Death Takes a Vacation by Colin Kelly

Nick Thanatos


Everyone needs a vacation — even a Minion of Death


I leaned back in my seat and looked out the window at the passing cityscape. How long had it been since I’d last taken a day off? One year? Two? No, it had been ten years. In fact, it had been exactly ten years as of day before yesterday. One week off in ten years. So long ago, it was hard to remember. Anyway, this time I was given three months off. The whole summer. That made me smile.

Being a Minion of Death for the San Francisco Bay Area is a challenging job and it’s 24-by-7. So many people, so many we have to watch out for and check up on all the time! Still, it’s an enjoyable place to live regardless of my job.

My boss is a regional manager. He has a staff of a couple of hundred minions all over Northern California doing what I do. He reports to a higher-up who reports to a higher-up and so on, all the way up to the Big Boss. We call ourselves ‘Minions of Death’ and that’s an in-joke; in our job what we do is watch out for anything that can be considered a problem and then try to prevent it or fix it, so we need something amusing to avoid becoming depressed when things don’t work out the way they should. The Big Boss calls us ‘operatives’ and doesn’t like it when we refer to ourselves as Minions of Death. But that’s what we call ourselves anyway, and he’ll just have to get over it.

Some people think we’re responsible for seeing that everyone dies at their appointed time. Going around in that oversize black hoodie with a scythe and picking off people when it’s their time, being the Grim Reaper. That’s not true, not at all. If it were true there’d have to be a lot more operatives on staff. Let me explain.

Predestination. A lot of people believe in it. It’s hooey. We don’t have a clue when people are going to die. No one does, not even the Big Boss. There’s no schedule for when a person’s going to die. Death happens when it happens. Most people die as the result of unforeseen circumstances. An illness, some sort of accident, murder, suicide, war, starvation, whatever.

What about old age? Old age is an illness, a strange illness. People catch it early on and it slowly, insidiously takes over the mind and body and makes people decline. I don’t mean get older; that’s going to happen to everyone as time passes, even me. I mean ‘decline’ in the sense of wearing out. That’s when people start changing and not for the better.

Old age can be prevented; there’s a cure. I should know. I received the cure. I’ll be 233 years old this November, on the 21st. I get older every year but that’s just the number of years I’ve been alive. Regardless of how old I am in years, I will never die of old age; the cure prevents that. Not many can receive the cure. It’s very complicated, and only works on some people. You have to be tested to see if you’re eligible, if the process will work for you. The Big Boss doesn’t want his staff to waste time giving it to someone who will still age every time the clock ticks.

Once you’ve had the cure you will always look the same as you did on the day that you received the cure. You get older, but you don't age. In fact, the cure gives us enhanced physical capabilities; we’re stronger and have more stamina. Still, some people who get the cure have a hard time wrapping their head around how it works. Eventually, they get used to it.

Most people are young when they get the cure. I’ve been told that it usually won’t work if you’re older than your late teens to early twenties. That’s why we look for teens when we’re asked to look for new recruits to become Minions of Death. Sort of like that old joke, “After sixteen, it’s all downhill.”

So, what happens if you’re recruited and received the cure? You become a Minion of Death — or an operative, as the Big Boss prefers — like me. I’d just turned sixteen when I was recruited. After almost 217 years I still look like I’m somewhere between sixteen and eighteen, and this is how I’ll look as long as I’m alive.

It’s problematic when you always look like a teen. You can’t live in one place very long because people will start wondering about you, why you never seem to get older. Then there are other problems, too. People think you’re too young to be on your own, without parents. There’s this assumption that when you’re a teen you ought to be in school. There’s the ‘not old enough to get a driver’s license’ thing to deal with. Yeah, it’s tough always looking like a teen and being on your own.

Okay, that brings up a question. What about parents? Minions of Death are selected if their parents are deceased, or if they’ve been abandoned or kicked out of their family (yes, that often means for being gay), or otherwise don’t have parents. That remains the same once we’re Minions of Death — we still don’t have parents.

And then there’s school. I’ve gone to school a lot. In fact, most of my life I’m in school; I mostly go to high school or sometimes to college, depending on the persona I’m adopting. You’d think after being in school so much that I’d get good grades. I do, but I force myself to not be a straight-A student. Remember what I said about it being problematic when you’re a teen? If I get nothing but good grades people are going to pay attention to me. Sorry, that’s the last thing a Minion of Death wants. We want to be sort of a ghost, just floating under the radar through whatever school we’re attending.

We do make friends, but we have to be careful that our friends don’t have parents that get too nosey and start to pry into how we live. My personas usually have ‘parents’ who travel all the time on business. Often I’m in a ‘one-parent’ family — makes it easier to explain why there’s no parent around.

Something else that’s problematic are the regulations that govern the process to register to attend a high school. When we start in a new school we’re required to have a parent or a guardian come in and vouch that we are who we say we are — when we aren’t really who we say we are — and that we actually live in the school attendance area. So the boss has some staff members who come to school to sign us in. These staff members have to rotate so they aren’t remembered in a particular school.

If I’m going to attend a college instead of high school it’s not quite as complicated. All I need is my latest high school transcripts, my ID, and, of course, a credit card to pay the tuition and fees. The latter is what colleges are interested in the most.

