JOSHUA’S WEEK at summer camp ended in tragedy. Levi Powers, the ruthless bully who had terrorized his fellow scouts, lay dead on the rocky lakeshore below. Large waves of lake water, stirred up by the violent storm, took turns covering his body, as if frantically trying to hide the crime. But what crime had been committed? Joshua hadn’t pushed Levi off the cliff. It was Robby Locksner who did that. And it was fitting too. Robby had borne the brunt of Levi’s cruel bullying all week, as he was just about the perfect target. He was small, frail, and quiet. And when he did talk, he sure stood out with his characteristic stutter. Combine that with the fact that he had no friends, and he was sure to be singled out by someone as mean and vicious as Levi.
But Levi had eventually found an even better target at camp. He encountered Joshua Ishkoday on the first day. Joshua wasn’t the typical target for a bully like Levi, who was used to easy victims. Joshua was the same age as Levi, and he was anything but weak. In fact, Joshua had even stood up for Robby earlier that week, when Levi was viciously taunting Robby in front of a large group of scouts at the lakefront. Why did Joshua have to intervene? It was the beginning of a tragedy that ended in the death of Levi. But how could it have come to this? Joshua constantly replayed the events in his mind as he gazed at the motionless body in the lake below.
The rain had stopped, as if the violent storm was placated by the sacrifice. Joshua finally realized he could have done nothing differently. He had to intervene when Levi was bullying Robby. He was a witness to the cruel torments that had taken place, and no one else had done anything about it. So, despite being completely new to the troop, it was Joshua who had stepped forward and demanded Levi leave Robby alone. He remembered shoving Levi hard and watching him fly backward against the fence. That was Joshua’s first indication that this monster was merely a human being, as weak and fragile as any mortal. Joshua had been determined that Robby learn that lesson as well.
He had taken Robby under his wing after that, and under his protection, Robby had flourished. Behind that weak and frail exterior lay a smart, courageous, and compassionate soul, one dying to get out and express itself. And in the end, it was Robby who came to Joshua’s defense and shoved the beast, the bully, off the cliff, slaying the demon of Camp Nishkendan.
But certainly Robby was not to blame for the death of Levi either. If Robby had not intervened, it would be Joshua lying there dead on the lakeshore below. Robby was just defending his defender.
Joshua recalled the events leading up to that horrible moment. He had been in the forest at the end of the week at camp, in that horrendous storm, when Levi and his gang had come out of nowhere. Levi even had a knife, and he was possessed by a hate-filled rage. Before Joshua could react, Levi’s friends had grabbed him and held him down, preparing him for whatever humiliating torment Levi had inside his twisted mind.
But Joshua had broken free and run, until he hit the end of the trail and stopped just short of the cliff and deadly lakeshore below. And before he knew it, Levi had cornered him. But Joshua had defended himself, and the two had clashed in the forest, as the frightening storm stirred above them, seemingly energized by the epic battle below. Finally, Levi had gained the upper hand… but out of nowhere, Robby flew into Levi, knocking him off the cliff.
Joshua had just lived it, but he still couldn’t believe it. The death of the monster had stunned him, and Joshua had just stood there, frozen, unable to look away. Robby had howled, a desperate, horrifying sound, as if shouting would revive the dead body and erase the crime he had just committed. But again, there had been no crime. Robby didn’t purposely push Levi off the cliff. He simply had been focused on saving Joshua. So who was to blame for everything that had transpired on that dark and disturbing night?
There was a bright spot among the horror, though. Cody Johnson. How do you forget your first boyfriend? He had plenty of reasons, in fact, to want to forget Cody, though none of them apparent at first. They had met on his first day at camp. Joshua had never felt such a connection to someone before. Maybe it was because Cody was also gay.
