Phil Newman was almost out of Boulder and into the foothills when the boys suddenly realized they had forgotten to bring sodas.
"Please, Mr. Newman, can we go back. It's not too late," they shouted from the back of the truck. Newman pulled over to the side of the road and hopped out. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"We forgot sodas. We won't have anything to drink all weekend," said Darien, a lanky 13-year-old who was the informal leader of the group.
"We've got loads of hot chocolate," said Newman. "You guys don't need to drink soda all the time."
"No, please, please, please!" The chorus of 16 voices was overwhelming.
"Where are we going to buy it?" Newman said, changing tactics.
"At the Food Stamp Coop," said several voices at once. "Where else?"
"No, I hate that place," said Newman. "It would take us half an hour to get out of there anyway."
"My father has a store," said Jose, a diminutive Mexican boy who was one of the quietest of the group. "He has lots of soda."
"Alright," Newman gave in. "You come sit up in the front with me. The rest of you guys get back in your seats and quiet down."
"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" they all chorused as they once again fought for position in the back of the pickup.
Newman climbed back in the cab and started driving back into Boulder. Along the way were more half-empty shopping centers. If anything characterized Boulder these days, he thought, it was the half-abandoned mini-mall. A few nail salons remained, Laundromats and the check cashing stores, but the most common sign was "Space Available" in a boarded up window. Then ahead of them on the left loomed the giant Food Stamp Coop with its barbed-wire fences, watchtowers, and TSA guards searching everyone as they entered the parking lot. Since the government had taken over the distribution of food, the only competition left was a few small grocery stores in ethnic neighborhoods.
"Boo! Boo! Boo!" came the catcalls from the back as the truck passed the huge slate-gray emporium. "Food Is A Human Right," read the huge stenciled letters on the side of the building, above a lavish horn of plenty.
"Alright, quiet down back there," shouted Newman over the roar of the wind. "We don't want to get in any trouble." Jose sat silently beside him.
"Your father's store is on the other side of town, right?" asked Newman.
"Straight ahead. I'll show you," said the boy, pointing down the road. He was one of the shyest of the group.
"So your father owns the store?" Newman asked.
"With my uncle. My mother works there, too. We live upstairs."
"That's nice, to have a family business like that," said Newman, duly impressed.
"Turn here," said Jose. The boy guided him through a few dilapidated streets past low-slung wooden frame houses until they pulled up in front of a small shop with a neon Coors beer sign in the window.
"Here's $40," said Newman. "Buy a couple of bottles."
SINCE LOSING HIS JOB at the gas company, Newman hadn't had much to do. It had only been a three-month trial and he knew it wouldn't lead anywhere. "You don't have a wife and child to support," they had finally told him. "We're under federal orders to hire people with family responsibilities." That probably meant women.
Of course he didn't have a wife and child to support. Who did these days? Janet had left three years ago and gone on disability. She had worked for a while but now she was content just to sit home and cash the checks. The county sent around a social worker every day to relieve her of the handicap of raising children. Newman had offered his support but she wasn't interested. Now his visiting rights had been terminated and he hardly saw Chad and Sue anymore. He probably wouldn't even recognize them. Last time he showed up the county worker had presented him with a court order telling him not to come around anymore. She was one of those gruff, belligerent types you saw more of these days. You had to wonder what was going on. Where did the government get the money to support all these people anyway?
And so Newman had finally landed a job with the Boy Scouts. It wasn't much but it occupied him on weekends. Plus it involved the thing he loved most -- being outdoors. If the Boy Scouts were willing to pay him $300 to escort a dozen or more boys into the woods for two days, he was more than willing to comply. The Mormons were now the sponsoring organization and they knew the ropes. They were now applying for a federal grant to have the program subsidized as a treatment for boys who didn't respond to Ritalin, Adderall, Low-Tes, Gone-Ads and all the others. If things worked out, it might turn into something permanent.
Newman steered higher and higher into the foothills until he reached a trailhead where he had hiked as a boy. Even before he pulled into the parking area the hallooing began again. All of them were off their testosterone suppressants for the weekend so there would be a lot of noise. Before he had even turned the motor off, they had jumped off the back and were arguing about whose knapsack was the biggest and who got to be first in line.
"Now boys, we're going to do this military style, single file," said Newman, jumping out of the cab. "Oldest boys to the back. You're going to be like Indians."
"Whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo!" Instantly they were dancing in a semicircle, clapping their mouths and waving imaginary tomahawks.
"No, Indians are very quiet," he said, trying to calm things down. "They sneak up on you without making a sound. Do you want to see some wildlife while you're out here?'
