The Odd Love Life of Christopher D. Collins

After the Bachelor High Court made their ruling, life went on. Jonny went back to Michigan, Jeremy went back to…whatever it was that Jeremy did, and Collins and Schmidty went back to trying to keep themselves entertained. Now that his life was more less back on track, Collins started thinking about his future. He realized that he couldn’t work at the college forever, or he was going to turn into that weird old guy who couldn’t let go of his alma mater (the security department already had a guy like that; truth be told, he was actually pretty cool, but I stray from my point.)

So Collins began looking at various colleges where he could finish his degree. He couldn’t go back to the college he had been attending because he couldn’t afford to re-enroll. He started looking at other schools, first local, and then out of state. Everything he looked at was out of his price range except for Jon’s school in Michigan. When he called them, they said he would be eligible for a grant called the “Orphaned Child College Fund.” It was exactly what it sounded like: people who have lost one or both of their parents can get help from the government to pay for college without taking out a major loan.

This sounded perfect to Collins, so he scheduled a meeting with Robo-Admissions and drove up there. It was a short trip, one day up and one day back, but Collins wanted to be sure he got all his financials worked out before he uprooted and moved to Michigan. On the way up, Collins called Jonny and told him what was going on.

“Hey, buddy,” he said when Jon picked up the phone. “I’m heading up to talk to Robo-Admissions about maybe finishing my degree up there. She said I’m eligible for some orphan grant since my dad passed away.”

“That’s cool. We need to come up with a better name for it though. How about the Batman grant?”

“Ok…why?”

“Think about it: your father is dead, and you seek training to bring justice to the world. You’re Batman.”

“I suppose that’s one way to put it, and it makes it sound a lot cooler than it really is. I like it. Good thinking, Jonny”

“Hey, making fun of awkward and depressing situations is my favorite hobby. That, and slapping you on the back of the head, although you could make the case that one is an extension of the other.”

Collins laughed. “I would argue, but resistance is futile.”

The rest of the ride was quite uneventful. When Collins arrived, he had his meeting with Robo-Admissions, where she told him that he was no longer eligible for the Batman grant because he was too old. When he asked how he was eligible for it three days prior and not now, she simply shrugged and apologized.

Feeling somewhat down, Collins grabbed dinner that night with Jon. He then crashed on Jonny’s couch until morning and returned home. Deciding that he was going to be working for campus security for a while, he started investing in his personal life again. He started going out on the weekends, going on dates, and getting back into “the game,” as it were.

Now, Collins had never been good at the dating game, but after having been on-again, off-again with The Troll for a couple of years, his already poor dating skills were quite rusty. He also had a habit of attracting a very specific type of woman, namely, the clinically insane. There were very few women Collins dated who weren’t dangerously crazy. This is nothing against women in general, since there are plenty of pretty, well-adjusted women out there. Collins just happened to be a crazy magnet.

The first clue Collins had that he wasn’t any good at dating was when he went out for coffee with Mail Man’s Daughter. Collins worked up the courage to ask her out, they went out for a late morning cup of coffee, and had a good time. At the end, Collins remarked that next time, he would take her on a “real date.” She spit out the last of her coffee and told him that she had no idea they were on a date in the first place.

The second girl, we’ll call her McDonald’s In the Rain, made things uncomfortable for a different reason. Collins made sure she knew they were going on a date, and she told him she would meet him at his apartment the night of the date. When she arrived, she stood outside in the rain and said, “Chris, I’ve decided I don’t want to go on a date with you, but I still want you to buy me dinner.”

Collins was so shocked, that he stuttered for a second and replied, “Um, err, ok…”

Now, Collins wasn’t a complete idiot; he didn’t take her to a five star restaurant. They got in his car and went to the McDonald’s drive through. If he was being forced to pay for his anti-date’s dinner, he was spending the least amount of money possible. So they drove back to his apartment and ate their food in the parking lot, she got out of his car without saying goodbye, and went home.

Collins decided that perhaps he would have better luck picking up dates at bars. The first girl he tried to woo was “Chewbacca.” She was big, hairy, and she only spoke in deep, guttural grunts and noises.

Back at the bar…

“Jonny, that is not at all what she was like. She wasn’t the thinnest girl in the world, but she wasn’t hairy or incapable of speaking English.”

“Shut up, I’m telling the story. In my head, I always imagined her as a tall, hairy, overweight woman who spoke like Chewbacca. That’s why we called her that in the first place.”

“Seriously though, you make it sound like I had a date with a giant bear-man. If you’re going to tell the story, at least be reasonable.”

The waitress, who had gotten off shift and was sitting at the table with the guys now, spoke up. “I kind of like the way Jon tells it. It’s funnier that way.”

“He never met the girl though; and on top of that, I bet he’s got some whale of a tale to tell about me getting hitched to her in Vegas, too.”

“No, the only part of the story left up to my imagination is her description, although that would make for a pretty funny story,” Jon quipped. “Now that you have unsuccessfully defended your manhood to Sally the Waitress, may I continue?”

Collins took a big gulp of his beer before replying with, “Yes, but I’m seriously regretting giving you speaking privileges at my wedding.”

Ok, where were we? Ah yes: Chewbacca…

Now, Chewbacca was this big, hairy oaf who frequented this country bar Collins went to now and then with his buddy Eric. Eric was a Wisconsin boy who was fond of country music and whiskey, and since he was usually paying for the beer, Collins tagged along now and then when he went out. One night, Collins had just enough alcohol in his system to be stupid, but not enough to start dancing. We’ll say he was “buzzed.” He found his way out to the smoking deck, where he bumped into a group of three women who were celebrating a birthday. They asked Collins for a lighter, and since alcohol made Collins an extra friendly person, they struck up a conversation.

Collins especially hit it off with Chewbacca and the two wound up talking and drinking together until bar closed. At that point, Collins realized that Eric had left without him, leaving him without a ride home. Chewbacca hadn’t had very much to drink, and had spent most of the night drinking water since she was the DD for her friends. She offered to give Collins a ride home, and being in the position he was in, he agreed.

She dropped off all her friends first, and finally it was just the two of them in the car. About halfway to Collins’ place, they pulled over and got some food, and they wound up eating in the parking lot and talking for another hour or so. After the meal, they made their way back onto the road, and by now, Collins was beginning to sober up a bit. With some of his mental faculties returning, he started to worry that this woman was getting the wrong signals from him; he was just friendly, he wasn’t trying to hook up with her or anything. Nevertheless, she seemed very interested in him.

