Hidden in Plain Sight

Hidden in Plain Sight

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Hidden in Plain Sight

The real acid test of courage is to be just your honest self when everybody is trying to be like somebody else.

~Andrew Jensen

It was a Thursday, and school was almost out. Our teacher was out of the classroom. Our homework sat on our desks. I fiddled with my pen while I listened to Joel and Bryan talk about a certain group of girls that we all knew.

“I like them,” Bryan said, “but none of them would ever try drugs or even drink.”

So what? Nobody does that stuff, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

Joel just nodded.

“Actually,” Bryan continued, “Lisa wants to try them, so she’s talking to me about it. Everyone thinks I’m the biggest druggie in the school.” He paused. “Well, basically I am.”

My pen fell out of my hand and bounced on the floor. I stared at him, waiting for him to laugh, to smile — do anything — just to show that he was kidding. No one our age did drugs. No one did drugs except for those huddled people on the sidewalks who were so lost in their minds that they didn’t even know who or where they were anymore. Bryan’s mouth stayed in a straight line, though. No smile tugged at the corners.

“We’re meeting at the park tonight,” Bryan continued. “I’m not gonna charge her anything this first time. I just want her to like it. I’m bringing some friends, too. Joel, Lance, you wanna come?”

“Sure,” Joel said. My whole body locked up. What could I say? What should I say?

Then, the door flung open and our teacher reentered the room. We all turned to our homework and began scribbling.

I turned and looked at Joel. No, I thought, this isn’t happening. I always knew that Joel wasn’t the perfect child, but who was? He certainly wasn’t like Bryan, who ditched school, stole and even did drugs. But Joel had agreed to go to the park. I had known his family since I was born. He was always smiling, cracking jokes, and we hung out together almost every day. Yet he expected me to go to the park with him.

Don’t worry about it, I said to myself. My parents won’t let me go to the park that late at night anyway.

That night after I had finished dinner, I sat on the couch watching TV. The doorbell rang. When I opened the door, Joel was standing there. “What’s up, Lance?” he asked.

“Not much,” I said.

“So, are you coming to the park tonight?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have to ask my parents.”

“No, you don’t,” he said, making a face as though he had just eaten something rotten. “Ask if I can spend the night and we’ll just sneak out.”

I frowned. “Why don’t you just spend the night, and we don’t sneak out? We’ll have more fun here, anyway.”

He groaned. “Well, I should have known that you wouldn’t want to do anything slightly risky. I guess I’ll find someone else.” He turned and began walking away.

“No, no,” I grabbed his arm. “I’ll go.”

He smiled.

It was ten-thirty. Lying in bed, I stared at the ceiling. In my mind, I kept thinking of ways to phrase the question, Aren’t you surprised that Bryan does drugs? Or, Do you think many kids are doing them? Or even , Do you do drugs, Joel? I couldn’t be sure now that I even knew my lifelong friend anymore. Am I the only one who didn’t know about Bryan’s drug habit? Was I the only one who thinks that it matters? I turned and stared at Joel. Is there a side of him that I didn’t even know about? His sleeping bag ruffled as he crawled out.

“Let’s go,” he whispered. I opened the window, grimacing at the sound.

It was ten-fifty. We walked until we were about one hundred yards from the park. A heavy silence laced the air. I glanced at Joel. He was staring toward the dark playground.

“We don’t have to go, Joel,” I said.

“What’s wrong with you?” he turned and faced me. “You worry about everything. We’re not little kids anymore, Lance. It’s time to realize that not everything adults tell us is true.”

He turned and walked forward. I followed.

When we arrived at the playground, slides and swings were the only things there. I glanced at my watch. Ten fifty-seven. “Maybe they aren’t coming after all,” I said.

Joel groaned and kicked the sand into the air.

I stuffed my hands into my pockets and gazed out at the lights in town. I looked back at Joel. We had come to this very park so many years before. We had spent endless hours on the swings. He always boosted himself so high into the air. I wanted to be like him, to be able to swing that high, but I couldn’t do it. He was the risk taker. I looked at him again. I guess it’s only fitting that he’ll take the big risk tonight, I thought. It’s just his nature.

A laugh erupted through the silence. Joel and I turned.

“It came from the creek,” Joel said. We ran through the forest toward the water. We stopped when we got to the dense trees. I squinted to try to find footprints that led somewhere. Where was the brown, wooden picnic table that I had eaten lunch on so many times? Indented lines in the dirt caused by the legs of the table showed that it had been dragged deeper into the trees. I looked at Joel and saw that his eyes were focused on the tracks as well. “Come on,” he whispered.

We followed the tracks until we reached a clearing surrounded by trees.

A white, powdery substance covered a mirror that lay on the picnic table. Jim, the kid I did a book report with in third grade, lay on the ground next to the picnic table. He trembled as if he were having a seizure. Beads of sweat lined his face. He squeezed a straw that he held in his hand. His eyes stared up into the sky. They looked as if a layer of Saran Wrap covered them. My eyes darted around. The people I grew up with were passing a pipe around in a circle. Robert, the first kid who talked to me in preschool, was taking shots of alcohol.

Bryan approached me. He squinted at me with his red eyes. A smell that made me want to gag surrounded him. “Come with me, Lance,” he said. “We’re taking some pipe hits.”

I looked around me. This is reality, isn’t it? I thought. Everyone was doing it, and I never even knew about it. This is what I’ve been missing out on.

I followed Bryan. The kids in the circle turned and looked at me. I stared back. These were the kids I had played with since preschool.

Something tapped my shoulder. I turned and saw Joel.

“Where are you going?” he asked. I pointed at the circle. “Let’s go,” he whispered. I shook my head.

“You were right, Joel. Everybody we’ve ever known is here. This is just the way it is.”

“No,” he said. I turned and walked away. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled.

“We’re going,” he said. The respect that I had always felt for him forced me to follow. When we got out of the trees to where the picnic bench used to be, we began talking again. “I didn’t know it would be like that,” Joel said.

“Everyone’s doing it, Joel,” I said. My voice cracked. “We’re the only ones not doing it.”

“Not everyone’s doing it, Lance. I’m not. You’re not. We both have our lives ahead of us.”

I nodded as we walked away.

The streetlights glared down on us as we walked on those same sidewalks that we had passed over for so many years. I looked over at Joel. He stared down at the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets. I kept wondering why he had been the one who didn’t try the drugs. After all, he was always the risk taker. He was always the one who pushed himself to his limits just like that time on the swing.

We reached my house. “I think I’m going to go home and sleep,” he said. I nodded.

I pulled myself into my room through the window and collapsed onto my bed. What had kept Joel from doing what I had almost done? I wondered as I curled up in bed.

Finally, I made sense of it all. Joel took risks, and he had taken the biggest risk of all. He hadn’t done what everybody else was doing. He had a sense of originality that drew all those who met him to admire him. He had what he wanted in life, and drugs would only set him back.

I looked over at a picture of Joel and me on my dresser. In the picture we were both kids, swinging on the swings, laughing our heads off. That’s when I knew that we could get higher than any of those kids who were stumbling through the trees behind us, just by being ourselves.

~Lance Johnson

Editor’s note: For the straight scoop on drugs, log on to: www.kidshealth.org (key word search: “drugs”).

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