There’s something else about attending school that’s problematic. It’s freaking boring! We go to school, cover the same things over and over and over again, and we learn the ultimate definition of boring. The rest of the kids seem to think they know what boring is. They don’t have a clue!

I move a lot and get new personas each time I move. The Big Boss has a staff that handles all that. I’ll get an envelope delivered to me by one of my boss’s staff members, and it has my new persona, fake ID cards, birth certificate, passport, the address where I’m going to live, the date when I’m to move, the school I’m to attend, invented transcripts from my ‘prior’ school if I’m not going to use my real transcripts from my current school, what staff member is going to be there as my ‘parent’ to transport me to my new location and, if I’m going to be a high school student, to get me registered in my new school. Perhaps what’s most important is that I also get the rationale to cover why I’ll be on my own so often without a parent around.

When I move I have to disenroll from my current school and get my transcripts. If I’m in an apartment I have my ‘parent’ give the 30-day notice and pay off the lease if that’s needed. If I’m in one of our safe houses I don’t have to do anything except disenroll from school, pack my stuff, make sure I have all my paperwork, and be transported to my new home and registered in my new school.

You need to know that being cured of old age doesn’t mean that I can’t die. I could be killed in an accident, or fatally shot or knifed. Anything but an illness or old age; the cure protects us from ever getting sick — including most ways of being poisoned — and from ever getting old. So I have to be careful, like any person, to avoid getting killed accidentally or on purpose.

So, what about injuries that don’t kill me? The cure takes care of repairing injuries. And it’s fast. Unfortunately, the curing isn’t under my control. I’ve broken bones and they are set (a.k.a. cured) in a couple minutes. If it's a serious injury, like a compound fracture, I’ll need surgery, but I'll heal a few hours after surgery. So I have to be very careful about not displaying anything that is going to look like I was healed by some sort of miracle.

~~~<<>>~~~

Okay, if each person’s death happens when it happens, what does a Minion of Death actually do? Why are we needed?

Here is the reason. There’s no predestination, but the Big Boss finds out after someone is conceived that they could do something especially important during their life. Like be President of the United States, or invent something like the personal computer, or start a company like Apple or Google, or write a book or a song or be an athlete. Whatever it is, they’re expected to be or do something important and what that something might be is up to chance. Remember, there’s no predestination. What there is, though, is a department in the Big Boss’s organization that figures out that sort of stuff. Once those people have been born they are put on a watch list.

I don’t have a clue how they actually do it; that’s their job and I have my job. I think it’s probably by genetics, a person’s DNA. How can they identify these people? Think about it: they can check up on anyone while they are in the womb, and they have around nine months to do whatever genetic testing and checking they would need.

So I have a list of people, about 90% kids and 10% young adults. That’s my watch list for San Francisco Bay Area kids and young adults to be watched and in many cases guided so they will turn out the way the Big Boss and his staff think would be best. Why kids? Because they are more malleable; even though many parents would argue that their teens are definitely not easy to influence. But Minions of Death aren’t parents; we are teens, and the teens on our watch lists — even though they would argue otherwise — watch and listen to what other teens are doing and saying, and being those other teens is our job.

My watch list is on my smartphone now. Thank God (that’s the Big Boss if you hadn’t figured it out yet) for the smartphone. I helped escort that into development and production. During the gestation of the iPhone my watch list was one-hundred percent key people who would probably work for Apple or one of the other companies developing smartphones. For that project I was on a team of three operatives who guided kids on our watch lists through high school and college. The team consisted of me, Kari, and Ellis.

Yeah, Kari is a girl. About half the Minions of Death are girls. I was the youngest on the team; Ellis was the oldest and was the team leader. All three of us had personas of kids who were super-smart, considered precocious. In fact, if you go to school constantly over many years you’re going to become super-smart and precocious even if you didn’t start out as a precocious kid. Anyway, we made sure that things stayed on track. How we did that isn’t important to this story, though. This story is really about my vacation, and that’s enough backstory.

~~~<<>>~~~

So, I’m on my vacation, my first in ten years, riding on a BART train from the San Bruno station to the North Concord station. Sitting across the aisle was a young teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen. He was reading a book, ‘Leave Myself Behind’ by Bart Yates. I’d read that book. I grinned to myself. It’s about a gay teenage boy and his rather bizarre mother and a mystery that they encounter when they move into an old house. An interesting story with some really funny dialog. So, it was possible that this boy across the aisle might be gay. I can’t tell — I sure don’t have any ‘gaydar’ to assist me. Hey, being one of the Big Boss’s operatives doesn’t mean I have any supernatural powers. Well, maybe one. More about that, later.

I watched the boy as he smiled and sometimes laughed, reading the story. He was cute, attractive in that teenage-boy way that’s so unique. He looked up from his book and stared at me. I guess he sensed that I was looking at him. I smiled, and he smiled back. Why not? I always wore the persona of a teenage boy myself. That’s one of the perks of working as a Minion of Death, the ability to have a persona that fits my age when I was cured so I’d fit into my assignments.

Tom

Tom McGill

“Hi.” He was talking to me. That was a surprise. Most kids his age were reticent about talking to strangers, even other teens.

“Hi. Like that story?”