Upon pulling up to the apartment, Chewbacca put the car in park and turned to Collins with a gleam in her eye. She started talking very slow and provocatively, as she laid her hand on his thigh. In later years, Collins could never remember what she said to him that night, as he was much more concerned with monitoring the increasingly-uncomfortable placement of her hand. As she spoke, she ran her hand up his thigh, over his stomach and chest and up to his shoulders. Suddenly, she gripped the back of his neck like a vice and pulled him in for a kiss.

It was the worst kiss of Collins’ entire life. The woman was a chain smoker, and he could taste every cigarette she had ever smoked as she stuck her tongue down his throat. She was also a surprisingly strong woman, as no matter how hard he fought to get away, he was unable to pull himself away from her. Finally, she released him, and he flew out of the car mumbling, “Gotta go, bye…” Collins never looked back as he ran to the door, his feet barely touching the ground, praying she wasn’t following him. Surprisingly, that did not dissuade Collins from trying to pick up dates at bars; he simply stopped going to that particular bar.

Seeing how Collins was unable to find a decent date on his own, Schmidty took pity on him and tried to help him out. One night, Collins, Schmidt, and Jeremy were all out at dinner together and their waitress happened to be quite attractive. This inspired the boys to talk to her at length every time she came to the table. After the meal, the guys walked outside, and suddenly Schmidty ran back inside the restaurant for several minutes. When he reemerged, he handed Collins a napkin and said, “You owe me one; call her.”

Collins waited a couple days, and then called her. She invited him out to have drinks that weekend, and since it was earlier in the evening (around 7), along with the fact that she never mentioned that there would be other people there, Collins thought it would be just the two of them. It was not. It turns out it was actually ladies’ night for her and her friends.

When he arrived at the bar, he saw The Waitress sitting at a table with three other girls and one guy. She saw him walk in and waved him over. Thinking that things couldn’t be too bad and that he would have a chance to ask her out alone, he proceeded to spend the evening with The Waitress and her four friends. When everyone got up to go home, she pulled him aside and said, “What did you think of my friend?”

“Um…which friend? I was really here because of you; I didn’t know there was going to be anyone else.”

“You’re funny; I meant the guy who was with us all night. He’s gay too, and I think you two should go out sometime.”

“What…you…hang on; you think I’m gay?”

“You mean you’re not?”

“Not by a longshot, sweetheart. What could possibly make you think I am gay?”

“I don’t know…you just seemed gay to me. I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. I thought it was kind of weird that your friend wanted my number for you. I could have sworn you were gay…so, not even a little bit? Because Paulie is a really sweet guy…”

“Yeah…I’m going to go home now.”

That was the first and last time he let Schmidty set him up with anyone.

After that, Collins tried the online dating thing for a while. He didn’t really have much success, until one girl started chatting him up. After a week or so, she gave him her number, and they talked back and forth for a week or so like that. Finally, Collins asked her out on a dinner date.

There was a small Italian restaurant downtown, and Collins suggested that they meet up there (she was a very modern woman and didn’t want to be picked up or shuttled around.) The place wasn’t too fancy, but they made good food and it was a quiet atmosphere. Collins waited outside for her to arrive, and when she did, they went in and got a table right away. They sat down, ordered drinks, and began to talk. After getting their drinks delivered, they talked for a few more minutes while they decided what they were going to eat. They had been in the restaurant for about fifteen minutes, when the girl abruptly stood up and walked out, never to be heard from again. It was quite a blow to Collins’ self-confidence, but it gave the rest of the guys an excellent punch line for years to come.

The Bachelor High Court is Now in Session

Previously on “I Don’t Do Weddings,” Collins’ dad died, sad stuff happened, and it was all kind of a bummer. But that’s all over now, so let’s get back to the good stuff…

The Troll returned to Collins’ life, and given the circumstances, one can somewhat understand why he began talking to her again. He needed something to distract him from what he was going through, and she reappeared at just the right time. This does not make it any less of a horrible decision, but his reasoning behind it can be understood.

After a few weeks, Collins found himself entwined in a relationship with this evil woman…again. He moved back in with her, against the advice of all his friends and family, and started pouring all his time and energy into pleasing the one person in his life who was trying to take advantage of him. He was being quite a dumbass.

Over the next two months, he lost contact with everyone except for Schmidty. He massively violated the Bachelor Code of Ethics, and thus, his friends pretty much gave up on him for a while. When he finally broke up with The Troll for good, he came crawling back to Schmidty and Jeremy’s house for forgiveness.

Upon returning, his friends decided that his stupidity had reached such a level that drastic measures must be taken to ensure that he learned his lesson. The Bachelor High Court was called to meeting, and Collins’ sentencing commenced.

The Bachelor High Court was a judgment system set up by the guys during their college days. It consisted of Collins, Schmidty, Jeremy, and Jonny. They decided as a group that if any of them did anything that drastically affected the group as a whole, they would gather together and decide on a course of action. To this day, it has only been called to meeting two other times. It is a very sacred court, and the decisions made while it was in session were regarded as law by those involved.

In this particular case, Jonny took a few days off work and drove down from Michigan to participate. Everyone gathered in Schmidty’s living room for the proceedings. The guys ordered pizza and opened a bottle of cinnamon whiskey (as was customary for the BHC), and began the hearing.

Jeremy started things off. “Collins, you have been called before the Bachelor High Court today to determine your penance before we allow you back into the brotherhood. You had been warned that this would happen if you ever got back together with The Troll, and now you stand here tonight to pay for your crimes.”

Collins nodded, and Jonny stepped in. “Collins, you were really kind of an *censored* to us over the last few months. We understand that your dad just died and all, but living with that bitch again was way over the line. We were all ready to end our friendships with you over this. Well, except Schmidty. He wanted to give you a chance, but me and Jeremy were ready to let you suffer the consequences of your actions. You ditched us, you quit talking to us, you wouldn’t listen to a word we would say, and you expected us to be ok with it all. You should count yourself lucky that we allowed this hearing at all, because we almost didn’t even want to let you back in.”