Joshua used to think he was alone in the world, having grown up in Eagle River, a small town in rural Wisconsin. Gay people simply didn’t exist there, or if they did, they weren’t out of the closet. It was unthinkable. But even with that conservative background aside, he had to contend with something much worse right in his own home: his antigay mother, who viewed gay people as an abomination before God. “Abomination”… it was a word Joshua was all too familiar with, despite his young age.
But when Joshua met Cody at camp, and Cody had dared to trust him and tell him his deepest secret, there was an instant connection between the two. Besides being gay, they both had deeply bigoted parents to contend with. Joshua had his mother. And Cody, well, he had his father, Pastor Bob Johnson. Pastor Bob was also the scoutmaster for their troop. And now here was Joshua madly infatuated with his son. How had he gotten himself into such a situation? It was a match made in heaven by a god out for sport. Well, the sport proved too much for Cody, and Levi had discovered the two together, kissing. Levi had wanted payback for Joshua humiliating him in front of the rest of the troop by defending Robby.
But then Cody had done the unthinkable. He deflected attention away from himself by betraying Joshua to Levi, outing Joshua to the entire troop in the process. Cody had managed to convince Levi that he was simply baiting Joshua, to get him to reveal his secret, that he was gay. The feelings of betrayal, still fresh, welled up inside Joshua, threatening to manifest in their own separate storm. But the betrayal wasn’t really Cody’s fault, tormented as he was by the thought of his own father finding out he was gay. And in the end, Cody did come through for Joshua. But still, Joshua had ended up in that forest, under that storm, a target of bullies who had a score to settle, and it was Robby who had saved him.
Time had seemed to stop as Joshua gazed at the body on the lakeshore, and the events that followed played themselves out only in fragments, as though he were simply a passive observer to a terrifying dream. Cops were called in, and Joshua talked to them about what had happened. How long did that take exactly? Minutes? Hours? Joshua didn’t know. He didn’t even remember sleeping at all that night. The questioning by the cops must have gone on for hours. He remembered packing up his things for the bus ride home early the next morning.
But the physical and emotional exhaustion finally caught up with him. No matter how traumatic the episode at camp, no matter how frantically he kept reviewing the events in his mind, his body gave in, and Joshua fell into a deep sleep on the bus ride home to Rockford, Illinois. His last thoughts were of Cody Johnson, and those thoughts fed a very powerful dream.
JOSHUA’S MOTHER had ignored him since his return from summer camp the day before. She had to know by now what had happened to him there. Pastor Bob would have called and told her everything soon after he arrived home on the bus. Pastor Bob would have informed her that a boy, Levi Powers, had been killed at camp, and that the boy was fighting with Joshua at the time. Pastor Bob might even have told her the motive, that the boy believed Joshua was gay. Joshua could deduce all of this from his mother’s silent treatment. It revealed a profound disgust on her part. If it had been anything less, she would have been screaming uncontrollably at him by now. But she obviously didn’t know what to say in this case. Pastor Bob must have reassured Joshua’s mother that the allegations concerning his sexuality were not true, that it had all just been a misunderstanding. That’s what Cody had convinced his father of, after all. But for Joshua’s mother, the fact that anyone could even believe it about her son, even for a moment, was too much to bear. And so that’s what would have occupied her thoughts since he got back.
Joshua had run straight home after the bus dropped his troop off. He had gone right to his room and spent most of his time there since, as if imprisoned by his own fears. His aunt’s apartment was still a strange place to him, having only lived there for a short amount of time before being shipped off to summer camp. It had become his temporary residence after his mother had torn him away from the Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin.
While Joshua had only lived on the reservation for two months, it had been a magical time for him there. That was not his mother’s intention, though. At the beginning of the summer, Joshua had come home one night in Eagle River only to discover that his father had run off on both him and his mother. He had left without saying a word to Joshua. His mother had then brought Joshua to the reservation about an hour away to live with his grandfather, Gentle Eagle, while she tried to establish a new life for herself living with her sister in Rockford. It was only supposed to be temporary, and his grandfather had to promise to keep Joshua away from Ojibwe spirituality while there. His mother was deeply Christian, after all, and she didn’t want Joshua to be “contaminated” by heathen beliefs, as she saw them. But once on the reservation, Joshua didn’t need his grandfather in order to encounter Ojibwe beliefs and customs. On the Rez he had been immersed in the strange and mystical culture that had been denied him his whole life. And there he learned who he truly was for the first time.