He blushed, knowing the content of what he was reading. Then he shrugged his shoulders and grinned. I guessed that he figured that I wouldn’t really know what he was reading. “Yeah. I’m just a little tired of reading. This is a long train ride, all the way from San Francisco airport. And I just flew up here from L.A., sitting in the airplane and reading.”

“Know what you mean. However, I forgot to bring anything to read with me. All I can do is just watch the scenery go by, such as it is. Wish I’d brought a book. Or remembered to recharge my phone so I could read something on my Kindle app.” I grinned, then added, “By the way, I really like that story.” I nodded in his direction, referring to the copy of ‘Leave Myself Behind’ in his lap.

He blushed again, and looked embarrassed. “Uhh, you’ve read this?”

“Yeah. It’s one of my all-time favorite books.”

“Wow!” He looked at me, trying to figure out if I was gay. “Is it okay if we talk for a while?” he asked.

“Sure. Come sit over here, be easier.” There was a pair of seats across from and facing me. There were only about 10 people in our car, and other than the two of us they were all at the other end of the car.

He moved over, bringing his book and backpack with him and sat across from me.

“I’m Tom McGill. Nice to meet’cha.”

“Hi, Tom. I’m Nick Thanatos. That’s Greek.” I didn’t plan to tell him that Thanatos is the personification of death in Greek mythology and doubted that he’d have a clue. These last couple of centuries kids just don’t receive the kind of classical education that I had when I was actually a teen.

“Yeah. It sounds Greek. Sounds cool. Where you from?”

“Concord. You?”

“Glendale. I’m coming up here to visit a friend.”

We continued chatting, talking about where we each lived and went to school, what sports we liked, what music, books, TV shows and movies. Typical teenage stuff. I always enjoyed playing the role of a teenager.

“Uh, Nick, are you gay?” Tom asked.

“Yeah. You?”

He laughed. “Can’t you tell? I mean, the book, and everything else.”

“Yeah, well, maybe the book. But what do you mean, everything else?”

“I got outed at school just before Christmas.” He blushed. “My boyfriend and I were caught kissing.”

“At school? You were kissing at school? Wow!”

“It was just a quick kiss. Then another, and the ‘another’ is what outed us. There’s a bunch of trees at one corner of the parking lot, and we thought no one could see us, but a guy and his girlfriend were out there too, and saw us kiss the first time. He took a picture with his phone of us kissing the second time. He put it on Instagram. After it got around our friends told us they’d always thought we were gay.”

“Man, that sucks. You get hassled about it?” I asked.

“Not really, just mainly laughed at for being so stupid that we got caught. All of our friends were okay with it. But someone called our folks and told them. Mine were okay with it, but Jordan’s folks are real religious and he had a tough time. He finally moved out and is living with his aunt and going to school up here in Concord. That’s where I’m going, to see him. His aunt’s cool.”

“So you’re a couple?”

Tom smiled. “Oh, yeah. We are.” He blushed. “We’re in love.”

“Aw, man, that’s great. I wish I had a boyfriend.” That was one of the things that I’d told Tom that was true. I really did wish I had a boyfriend. Being one of the Minions of Death is a lonely job. Thing is, I’d have to find another gay Minion of Death in the Bay Area, we’d have to meet and like each other, then do the whole dating thing to decide if we really liked each other that way, and if so then maybe we could become boyfriends. Figure out the chances. There are only a couple hundred minions in the Bay Area, half are girls, maybe ten percent of the guys are gay. So… not much of a chance.

“How long you going to be here?” I asked.

“Three weeks!” I could see his excitement reflected in his eyes. “We’re gonna spend a couple of days seeing San Francisco, then his aunt’s gonna take us to Yosemite. That is going to be so sweet!”

“Wow, that’s great. You’ll love Yosemite. It’s about the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”

“You’ve been there?”

“Yeah, once, a few years ago. I loved it. Someday I’ll have to go back.” That was also something that was true, except for the ‘few’ years ago. It had been much longer than that.

“What are you doing this summer?” Tom asked.

“Definitely not going to school. This summer I’m getting a real vacation. I can hardly wait.”

“What are you going to do on your vacation, Nick?”

I sighed. I hadn’t even thought that far ahead. “I don’t know yet. Nothing planned. I guess the whole vacation thing came as sort of a surprise.” I laughed. “Especially for me.”

“You didn’t know you were going to go on a vacation?”

“Nope. That’s because I didn’t know that I was going to get the summer off.”

“What do you usually do in the summer?”

“Go to school.”

“Why? Umm….” Tom blushed. “Never mind. I shouldn’t ask something personal.”

“It’s okay. It’s not like I’m having to take make-up classes or something like that. I take classes at the community college or the University of California Berkeley Extension every summer, and night classes every semester. By the time I get to U.C. Berkeley I’ll have all of my basic freshman year’s classes finished and be starting my sophomore year.”

“You gotta be kidding!”

“Nope.” I grinned. That was also something that was true for my current persona.

“How come you’re not taking any classes this summer?”

“I’ve finished everything in my major, computer science, that I have the prerequisites to take. So I decided I’ll take a vacation instead of some class I’m not interested in just to get a few units.”

“Did you think about maybe going to Yosemite again?”