Schmidt spoke up at this point, saying, “You sabotaged every friendship you had, and we’re pretty pissed at you.”

Jeremy stood up from where he was sitting and said, “Alright, Collins, so you know the charges brought against you, correct?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And you vow to accept the ruling of the Court, however severe the punishment for your crimes?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Go outside and have a cigarette; we’ll call you back in when we’re done.”

Collins went out back on the porch and did as he was told. After about ten minutes of deliberation, the guys all came outside, bearing grins, four shot glasses, and the whiskey.

While the other two chuckled to themselves, Jeremy gave Collins the ruling. “So, we talked about it, and we came up with a punishment: You were with The Troll for three months, so for the next three months we get to slap you in the back of the head as hard as we want whenever we want. Do you still accept the terms?”

Collins sighed and nodded. The other three laughed and then  Schmidty poured a shot for everyone. Jonny gave the toast. “In honor of the decision made by the Bachelor High Court, we drink.”

After a “hear, hear,” from everyone, they took their shots…and then they took turns smacking Collins on the back of the head with as much gusto as possible. Jeremy went first, knocking Collins’ hat off his head. Immediately after, Jonny took his turn, causing Collins to lose his sight for a second. As soon as he recovered from that, Schmidty hit him. That was the most painful hit Collins had ever taken (and he had been knocked across an intersection by a Corvette once).

Now, the porch was on the main level of the townhouse, but the place was built on a hill, so the porch was suspended a full story into the air. Collins was launched from where he stood, over the railing, and fell to the ground below. As he lay there moaning and coughing, Schmidty laughed, looked down at him and said, “Get up; we’re going to eat.”

The next three months were filled with violent blows to the back of the head, some so dramatic that Collins had nightmares about them. Jonny was allowed to get his licks in while he was in town, and then the punishment fell to Jeremy and Schmidty, who did their duty all-too-willingly. Collins learned his lesson, though. They definitely got their point across.

Welcome to the Suck (The Crux, Part 3)

The next two days were a flurry of family meetings, phone calls, and general busy-work. Lots of people were in and out of the house, so when Collins wasn’t busy making arrangements for the funeral proceedings, he was entertaining well-meaning guests. What people don’t realize when they visit the grieving is most of the time, they just want you to shut up. Those who hurt don’t want to hear your condolences; they really just want you to be there. There is nothing anyone can say to a grieving person that will make them feel better, but when someone simply sits with them a while, it tends to be quite helpful.

Collins wished people would just leave him alone. There were a few select family and friends he wanted to be around while he made the preparations for the funeral with his mother and sisters, but the constant stream of guests made it difficult to get anything done. Here they were, getting ready for a funeral, and they were expected to entertain people all day long. They didn’t mean to make things worse, but it seemed like everyone had something to say to him, and they believed that their “words of encouragement” were going to make everything alright.

Truthfully, it was the ones who had gone through the death of a parent who were the most helpful. They were the ones who came over to the house and cleaned the kitchen, prepared meals, and ushered others out of the house when they started driving the family up the wall. Although Schmidty had not lost a parent, he was one of those who was able to be present and make things better.

Collins and Schmidty often found themselves sitting in the backyard on the deck, hiding from the crowds that flowed through the house. Most of the time they just sat there, smoking in silence, having the occasional conversation about hockey or the weather, or some other frivolous topic. It seemed that Schmidt knew that Collins really just needed a friend through the process and someone to help him escape for a while when things got to be too much for him. It was the most helpful anyone had been since the moment Collins had gotten home.

Despite the best efforts of all those guests to keep the family from planning and preparing, eventually it was all taken care of. The casket had been chosen, the mortuary had been booked, and everyone they could think of had been notified. The funeral had been set for the early afternoon, so Collins and his family spent the day together, just the four of them. They decided to get lunch at Mr. Collins’ favorite burger joint before the funeral, taking what little time they could away from the crowds.

They ate in silence, until Collins spoke up.

“Welcome to the suck.”

“What was that, sweetie?” Collins’ mother asked.

“Welcome to the suck. Dad said while he was in the Marines that whenever they had a difficult assignment ahead of them, they would say that to each other. It was their way of saying ‘this is going to suck, but we’re in this together.’”

Collins’ mom sighed and said, “That’s true. Things are going to be very different without your dad, but we still have each other.”

His sisters nodded somberly, and continued to eat quietly, with short small talk sprinkled throughout the meal. This was a heavy moment for all of them, and the silence was somehow comforting. Just quietly being together away from everyone was peaceful and helped to calm their aching hearts.

After the meal, they made their way over to the funeral home. The day went by quickly, and yet seemed to drag on forever. The family greeted people as they came in, and eventually, it was time for the service to start. Reed was leading the funeral service, and while in later years none of them could remember what he said exactly, the family remembered that it was heartfelt and comforting.

After giving the initial speech, Reed called up several family friends to say a few words to the crowd. The final speaker was Collins himself. Before going up to the podium, Collins closed his eyes a second and prepared himself. His mother reached over and squeezed his hand, while his sister Kelsey hugged him from the other side.

Upon reaching the front of the room, Collins looked out over the room for a moment before he stepped up to the microphone. He saw his family and friends, and he couldn’t help but smile. They had all come to support him, his sisters, and his mother on this difficult day.

“Good afternoon, everyone; I want to thank you all for coming. It means a lot to us that each of you took the time to be here today. I spent the last couple of days thinking about what I wanted to say up here today, and last night it finally came to me: I want you all to know that Daniel Collins is not dead. Yes, we are going to bury his body today, but he lives on.

“My father was an incredible man, and he touched a lot of lives in a lot of ways. Every person in this room was affected by him in some way or another. Even if you never met the man, you knew one of us, and through us, you saw him. He was the one who taught me what it means and what it takes to be a man. He shaped me, often not by what he said, but by what he did. I watched him my whole life; I watched how he talked to people and how he treated people. He taught me to be kind and strong, he taught me to stand up for people and to watch out for others.

“On top of what I saw him do, my dad and I had a lot of good talks while he was with us. We talked about life, work, and faith. We talked about family, and what it means to truly live. I would call him in the years after I moved out of his house when I had a problem and when I had an epiphany, and no matter what time of day or night, I knew he would pick up the phone and talk with me.