He had even fallen hopelessly in love with Mokwa, an older Ojibwe teen who helped Joshua’s grandfather run a recreated Ojibwe village for tourists. Joshua missed Mokwa terribly. He had also become close friends with Little Deer, a suspicious recluse who was very distant and stoic at first. But as Little Deer had warmed up to Joshua, the two had really connected. And then there was Jenny. Joshua hadn’t liked her at first, because she was Mokwa’s girlfriend—competition, as he initially saw her—but Joshua had come to love her as a sister.
None of this mattered to Joshua’s mother. When she learned that Joshua was being exposed to Ojibwe practices, she showed up unexpectedly in the middle of his naming ceremony, tore him from his new life, and brought him to live with her in Rockford. And after only two weeks in Rockford, she shipped him off to a week of summer camp to learn proper Christian values from his new scoutmaster, Pastor Bob. Joshua didn’t exactly learn the lessons his mother had intended, though.
The terrifying events of the last week at summer camp had only intensified Joshua’s longing for his friends back on the reservation. He wanted to pretend nothing had happened and be with Mokwa again. And most of all, he wanted to be with Gentle Eagle, his loving and compassionate grandfather. But those days on the Rez were gone for good now. Joshua’s mother had forbidden him from ever seeing his friends and family again. He wanted to be furious with his mother, but instead he felt only fear. After all, Pastor Bob had to have mentioned the scandal involving him and Cody.
Joshua lay on his inflatable mattress and stared up at the ceiling. His bedroom was darker now as he reflected on the traumatic events at camp. Suddenly, he saw a powerful flash of lightning from outside the window, followed a few seconds later by a loud clash of thunder. Storms had never bothered Joshua before, but he had come to fear them of late. They had haunted his dreams for several months now, starting off as dark clouds in the distance and finally emerging as a terrifying, almost sentient manifestation of something both awesome and sinister. Joshua didn’t know what the storms meant, but they always preceded dark times. Maybe Levi was the darkness his dreams had been warning him of, but with Levi dead now, maybe he’d stop having them. Only then did it occur to Joshua that he was dreaming now. If so, it was unlike any he had ever had before. It was the first time he was actually aware that he was dreaming, although he didn’t know how long he had been in it. His mind kept tricking him, implanting memories of things that never happened, as if trying to add context to his current awareness.
Then suddenly, his recognition that this was all a dream drifted away, and once again he was a passive observer of someone else’s script. A loud and unexpected knock on his bedroom door jolted him from his thoughts. This was the moment he had been dreading. His mother was ready to talk to him about what had happened at camp. What would she say? Her vicious hatred of homosexuals—“the queers,” as she called them—forever cemented a wedge between the two. But Joshua’s mother had no way of knowing that. She didn’t know that Joshua was gay. But maybe, with Pastor Bob’s information about what had taken place at camp, she knew it now. If so, Joshua couldn’t ascertain how she might react. But it wouldn’t be pretty.
The knock on his door came again, this time more like a pounding. Usually it was only her talking that was loud. What is going on exactly? The anticipation was killing him. He had to know.
“Come in,” Joshua said cautiously.
His mother opened the door and walked in. Her face bore an expression of deep concern. She wasn’t there to talk about his experiences at summer camp. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
“Joshua, honey, I have something I need to tell you.”
Honey? Joshua’s mind raced to come up with an explanation for such gentleness, such concern on the part of his mother. It was not like her. Someone died! Joshua realized, as his dream fed him the thought; someone really close to him. It was the only possible explanation. His heart raced and sweat began to accumulate on his forehead, as his mind raced through potential victims. But he didn’t have to wait long to know who it was.