"We do, we do, we do!" A dozen hands waved in his face.
"Well, you're going to have to be very quiet." He brought his forefinger to his lips. "Sssshhhhhh! That's it." Suddenly, from out of the forest came the call of a meadowlark. "Hear that?" he said. "That's what we're out here to find."
The boys looked at each other, impressed. Soon the buzz of conversation arose again but this time at a different level. Ears were alert for forest sounds. One by one, single file, they followed Newman into the woods.
NEWMAN WOULD NEVER ADMIT IT but he loved being out with boys this age. It reminded him of his own childhood and the youthful enthusiasm he had felt before the disappointments of life set in. There was something primal about this relationship between boys and men that was now almost completely forgotten in society. It was the mentoring of youth, the passing on of wisdom to the next generation. And who but an adult male like himself could recognize all those crazy impulses and teach boys how to control them?
None of this cut much respect anymore. Boys spent most of their lives in the care of their mothers. As homosexuality had played a larger and larger part in American life, one of the ridiculous outcomes was that men like himself whose instincts were purely paternal were constantly being accused of homosexual impulses. Even now Newman was defying the "rule of two," the principle that no adult leader could be alone with the boys for more than a moment or else something untoward might happen. Newman had tried to enlist some help but where could you find another "family man" these days? All the men he knew were wrapped up in Virtual Reality. And so he had resolved to take them out by himself, hoping word wouldn't get back to the church leadership.
"Mr. Newman, Mr. Newman," called Darien, the leader. "Can we call you Phil?'
"I'd rather you didn't," said Newman. "Just stick to Mr. Newman."
"My mother lets me call her 'Molly," said Jared, a wiry redhead marching right behind him. "She wants me to call her that."
"My mother's boyfriend wants me to call him 'Dad.'" said Squirrel, a scrawny pipsqueak with a whole inventory of facial tics. "I say f--k him. That bastard tried to put a cigarette out in my ear."
Newman stopped in his tracks. "Now look," he said, "we're not going to talk like that out here, alright? I don't want to hear any swearing. We're in the woods. This should be a religious experience, like going to church. Let's all pretend we're civilized."
"What's church?" asked Jared, innocently. Newman hoped he was kidding.
"That's where you go to play bingo, stupid," said Arnold, a cynical 14-year-old who already had a full mustache.
"What does 'civilized' mean?" asked Christopher, a pale boy with glasses.
"It means you play by certain rules," said Newman, pulling himself into an avuncular mood. "You respect other people's rights and feelings. You do unto others what you would have them to do unto you, as a Great Man once said. You try to live up to other people's expectations."
"I know what to expect from that c--ksucker who lives with us -- oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Newman." Squirrel covered his mouth in exaggerated apology. "I won't say it anymore, I promise."
Newman turned around and as he did, a buck antelope bolted out of the trees right in front of them and arched its way up the mountainside.
"Wow, did you see that?" said Darien, awestruck.
"He was right next to us and we didn't even see him," said Skipper, a tow-headed shrimp who had been silent most of the trip.
"I wish I had a gun. I'd take him down right there," said Tom Brown, a serious young man who only spoke in the gravest of circumstances.
"No, you couldn't. It's not hunting season," said Newman.
"Who cares?" said Skipper. "Nobody's going to catch us."
"Yes they would. You'd be surprised. It's not easy to carry an antelope out of the woods without somebody seeing you. Besides, we want to obey the law, don't we?"
"Mr. Newman, can we come out here during hunting season?" pleaded Jared. "I bet we can bag a big one. I'm a great shot. You know that game, 'Immortal Combat'? I'll bet I've kill a thousand people in that game."
"Well this is the real world out here," said Newman. "If you kill an antelope here you have to drag it all the way back to the truck. Do you want to do that?"
"We could eat him out here, couldn't we?" said Skipper enthusiastically.
"Yeah, we could stay out for a week," chimed Darien.
"Alright, guys," said Newman, starting up the trail again. "Let's just concentrate on getting to our campsite. See if you can get through one night, then we'll talk about staying out a week."
"Can we? Can we?" they all shouted in unison.
"We can only stay out two nights," said Newman somberly.
"Why?" asked Darien.
"The authorities don't want you to go too long without taking your medicine," said Newman, hating himself for bringing it up.
That took the wind out of everybody.
"I hate my medicine," said Darien, defiantly.
"I don't even take it," said Jared. "I hide it under my tongue and spit it out." He suddenly looked around to see if he had revealed a dark secret.