“It is those things he taught me that will live on within us all. His legacy of grace and strength will influence how I raise my own children one day. It is the memory of him that will continue to influence how we live our lives. Personally, those who meet me and never met my father will still know him through me. They will see what kind of man he raised me to be. His memory will always be alive in my heart, every day for as long as I live. Thank you all again for being here with us today.”

Collins stepped back to his seat, where his mother and his sisters stood and embraced him. They all sat as Reed closed out the service, and everyone began to file through to pay their last respects. After the crowd had made their way through, Collins asked the pallbearers to step outside for a moment while the family paid their last respects. First his mom made her way to the casket while he and his sisters sat in the aisle together. Kelsey walked up to the casket and said goodbye, while Collins sat with Laura as she cried.

“Chris…” she said after a moment, “would you go see Daddy with me? I don’t want to go up there alone, but I don’t want anyone else with me either.”

“Of course, Laurie; we’ll go up there together.”

Collins waited for the other two to step away for a minute, and then stood, taking his sister’s hand in both of his, they slowly walked up to the casket. Laura burst into another round of tears at the sight of her father (she had avoided seeing him until this point), and Chris stood there, holding her. He whispered a few comforting words to her, and after a few minutes, she was ready. She stepped to the side, and Collins called his mother over to close the casket with him.

The casket was closed, and the pallbearers did their duty. Everyone made their way over to the gravesite, where The Marine Corps performed a flag-folding ceremony, and Daniel’s best friend gave a small eulogy. He was then lowered into the ground and it was all over. Just like that, everything was done. For as light-hearted as Chris Collins was, even he couldn’t take this lightly.

There were a few days where people still came to the house fairly frequently, but within a week, everything was quiet, and the new normal set in. Collins began looking for work again, and life resumed. Collins spent a couple weeks with his family, and then moved back in with Schmidty and Jeremy. It seemed Collins would get through this mourning period with minimal damage, when three weeks after the funeral, The Troll lifted her evil head and contacted Collins. What happened next may have been the worst mistake of his entire life.

Aftermath (The Crux, Part 2)

“I need to think and relax. I need to be in the water,” Collins said after a few moments of silence.

Jon didn’t really know what to do; the whole situation was so unexpected.

“Alright, dude; we’ll head down to the beach and you can think there as long as you need.”

The three of them drove down to one of the beaches on the lake shore, and Collins was out the door and in the water before the vehicle had stopped moving. They waded thigh-deep into the lake and stood there in silence for about ten minutes, just watching the sun set. It truly was beautiful. After that experience, Collins would say that there is no better place to receive bad news than northern Michigan in July.

The weather was perfect, the sky was clear except for a few stray clouds on the horizon, and the water was surprisingly cool. The lake stretched out north, east, and west as far as the eye could see, and the sun was setting on the water to the west just as a full moon was rising in the east. It was quiet and peaceful. They all simply gazed at the beauty of it all, with Jon and Reed waiting for Collins to break the silence when he was ready.

Finally, he spoke.

“What the hell, man. This is crap.”

The other two nodded in agreement, knowing there was nothing they could say that would make this any easier. Collins continued, “Ok, I need to relax and think this through. I have time for grieving later; right now, I need a plan. Jonny, do you mind if Reed spends the night at your place and we leave in the morning?”

“Yeah, that’s fine; we had already discussed him staying the night while you were on the phone.”

“Good, thank you. Alright, Reed, you should probably get some rest tonight. I certainly am not going to sleep at all, so you’ll be driving my car on the way home.”

Reed nodded again, then turned to Jon, and said, “Is there a grocery store or something close by? I need to grab a few things for the night. I left straight from the hospital and some people from the church drove me to the airport. I didn’t have a chance to pack a bag or anything.”

“Sure thing; when he’s ready, we can head over to the store, grab what you need, maybe a couple frozen pizzas for dinner, and you can crash for the night. You’ve got to be tired.”

“I’m bushed. I got the call from his mom while I was at the church, and then I spent a couple hours there before they all realized that they needed to tell Chris what had happened. His mom didn’t want him to have to drive home alone with that on his mind, so the senior pastor bought me a plane ticket up here, and I was out the door. I rented a car at the airport, and got on the phone with him right away.”

“Thanks for coming up here on such short notice, man. I really appreciate it,” Collins said quietly. “Let’s head over to the store, and then head back to Jonny’s place.”

They went to the grocery store, picked up Reed’s necessities and three frozen pizzas, and then made their way back to Jon’s apartment. Once they arrived, they ate and Reed laid down to grab some sleep. They decided they would try and leave the apartment by 8am, and Reed needed some shut-eye if he was going to be able to drive the entire 9-hour ride home.

When Reed went to sleep, Collins and Jon went for a drive. Jon figured Collins needed to keep moving, and he would talk when he was ready. They discussed the plan for the morning and how Collins would handle the funeral arrangements, skirting around the real issue at hand. Finally, as they passed a park on the lake, Collins told Jon to pull over.

“Jonny, what am I going to do? My dad is dead. My sisters are still teenagers; they’re not even in college yet. I’m still a kid myself: I’m in my early twenties, for crying out loud. I still rely on my old man for a ton of stuff. I talk to him about everything; nobody gives advice the way he does. What are we going to do now?”

Jon took a slow breath, trying to find an acceptable answer. “I don’t know what to tell you, dude. It sucks all the way around. Right now, you have to take the time to grieve, and then figure everything else out later. Take a few days to really work through this. It’s going to suck for a really long time, but if you face it right away and don’t bottle up what’s going on inside, I think it will be easier to figure the other stuff out when the time comes.”

“Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s just total horse crap. I know that nobody lives forever, and I was eventually going to have to bury my parents, but I thought I’d be older. I thought I’d be ready for it.”

“No matter how old you get, you’re never ready for it. I’ve seen grown men with grown children of their own have just as hard of a time coming to terms with their parents dying as you are now. You just have to keep your head up. Talk about this stuff, let it out. Don’t let it crush you and don’t bottle it all up inside. Let it flow. It’s a massive thing to deal with, but I think you’ll be alright. You’re a strong kid and you have a lot of good, strong people around you who will help you through this. You know you can always call me and talk about this. You’ve got Schmidty back home; you’ve got your family who is going through this right there with you. You’re not alone.”

