They drive over a road that curves through a forest. A hill slopes down into a deep valley. The changing geography must mean the lake is close. A mailbox sits on a tree stump on the side of the road. Brenda whispers, “We must be here.”
An oak forest towers over the car as they drive into the gravel driveway. Tree branches twist up into the sky like monster arms, and green buds pop out of the ends like flowering finger tips. Between the massive tree trunks, a huge house with triangular roofs overlooks the lake. A wall of windows stretches around the first floor, and wood deck wraps around the entire house.
“Steve – It’s beautiful.” Brenda says.
Steve gazes at the house, and replies. “It doesn’t look like someone who had been in prison would live here.”
“I wonder how he got all his money, so fast. I’m going to be looking for clues that tell the real story inside the house.”
They park in the driveway, and a cool wind blows off the lake as they step out of the car doors. They walk to the front door, and Steve looks in the window as he prepares to knock.
Rick opens the front door. It’s the first time they’ve faced each other in almost twenty years. It’s like they traveled back in time to see younger versions of themselves. Rick pats his shoulder and extends his hand. “It’s been awhile old friend. We don’t look like teenagers anymore.”
“Wow, you cut your hair. You don’t look like a hippy anymore!” Steve says.
Brenda watches these interactions happen in a blur. She stares at Rick’s maroon shirt, and blue jeans, searching for clues to understand him on a deeper level. His eyes are so blue. He’s not as tall as she imagined. She was expecting him to look like a criminal, but this guy is handsome and gives off a confident vibe.
Don’t let this image fool you, she thinks to herself. He spent years in prison, and he probably learned how to con people in there. Even though he looks like an easy-going guy, she senses a deeper, more complex side to him that he’s not showing yet.
“You must be Brenda.” Rick extends his hand to shake hers.
Brenda smiles back, fighting an urge to trust him. She wonders what her son would think of him. “You have a beautiful home.” She quietly responds.
Rick waves his arm inside, “Come inside – I want to show you more of it. It’s been a long journey to get here.”
They step inside and Brenda smells the room for cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, or anything else that could give his true character away. But it only smells like fresh paint.
Rick walks down the hallway. A living room opens to their right. Art hangs on some of the walls, and a few sculptures fill the room. A staircase splits the hallway and Brenda wonders if anyone else is living upstairs. It’s a big place for a single man. Could he be using the house to host drug-dealers when they need to launder drug money? She looks around the other empty rooms. If he’s not still a criminal, he’s at least eccentric. Why would someone want to live amongst all this strange art?
The hallway reaches the back of the house and the kitchen lights are so bright that it’s tough to see beyond the glare. A family room opens to her side, and a chandelier hangs over the dining-room table.
They walk into the main entertaining space, and the wall of windows is ten-feet-tall that look out across the lake. It takes Brenda’s breath away. She walks up to the windows and looks down at the shore of Woodfish Lake as the evening sun sets. “Oh my God; it’s lovely here,” she says.
Rainbow colors ripple across the waves of the lake and meet at the grassy shore. The colors reflect in Brenda’s eyes, and she stares down at the property in awe. This land must have cost millions, she thinks to herself. Where could he have gotten all the money for this place? She turns around, expecting Rick to have an arrogant look on his face after showing off how much money he has compared to them. But instead, Rick is in the kitchen looking over the stove, and he opens the refrigerator door. “I have water and juice. What would you like?”
She’s been waiting for this moment to test him. “Do you have any wine?” She wants to see if he’ll get drunk in front of her. That will tell her everything she needs to know.
He shakes his head. “No, I don’t drink anymore. I’ve learned that alcohol moves me backwards. I only move forward now.”
“I’ll have water.” She says and looks away. She keeps scanning the house for clues that will tell her more about this man, but other than rooms filled with art and furniture, the house is empty.
She looks out of the windows at the lake, pondering her next move. “I’m just going to dive in and ask you Rick –”
Rick looks at her. “Ask me anything –”
“Why are you so interested in meeting us?”
He looks away. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a simple answer for that.”
“Then tell me the full story. You have all night to explain yourself.”
Rick stirs a pot on the stove and hesitates before saying more. “Let’s eat dinner first; we can talk as we go.”
Rick carries steaming plates of salmon, wild rice, and spinach to the table. No one talks as they eat. A second before the silence becomes uncomfortable, Rick speaks up.
“Brenda, I’m sorry I didn’t give you a longer answer. I feel embarrassed telling new friends about my past. I still have a lot of shame from that period of time. I’ll do my best to explain why I invited you over.”
Rick sets his fork down. “In order to understand me now, you must understand what happened to me in the years after college. At the age of 26, I hit rock bottom, and I probably felt how Brad is feeling now.”
The candlelight shimmers on the table.
“How long were you in prison?” Brenda asks.
“Four years to the day.”
“Are you ever afraid you’ll go back?”
Rick nods. “All the time.”
Brenda leans back in her chair. “You wouldn’t have to be afraid of going back to prison unless you were still breaking the law.”
Rick quickly defends himself. “You’re judging me before really getting to know me. I’m not afraid of the DEA kicking in my door with a search warrant. But for the rest of my life, I am afraid that I’m only one bad decision away from addiction and losing my freedom again. Brad’s probably feels the same way. We’re both just one bad decision away from our lives returning to a nightmare. It’s a lot of stress to be under, and I don’t want to see that happen to either of us.”
