Fireworks pop high in the velvet sky, reflecting on the still waters below. I close my eyes in contentment, just happy to be in this moment with my family. Every 4th of July since I can remember, we travel to South Lake Tahoe to watch the fireworks. Something about it is magical, even now. My sister, Olivia, smiling from ear to ear, grips dad's hand tightly while Brandon sits beside them on that colorful beach blanket we bring each year. Mom, with her peaceful grin, gazes at the picture-perfect scene we make. I can feel myself smiling now as I look up at her. Her smile and that laugh she has are contagious in the best sense of the word. She is the soul of our family.
My mom says something to me but I can't hear her over the fireworks and all the commotion. I shake my head and point to my ears, so she comes closer and whispers, "Is my Buddha boy happy?"
There's no way I'm competing with the noise, so I smile, half chuckling, and give her a thumbs up. I’m 17 and she still calls me her Buddha Boy. I was a bit of a chunky kid, but as I got older I filled out. Of course, it took some work. I started exercising, eating well, and before I knew it, I had muscles where fat used to be and my Buddha belly became a six pack. Yet the nickname still lives on. Thankfully, it’s only my mom who calls me that. I think I'm her favorite. I know parents aren't supposed to have favorites, but she gave me the nickname Buddha Boy when I was still in diapers. She didn't give either of my siblings a nickname, just the shortened version of Olivia—Liv—and there's no shortened version of Brandon.
My mom is also the only person in the entire world who knows me, the me that I hide from the rest of the world. I can tell her anything, and I have. I may be a jock who has cheerleaders throwing themselves at me, but cheerleaders aren’t my thing. Josh is. He is on the varsity team with me and we’ve been friends since kindergarten. Our birthdays are so close together that our parents have always thrown us combined parties. Hell, our parents are even best friends. It’s pretty perfect, with one tiny exception – I’m gay and Josh is straight. Not the ideal situation, for me at least. Josh doesn’t know. Like I said, my mom is only person that I can tell anything to.
“Dude! Angela is here! I just saw her by the bathrooms,” Josh announces upon his return. We bring him to Tahoe with us every year.
“Score,” I say, giving him a high five. Yeah, we’re old school like that—still high fiving.
No sooner do I blink and it is all over.
I remember loud bursts, but that was the fireworks, right? Something doesn't seem right. My eyes won't open. I can hear, but why can't I see? Where's mom? More explosions. Fireworks? Can I move? I don't think I can move.
My ears must have betrayed me. I swore I heard my dad scream. I've never heard him yell, let alone scream. God, that scream—something nightmares are made of. It's not the only scream I hear now, so many screams. Mom? Is that Mom screaming now, too? What's going on?
I can feel my body, but just movement. I'm being carried, it seems, but by whom? A sharp pain in my back makes my ears ring. I think I was dropped. I feel quick footsteps around me, running, sprinting, for what seems like a full minute, maybe two, and then nothing. The running ceases as the explosions come to a halt.
Nothing. I am alone with my thoughts, still unable to see, and now I can't hear anything. Did I lose my hearing? The sharp pain in my back has stopped. That's good, right? What the hell happened? It's the 4th of July, a time to celebrate—not this. Whatever this is.
It's been five minutes, I think. Maybe ten. Still nothing. No sound. I think my eyes are open, but I still can't see. Something weird is happening. I don't understand the feeling. I've never had it before. I can't describe it.
"Daniel," a woman's voice. "Daniel, wake up. It's time."
My lids are heavy, eyes burning a little like I was crying. I struggle to open them, and I can see. I can see!
"Daniel, it's time," the woman's voice says again. "Let me help you up."
I let the woman assist me to my feet. My eyes are more focused now and I can see trees around me. So many trees.
"Where am I?" I manage to whisper.
I can see her now. Who is she? She's smiling as if she knows me. She knows my name. Before she replies, she grins contentedly. "We're home, Daniel."
Confused, I look around again. Nothing but trees, mostly tall redwoods. As I turn my head to the left, I see an expanse of water. It looks familiar. In fact, this all looks familiar. Have I been here before? Home?
"This isn't my home," I say in a raspy voice. What happened to my voice? I don't sound like me. I speak again to test out my voice. "I live...I live in...I..."
Shaking my head, I try to gather my thoughts. Why can't I remember where I live? And whose voice is this? It’s not mine. Looking down, I notice my hands. My hands. My hands? These certainly aren’t my hands. What the hell is going on?
The woman smiles again. "Daniel, you're home. I'm your home, my Buddha Boy."