“Yeah…it almost doesn’t feel real. It’s like I’m going to get back to my folks’ place and he’ll be on the couch. It feels like a dream, but I know this isn’t something I’m going to wake up from. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to ever go home. I want to stay here in Michigan and pretend this never happened. I know I have to get in that car in the morning and drive back to my Dad’s house. I know that when I walk through the door, he won’t be there. I know that for the rest of my life, I’m going to live with this hole inside me, this scar that will always remind me of what I lost. It’s kind of selfish, really…I’m not sad for him, I’m sad for us. He’s fine; he’s in a better place. It’s the rest of us who are stuck here without him.”

“It’s rough, man, for sure. In time, that wound will heal. It will leave one hell of a scar, just like you said, but it will heal, and you’ll be ok. It will just take time. Meanwhile, you have people you can rely on. You’ve always got us.”

“Thanks, Jonny. This is helping a lot. I just need to keep occupied until I get home. Once I’m home I’ll have stuff to do, and I’ll be fine. Right now, I just need to keep moving.”

“That’s fine, dude. We can drive around and walk around all night if you need to.”

As it turns out, that’s exactly what he needed. They stayed at that park a few hours, and then they drove around and walked around until the sun came up. When sunrise came, they made their way back to Jon’s apartment and stood in the parking lot drinking coffee and Collins smoking like a chimney until Reed woke up. They talked at times, and other times they stood in silence. As sad as it was, Collins was right: there was no better place to receive bad news. Having the opportunity to calm himself and work through the initial shock in such a peaceful place prepared him for the flurry of activity that awaited him back home.

When Reed woke up, he and Collins packed up his car, said goodbye to Jon, and began the long ride home. Collins hadn’t slept all night long, so he laid the passenger seat back and almost immediately fell asleep. Reed quietly listened to some tunes as they sped down the road. About an hour and a half into the trip, Collins was awakened by a loud banging noise coming from under the hood.

Bolting upright, he exclaimed, “What the *censored* was that?!”

Reed looked over to Collins, shrugged his shoulders, and mumbled, “Dunno,” and kept driving. Collins glanced at the tachometer and saw that it was redlining.

“Reed, pull over. We are maxing out the rpms and we are losing speed; something is definitely wrong.”

They pulled the car over and Collins immediately lit up a cigarette. Popping the hood and seeing that the problem was not something he was going to be able to fix on his own, he started laughing. The stress of the entire situation came crashing down on him in that moment and he burst into a fit of maniacal laughter. He looked up and started yelling at the sky.

“Really?! Of all the times for my car to take a crap, it had to be right now? I can’t seem to catch a break; what on earth am I supposed to do now?! I just want to get home so I can be at my father’s FREAKING FUNERAL! What the hell do you want from me?! This is already hard enough, without this adding to the mess!”

Reed got out of the car at this point and walked over to Collins, who had shut the hood and was leaning against the car.

“Well, Chris, what seems to be the problem?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I know it’s not anything I can handle. I’m guessing the transmission blew out, so we’re going to need a tow. I don’t have any money for a tow, and I damn sure don’t have enough money for a mechanic to fix whatever is wrong.”

“Ok…let me make a few calls. I think the church will be willing to help get us home.”

So Collins called his mother and told her what had happened while Reed called the senior pastor of the church. After several minutes and half a pack of cigarettes later, Reed came over and told Collins that the church would pay to have the car towed and looked at by a local mechanic.

They were able to get ahold of one in a nearby small town (thank God for the internet and smart phones), and after an hour of tinkering under the hood, he was able to tell the duo that the transmission had completely fallen apart. There was no repairing it, and to get a new one would take several days and more money than the car was worth.

Reed made a few more calls, and was able to get in touch with one of the members on the church board who owned several car dealerships, one of which was in Green Bay. He worked out a deal where a dealership in Michigan let Reed and Collins take a car to Green Bay, and in return, the board member would have two brand new cars shipped up to the other dealership.

With a solution finally ironed out, Collins had his car taken to the junkyard, and the money he got for it paid for the mechanic’s time, both tows, and the cab ride over to the dealership. Climbing into the new vehicle and continuing the trip home, Collins took some time to try and relax. He fell into a fitful sleep, full of dark dreams that left him more exhausted than when he fell asleep. In time, they reached Green Bay, where the church board member, Dave, met them. From there, Dave drove them the rest of the way home.

After the whole fiasco with Collins’ car, they actually made pretty good time, and made it back to Collins parents’ house before sundown. Upon arrival, Collins thanked Dave for working so hard to get him back home, grabbed his things, and stepped out of the car. Reed got out and stopped Collins before he made his way up the driveway.

“Chris…this stuff really sucks. It’s going to be very difficult for a long time, but you can always pick up the phone and call. I’m going to let you go in and see your family, but I will be back tomorrow to help you guys get all the details and arrangements worked out.”

“Alright, Reed. I really appreciate everything you guys have done today. This has been crazy, and you all bent over backwards to get me home. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

“Don’t mention it, man. When the need arises, we step in. It’s what we do. Plus, we love you guys, so it was important to us that we help you out any way we could.”

Collins said goodbye and slowly walked up to the front door. His youngest sister, Laura, met him outside, flying out the door and into his arms. As he stood there holding her, all he could think about was how glad he was to be home. With as crazy as the last couple of days had been, and how much he wanted to run away from the whole situation, he realized that the only place he really wanted to be was home.

What the Hell, Man (The Crux, Part 1)

Again, in the bar…

“Dude, seriously? You’re going to talk about getting dumped out by The Troll at my wedding reception?”

“Relax, Collins, everything is fine. You’re a fan of a good story, right? Every hero has to fall. If I just told a bunch of good stories, no one would remember my speech. This way, I get to tell a memorable story AND have fun at your expense. It’s a two-fer!”

Collins sighed deeply, closed his eyes, and rubbed his temples. This speech of Jon’s was taking a horrible turn. “Jonny, how are you doing this? An hour and a half ago, you had no idea what to say. Where is all this coming from?”

Jon shrugged. “I don’t know; you guys inspired me. I mean, we talk about this stuff all the time. We’re constantly trading stories. When we sat down and started talking this stuff out, the right ones just began to bubble to the surface. Now I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say, I’m just finding the right way to say it. Plus, I’m having a grand old time watching you squirm.”