“Not before you said that’s where you’re going. Hmmm. Maybe I will go to Yosemite. All I have to do is figure out how to get there and where to stay. There are lots of tourist buses that go there, so it should be pretty cheap. All I’ll have to do is dust off my backpack and hiking boots.”

Going to Yosemite did sound like a good idea…. No, it sounded like a fantastic idea. I probably wouldn’t have thought of it unless Tom had mentioned that’s where he was going.

We chatted some more about Yosemite, what I liked best when I went there, what kind of hiking experience Tom and Jordan had, how long they’d be there, and where they’d be staying. Finally, we ran out of things to say and we entered the BART tunnel just before the Walnut Creek station.

Tom looked at me with a worried expression. “Nick, have we come to the, uh…” he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, “North Concord station yet?”

“Nope. We’re coming into the Walnut Creek station, then Pleasant Hill, then Concord, then North Concord. I also get off at the North Concord station, so you can stick with me.”

“You said you’re from Concord, right?”

“Uh-huh. So we’ll get off together. Is Jordan meeting you?”

“Yeah, him and his aunt. Hey, you’ll get to meet them.”

“I’d like to meet Jordan. And his aunt, too. The way you described how she helped him means she’s a nice person.”

Tom grinned. “Yeah. She is. She met my folks when she came to Glendale to pick up Jordan. They liked her a lot, and they’ve become friends.”

“Sounds like your folks are comfortable with you being gay and having a boyfriend.”

“They are. My dad’s a geneticist and works for a company that’s investigating the genome and my mom is a pediatrician. So they don’t have any problem with me being gay and having a boyfriend.”

“Hmmm…” I looked at Tom. “I think I know something about your folks,” I said.

Tom leaned back and looked at me. I was grinning. “What?” he asked.

“They made you and Jordan listen to ‘the talk,’ didn’t they?”

Tom laughed, then shook his head. “It’s a good thing I didn’t bet that you were wrong!” he said. “How’d you know?”

“Hey, remember that I’m gay, too.”

“Ah, et tu, Nick?”

“Yup, me too,” I responded.

“It was so… so… mortifying!” Tom said.

That made me laugh. “That’s a great word to describe ‘the talk,’ Tom.”

“What about your folks? What do they do?”

I was quiet for over a minute. I think Tom could see that what I had to say was very personal. But, I felt he deserved an answer; a answer that sounded true.

“My folks were killed in a car accident. I was fifteen. I ended up in foster care because my relatives couldn’t take me in. Partly because I was born in the USA and most of my relatives were in other countries.” This was part of the background for my current persona.

“So, you’re still in foster care?” Tom asked.

“No. I became emancipated. What that means is once you’re sixteen or over and you have a steady income adequate for you to live on, you can be declared an adult.”

“What’s a steady income mean?”

“It’s a full-time job or enough investments that you can draw from and your living expenses no longer have to be paid by the foster care system to a foster family or a foster facility. I was in a foster facility. I was contacted by the attorney my dad used and he said I had a large trust fund partly from what my folks had set up and left to me in case of their deaths, and a judgement from the guy who t-boned my folks’ car. He said he’d handle my emancipation, which had to be decided in court, if I wanted to hire him to do that. So he met with me and went over the process, we went before a judge, and I’m no longer in the foster care system.” This was all true, for my current persona.

“Wow! That’s amazing. You still have to go to school?”

“Uh-huh. I have to graduate from high school and then the full trust fund is mine. I want to go to college, and that’s why I’m working so hard — to make it happen. There’s enough in the trust fund to pay for my living expenses and U.C. Berkeley’s tuition and fees and textbooks to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.”

For my current persona, that was true. Otherwise, it was a big lie. I already had a shoebox full of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, under different names, of course. Because of all of my studies and degrees, I had to be careful and not get top grades to avoid being picked as one of the student speakers at my commencement. I would receive too much publicity if that happened. And, there’s nothing more embarrassing than turning down an invitation to be a student commencement speaker. I had to do it once, and my boss was not pleased.

“What grade are you in?” Tom asked.

“I’ll be a junior. I’m sixteen.”

“Me too, and Jordan, too. Our birthdays are two days apart. We turned sixteen in June, me on the seventeenth and Jordan on the nineteenth. He kids me about me being so much older than he is.”

I laughed. “That’s funny.”

“When’s your birthday?” Tom asked. “Uh… that’s pretty personal. You don’t have to tell me.”

“So what’s so personal about my birthday? It’s November 21st, and I turned sixteen last November.”

Tom stared at me. “Hmmm… that much older than us, huh? You don’t look like you’re on your way to becoming an old person. Yet.”

We both grinned. “Glad you don’t think so! I work hard to keep from getting old.” That was true but it was also a lie because I didn’t have to work at it all that much, other than eating healthy meals — being a teenager, that sure wasn’t a problem! — and getting a lot of exercise — I went out for track and field. I loved to run the 110 meter and 300 meter hurdles and do the long and triple broad jumps.

“So, have you thought any more about going to Yosemite?” Tom asked.

“Yeah. I think I’ll do it. I’ll have to find transportation. It sucks not being old enough to drive. But first I’ll see if I can reserve a cabin at Camp Currey in Yosemite Valley.”

“We’re staying at Half Dome Village,” Tom said. “We have a cabin with a room for me and Jordan and one for his aunt. It has a private bath, too.”

