the police, he could be going to jail when they get back to shore.
“Go ahead if you want to talk…” Brad says. “I’ll listen.”
Rick casts his line. “Do you want to hear about my life before, during, or after prison? I’ve really lived three different lives.”
Everyone is always trying to scare Brad about going to prison. But no one has been there, or knows what prison is like. Brad’s heart speeds up. This guy might actually know. Brad tries to act cool as he asks his first question. “What was it like in prison?”
Rick wants to smile, because he knows he just hooked Brad’s attention.
Rick takes a deep breath and exhales over the water. “Prison was a lot different than the world we experience out here. In prison, you don’t see lakes and trees like this. All you see is millions of concrete blocks en-caging you all day long. The world inside that cage becomes a different reality, and the people you’re locked up with become the same character that you meet over and over again. Nothing ever changes in there. After awhile, you start to feel like the concrete blocks in the walls. You’re always frozen in place and time, and you never get to leave. Your personality starts fading, and you lose the identity you had in the free world. Those four brick walls that are always trapping you become your home, and every time you flush the toilet, you feel your spirit disappear a little more. It’s such an empty, barren world in there. No one should have to endure it. When you finally do leave it, you’ll never be the same person again.”
Brad watches him closely. “You’re not making this up to scare me?”
Rick shakes his head. “No. Look me in my eyes. I’ve lived it. Look my name up on the computer when you get home. My mug shot is still alive for anyone to see.”
Brad ponders how much he should trust him. Should he stop asking questions? But he still has so much more he wants to know: Did he ever get into fights? Did he ever have to kill anyone when he was in there?
Rick remembers the 1,460-day stretch. He can almost read Brad’s mind as they cast their lines and rock in the boat. “Every day was a fight – mentally – emotionally – spiritually. Sure, I saw plenty of physical fights in there, but the biggest fight was always with myself. I remember my first day walking into that prison world. It was so crazy. I rode on a bus from the courthouse wearing an orange jumpsuit, and my handcuffs were chained around my waist and then connected to my ankles. I couldn’t even walk when they took me off the bus and dragged me into the intake room and put me in my first holding cell with twenty other men. After they forced me to take off my clothes, and take a shower full of chemicals to kill all the lice and bacteria on my skin, I was led deeper into the guts of the prison. I remember walking into my first cell block and just being amazed at how huge it was and how many hundreds of men were stuffed like rats inside that giant cage that seemed to go on forever.”
“The tiers of cells and bunks went five stories high, and there were catwalks and stairs going between them, connecting everything, and it felt like I was in a tower of cages that went straight up to the sky. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to survive the next four years in that place, because if those hundreds of cell doors opened at once, I knew I’d be the first one killed, for sure.”
“The worst feeling of my life was when the guards walked me to my first cell and the doors slammed behind me. That’s where I hit rock bottom and I started to cry with my face buried into my pillow so none of the other men could hear. I realized at that moment that my life had become such a horrible mess that I was ashamed to be myself.”
Rick flashes back to the present, and he watches his fishing lure swim through the lily pads as he reels it in. He realizes so much has changed since that time. “That first night, I held myself together until the lights went out, and then I cried all night long. That’s how the journey through prison probably begins for most people.”
Rick jigs his line, “But after a few days, I forced myself to get up and look around because the shame I felt was killing me. I decided to go for a walk and see the rest of the prison, because I knew I’d have to master that prison world in order to survive it for the next four years.”
“Each day, we got two hours outside of our cells. So on my second week, I finally got the courage to walk down the catwalk into the general population and look around. I saw black gangs occupying certain territories on the prison floor, and the Latino gangs were managing the playing-card tables. The white gangs were all in the gym working out. I didn’t know where to fit in because I didn’t feel like I fit into any of the gangs. It was the first time in my life I felt so out of place. All the races were so segregated, which was weird for me, because I grew up in areas where racism wasn’t an issue. I was just a college kid who made some bad decisions, and now things had gotten out of control. I walked outside into the huge prison yard trying to look tough, like I was ready to fight anyone, and I prepared myself for the long road of prison ahead. But on the way back to my cell, is when I first encountered Him.”
