They arrived at the overlook to Seal Rock about an hour later. Their progress had been slow due to the loads that they were carrying as well as Alexis’s condition. In the end it didn’t matter. Steve hadn’t yet arrived.
Dustin pulled out his cell phone and called Steve’s number.
“I’m about a half a mile away.” His partner answered. “You got your ass there yet?”
“Yes.” Dustin said turning towards the guardrail that looked out onto the rock. The huge outcropping was partially obscured by fog. “We’re here.”
“We?” Steve asked. “You got a girlfriend you’re wanting to bring along out to the boneyard or something?”
Dustin sighed. “No Steve.” He said as the cool wind blew in off the water stinging his face. “I just brought some neighbors who have family out in Redwood and need a ride.”
Steve laughed. “Well good for you.” He said casually. “I wish you’d told me that you had a girlfriend with you though. You seriously need to get laid.”
Dustin didn’t say a word. Instead he just watched the seals barking a playing along the edge of the rock. The younger ones chased each other in and out of the water while the older ones lounged lazily on its banks. They were loud.
“Yep.” Steve said taking up the silence. “I think I can see you now.”
Dustin turned to see his partner’s huge white truck emerging from around a bend in the road. He noticed that Steve had switched on every single fog light that was mounted on the vehicle. Two oval shaped ones set just above the front fender and four round ones on the roof shined brightly at him as the truck turned in his direction.
“Talk to you soon buddy.” Steve said hanging up the phone.
As the truck neared and crept to a stop Dustin opened the passenger side door. “How was the trip?” He asked setting the birds in the back seat.
“Hey!” Steve said looking back at them. “I didn’t know that you owned birds!”
“I don’t.” Dustin answered. “They belong to a neighbor.”
Steve pointed out the windshield in the direction of James and Alexis. “Those guys?” He asked as the pair stood on the shoulder of the road watching them.
“No.” Dustin replied. “Mr. Moss. He lives across the street.”
Steve shook his head. “I had no idea you were so social.” He laughed. “You’ve pretty much gone out of your way as long as I’ve known you to avoid people.”
“How was the trip?” Dustin asked again.
Steve shrugged. “Mostly okay. There were a few times when I had to get out and move stuff from off the road but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.” Smiling, he flexed both his arms showing off his muscles.
Dustin walked around to the rear and deposited his luggage into the bed of the truck. Turning he indicated for James to do the same.
Fortunately, Steve owned an extended cab with more than enough room for the four of them as well as the fish and the birdcage. Steve got out to help Alexis into the passenger’s seat while Dustin and James climbed into the back. “It’s like Noah’s ark!” Alexis said smiling.
“We’ll go back the same direction that I came.” Steve said as he climbed into the driver’s seat and put the truck in gear. “it’s a little longer than the usual route that you take everyday but it’ll keep us out of trouble.”
Dustin nodded. “What’s going on at the site?” He asked.
Steve let out a low whistle between his teeth. “It’s bad.” He said as he turned the truck around and accelerated.
“How bad?” Dustin asked.
Steve lifted his hands from the wheel in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know man.” He said sounding both scared and frustrated.
Alexis turned to look Steve. “How did you two meet?” She asked.
Dustin once again felt the blood rushing to his face.
Steve chucked in amusement. “That’s a funny story.” He said half turning to shoot a look back in Dustin’s direction.
Dustin cleared his throat. “We met at the community center.” He offered quickly.
Alexis cocked her head. “Were you two guys in sports together?” She asked looking intrigued.
Once again Steve let out a laugh, his smile broadening. “Oh heck no!” He sputtered. “Could you even imagine old Dustin back there playing sports? He’d suck. He don’t have an aggressive bone in his body.”
Alexis looked back at Dustin giving him a smile. “Then what were you two doing at the community center together?” She prodded as she turned to face Steve once again.
Dustin answered first. “We were in a group together.” He said without further elaboration.
Steve’s gaze was fixed straight ahead as he guided the truck around some rocks in the road. “It was a support group!” He clarified. “Dustin here was my partner for over a year!”
Alexis beamed. “That’s wonderful!” She said sounding genuinely impressed. “What sort of support group was it?”
Getting past the rocks Steve rammed the truck in gear and began to accelerate down the road. “We were both in a program for heavy substance abusers.” He answered his tone suddenly turning serious. “I was a pretty bad cocaine addict when it started. Used to snort that God awful stuff every damned day. I’d have probably relapsed at least a hundred times over if it hadn’t had been for Dustin talking me down over the phone every night during that first year.”