“I forgot that Camp Curry had been renamed. So, I’ll see if I can reserve a cabin at Half Dome Village. In fact, if it’s okay with you, I’ll do it right now.” I pulled out my cellphone and picked the number for the travel agency we use.

“Contemporary Travel. How may I direct your call?”

“May I speak with Mr. Reinalto, please.” That was the codeword we used.

“Gabriel Reinalto speaking. How are you, Nick?”

“Good. Can you make a reservation for me at Half Dome Village in Yosemite?”

“What dates?”

“Uh… hold on.” I put the call on hold.

“Tom, what dates are you going to be in Yosemite?”

“We’ll be going there in July, from the eleventh to the nineteenth. Then we return to Concord.”

I took my call off hold. “From July eleventh through the nineteenth.”

“A cabin for one or…?”

“For one. It’s just me.”

“There are no one-person cabins. There’s one double bed room available in a cabin with two other rooms and a shared private bath.”

“Can you reserve that for me?”

“Done. I’ll email you the particulars. The cabin’s name is Blue Jay.”

“Thank you.”

“Enjoy your stay in Half Dome Village. Is there anything else?”

“Yes. How do I get from Concord to Half Dome Village? As you know, I’m too young to drive.”

“I’ll email you bus schedules, including tour buses. You can call back and I’ll make your reservation when you decide your travel dates and times.”

“Thanks. That takes care of everything for now.”

“Enjoy your trip, Nick. Goodbye.”

“Bye.”

I turned to Tom. “Okay, I’m all set for Half Dome Village from the eleventh to nineteenth of July. All I need is to find out how to get there and back from my house in Concord. I hope you don’t mind my barging in on your vacation.”

Tom grinned. “Not at all. It’s going to be great, and we’ll have someone who knows all about Yosemite with us.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You, Nick!”

“When I was in Yosemite I was thirteen! I’m not sure I remember much of what we saw. But I’m sure there are maps and lots of material about hiking in Yosemite Valley online and at the tourist office when you get there.”

Tom sat looking at me for a few seconds. “Jordan said his aunt has an SUV. You could ride there and back with us.”

“Are you sure?”

“We can ask Jordan’s aunt,” Tom said. “But I don’t see why not.”

“Tom, we’re just pulling into the North Concord BART station. Better collect your stuff and be ready to get off.”

We left the train and took the escalator down to the exit level. After going through the gate Tom dropped his backpack and rushed to a boy with dirty-blond hair and they hugged. I picked up the backpack and stood waiting. A woman, I assumed his aunt, rushed toward me.

“I’ll take that!” she growled.

That got Tom’s attention, and he turned and shouted, “He’s okay, Betty, he’s a friend of mine. His name’s Nick.” He then turned back to Jordan.

Jordan’s aunt and I shook hands. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I thought you were stealing Tom’s backpack.”

“No problem. I met Tom on the BART train. We got to talking and we became friends. I was heading home from a meeting about my classes for U.C. Berkeley. I live in Concord, too.”

“Oh. Where at?”

“1221 Brightview Road.” I vaguely pointed off to my right. “That’s southeast of the BART station.”

Tom pulled Jordan over and poked me in the shoulder. “Nick, this is my boyfriend, Jordan Grantham.”

Jordan

Jordan Grantham

“Hi, Jordan. My name is Nick Thanatos. Nice to meet you.”

“Hi, Nick,” Jordan said. “This is my aunt, Betty Young.”

“Hi Nick. I guess we already sort of met,” she said.

“I told Nick about going to Yosemite,” Tom enthused. “He’s was there a couple years ago and told me lots of things about it. He said he was taking a real vacation instead of taking college classes so he can finish all of his basic freshman classes and when he gets to U.C. Berkeley he will start as a sophomore and he’s going for both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree but I forgot what subject and anyway I said since he hadn’t decided where to go on his vacation why not go to Yosemite?” He sort of ran down or ran out of breath — or more likely, both — because Mrs. Young and Jordan were both laughing.

“So I decided to go, too,” I said. “I was able to make a reservation for a room at in a three-room cabin. The travel agent said the cabin is named Blue Jay.”

She stared at me. “We’re in two rooms in the Blue Jay cabin. It’s a three-room cabin. It has a shared private bath.”

“What’s a shared private bath?” Jordan asked.

“It means we won’t have to use the outdoor communal bathroom and shower facilities,” she said. “But it means we will be sharing with each other and the person in the third room. Which sounds like it’s Nick. That’s an almost unbelievable coincidence.” She was definitely suspicious.

“That is so cool!” Tom exclaimed.

“Let me check,” I said. “My travel agent, he’s my uncle, said he’d email me the information about the cabin. Let’s see if I got his email yet.” Of course, Gabriel Reinalto wasn’t my uncle. But saying that was a good excuse for being able to get a prime cabin reservation with short notice. We had cabins in Yosemite reserved for use by minions and other staff members. There was never any problem giving them up if there were some we didn’t need.

I checked my email, and there was a message from Contemporary Travel. “Yes, I have his email. It says the other two rooms in the Blue Jay cabin are reserved by Betty Young.”

She shook her head. “That is our cabin. That’s… quite a coincidence. Well, at least we’ll know who’s in the third room and that it won’t be someone who’ll be partying all night. Right, Nick?”

