The Journey

Personal Essay
By Ali Hudak

Drama, crime, missing persons, and broken hearts. That summer came straight from Hollywood. Not from Bozeman, Mont., I was about to see something that I had seen only in the movies.

My close friend DJ had strayed from the narrow path expected of us small-town kids. I was trying to save him. About to begin my final year of high school, I didn't know that DJ's escalating drug abuse was about to get him into big trouble or that I was about to learn the most heartbreaking lesson in my 17 years.

Enter Joey McCollum, the new guy in town. Or, wait: was it McMillan or McMullen? I couldn't keep it straight. And, looking back, I'm not sure he could either.

Anyway, DJ took a liking to him. Joey was charming. He wanted to help get DJ off drugs.

I chalked Joey's frequent, subtle name changes up to my inattentiveness. I was a smart girl. So when Joey told me his mother was the mayor of Chicago, I knew he was wrong. The mayor was Richard M. Daley. My parents raised eyebrows in suspicion, but I figured he thought I wouldn't know the area, and his mother must be a mayor somewhere nearby.

About a month after Joey's arrival in town, my phone rang. It was the morning after Independence Day. Who would be calling when I was obviously still sleeping? It was DJ.

Dude, can you bring your car to the museum parking lot and pick me up? Someone's trying to kill me, he said.

Not sure if I had been having a weird dream, I drove to pick him up.

I shouldn't have been surprised to find Joey there too. They muttered something about a door being broken down, mistaken identities, fake drugs, and some drug deal gone awry.

I'd never seen DJ so frightened in the 13 years I'd known him. I'd never been so frightened either. The night before, shortly after I'd left the house that DJ and Joey now shared, someone had broken down the door, held a knife to DJ's throat, and threatened to kill the people in the room.

I took the two of them to my parents' house, drew the blinds, locked the doors, and then insisted we call the police. DJ was on board. Joey began making excuses.

The police will think we were selling drugs.

They said they'd kill us if we called the cops.

The list went on. I'm embarrassed to admit, but this should have been my first clue. Something about Joey wasn't right.

By now I'd thrown away any concern for Joey; all I wanted was for DJ to walk away with his life. I also hoped the police would realize that DJ wasn't involved in the selling of fake drugs and he would walk away without doing any jail-time. Unfortunately, Joey wouldn't give in: no police.

After a few hours the boys felt they were safe again so I returned them to their car, and went on with my day—as best I could.

Two days later I was at a girlfriend's house. We were getting ready to head out on a camping trip when my phone rang. It was the police. The officer was investigating a missing persons report. He understood that I was a good friend of DJ and wanted to ask me some questions.

My stomach didn't just hit the floor, it fell through it.

Bozeman, though a big city for Montana, has seen fewer than a handful of murders in my life and my mother's combined. I'd certainly never heard of people disappearing. Mostly, the police broke up high school parties and gave jay-walking tickets.

I immediately told him everything. When I got to the part about Joey the officer stopped me.

Describe him, he said.

After a few "hmms," the officer informed me that his name was not Joey McWhatever. He was a 24-year-old ex-convict from North Dakota. He operated under several aliases. Since he arrived in town the police had already had several run-ins with him.

Two weeks passed and no word. I checked my phone constantly to make sure it was still on and working. Knowing Joey's real identity, I wasn't sure what to think.

Was DJ with a sociopathic ex-convict somewhere trying to escape the men that were trying to kill him, without knowing that Joey might also try to kill him? Was he already dead, buried in some landfill? Would I ever see him again? I prayed he was with Joey, and that Joey wouldn't kill him.

My mother spent every day with his parents and sister. Waiting. Waiting for a clue. Waiting for anything. I gave the police the phone numbers of all his friends. The ones I didn't have, I spent countless hours tracking down. The church prayed on Sundays for his safe return.

The first development came weeks later. I'd written DJ a check, loaning him $10 for some groceries, earlier that summer. It cleared through a bank in North Dakota. The police jumped on it. I was instantly asked a whirlwind of questions: "What did I loan him money for?" "Why had he not cashed it right away?" "Had he contacted me?" I had no answers.

Nearly a month and a half after it all began DJ's father, called. The police had just pulled DJ and Joey over in Idaho. He recognized DJ from the missing person's report and asked him if he was alright. When DJ responded "Yes," the officer had no choice but to let him go.

A flurry of emotions flooded into me. I was relieved. DJ was alive.

But I was furious. How could he not care that our families, friends, church, and the police had been looking for him for weeks? What was he doing while he was gone? The whole time I'd been thinking DJ was in the middle of one of those "wrong place, wrong time" situations. Was I wrong about that? Could DJ actually have sold fake drugs to someone? How could he do this to me and to his parents?

Another three weeks passed. My phone rang. It was DJ.

Dude, do you wanna come hang out at my dad's? I'm back.

He never told me where he'd gone or what he'd done. Years later, all he said was that he was high on methamphetamines the whole time. I'm not sure he remembers. Since then, his addictions and legal run-ins have only gotten worse.

But I came away having learned something few Hollywood epics succeed in illustrating. More than discovering that my parents' suspicions were right, more than realizing not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, more than learning that drugs hurt more than just the kid who does them, I learned that DJ was beyond my saving. I, his best friend, couldn't help him. I learned that no matter how much I cared, no matter how much anybody cared, it didn't matter. I couldn't write a happy ending to a story in which the main character didn't want one. And that broke my 17-year-old heart.