“It’s your friend, Cody,” his mother said gently. “I’m afraid, he’s—well, there is just no way to say it. He killed himself.” Without waiting for a response, she added, “Joshua, honey, I’m so sorry.”
Joshua listened in stunned silence, desperately grasping for some kind of explanation. A loud burst of thunder outside clashed with the awkward silence in his bedroom, and his dream suddenly created for him a very disturbing memory. Now it was the night he got back from camp, and Joshua had just arrived at Cody’s house, after having snuck away from the apartment. Deep inside, he knew it was all a dream, but it felt so real, like he was actually there. Of course he was there, he thought, giving in to the fabricated dream memory. How could he have forgotten that? Joshua carefully approached Cody’s house, knowing that Pastor Bob had prohibited the two from ever seeing each other again. But Joshua had to see Cody, if only to know that he was going to be okay. He looked up at Cody’s bedroom window and threw stones gently at it to get Cody’s attention. It seemed so cliché to him. But Cody was obviously waiting for just such a sign; he didn’t even bother to look out his window. Instead, he ran downstairs out into the yard, right into Joshua’s arms. As Joshua hugged Cody, all of his pain, all his memories of what had happened at camp, slipped away, suppressed by the comforting embrace of his loving friend. In that brief but seemingly eternal moment, it was easy to believe that everything would be fine. And then they kissed, for only the second time, yet feeling as intense, as powerful as the first.
Another clash of lighting from an ominous storm interrupted their passionate embrace.
“What in the name of God are you doing to my son!” a hysterical voice shouted from the front door.
Joshua and Cody looked to Pastor Bob as he stood there with a horrified expression. Joshua had never seen such revulsion before, even from his mother. In that moment, the deception was over. Though Cody had managed to convince his father at camp that his relationship with Joshua was all just a misunderstanding, there was no way to explain away this kiss. The two had been caught red-handed.
Another clash of thunder, followed instantly by a brilliant flash of light, erased the remainder of that evening from Joshua’s thoughts, and Joshua woke up, realizing in his waking state, what he already knew from his dream: that none of it had happened. At least, not yet.
Now awake, Joshua was no longer in his bedroom. Instead, he sat at the back of the troop bus—tired, depressed, and alone—on his way back from the hellish week he had just had at summer camp. As he looked out the window, he saw an endless stream of billboards advertising hotels and fast food, unmistakable signs of civilization. It was a strange sensation. At camp, he was cut off from the larger world. He wondered briefly what might be going on in the news since he had been gone. Then he remembered the last thing he heard on the radio right before leaving for camp. The news reported that the killers of a gay teen, someone named Matthew Shepard, were being put on trial. Or something like that. Civilization indeed. Joshua looked away from the window, trying to snap out of his disturbing thoughts. Instead he looked forward and immediately saw Cody sitting next to Pastor Bob at the front of the bus. Pastor Bob wouldn’t let the two sit anywhere near each other on the ride back. Joshua was also forbidden to sit anywhere near his other friends as well. He heard Robby crying a few rows in front of him, still in shock from having killed Levi. Joshua had comforted Robby back at camp after the incident as he cried and shook uncontrollably for hours, while the two talked to the cops about what had happened. Now Robby sat with Nick and Timmy, part of Joshua’s former entourage of friends, who consoled him the entire way back.
Joshua needed to find a way to talk with Cody before they arrived back at home. Since he couldn’t do that in person, with Pastor Bob vigilantly guarding his son, Joshua had thought about sneaking a note to Cody, asking that the two meet up later that night when it was safe. But after the ominous dream he had just had, Joshua knew he had to avoid contact with Cody at all costs. Joshua had come to believe his dreams were a curse, but at the same time, they could be quite useful. They showed him things, sometimes good, sometimes bad. They revealed to him fragments of the future and fragments of the past. But Joshua finally understood that they weren’t just prophetic. They didn’t have to come true. In this case, he could use the knowledge he gained from them to avoid something terrible, something unthinkable.