“That’s right. I’m not a party kind of person. And, with all the hiking I’ll be doing in and around the valley each day, I’ll get to bed and be asleep by ten o’clock or earlier every night.”

“Nick, can we go hiking with you?” Jordan asked.

“Sure, if it’s okay with your aunt. Will you be hiking with Tom and Jordan, Mrs. Young?”

“Please, call me Betty. And no, I won’t be hiking with two teenagers. Or with three teenagers, if they go on hikes with you. I plan on relaxing and doing a lot of reading. There’s no TV, no telephones, and limited internet access in the cabins at Half Dome Village. So I’ve loaded my Kindle with enough books to last me the week we’ll be there. The only hiking I’ll do will be walking to the restaurant and shops in the village and to the shuttle bus stop to go to other parts of the valley.”

She turned to me and smiled. “You’re welcome to join us for meals if you’d like, Nick.”

“Thanks, I would,” I said. “It’ll be more fun than eating alone. I’ll be paying for my own meals, of course.”

“How are you getting to Yosemite?” she asked.

“My uncle was going to check for a bus. I guess he hasn’t found out yet. There wasn’t anything about a bus in his email.”

“That’s silly. Since we’re staying in a cabin together we might as well drive to Yosemite and back together. I have an SUV so there’ll be plenty of room.”

So my vacation was planned. I sent a text to Gabriel that I had arranged for transportation to and from Yosemite.

“Do you need a ride home?” Betty asked.

“No, thanks. I have my bike here at the BART station and I’ll ride it home.”

“There’s a bike rack on my SUV, and Jordan knows how to attach his bike so he can help you with yours. If I drive, you’ll avoid riding in the noontime traffic.”

“Well… if you’re sure. Let me get my bike and see if it will fit on your rack.”

I pulled out my locker key and retrieved my bike.

“It’s a mountain bike, so it’s not huge,” I told Jordan.

With my help he mounted my bike on the rack and it only took about a minute. I gave Betty directions to my house and a few minutes later I was at home with my bike and waving goodbye to them.

When I got inside I phoned my boss.

“Did you know that I’m going to Yosemite with a kid I met on BART and his boyfriend and the boyfriend’s aunt? The reason I’m asking is that I’m in the third room in a three-room cabin in Half Dome Village and they are in the other two rooms. Gabriel made the reservation for me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

“Yes, it’s amazing how things like that can happen.” He laughed. “Actually, it isn’t a coincidence, Nick. You need to watch Jordan Grantham. He’s important. Make sure he doesn’t get himself in trouble. He’s not adverse to taking risks that could result in him injuring himself or worse.”

“Okay. So, this is a working vacation? Does that mean I get to take a real, unbroken, non-working vacation after?”

“Yes. Assuming that Jordan Grantham comes through this trip to Yosemite unscathed.”

“How about with some minor scathing? As long as he doesn’t end up in a hospital, of course.”

“First, I don’t know that ‘scathing’ is correct usage in your sentence. Second, no injuries of any kind, please!”

“Okay. But assuming he’s still alive and well when we leave Yosemite Valley then I’ll get two more weeks off, right?”

“Yes, you will.”