"That doesn't work," said Tom Brown glumly. "It gets into your system anyway. If you don't take it, they know from your urine check."
Newman regretted bringing up the subject. He was puzzled at the way he always took the side of the authorities when he took a group of boys to the woods, even though he might secretly be on their side. It was something about being an adult and wanting to see order maintained in the world, even if you didn't entirely agree with it.
"Come on, let's keep going," he said, trying to break the mood of glum reverie. "We've still got a half-hour's climb. Let's keep our voices down. If you're really quiet, we might see a bear."
"Wow! Really? Hey, that's great."
Once more the boys silently fell in line.
IT WAS IMPORTANT to reach boys like this before they fell into The Void, thought Newman. Ever since the Department of Gender had declared pregnancy to be a "disability" in 2045, things had fallen apart in the Old America. Girls as young as 16 were getting pregnant on the premise that it was better to get your childbearing years out of the way early so you could pursue a career in your 30s. Newman had been teaching in high school at the time and saw it happening right under his nose. Waves of pregnancy would sweep through the tenth grade like an outbreak of head lice. Within weeks half the girls in the class would be proudly raising their hands, asking to be excused for morning sickness. It usually started with the daughter of a single mother or some wallflower who feared no one would ever like her. It spread form there. Some of the prettiest girls tried to hold out, saying they wanted husbands, but the peer pressure was enormous.
The boys claimed to have nothing to do with all this. In fact, the suddenness of the epidemic often gave rise to the rumor that girls were able to impregnate themselves. "Are you sure you have to have sex to have a baby, Mr. Newman?" one bewildered freshman had asked him after school one day. "Look at that girl that sits right behind me. She's ugly. No one would ever sleep with her, would they?" It didn't take Newman long to realize these suspicions were not entirely unfounded. The pregnancy epidemics, it turned out, were often driven by rumors that the county sperm bank had received a new supply from some well-known rock singer or famous athlete. It was only months or years later that the new mothers would discover the rumors to be unfounded.
And so, marriage had become essentially a thing of the past. The girls and boys still talked about it as if it were some grand initiation rite waiting for them in adulthood, but it had no bearing on their lives. As the late-night comedians were saying, "It's a good thing we have gay marriage or nobody would be getting married at all."
"Mr. Newman, can we play manhunt tonight?" Darien's voice rose out of the chatter behind him, interrupting his thoughts.
"If you guys get all set up, get your tents up right, gather firewood, cook a meal, clean up afterwards, then you can play manhunt. If it's not too dark."
"Oh, we want to play in the dark. It's more fun," said Jared.
"Alright, if you've got flashlights. Did everyone bring a flashlight?"
"I didn't bring a flashlight," said Squirrel, morose as ever.
"That's alright, I think I've got an extra one."
"Mr. Newman, are we almost there? I'm getting tired."
"No, we're not almost there. How are you guys going to play manhunt if you can't climb a little mountain?"
"This isn't little. It's huge."
"Well, wait until you see the one we're going to climb tomorrow."
Even as they spoke, however, the switchback they were ascending emerged from out of the trees, unfolding a broad view of the valley below.
"Wow, look how far we climbed already! Is that the truck down there?
"It sure looks like it," said Newman.
"Wow, it's so small. Wouldn't you love to be a bird and go flying off this cliff?"
"Hang-gliding! Let's do it."
"My cousin does it. He says it's neat."
"Can we do hang-gliding next time, Mr. Newman?"
"I'm not so sure. I don't know much about it." In fact, Newman knew several people who had broken multiple bones hang-gliding and was not eager to introduce them to it. "Well, we don't have far to go, guys. Our campsite is right up ahead."
They climbed some more until finally the junipers opened into a clearing where the pine needles lay soft and even as a rug. In the middle was an ancient stone fire ring surrounded by a circle of ground so smooth and symmetrical, so ripe for ceremony, that he wouldn't have been surprised to see elves dancing on it.
"Is this where we're gonna sleep?"
"Start setting up your tents, guys. Put them in a circle, not too close of the fire."
The boys went about their business and soon the tents were set up in decent order. Everyone started collecting firewood. Newman gathered his share and began breaking the branches, separating them according to size. As the boys filtered back into camp with scraggly bundles under their arms, Jarred came running up with a small electronic device in his hand. "Mr. Newman, Mr. Newman," he said, "Something's happened. It's on the news." He held up a screen showing some kind of battleship.
Newman's ground his teeth. "Jared, didn't I tell you not to bring any of those electronic things? Now put that away. We're up here to forget about all that stuff."