I like ninjas.

I remember when I was about 10 years old, I completely idolized my cousin, Jay. Jay was 5 or 6 years older than me, but he ruled. Don't get me wrong - he tormented me a lot and all, but he knew I was smart like him, so there was a general understanding between us where I'd let him pick on me if he'd eventually treat me like a human. Both ends of the bargain were eventually fulfilled, so the world was good.

Sometimes, my Dad would be so busy working and going to school that he honestly couldn't make it home for days at a time. It sucked, knowing at 10 years old that my Dad was somewhere taking hour or two-hour naps in his car between school and work because he didn't have time to drive home to see me and Mom. I missed Dad a lot, but Mom did her best to get me to all of my baseball practices and games, as well as keeping me involved in other summer community stuff.

Every other week, my Mom would have to put in really rough hours as a billing clerk for the trucking company she worked at, Overnight Transportation. Every other weekend, the company would get swamped with runs, so my mom would volunteer herself for overtime to help the receptionists out, etc. Thus, every second Monday and Tuesday, my mom would work 16-hour days (not including her 45-minute one-way commute) and completely wipe herself out for the rest of the week.

Of course, Monday and Tuesday happened to be the worst days of my Dad's schedule, too - usually the days that he couldn't come home. Now, I'd already been a latch-key kid for over two years, but my folks were not about to leave their 10-year-old son basically unattended for two straight days every two weeks in the middle of the summer. My parents trusted me and knew that I could take care of myself, but they weren't stupid.

My grandmother heard about the situation and offered to let me stay at her place for those few rough days every other week, just to put my Mom's mind at rest. See, my cousin Jay lived with my grandparents ... My Aunt Jean had Jay when she was too young and immature to care for him, so she kinda tossed him to my grandparents and took off to 'see the world' for a few years. She came back a while later wanting to take Jay back, but by then he was old enough to know that my grandparents loved him a lot more than she did. Of course, the grandparents were happy to keep him.

So every other Sunday night that summer, my Mom and I would hop in the Cutlass and take Telegraph Road on down to Redford. It was always a great road trip, because my Mom was always so talkative on the drive. Deep down, I know she felt guilty about how little time I got to actually spend with both her and my Dad, so she really made the best of the fleeting moments we had. Plus, as a thank you to my Grandparents, Mom would always stop at the Red Ruby Chinese Restaurant a few blocks before the house. Grandma always has loved Chinese food, and it was really cool to see the smile on her face when I'd walk through the door holding little Chinese take-out containers. I never minded either, seeing as my current addiction to General Tao's Chicken stems back to these summer days.

At first, these trips seemed like a hassle more than anything. Jay would ostensibly be 'stuck' baby-sitting me for two days, meaning he really couldn't do too much with his friends. For about the first three trips, I really felt the wrath of an angry, scorned teenager. I got thwapped in the ears repeatedly, stepped on when I was laying on the floor, elbow-dropped when I was sitting on the couch, and Indian-burned until my forearms literally blistered.

I guess after a few weeks, tormenting me got boring. Well, either that or my Grandparents laid the law down about abusing me ... All I know is that Jay suddenly started talking to me more. I dunno - maybe he finally realized that I was half-way intelligent and could hold a mature conversation. It was cool, though, knowing that I was going to actually have fun on my little 'trips.' Eventually, I started looking forward to going to my Grandparents' house so I could hang out with my way-cool cousin.

One night, Jay pulled out a board game called Shogun. It had a bazillion different pieces, and I was fascinated by the little plastic representations of Japanese currency (complete with square hole in the center) and the different army 'pieces' - riflemen, samurai, ninjas ... I was awe-struck just looking at the game in the box, so when Jay offered to teach me how to play I almost piddled myself.

The first few times we tried to play, I didn't do so well. Shogun was more of a strategy game, and at 10 years old, I really didn't have the attention span to be very strategic. Still, visit after visit I forced Jay to get the game out, even if it meant him handing my ass to me in short order.

The whole thing got to be a ritual after a while. My Mom would stop at Red Ruby while I ran down to the drugstore half a block away to blow my allowance on Bar-B-Que Krunchers and a six-pack of glass Pepsi bottles - forever etched in my head as 'Shogun Munchies.' Jay would always have the game ready, and by the end of the summer we'd stay awake all through the night and well into the following morning and afternoon, building up huge armies of soldiers under our respective daimyos before one of us (usually me) made a fatal tactical error.

By the end of the summer, Overnight had cut down on the weekend runs, and my mom's schedule returned to normal, and my Dad finished up his summer classes and cut back on his classload for the fall so he could coach my football team. The summer was over, and I had my family back.

I guess the whole thing didn't really set in until a few weeks later, when I realized that Jay and I probably weren't going to hang out much anymore. I mean, we still talked and hung out at family gatherings and all, but it was never really the same. Sure, he respected me more, and I still to this day think the world of him, but we never just got the chance to sit and talk about useless stuff while trying to vicariously pummel each other senseless through little red plastic samurai soldiers.

I haven't talked to Jay in over 5 years. In 1997, he married a girl from my hometown, Southgate, Michigan. He spent a lot of time in school, and is currently working as an EMT. I haven't seen my grandparents in just as long.

Recently I headed up to a corner store looking for some junk food. I blindly grabbed a bag of chips and a glass bottle of pop, chucked my money at the counter and headed back to my car. Before I started the car, I rolled down my window and tore open the bag of chips. Bar-B-Que Krunchers ... I bunched up my t-shirt and used it to twist the cap off the glass bottle of Pepsi before taking a long, deep swig, pausing only to feel the sunshine on my face as I grabbed another chip.

God damn, I miss those ninjas.

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