“Thanks, boss.”

~~~<<>>~~~

I won’t go through all of the details about driving to Yosemite and arriving at Half Dome Village and our cabin and four people trying to use one quite small bathroom and et cetera. But what I will tell you is what happened to Jordan.

It was the day after we arrived in Yosemite. The weather was spectacular, warm but not hot. Bright, blue skies with a few puffy clouds. Beautiful, but quite windy.

We decided that our first day of hiking would be to take the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. Yes, ‘Fall’ is singular. That’s because it’s a single waterfall, not a series of waterfalls. Look it up on the Yosemite website.

We gathered outside of our cabin. I pulled out the trail map. “Tom and Jordan, each of you needs to bring a bottle of water, a package of trail mix, and several energy bars; there’s nowhere to get anything to eat once we go beyond the Happy Isle Trailhead. You can refill your water bottle at the Vernal Fall Footbridge. Also, make sure you take a bathroom break before we leave. There are no restrooms beyond the Happy Isle Trailhead, either.”

“How long is this hike?” Tom asked.

“We should take the shuttle bus to the Trailhead; I’m not sure how long that will take, but not too long because it’s only a mile and a half. From there we’ll hike about an hour to the Vernal Fall Footbridge. Then, if we want, we can take the Mist Trail that leads to the top of Vernal Fall.

I referred to the trail guide. “From the Footbridge to the top of Vernal Fall is an additional three-quarters of a mile but this will be a more strenuous hike, about two or three hours round trip from the Footbridge, or even more depending on how long we want to stay at the top of Vernal Fall.

“To continue to the top of Nevada Fall would be an additional two miles one-way. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, the elevation gain from the beginning of the trail to the top of Nevada Fall is 2,090 feet. And we’d be starting at an elevation of 3,900 feet. That means the top of Nevada Fall is at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet. All three of us have been living a few hundred feet above sea level so getting there would be a very strenuous hike, at least three hours round trip from the top of Vernal Fall, not including time to stop and rest and to look at Nevada Fall.”

High Sierra Loop Trail

High Sierra Loop Trail

Jordan was enthusiastic about the idea of hiking to the top of Vernal Fall. Tom said he was willing to hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge. I got the impression that he might not be willing to go any further. He’d read the trail guide with its warnings about the number of deaths on the trail to the top and even a couple at the Vernal Fall Footbridge.

The ride to the trailhead took only a few minutes, and just that quickly we’d slipped on our packs and were off hiking.

Remember I said I might have a supernatural power? I sometimes got premonitions, a tingling sensation, that made me think there was something bad about to happen when I was with a person I was assigned to watch. My boss called it ‘miniondar’ which made us both laugh that it’s what I had instead of gaydar. And this tingling premontion — my ‘miniondar’ — was definitely zapping me whenever I’d look at Jordan as we climbed up the rocky trail. It supported what my boss had told me that this assignment was to watch Jordan because he tended to take risks.

Not only were the rocks that made up the trail slippery, but because the wind was blowing the mist across the rapids an onto the Vernal Fall Footbridge trail we were getting wet and cold. We should have worn ponchos, but none of us thought about bringing them with us. That was dumb.

Tom was the first to complain. “Let’s go back and buy some ponchos and come back later. I’m getting soaked and cold!”

I was the second to complain. “I agree with Tom. We are getting soaked, the trail is super slippery, you guys are wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots, so continuing is crazy.”

Jordan didn’t agree with Tom and me about going back; he wanted to go on to the Vernal Fall Footbridge where he could take pictures of the waterfall in the distance. I knew he’d want to continue further up to the top of Vernal Fall because the view was limited from the Footbridge. Just thinking about this made my ‘miniondar’ start buzzing like my phone when it was on vibrate.

But Jordan wasn’t to be deterred, so Tom and I trudged up the trail, a very slippery rock trail, following Jordan. He seemed to ignore the fact that the rocks were wet and slippery and that he wasn’t wearing the right kind of shoes. Tom was much more cautious about where he was walking. Regardless, their  sneakers weren’t appropriate for hiking.

We arrived at the Footbridge. I decided that I would be in front if we hiked further up the Mist Trail and would not let Jordan take the lead. So I continued walking until I went past him. I turned and looked back. I heard heavy breathing from both Jordan and Tom from the exertion of the hike. I was in better shape than either of them (a result of the cure and being on the track and field team last semester) and wasn’t having any problem getting enough oxygen at the 4,300 foot elevation of the Footbridge. However, the top of Vernal Fall was at 5,000 feet.

“Okay,” I said, “the best view of Vernal Fall is near the far end of the Footbridge.” I walked ahead just past the point that gave the best view, stopped, and turned to face the two boys. Tom looked elated. The view was magnificent. But Jordan looked disappointed.

Vernal Fall from Footbridge

Vernal Fall from Footbridge

“We can’t see much of the waterfall from here,” Jordan complained, after taking a bunch of photos with his cellphone. “Let’s hike up to the top.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s a much longer hike and the Mist Trail is much steeper than the one we used to get here.”

“I see kids our age coming down the trail.” He pointed upward past the end of the Footbridge. “We’ll be on the other side of the river so the wind won’t be blowing the mist on us.”

“Tom? Are you okay with hiking to the top?” I asked.

“I guess. As long as we can stop and rest along the way.”

“Do you agree with that, Jordan?” I asked.

“Sure. I’m not used to hiking in the mountains, so resting along the way is a good idea. That way we can take lots of pictures, too.”

“Okay, before we get started let’s drink some water. We’ll need to be hydrated because this is a steep trail. We can refill our water bottles here, too.”

Tom pointed up the side of the mountain to our right. “What’s the trail up there?”

“That’s the John Muir trail. It’s much longer and steeper. It goes directly to Nevada Fall. I don’t think we have time to do that.”

“Yeah, I can see it’s steeper,” Jordan said. “Okay, let’s get going and take the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall, then.”

So, that’s what we did.

A couple hours later we arrived at the viewpoint for Vernal Fall. Tom and Jordan were breathing hard, but they both gasped when the waterfall came into view. It was amazing!

Vernal Fall

Vernal Fall