“Fine…whatever. Where do we go from here, wise old sage? Is this the part where things get better?”

Schmidt replied, “Probably not. The next thing that happened to you was that trip to Jonny’s school.”

Jon nodded. “Yeah…that’s definitely not something I can just leave out.”

  • –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –      –

After the wonderfully brutal break-up with The Troll, Collins started taking a serious look at the direction his life was headed, he decided it was time for a change of location. While he was dating The Troll, Collins had dropped out of school (he claimed it was primarily because his health deteriorated, but no one believed that for a minute; truthfully, everyone knew that even if it was health related, The Troll was to blame.) So, after he was freed from his little cage under the bridge, he wisely chose to return to his education.

Thinking that it would probably do him some good to get out of town and start fresh elsewhere, he put in an application at Jon’s school. He was quickly accepted, and scheduled himself for an early-enrollment orientation. It was all very exciting for Collins, given his circumstances, but there was one person who was not too thrilled about his choice in college: his father.

Collins’ dad was able to see right through the façade to his son’s real reasons for choosing a school out of state.

“Son, you can’t run away from your problems. No matter where you go, you’re going to feel like this until you deal with that mess in your head. Don’t go to school so far away just to get away.”

“I’m not running; I’m starting over.”

“That’s running. In fact, that’s exactly what they do in the witness protection program. They help you run away from something, and then help you hide from whatever you ran from.”

“Dad, seriously, I’m not running. I’m fine.”

“If you can look me in the eye and tell me that your motives for going to Michigan have nothing to do with that girl, then by all means, give it a shot. However, if you were to be truly honest with yourself and everyone around you, I think you’d see that’s the only reason you’re leaving.”

“You know what, I’m a grown man, and I can make decisions on my own. I want to try this school for reasons that have nothing to do with her; this is what I want to do.”

The elder Mr. Collins took a long, slow breath and replied, “You may be grown, but you’ve still got a lot of learning to do, bubba. If this is what you’re going to do, I’ll support you. I just wish you would take a semester to think about it. You could change your mind by the time New Year’s comes around.”

So, being young and foolish as he was, Collins packed his things for a four-day road trip to Michigan and left the next morning. In the years to come, Collins would have mixed emotions about that long weekend. If he had stayed home, his life may have turned out very different.

Arriving in Michigan, Collins decided to stay at Jon’s apartment instead of getting a hotel room to save money (plus Jon was the only person in “The UP” that he knew, so the majority of his free time would be spent at his apartment anyway.)

Throughout the weekend, Collins and Jonny did some sight-seeing and some hiking. Northern Michigan is a really pretty place to be during the summer. Jon would make the claim that it was never complete without two feet of snow on the ground, but the snow and the cold make it difficult to go out and explore. The summer months are the best time for those kinds of excursions.

After two days of fun, Collins had his orientation meetings to attend, and that was an all-day affair. He arrived at 8am on Monday morning for registration and the campus tour. In later years, he would joke that he should have just turned around and gone home as soon as things started going sideways.

Walking up to the registration desk, he said, “Hi, I’m here for early orientation. The email I got from Admissions said I should have a packet here.”

The pretty girl running the desk smiled at him and responded, “Good morning. Yes, if I can just get your last name, we can get you started.”

“Collins.”

“Ok…let’s see here…we don’t seem to have a packet under your name. Let me look you up in the system.”

After a few minutes, his name came up on the list, but there was another problem.

“Alright, Mr. Collins…we have a bit of a mix-up here, and you are listed as a female. In order to get this sorted out, you’re going to have to head down to the Admissions office. Would you like for me to take you down there?”

Considering Collins was single and the girl was wonderfully attractive, of course he said yes. When they made their way to the Admissions office, Robo-Admissions pulled up his file.

“Let’s go over your information and make sure that everything is correct. You are certainly not a woman, so we’ll go ahead and change that right off the bat. Is your major still underwater basket weaving?”

“My major was never underwater basket weaving. I’m here for firefighting and forestry.”

“Hmm…I’ll fix that as well then. It appears you have not paid for your orientation yet either. How would you like to take care of this?”

“Are you sure you’re looking at the right file? I paid for everything last week.”

“Our records show that you haven’t paid for anything yet.”

“What’s the name on the file?”

“Josephine Collins. I’m assuming your name is Joseph and it was just filed incorrectly, since you’re the only Collins on the list.”

“That can’t be my file, ma’am. I’m not majoring in basket weaving, I’ve paid all the fees, my name isn’t Josephine, and I certainly am not a girl.”

“If this isn’t you, then I’m afraid you’re not in our system at all. What we can do is set you up as a new student, reschedule your orientation for a later date, and then go from there.”

Collins sighed. “So Josephine is the only Collins on record? Are you sure I’m not in there at all?”

“I’m looking at the list right now, sir. There is a Mr. Carter, Ms. Collins, and then it jumps down to a Ms. Eckerly.”

“Alright, if there’s nothing we can do, then why don’t we set this up for regular orientation and I’ll handle all this stuff then.”

Robo-Admissions made all the arrangements and Collins suddenly had the entire day free. Jon was working until mid-afternoon, so Collins drove down to the beach and sat in the sun until Jon got off duty. After that, they grabbed a bite to eat and went back to Jon’s apartment for some video games and some scotch.

Around five o’clock that evening, Collins got a call from the youth pastor from his parents’ church. This wasn’t uncommon, since they had known each other for several years, but as soon as Collins picked up the phone, he knew something wasn’t quite right.

“Hey, Chris, I am randomly in northern Michigan visiting some friends and I heard that you were up here as well. Is there any chance we could meet up and grab a brew or something?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m staying at my buddy’s apartment; we can meet up here.”

Collins gave him directions to Jon’s apartment, hung up the phone, and stared quizzically at Jon.

“What’s wrong?” Jon asked.

“I don’t know, but something’s up. There’s no way Reed is ‘randomly’ up here. I mean, maybe he is, but I sincerely doubt it. This is a busy week at the church, and I don’t think this would be the right time for him to take a spontaneous vacation.”

“Who knows; if something’s wrong, I guess he’ll tell you when he gets here. If everything is alright, we go out for a drink and maybe a quick bite to eat. No use worrying about it until he gets here.”

