I smell like fish. I softly shut the waxed wooden door without a sound. I sigh. I’m safe. I am relieved to be finished with my long work day at the fish hatchery. At the same time I am never excited to be home. Suddenly, I hear the weight of pounding feet on the floor upstairs pressing so hard that with each step I imagine the ceiling crashing down upon me. I cringe and hold my breathe. His shadow is at the top of the stairs. I’m doomed. He lumbers down the stairs as slow as a snail but as heavy as an ox. I don’t need to see the long piece of hard leather in his hands to know it’s there.
I hobble to my room and take off my shirt to examine the fresh pink-purple whip marks snaking along my back and stomach. I know my curfew is nine o’clock every night. But I had no choice. I have to make money. My father has no idea that I applied and even got accepted to a college in Oregon. I have to pay for college myself, hence my secret job at the hatchery and hopefully a butt load of forthcoming scholarship money. College is the key to escaping this house. The key to becoming a doctor. My chance to achieve my dream for myself, or something close to it, and travel the world. If I stay here, I can expect weekly lectures and more beatings from my father while he insists that my destiny is to work for his logging company. I wait until I hear him turn on the television in his room, before I crawl into bed and begin to cry.
The sound of the ocean wakes me up early. I rise slowly, careful not to awaken the pain of my new scars. My father is still asleep, not to wake up for at least another six hours. I gobble-up my breakfast and complete my homework just in time to walk to school. Stepping outside, I stare at the vast ocean. If I’m lucky someday I will travel across that beautiful body of water and see what is out there. Seagulls soar and screech to the sound of the wind. I take a breath and accept my fate - another day of excruciating loneliness and unhappiness.
The final bell rings. I race out the doors and go directly to my favorite spot. An old wooden bench perches a bit unevenly in a spacious field overlooking the ocean. The bench is almost rotting off its hinges, but with help from the evergreen huckleberry and salal bushes surrounding in it, the bench stands strong and serves as a perfect place to sit and think. I admire the soft white sand and witness the long blades of wind-blown grass tickling my ankles. This is my safe haven, a place I know my father can’t touch me. I breathe in the salty smell of the Pacific Ocean and listen to its steady and true voice. I believe that anyone who has not visited the ocean has never lived. I’m halfway through my meditation when I hear a deep calming voice.
I nearly jump off the bench. Looking to my right, I find a small Native American man. He looks as though he is a thousand years old with deep creases from decades of laughter carved into his face. He is wearing leather moccasins, and a long tribal-looking robe with a large turtle necklace hanging from his neck. “Hello, son” he says as he plops a huckleberry into his mouth. His voice has a relaxing effect on me and I could probably meditate or do yoga listening to it. “Hello”, I respond. He meanders toward me shuffling his moccasins in the sand. “May I sit down?”, he asks. I nod. We don’t feel the need to speak for maybe thirty minutes and simply enjoy the ocean’s gentle roar in each other’s company. “Isn’t it beautiful?”, he finally remarks with his eyes still tightly shut. “Yeah”, I respond, “it is.” This sparks a long talk about mother earth, its wisdom and its sacredness. I have an uncanny feeling that I have known him my whole life. He is the only person I know who seems to understand me and appreciate nature the way I do. We talk deep into the night. I suddenly recall my curfew and bid him adieu and race down the cliff. I have a gigantic smile on my face.
My father is waiting on the sofa in the living room with his belt already unbuckled and sitting on his lap. “Cutting it close”, he says gruffly as he chugs down another beer before throwing the empty can on a pyramid of cans on the floor. He stands up slowly with the belt in his hand and stares directly into my eyes. “When you gonna start work at my logging company? Low on staff again.” I know well that if I directly refuse him I can expect another whipping. “Errr, sometime soon. I’m just busy with school right now.” I say. I start to walk away when he yells, “Give up the school bulls**t. Education’s for losers. Business is the way of the world.” My reply is automatic, “Okay. I’ll work for you pretty soon.” He sits back down, “Good!”
Summer begins and I visit the bench overlooking the ocean routinely. I become close friends with the old native man whose name I learn is “Chetan” which means “hawk” in the Sioux language. He makes huckleberry salve to put on my whip marks, and he teaches me how to build a fire in the sand. I finally have a friend of my own. He encourages me to follow my dream of attending college and traveling despite my father’s insistent plan. Many weeks pass by, and I grow very attached to Chetan. At the same time I know that I have to soon escape my father before he finally forces me to work for him. I sent in my letter of intent to attend college; it’s either now or never. I have to leave Chetan behind, a decision that pains me to think of.
It’s two a.m. and the time is now. I put my life savings in a glass jar and pack my backpack with clothes and food. I creep downstairs as quietly as I can. I hold my breath until I shut the front door behind me. Suddenly, I hear my father yelling my name and blundering down the stairs. I begin to sprint. It’s dark out and I can barely see where I’m going. I pump my arms as fast as I can with my backpack slamming against my back with every stride. He is right behind me. I can hear his large clunky feet hitting the rocky trail. He is yelling, “Get the hell back here! You are not f***ing leaving! Josh! God dammit!” I can hear the drunkenness in his voice as it quivers at the end of each word. As I reach the top of a hill, I glance back expecting him to be far behind yet instead he is only a few strides behind me. But the part that really scared me was the smoke-colored shotgun he held tightly in his hand. He must be really drunk, I thought. I run past the old wooden bench and into a grove of spruce trees. I can outrun this son of a b**** I tell myself. But an unearthed root has other plans for me. I fall. He grabs my collar and spits in my face. “You son of a b****. What the hell you thinkin? You think you’re gonna get away from me. I’m gonna whip you so hard, you’re gonna wish you was dead.” Suddenly, a shadow comes between us and pushes my father away from me. It’s Chetan. I could recognize his figure anywhere. Chetan tries to rip the gun from my father’s hand. “Get the f*** off me r**skin!”, my dad yells as he punches Chetan in the face. I must help him. But this is my chance to escape. Chetan would have wanted me to escape quickly. Chetan and my father, are still struggling in the darkness. I run as fast as I can deep into the woods. I hear a gunshot. I wish it to be my father if one had to shot, but I know Chetan wouldn’t kill. Tears stream down my face like a waterfall. My father’s victory scream pierces my ears “I f***ing killed the idiot r**skin! Ha! Look at him!”. He’s so drunk that I know that he has probably forgotten that he was chasing after me. Nonetheless, I keep running.
As I run, I pray for Chetan. He inspired me to achieve my dream, and dare to do more with my life. Here’s to becoming a doctor, a good man and appreciating all of life’s offerings.