After taking pictures of the waterfall using our cellphones, I suggested we continue up the trail to the top of Vernal Fall. We eventually came to where we were right next to the river at the top.

It was spectacular, where the roaring, frothing, tumbling mass of water rushed over the edge to become Vernal Fall.

Rapids at top of Vernal Fall

Rapids at top of Vernal Fall

It was frightening, because my ‘miniondar’ was going crazy. I turned to look at Jordan. He was standing on the granite near the edge of the water, a granite outcropping that was wet and slippery, taking more pictures with his cellphone.

I saw Tom staring at Jordan, then he hollered, “Jordan! Be careful!”

I started to move just before Jordan stepped forward to take another picture. His sneakers lost their traction; waving his arms frantically, he began slipping down the wet granite. No one was close to him.

Tom yelled, “Help! Someone help him!”

Jordan had slipped into the rapids over his ankles and his face was filled with horror. The water kept pulling him in further, up to his knees.

Time had seemed to slow down around me. I did a broad jump across the rocks to where Jordan had been standing and grabbed the strap of his backpack. I pulled him up and toward me and partially out of the onrushing water. Then I grabbed his left arm and pulled him all the way out. Holding him tight against my body, I carefully backed up the rocks until we were on a flat, dry part.

Jordan was shaking. He turned and looked at me, wide-eyed with fear, and grabbed me in a hug.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Thank you, Nick! Thank you!”

By then Tom had reached us and pulled Jordan from my arms and into a hug. He was crying. They continued hugging, and eventually he grabbed Jordan by his biceps and pushed him away at arm’s length and held on tight.

“Jordan, if you ever try anything like that again I’ll… I’ll… I don’t know what I’ll do, but whatever it is it’ll make you wish you’d gone over that waterfall!”

It was funny, and broke the fright Jordan experienced. He started laughing, then so did I, and finally so did Tom. By then people who’d seen what happened had gathered around and were asking Jordan if he was okay, and congratulating me for saving him.

“I’ve never seen anyone move that fast!” one guy said, meaning me. “You better go out for your school’s football team.”

“He was like Spiderman and Superman all in one,” a kid about thirteen said, “but a million times faster.”

“How did you do it?” a woman asked. “It looks like you jumped almost twenty feet to grab that boy.”

“I go out for track and field. I do the long and triple broad jumps and the 100 and 300 meter hurdles. It wasn’t that far for me, and it was just instinct to jump to get to him,” I replied. “These guys are my best friends. Neither of them is going to drown while I’m around.”

Tom and Jordan were sitting on a level granite outcropping, and Jordan had taken off his shoes and socks so they could dry. I walked over and sat next to him.

“You okay?” I asked him.

He looked at me and began to tear up. “You saved my life, Nick. I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”

“Be more careful and that should be a long, long time.”

“Did you mean what you said to that woman?” Tom asked.

I’d actually forgotten that I’d said anything to her. “What’d I say?” I asked.

“You said that we’re your best friends.”

Then I recalled that was what I’d said. I grinned. “Sure, I meant it.” They both grabbed me in a tight bro-hug, and we sat that way for a few minutes as our blood pressure and adrenalin levels returned closer to normal.

“Can we get a helicopter to come pick us up so we don’t have to hike all the way back to where we’d get the shuttle bus?” Tom asked, then he started laughing.

“Wuss!” Jordan said. Then he and I were laughing, too.

“Jordan, you might be okay after almost going over the edge and being swept down the waterfall, but I’m the one who had to watch it as it happened and not being able to do a god-damned thing to save you!” Tom groused.

We were quiet for a minute or two, then Jordan responded to Tom. “You did do something to save me. You met Nick and talked him into coming with us on our trip to Yosemite. Without him along you and I would still have come up here and I would still have been stupid and done the same thing. But no one would have been able to save me and I would have been washed over the edge and smashed on the rocks down below at the bottom of the waterfall. But Nick was here and he saved me. That’s what happened and it’s because of you, Tom.”

Jordan turned and looked at me. “Nick, as I was slipping into the water I turned and saw you jump all the way from over there,” he pointed to where I’d been standing, “to grab me. You must be my guardian angel.” He put his arm around my waist. “I’ll never forget you. I love you, Nick!”

“Thank you, Jordan. I’m glad I was here and able to grab you. I love you too, both of you.”

I put my left arm around Jordan’s shoulders and Tom put his right arm around Jordan’s waist. We sat looking at and listening to the river roaring over the top of the waterfall for about ten minutes, each with his own thoughts about what happened.

“Jordan,” I said, “you have to decide if you’re going to tell your aunt about what happened.”

“No fucking way!” he replied. “If I did my aunt would lock me in my room for the rest of the summer!”

“I think we should,” Tom said. “She needs to know that Nick saved your life and kept my life from being ruined. That’s because I wouldn’t want to live if you were gone.”

Jordan and Tom hugged. Jordan said, “I love you so much, Thomas Jeffrey McGill. I’ll never do anything so stupid again as long as I live. I want us to be together forever.”

“And I love you, Jordan Alan Grantham,” Tom said. “I plan for us to be together forever, too.”

We sat on the granite slab in the sun, Tom and Jordan quietly talking to each other, for about twenty minutes more. Then Jordan put on his shoes and socks and stood up.

“Let’s get going. We have long way to go and a story to tell Aunt Betty when we get back to the cabin.”

The story that Betty heard wasn’t as thrilling as the actual event. She thanked me for pulling Jordan out of the ice-cold water at the top of Vernal Fall. I was relieved that he and Tom concocted a story that had just enough of Jordan being careless and nothing about how dangerous it was or how far I was able to jump to get to him and pull him from the rapids.

Betty took us to the Ahwahnee Hotel for an outstanding dinner. She said my meal was on her because I’d rescued Jordan. It was a very expensive meal, and I appreciated it.

We had a great time hiking in less perilous parts of Yosemite Valley for the rest of the time we were there. Betty actually accompanied us on several of the easy hikes and she enjoyed them almost as much as Tom, Jordan, and I enjoyed them.

My ‘miniondar’ didn’t vibrate at all for the rest of the time we were in Yosemite.

When we got back with Jordan unscathed I was granted my two additional weeks of vacation. I spent most of that time with my two new best friends.

Vacation. Now, that is something I could definitely get used to doing on a regular basis.


The End


A huge thanks to Cole Parker for editing Death Takes a Vacation.



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