Perham, Minn. - The minivan that has been through so many trips across highways and country roads is a little less packed and a little less cramped.
Knees and elbows have room to move and stretch. Freedom does exist in the minivan, but not for those who ride inside it.
"It just doesn't seem the same anymore," said Mark Schumacher. "There are seven of us who ride in that minivan and now there's an empty space. We're not sure what to do with it. We're not sure if we want to sit in it or to leave it open."
This freedom is not accepted. Neither is the open seat in the van. It is hard to accept everything that happened to Zach Gabbard.
Eight days ago, he was the 17-year-old with the giant grin cracking jokes, listening to whatever filled his headphones, getting ready for a basketball game like the one at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton.
Basketball games are what Gabbard lived for, and it was almost the thing that took his life away. He was running past a screen when he fell down and his teammates didn't see him move.
"We went over to the bench and grabbed some water and we saw Zach on the ground," said Perham junior guard Jordan Bruhn. "I'm thinking they're going to take him to the hospital, he'll be back in a couple days and we'll continue the game. But none of that happened."
What's happened has been chaos. Gabbard has been strapped into machines. He's been in and out of surgeries to help repair what went wrong. It was his heart, the thing that made him love this game.
Gabbard has been moved from Sanford Hospital in Fargo to the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he remains in critical condition.
Doctors are fighting to save his life while his teammates and his hometown are fighting to hold onto the one they know as "Gabby."
An easy two points
Perham runs a play. Bruhn says it is almost unfair to run this play because teams can't stop it. He claims they can't stop it even if they know it is coming.
Bruhn, the team's point guard, sets up with the ball, and a few moves later, he feeds it to Gabbard, who somehow, someway, always gets the shot. A jump shot that goes in is usually the result.
"He's a shooter," Bruhn said. "That's what he does. He drops them in."
Perham's boys basketball team is good, like 12-0 good and ranked No. 4 in the Class 2A polls good. Gabbard had a lot to do with that.
Coaches always preach players having roles, and Gabbard had his. His role was to shoot and score. But he did have a rough start to the season.
"We're all tight and we love each other," Schumacher said. "But Zach wasn't having a good start to the season, so we'd make him mad. If we got him mad, we knew he'd play well. It was always in fun, but when Zach played mad, he played well."
He was really starting to hit his stride. Gabbard was averaging 12 points per game this season, the second most on Perham's team.
When he wasn't scoring baskets, he was that guy talking to Bruhn about girls or asking Jordan Cresap, his best friend on the team, about what team they'd use when it came time to play a video game like NBA Live.
Or if there was a time a decision couldn't be made, he'd chime in with a line that has become so common in the cramped minivan.
"If we were trying to decide someone would say, "Ok Laffy Taffy,' said guard Jordan Anderson. "It was something we'd all say and it was an inside joke."
Smiling is what Gabbard did, and it often showed on the basketball court. It was there even when he wasn't playing. The last trip the cramped minivan made was to Hawley to watch Perham's girls basketball team play.
Out of the van comes the "Magnificent Seven" ready to heckle and embarrass anyone even associated with Hawley. They'd come up with creative chants or yell instructions to the girls players to make sure they could find the open shooter.
When he wasn't cheering against other schools, he was beating them.
"I look at the game at Pelican Rapids on Friday," Bruhn said. "That was always one of Zach's favorite places to shoot. It's sad he won't be there."
Perham High School was built in 1937, and its hallways are classic and simple. The hallways are wide, surrounded by cream-colored lockers. By those lockers is where one can find two students hugging one another.
Schumacher said the basketball team has adopted a mindset to hug each other because every moment of support is needed.
"We just tell each other, 'I love you man,'" he said. "We tell each other to take a deep breath, because everything will be OK."
Going home after Gabbard's collapse was hard. Players had trouble sleeping. All they could think about was what happened to Gabbard, how one minute he's running and the next he's on the ground.
What made it harder were the text messages and the talking. The rumors. Is Zach dead? Is Zach alive? All of it became so much to deal with.
Bruhn and Schumacher agreed the support has been amazing. But there are times where a moment is needed to get away from it all, where they needed time to be left alone and think.
That's what the administration at Perham High School did. The school's administrators opened a room, Room 102, where the entire basketball team was taken for the day. Room 102 was a haven, a utopia away from everything. It was a place to think, eat, cry.
Others like Anderson were at Sanford with Gabbard's parents waiting to learn what step was next.
"Zach's dad and his mom are both really strong people," Anderson said. "They never broke down, but you know they did. They never did it in front of us. They wanted to make sure we were all alright."
Days have passed and things still are not the same. Schumacher had a home economics class where he turned around to ask Gabbard what they were doing that day.
He turned around and Gabbard wasn't there.
Just like there's no one in that empty seat in the minivan.
In that minivan is an empty seat waiting to be filled again.
Everyone will be cramped and uncomfortable with legs kicking one another and elbows awkwardly resting wherever there is room.
Painful as it may sound, for those in the minivan making the journey, this is really the only thing they know.
This is comfort.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548