Jon and Collins stepped outside where Collins could have a smoke while they waited for Reed to arrive. They talked about inconsequential things, with Jon trying to keep Collins from overthinking things while they waited. They stood in the parking lot of Jon’s complex for ten minutes or so before Reed finally pulled up.

“Hey, Reed, how are you, man?”

“I’m good, dude. How’s Michigan been treating you the last few days?”

“Pretty good; kind of a bizarre day today, but overall it’s been a good trip.”

Collins introduced Reed and Jon, they exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then the conversation petered off.

“Look, Chris…I lied to you. I’m not randomly here in Michigan. I need you to call your mom.”

“Why, what happened?”

“Dude, it’s not my place to tell you. Just call your mom.”

“Reed…seriously, man, what the hell happened? Obviously it’s not my mom, so who is it? My dad? My sisters? What happened?”

“Chris…call your mom. Take my phone, and just call her.”

Collins searched Reed’s face for a clue as to what had occurred, and the only thing he saw was intense sadness. He took the phone and dialed his mother. He stepped over to his car a few feet away and sat down on the pavement next to it. He was on the phone for a few minutes, and then suddenly stood up. Reed looked at Jon and said, “This is going to be rough…do you mind helping me keep him occupied while we’re up here?”

“Yeah, no problem. Whatever you guys need, I’ll take care of it. If you need a place to stay, you can crash here. Chris is staying with me while he’s up here, and as long as you don’t mind sleeping on the floor or the couch, you can stay here.”

“Yeah, that would be nice. I have to return this rental car by tomorrow morning, and then I’m going to ride with him back home. I’m pretty sure he’s going to want to go home in the morning after this.”

“What’s going on, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Just as Jon said that, Collins walked back over to them wearing a shocked look on his face.

“My dad had a heart attack this afternoon…he’s…he’s dead.”

To Escape A Troll

Back at the bar…

“Jonny, I’m starting to wonder if there is a point to all these stories. If you want to just tell tales, that’s fine, but right now all we’re doing is talking about the ‘good old days.’ Where is all of this going?” Collins said as the wings arrived at the table.

“That’s true, but like I said, all of this stuff is important. I think I know what I want to say. I think the story of how you wound up with “The Bride” is a good one, and it starts with all of those adventures. You would never have found her if all this stuff hadn’t happened. You would never have been where you are or who you are if Schmidty and I hadn’t been there to slap you on the back of the head.”

Schmidty chimed in, saying, “He has a good point. None of us are the same people we were when you guys first started working at the school. A lot of life has happened, and it’s probably good for people to see that progression. Everyone has moments that, when you put them all together, have brought them to where they are today; your moments just happen to be going into a wedding speech.”

“Yeah, fair enough, but still…what does getting banned from that store have to do with anything?”

“Well, what happened after that?”

“You moved to Michigan.”

“Yes, but what else? You got bored and lonely because Schmidty was dating Kara…”

Schmidt laughed, realizing where this conversation was leading. “I was seeing Kara and you started dating…”

Collins’ eyes grew big as it dawned on him that the next part of this journey down memory lane was a rather embarrassing one. “No…you can’t talk about her at my wedding. Are you insane?”

Jon chuckled, and replied, “Not the whole story, just the good part.”

  • –        –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –

Collins and Schmidty stepped out of the SUV and stood in the driveway for a moment. They each lit up a cigarette and stared up at the 2nd floor landing of the duplex, where Collins’ girlfriend had piled all his things in garbage bags. They smoked in silence, and when they had finished, flicked their cherries into the lawn.

“Alright, let’s get this over with,” Collins sighed.

Schmidt nodded and they began to climb the stairs. Collins had been living with his girlfriend for about three weeks now. She was crazy, but he thought he was “in love” with her. He was not, nor would he ever be. In all honesty, he had a serious messiah complex and felt the need to “rescue” people he thought were in need. His girlfriend (we’ll call her The Troll) recognized this and took advantage of it, keeping him around until she didn’t need him anymore. Then, she kicked him to the curb. Or rather, while he was visiting his friends, she broke up with him, took everything he owned, put it on the porch, and told him he had two hours to come pick it all up. She said his stuff was being burned out back if he didn’t come get it. She was kind of a bitch.

So Collins and Schmidt drove to the house and got his stuff. She had thrown everything she wanted him to take into garbage bags (including a bunch of dirty dishes) and placed it outside the door, and apparently had left the house. After loading it all into Schmidt’s car, Collins found that his key still worked for the door. Thus, the two of them strolled through the house and found a few other things that belonged to Collins and confiscated them.

On their way out, they paused, wanting to foolishly take some sort of revenge on The Troll for being so evil.

“Hey…I think she still has a bunch of booze in the freezer. Let’s take it and throw a party!”

“No…we can’t do that…but we can dump it all out, fill the bottles with water, and put them back.”

This seemed like a better plan to Collins anyway, and silently thanked his lucky stars that his friend was capable of being such a conniving prick. They took all the clear liquor in the house and dumped it out by the tree out back. Afterwards, they filled the bottles with water and placed them back in the freezer. Upon completion, it was time to hit the road…after one more pit stop.

“Dude, I still have to drop off these stupid keys at her mom’s house. Let’s swing by real quick and get out of this town.”

This went relatively according to plan, except that The Troll’s mother could smell the alcohol and thought they were drunk. Like the good citizen she was, she called the police, and on the way home, the boys were pulled over. Unsure of why they were stopped in the first place, they nervously waited for the policeman to approach their window.

“Well, now, gentlemen, do you know why I pulled you over?”

Schmidt replied, “Uh…no sir, not a clue.”

“We received a tip that two young men driving a vehicle of this description were driving intoxicated. How much have you had to drink tonight?”

Schmidt, being the driver, did all the talking. “We haven’t had anything to drink. We haven’t even had any water in several hours.”

“Boy’s, I’ve been on the force for sixteen years, and I know the smell of rum. You two smell like a liquor store. This will go a lot easier for everyone if you just ‘fess up right now.”

“We might SMELL like alcohol, considering we just dumped about three gallons of the stuff off a balcony not too long ago, but we didn’t drink any. Breathalize us.”

“I didn’t want it to come to this, but I’m going to need both of you to step out of the vehicle and place your hands behind your backs.”