He looked insane when I first saw him. He was talking to himself by a row of phones. His skin was black, covered with tattoos, which made his freedom-starved eyes stand out even more. He was over six feet tall, and weighed 100 pounds more than me. And all of that extra size was all muscle gained from years of lifting weights. His hair was tied in black braids that stretched in zigzag patterns down the back of his head. He was 38 then, and I was only 26.
As I walked back to my cell, his eyes followed me like a wolf stalking its prey. The prison population was already scary as hell, but it became terrifying once I realized he was in there with me. From that moment on, he was always watching me. I didn’t have any problems with the gangs, because I never bothered them. But this guy wouldn’t leave me alone, and every time I walked passed him, he started calling me ‘Mouse.’ He’d whisper the name in the sickest, dirtiest way you could imagine. This nickname broke into my mind and started tearing me down from the inside out.”
Rick shivers at the memory. “Every time I saw him, he would call me Mouse. He’d laugh at me when we were alone in the same space. No one else saw the psychological war he was engaging with me. I thought about telling the guards, but then the gangs would have labeled me a snitch. He was the first true psychopath I encountered while in prison. Soon, he was all I could think about. I was seeing him around every corner. Everywhere I went, he was watching me. My life became a horror movie, and he was the star monster in it.”
Brad’s completely enthralled by the story and feels like he’s in prison with Rick. Rick continues, “And that was the easy part. Things got harder. After my third month, the warden ordered an institutional shakedown looking for weapons, drugs, and escape plans. We were thrown out of our cells, stripped searched, and humiliated in front of everyone.”
“Two days later, when the search ended, I was moved up to the highest-tier where they doubled-up guys with bunk beds. As I was moving in and putting my things away, I turned around, and I almost died. I couldn’t believe who was entering my cell with me. I saw his crazy eyes first, and the flashbacks hit me. It was him and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“He didn’t say a word as he set his things down. He just laid down on the bottom bunk and stared at the top bed. I climbed into my top bunk and asked God, Why are you letting this happen to me? Now he has me alone to do whatever he wants. And that’s when the real nightmares began.”
Rick adjusts his sunglasses. “You hear stories about murderers and rapists in prison, but you never know if they really exist until you meet them, and suddenly, I was living with one. He was too big to fight, so I crawled into my upper bunk and thought about suicide. Maybe I should kill myself before he could get to me. Then I thought, maybe if I just ignored him he’d leave me alone. But I wasn’t that lucky. Every night, he’d pound on the bunk after I’d fallen asleep, and he’d talk to imaginary people all night so that I couldn’t fall back asleep. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen or heard. When I’d peek over the edge, I could always see his eyes staring at me through the night. I’d hear him whisper, Wake up little mouse… Do you know why I call you “Mouse,” kid? Because you’re a soft little punk mouse, compared the rest of us sewer rats in this prison. You’re so pathetic to look at, kid, crying like a baby up there every night.”
“All night long he’d talk like that. The sun would rise in the morning, and I’d feel somewhat safe in the light of day. He’d do push-ups all morning, and I’d pretend like I was sleeping just a few feet away.”
Rick inhales, “Please keep this between us, as I’ve never told anyone this story before. This psychological warfare went on for months until I became so sleep-deprived that I couldn’t sleep if I tried. I started hallucinating both day and night. I’d see demons and angels living in the cell with me. Finally, my sanity started to fail me. I had had enough, and I decided I was going to kill him before he could murder me. A life sentence meant nothing to me at that point. I broke open a razor blade I used for shaving, and I held it in my hand like a knife and waited for him to start talking. I thought if I stabbed it in his neck fast enough, and shoved his face into the pillow, he would bleed to death and be dead before he could fight back against me, and then I could make it look like a suicide. Once he started mumbling, I looked over the edge ready to jump on him, and then something even crazier happened. When he saw that my eyes had become even crazier than his, he realized that I had become even more insane than he was. The insanity that haunted him disappeared like a ghost, and he rolled over and said, ‘Get some sleep kid, we’ll talk in the morning.’ For the next week he didn’t talk to me. He let me sleep as much as I wanted, and slowly my sanity began to return. When my mind was clear enough to talk, he asked me my name. I said, ‘Rick,’ and he never called me Mouse again.”