Cody would die; Joshua had seen it in his dreams. It had happened. Or at least, it would happen if Joshua tried to have any contact with Cody. And he understood why. As bad as things were between Joshua and his mother, it was nothing compared to the relationship between Cody and Pastor Bob. If Pastor Bob got even a hint that Cody was gay, it would be over for him. So how could Joshua ever be with Cody again? He was a fool for having dared to dream it possible. Love could be quite blinding. But his dreams provided a much sharper foresight. It simply wasn’t possible for him to be careful enough with Cody. His dreams had shown him that. As long as Joshua was with Cody, one or the other of them was bound to slip up, and Pastor Bob would discover his own son was gay. And Joshua would then lose Cody forever.
The thought of losing Cody was horrifying, but not as much so as the disturbing alternative. Joshua had to cut off all contact with Cody. He could never see him again. Not if he truly loved Cody, not if he wanted him to live. At least Cody would have Robby to confide in, and Nick and Timmy as well. They knew the truth about Cody, after all, and they would look out for him and for each other. But add Joshua to the equation, his dreams were clearly warning him, and everything would change. Joshua couldn’t let that happen to Cody. Not if he loved him.
Joshua couldn’t believe he was even entertaining these thoughts. It was all because of his cursed dreams. He was Onwaachige, his grandfather informed him. That was his name, or one of them at least. It meant “He Whose Dreams Come True.” And the manitous, the spirits who presided over all things, had repeatedly confirmed the validity of that identity to him. Earlier in the summer, back on the reservation, he had dreamt about participating in a competition powwow, and that had come true. He had then dreamt about the deep, dark secret that his mother kept from him, about her illicit and tawdry affair with Pastor Martin back on the reservation, and that had turned out to be true. And at camp, his dreams had revealed to him the horrifying past of Tommy Drapos and the true nature of the demon who had killed him so many decades ago. And now his dreams were warning him to stay away from Cody. How could he disregard them after all he had seen? How could he dismiss such a vivid and ominous warning?
Then Joshua remembered his other name. He was Pukawiss the Outcast. Perhaps he was destined to be alone forever. He wouldn’t ordinarily be happy with such a destiny, but in this case, it meant that Cody would live. That was a destiny Joshua could embrace. And with that, he determined that when the bus arrived back in Rockford, he would never see his friends again, never see Cody again. That meant he had to do one simple thing.
Joshua’s planning came to an abrupt end as someone unexpectedly sat down next to him at the back of the bus. It was Ben Johnson, Pastor Bob’s assistant scoutmaster. But he had proven himself to be nothing like Pastor Bob. Joshua didn’t know him very well, but Ben had been good to him at camp, even when everyone else had turned on him.
“Joshua,” Ben said gently. “I just want you to know that I’m here for you if you need anything.”
“Yes, I do,” Joshua responded, the tears in his eyes replaced by a renewed sense of purpose.
Pastor Johnson was so caught off guard by the immediacy of Joshua’s response that he ignored him and continued. “No, really,” he said, “I’m available at the church anytime, and if you need any—”
“Yes, I need something,” Joshua interrupted.
Ben looked surprised, as though he wasn’t expecting Joshua to open up to him so quickly.
“I’m here to help,” Ben said, perplexed. “What do you need?”
“I need to go home,” Joshua informed him.
“Yes, of course. We’ll arrive back in Rockford any moment now,” Ben told him. “We’re almost there.”
“No,” Joshua said emphatically. “I need your help getting home.”
It was obvious that Ben didn’t know what Joshua meant by that, but he had already committed himself to something. He just didn’t know what.
But Joshua did. He didn’t like that his plan depended on someone else, especially someone so close to Pastor Bob. But maybe it was about time a man of God actually helped him for a change. And Ben was just the guy to do it.