Collins and Schmidt were handcuffed and sat in the police car while the officer ran their licenses, neither saying a word, but both obviously quite perturbed. When the officer finally got around to breathalizing them, he realized they were telling the truth. He turned very red (though it was rather hard to see in the middle of the night), and apologized profusely. He was so embarrassed that when he went to let them go and drive away, he forgot to uncuff them. After driving about ten feet, he reversed, took the handcuffs off, and sped away.

Schmidt and Collins looked at each other for a moment in disbelief and then burst out laughing.

“Dude, I need to call Jonny. He’s gonna want to hear this…”

There’s a Plot Here Somewhere…

Back at the bar where Jon and his friends were gathered, they discussed these events, remembering old times.

“You can’t possibly include all of that in your speech. We’ve been here an hour already, and you haven’t really said anything yet,” Collins remarked.

“I know, but it’s all important. It’s all leading somewhere, I promise. Besides, we just got to the good part. I’m obviously not putting every word of this in the speech, but this is all part of your story; out of everyone at this wedding, there aren’t many people who have known you as long as we have. Won’t they want to know how you got to where you are?”

Collins nodded as he sipped his beer. “That’s true, but my wedding reception isn’t exactly the time or place for a full biography.”

Schmidt chuckled, saying, “Why not? You don’t think your wedding guests want to hear about your entire life story?”

“I don’t think they want to sit and listen to Jon-boy for that long. At this rate, he’s going to have enough material to write a series of books about me,” Collins retorted.

“C’mon, don’t flatter yourself; your life isn’t THAT exciting. You’d get a trilogy at best,” said Jon.

Schmidty attempted to flag down the waitress and said, “Well, if we’re going to write Collins’ trilogy down on a bar napkin, we are going to need some wings.”

“Oooh, that sounds awesome. We’re also going to need more napkins…alright, Jonny, where were we?”

  • –        –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –

The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. A couple good meals, a lot of driving around town, and then a quiet drive home. After they returned, they met up with Schmidt, who was working the overnight shift by himself. The two of them decided to keep him company and tell him about the trip while he worked.

After Schmidt got off duty, the three of them decided to go to the store and do what they liked to call “adventure shopping.” This was a tradition they had developed where they went to a store, performed a bunch of shenanigans, and timed how long it took them to get thrown out. As juvenile as it sounds, it was actually quite fun. Even Jon, who was the most rule-abiding member of the group, found it entertaining. So the boys went to the store.

“Man, I thought that greeter at the door recognized me from the last time we were here,” Collins said quietly after they walked in.

“Last time? What did we do last time?” Jon asked.

Collins laughed out loud as Schmidt began telling the story. “It was just me and Collins last time. He tried putting a bag of fun-size candy bars on lay-away. Then when they didn’t let him do it, he filled the cart with candy and started handing it out to kids as they walked by. About a dozen of them tried to leave the store without paying for it.”

Jon chuckled. “Did he tell them it was free candy or something?”

“No, he just handed it to them and told every one of them ‘Happy America Days.’ And then a bunch of them just walked out of the store.”

“Yeah, I may have accidentally orchestrated the biggest candy-heist in history.”

“I can’t believe they still let you shop here,” Jon remarked.

“I am too, considering I get thrown out of this place at least twice a month.”

Walking over to housewares, they saw a large bin full of kitchen timers, which they then set to go off five at a time at thirty-second intervals. The first set went off just as they escaped the scene of the crime, barely containing their laughter.

Moments later, the loudspeaker crackled to life, with a very annoyed woman trying to talk over the two-dozen kitchen timers sounding in the background.

Can we get every available associate to housewares? We are having technical difficulties.”

The boys allowed themselves a moment of laughter as they meandered over to the clearance section. According to Collins, that was where all the fun props were kept. Seasonal items that were out of season, masks, toys; it was a prankster’s paradise.

Upon arrival, they proceeded to don Halloween masks and begin a three-way sword fight using foam noodles (you know, those pool toys that look like giant strands of colored spaghetti.) This went on for quite a while, and eventually made its way over to the produce section, where a toppled basket of apples alerted security to their antics. Their noodles and masks were taken away, Collins was issued a written ban notice, and the three of them were asked to leave.

Somehow, on the way out, Jon was able to get in line and buy a bag of tortilla chips and some salsa, which they subsequently popped open as soon as they made it outside. They found their way over to one of the benches out front, sat down, and had a good chuckle.

“That wasn’t half bad. I’d love to see the security footage of us gallivanting around the place,” Collins laughed.

Through a mouthful of chips, Schmidty replied, “If you weren’t such a klutz, we could have stretched that out for a while longer; they were still dealing with the kitchen timers.”

“Hey now…I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. Who puts a basket of apples in the middle of the floor anyway?”

Jon piped up, “Apparently THEY do. Can you imagine the meeting their security team is having right now? I wouldn’t be surprised if they put up fliers with Collins’ picture on them now.”

“That would be awesome. The only sucky thing is I wouldn’t get to see my own wanted poster unless one of you stole one for me or if I came back to the store.”

“Yeah, well…it’s the price you pay.”

Schmidty, in typical fashion, changed the topic suddenly. “Jon, when do you leave?”

“…if you wanted some alone time with Collins, all you had to do was ask…”

“Shut up…like, when do you move to Michigan?”

“Oh. Well, school starts in 6 weeks, so probably within the month. I’m just waiting on my housing form to be approved, and I can head up there.”

“Are you gonna need any help moving your stuff or anything?”

“No, the rooms are furnished, so everything I’m taking up with me will fit in the car.”

“Ok. How long do you think you’ll be up there?”

“School should take about two or three years, and depending on the job market, I might stay up there. It all depends on the money once I graduate. I have to go where the jobs are.”

“Fair enough,” Collins said after a moment. “Let’s get out of here; I see six security guys coming this way.”

The next few weeks went by quickly, and nothing noteworthy really happened. Well, there was an incident the day before Jon moved, but he’d rather forget the whole thing. Suffice it to say that being handcuffed to the inside of his own truck and forced to listen to mariachi music for two hours was not how he had planned on spending his day…Anyway, time came and went, Jon moved to Michigan, and then things started getting interesting. Oh, and by the way: Schmidt went back to the store a week later and stole Collins a copy of his “wanted poster.” It was quite epic.