“Did he ever hurt you?” Brad asks.
Rick looks up at the sky whispering, “Gracia Dios, estaba horrible, pero no…That means Thank you God, it was horrible, but no. When he started talking again, he opened up and told me his name was Dean Oliver, but people called him Dino. He said he’d been locked up for 21 years for a gang-related murder. He told me he hated most prisoners, so he just acted crazier than all of them to keep them away.”
“He brought out a chess board and invited me to play for the first time. He was an expert at the game of chess, and he started teaching the game to me. Everyday we’d talk and play chess in our cell, and our conversations went deeper and deeper. He’d quiz me on all the books I was reading in the library. It was like he’d read everything. He’d tell me stories about growing up as a boy on the streets of Chicago, and the gangs he was part of, and the things that he learned as he grew into a man in prison. Those first two months in prison were the worst of my life, but then the next three and a half years flew by as some of the most profound years of my life. Everything about me changed during those years with him. He always asked me the hard questions about life, and never let me take the easy way out. He forced me to face who I was, and who I wanted to be, and slowly, I started to become the man you’re talking to now. It’s crazy to look back on it now. I was ready to kill him that one night, but in the end, I feel like he’s the man who ultimately saved my life.”
Rick shakes his head, “I realize now he was never truly crazy. He was smarter than everyone else, and kept himself dignified by turning the mice he met, into men, so they would never see the rats in the sewer again once they got out.”
Rick shakes his head in disbelief, “Then, like it happened overnight, the guards called my name, and four years later, it was my release day and time to go home. I hugged Dino as I left all those concrete-blocks and razor-wire fences that had held me hostage for four years. I then exited the same prison gate I had entered four years earlier, and it was like it was all just a bad dream. I became a new man in a new world, and it was the greatest day of my life. At that moment, I promised myself that I would never go back to prison again.”
Rick reels in his minnow. “Do you see why I don’t want you to take the same path I did? You don’t want to live with the rats in the sewer, because it’s not fun in there. It will be your worst nightmare.”
Brad doesn’t know how to feel, and he gets defensive. “Just because you experienced that doesn’t mean I will.”
“You don’t want to get close to what I lived.”
Brad suddenly gets paranoid – they’re trying to scare him – make up stories and intimidate him. This is all a set-up.
He gets angry, “I suppose you’re going to try to get me to admit that I started the fire, aren’t you?”
“I don’t care who did. I just want you to be free.”
Brad can’t believe he just let someone he doesn’t know get so close to him. He scans across the lake at Rick’s house. He wants to go home, he has to get out of here. He starts reeling in his line. He glances at Rick. They’re all working together with the police, trying to catch him, and this is all a trap.
But then something catches his eye. A deep swirl appears not far from where his minnow is.
Brad jigs his line closer to the swirl, and he blocks the sun to get a better view. The swirl happens closer this time, and he reels his line a little faster.
A fish bites his lure, and Brad sets the hook. The fish thrashes underwater and the fish runs toward shore as it tears line out of the spool. Rick yells, “Hold that rod high! You’ve got a big one on!”
Brad pulls back on the rod as line shoots through lily pads.
“Loosen the drag Brad! Don’t fight it too much or it’ll break your line!” Rick grabs the net.
Brad’s rod bends in a horseshoe shape over the boat, and he jerks back on the line. The fish changes direction and dives deeper into the weeds. He sticks the butt of the pole into his gut, and uses his body to pull the fish back.
For ten minutes they do battle. Going back and forth like two champions. Brad’s arms shake as he reels. It’s heavy. It feels like he’s pulling up an anchor.
Slowly the fish begins to rise, and its tail surfaces and sprays white water at them. Brad heaves back on the pole and watches the rest of the green and yellow beast swim up from the deep. Its jaws open as it lunges out of the waves trying to bite the boat. Rick swoops down and scoops up the huge fish with his net.
It’s a northern pike and Rick hollers – “I’ve never seen one this big before!”
He hands the fish to Brad, and Brad grabs it, not knowing if he should scream or cry. His entire body begins shaking, because he just caught his first northern pike.