Alexis swiveled around in her seat to face Dustin. “That’s really great.” She complemented. “You’re a good friend.”
Steve’s somber attitude suddenly lifted and his smile returned. “How many times do you think I called you and woke you up in the middle of the night?” He called back to Dustin.
“I don’t know.” Dustin answered. “A lot.”
James peered around the birdcage sitting between them in the back seat and regarded Dustin. “What were you in there for?” He asked.
Dustin smiled nervously. “Well, I wasn’t really in there for anything.” He replied. Then, to clarify he added. “I mean, I wasn’t a drug user.”
Both James and Alexis stared at him questioningly.
“Steve and the other people like him had the real challenge.” Dustin continued, trying desperately to explain himself. “I was just sort of a part of the group by mistake.”
Steve laughed loudly. “I bet you didn’t know what you’d gotten yourself into when you wandered into that place and got paired up with my junkie ass.” He said in a good natured tone.
Dustin gave a stilted chuckle.
James remained in his leaning forward position, peering around the birdcage at Dustin. “How did you end up there by mistake?” He asked seriously. “I don’t understand.”
Steve’s laugh suddenly erupted into a full on guffaw. “Oh hell!” He wheezed, tears steaming from his eyes. “That’s a funny story as well!”
James turned forward waiting for Steve to explain what he’d meant.
“When I got paired up with Dustin, little did I know that he’d just moved to California and was doing everything in his power to drop off the face of the earth!” Steve explained hardly able to talk through his giggling. “He didn’t even have a phone when we met. He got one specifically so I could call him whenever I needed a fix and had to have a buddy to talk me out of it!”
“How nice!” Alexis said.
James cocked his head. “But why did he go to a substance abuse meeting though?” He said asking Steve directly.
Steve shook his head. “Well, the funny thing was that there was a meeting that was being held the next day. It was supposed to take place in that same room as the 12-step program for the junkies that I was in. It was being held by all these hippies and weirdo’s who were wanting to get out of society and live off the land.” He said still snickering to himself. “Dustin got the days mixed up.”
Dustin interrupted. “It wasn’t for that.” He explained. “It wasn’t a commune or anything like that. It was just a group of people who were looking for ways to not have to be a part of the world. They weren’t trying to live off the land or build a new society. They were just trying to figure out how not to be a part of society and live their lives without having to rely on anyone else.”
James smiled in an unsure way, his eyes darting back and forth between Steve and Dustin. “I don’t understand.” He said again. “Why would you go to a group to try to figure out how to get away from groups?”
Dustin sighed heavily. “I don’t know.” He answered shrugging his shoulders. “In retrospect I guess that it seems pretty silly when you think about it but I just didn’t want to be around people anymore.”
Steve shot him a glance in the rearview mirror. “You can’t blame me for thinking that you were going to a hippie meeting.” He said with a Cheshire grin. “You had hair down to your shoulders and a beard like Jesus back then.”
Both James and Alexis shared a laugh at the thought of Dustin looking like a scraggly unkempt mountain man.
Steve threw his hands up. “Dustin had a beard and a hippy hair-do!” He said as if the thought had just occurred to him. “He was wild looking back then. Why do you think that I thought that he was a junkie too? He hadn’t cleaned himself up yet”
Disregarding them all, Dustin continued. “I was going to that meeting because I just wanted to find out how to best go about getting away from people.” He replied. “I had sort of been planning it when I moved out to the Bay Area but I couldn’t figure out how to completely break away from everything. I didn’t know how to get along without having to burden one single other person by my existence. I was hoping that the group could answer that question for me.”
Steve shot another glance in his direction. “That’s your problem buddy.” He said turning serious. “You try to plan for every little thing when all you really need to do is just don’t show up to meetings, don’t get a phone, don’t talk to anyone and just start walking out into the wilderness.”
Dustin looked down at his hands. “It’s not that simple.” He said feeling both embarrassed and defeated. “There’s nothing survivalist about what I wanted to do back then. I just didn’t want to exist anymore.”
Alexis smiled back at Dustin. “What happened to that group?” She asked. “Did you go back the next day once you realized that you were at the wrong meeting?”
“I tried to.” Dustin answered. “There was no one there.”
James gave a slight chuckle. “I guess they figured out how to be nonexistent after all.”
Steve drove the truck slowly up a hill.