Brenda listens, but doesn’t want to trust him. Not yet. She doesn’t know how to read him. It’s like his purpose for doing things comes from a place so deep inside of him that it’s intimidating to ask certain questions.
She looks him in the eyes. “I don’t want to offend you Rick, but I’m not sure I want Brad around you, because I don’t want him to end up like you.”
Rick stops eating, “I don’t want him to become like the old me, either. But give me some credit. I know both sides of the journey; the good and the bad; the defeats and the victories.”
Brenda can hardly eat. She’s uncomfortable. She didn’t mean to insult him. She watches the candle flicker, and the waves of color paint her face.
The candle flame reminds her of Brad. He’s fierce and passionate; but so delicate at the same time, and if the winds of life keep bashing against him, his spark is going to die out.
Rick watches the candle burn, and asks Brenda, “Did you ever act out as a teenager?”
She looks at him, “Yes, I rebelled, but nothing like he’s doing. It’s like he wants to be at war with the world.”
Rick nods. “I know how he must be feeling. When I first started to have trouble as a teenager, I would be smiling one day, and then would feel so angry the next day. Fighting was the only time I felt powerful and in control. For years, I hid all my problems and anger, and all of a sudden I was 26 and in prison for a very long time. I’ll never forget the day when the prison door slammed shut behind me. That’s when I realized how deeply messed-up I really was.”
Brenda shakes her head, “Every time we try to get close to him, it blows it up into a fight.”
“That’s usually what happens when you’re dealing with a criminal.”
Anger flashes in Brenda’s eyes, “You’re calling my son a criminal?”
“He’s on probation for a crime, isn’t he?”
“Well that’s the behavior of a criminal. Why do you think it turns into a fight every time you try to confront him?”
Brenda shrugs, “I don’t know.”
“Stop and think for a second. Think of all the psychological games he’s playing with you. What’s the fastest way to chase someone away from your problems?” Rick points at her. “Attack the confronter. Start a fake fight so everyone stops focusing on the real problem. Brad doesn’t hate you. Fighting you is just the easiest way to get you away from his real problems.”
“What are his real problems?”
Rick looks at her, “People aren’t always as strong and healthy as they show on the outside. What if his issues go deeper than you can imagine? Are you prepared to meet those problems?”
Brenda leans forward. Her eyes narrow. “I’m afraid of nothing when it comes to my son.”
Rick watches the dancing candle, and it reminds him of his years in prison. He was surrounded by darkness the whole time, but he always saw a vision of hope when he imagined that one day he’d get out and have a second chance at life.
Rick swallows his last bite of food. “Let’s try to see inside Brad’s mind before we judge it. Our first mistake would be assuming he’s living with the same mindset as us, because he’s not. Look deeper into his reality. He’s a lost kid, in a very big world, influenced by forces he cannot understand.”
Brenda stops chewing and thinks about the mental state of her son.
Rick takes a drink from his glass and continues. “Second, you’re making a big mistake if you assume that his beliefs aren’t as strong as yours. His energy is younger; his spirit is fiercer; and he’ll fight to the death to protect his beliefs because they’re the only thing he has right now. Everyone has a need to be someone – even if it’s unhealthy and wrong.”
“Are you saying there’s no hope for our son?” Steve asks.
“I have hope or I wouldn’t be here. Everyone can change; I did. The challenge we have is to replace Brad’s current personality, with a new one, without him noticing that the switch is going on.”
“How can we do this if he won’t talk to anyone?”
Rick sets his glass down. “I once had a cellmate who told me a story I’ll never forget. A boy named Carter took a new way home from school one day and fell into a giant hole. He spent the entire day yelling for help, but no one heard him. Later that day, his teacher passed by and threw books down to him and told him that doing his homework was the only thing that could get him out of the hole. Later, his church pastor walked by and threw a Bible down to him. The pastor said, “Memorize your scriptures. Scripture is the only way to get you out of that hole.” But it frustrated Carter, because even though he did his homework and memorized a few scriptures, he still couldn’t climb out of the hole. Later that afternoon, Carter’s best friend, Dave walked by, and Dave heard him yelling. Dave jumped down into the hole with him. Carter yelled at him, “What are you doing? Are you crazy? Now we’ll never get out!” But his friend smiled and replied, “Don’t worry. I’ve been stuck in this hole before, and I know the way out.”
They watch the candle flicker. The flame glows brighter.
“I know the way out,” Rick says, “Remember, we’re not dealing with Genghis Kahn, or Dracula, or Ivan the Terrible here. He’s just a 15-year-old kid who’s doing his best to make sense out of a horrible situation he’s found himself in. If we work together, we can help him overcome this.”
Brenda looks at her husband. Hope shines in her eyes. She touches Rick’s arm. “I’ve never thought of him like that before. I want you to meet Brad. He doesn’t have any real friends. He’s home alone all the time.”
Rick nods. “I’ll stop by after work on Friday. I don’t know if it’ll make a difference, but I can at least try. When I was 15, I could have wrestled an alligator and won. But maybe Brad’s smarter than I was.”
Brenda stands up. “Somewhere deep inside this nightmare is my son, and I know he’s strong enough to break free.”