On the Wings of a Prayer
(Set in the Begin Again Universe)
Pittsburgh, Spring 2012, POV/Brian
“Brian, I know you asked not to be disturbed, but this is a call from Gus in Canada, will you take it?” Cynthia’s voice came over the intercom, her tone apologetic...and nervous. With good reason, I’d given strict orders that I wasn’t to be interrupted for any reason. Still, she was priceless as always, knowing me well enough to know when to ignore me, I thought, amused.
“Put the call through,” was all I said, however, as there was no need to lessen her level of trepidation when she did ignore my orders..
“Hey, Sonnyboy, how are you?” I stretched my neck as I talked– this campaign had me working long hours and I was exhausted. But, it was an important new client and a large campaign. Working on it had fired my imagination and I was doing possibly the best work of my career. Still, my son was important and with him living in Canada most of the year, nothing could make me ignore a call coming outside our routine weekend chats.
“Hi, Pops. I’m not bothering you, am I?”
“Nope, always good to talk to you. What’s on your mind? Everything okay up there?”
I got up and walked with the cordless phone over to the window. It was a beautiful day. I sat down on the ledge.
“You don’t sound very definite about that. Something bothering you?”
“Well, you know how I joined scouting a couple years ago?”
I made the appropriate interest noise, wondering if it would make me a bad father if I told Gus to hurry up and get to the point. But, he’d been in a rather sensitive stage lately and Lindsay had been on me to boost his self-esteem. Restraining a sigh, I resigned myself to a longer chat than I’d first thought. When the pause continued, I felt a nudge would be acceptable.
“So, I’m thinking this call has something to do with scouting? Do you have any more projects on the horizon?”
“Well....” I had to grit my teeth to keep from snapping at him that nothing was “well” unless he started moving toward a point. Instead, I tried to sound encouraging, saying, “it’s a great activity. I never did scouting but Mac went all the way up to Eagle Scout. He’s looking forward to getting to do some real camping with us this summer when you visit.”
“He is? And you want to do it too?” Gus’s voice cracked slightly as he voiced his enthusiastism. Mac and I’d been seeing each other for almost a year now and Gus had gotten to know him during visits, especially his long visit last summer. I was really happy that the two of them got along so well and the fact that Mac and Gus were interested in many of the same things helped me bridge the closeness gap that living so far away from each other created. Mac and I’d started living together a couple of months ago and I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about displacing one of them when this summer’s visit came. If anything, I found myself slightly jealous when the two of them got to talking about things I had little interest in, like the best way to build a fire and which species were endangered. Yet, Mac had such a good way of including me in their discussions that such feelings were rare and growing less all the time.
“I’m looking forward to it. Getting back to nature, living off jerky and tinned beans, my idea of heaven,” I said, lying through my teeth.
“That’s great! Cause that’s kind of why I’m calling.”
Uh oh, I thought, but managed to keep the encouraging tone of voice as I asked, “And how’s that? You wanted to talk about our summer plans?”
“Well...” There was that pause again. I sucked in my lip and waited.
“You see, there is this father-son weekend coming up and Mom said you wouldn’t want to do it, but I told them that if you could, and knew that it’s really important, you’d do it, and, well....”
I bet it was Mel who said I wouldn’t do a father-son weekend; she no doubt saw herself as the Dad. “Well, I do want to do it. Just give me the date and I’ll be sure to tell Cynthia to clear my calendar. Send me an equipment list too and...”
He interrupted me. “It’s this weekend. And you don’t need to get a lot of equipment because I have the tent that Mac gave me for my birthday last year. You just need to borrow a sleeping bag and pack from Mac. He’ll know if there’s anything else we need, better than our troop leader, I bet. It’s going to be really great and...”
All of a sudden Gus was talking a mile a minute, which was just as well since I was still processing the fact that this father-son weekend was this fucking weekend. When I couldn’t possibly make it. As I listened to his excited voice, I tried to think of some way to get out of this without disappointing Gus. I was all too conscious of how it felt to have plans canceled due to a father’s lack of interest. In my case, it was usually due to my father’s overriding interest being booze, but his buddies and bowling came ahead of me too. It was one of the reasons I never tried something like scouting – although not scouting itself, of course, since they were such a homophobic group – but most kid activities required a certain amount of parental involvement and I didn’t have that. Church was the only thing my mother wanted to be involved in and my father, well, the less we were around each other the better.
I didn’t want Gus to have that feeling about me, to feel that I wasn’t interested in his life or that I couldn’t be relied upon when he needed a dad. So, I stayed quiet and listened to his happy chatter about this wilderness weekend. When we said good-bye at the end of his call, after I promised to be in Canada by Friday afternoon, he added, “Thanks, Dad. I’m really happy you can make this. I can’t wait to see Mom’s face when I tell her. I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, Gus – see you Friday.”
Sighing heavily, I clicked off the phone. Damn. It was Tuesday and I needed to have this campaign ready for a meeting with the client on Tuesday. Well...to borrow Gus’ favorite word, I was just going to have to work even longer hours to get it done before Friday afternoon. I sat back down at my computer and forced myself to concentrate.
I took the lift up to the loft when I got home; I was too beat to climb the stairs. It was late, even by my standards. I’d called Mac and left a message on his cell phone explaining that I wouldn’t be home for a while, but knowing him, he probably never even retrieved it. Not that he’d mind; if there was one thing Mac understood, it was getting involved in one’s work and forgetting all about eating, sleeping, or lovers who were waiting. We had an agreement that we’d try to let the other know when we’d be late, so neither of us would sit around waiting for the other, but Mac forgot to do it about half the time, or he’d forget to check his phone for messages if I were the one delayed. Still, I had no complaints as he had some amazing ways of making it up to me. I still couldn’t get over how my quiet, unassuming professor could turn into a sensual, adventurous, insatiable lover. Then again, when I thought about some of his hobbies, rock climbing, hang-gliding, triathlons, I had to admit that there were enough clues to his wilder side.
Opening the door to the loft, my eyes went immediately to the slim figure sitting on my Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair, an open book on his lap and his eyes closed. Sound asleep. I debated whether to wake him or let him continue to sleep. I was so beat it wasn’t like I was up for anything anyway, I thought ruefully. But, once I took off my jacket and tie, I walked over to wake him, telling myself that he would sleep better in the bed. Kicking off my shoes, I realized that I wasn’t really worried about his sleeping comfort. The truth was, it felt good to have him next to me in bed. Damn, I was turning into a fucking cuddler, I thought derisively. Who would ever have thought?
I knelt down and kissed him. His green eyes opened sleepily, but his hands moved up fairly quickly to hold my face close as he deepened the kiss.
“Hey,” I said softly once we finished the kiss – a much better one than I’d originally intended.
“Hey, yourself. I’m glad to see you,” Mac smiled up at me, his gaze still sleepy. I caressed his cheek.
“I’m glad to see you too. Are you awake enough to make it to the bedroom?”
His smile turned mischievous. “I don’t know...if I can’t, will you carry me?”
I laughed. “I’d love to, but I’m so beat, I’d probably drop you on your head.”
“In that case....” Mac swung his legs around to stand up, and then he swiftly put his arms under me and picked me up. I laughed.
“Put me down! You’ll hurt yourself,” I ordered, although I was secretly thrilled by his strength. I’m a good couple of inches taller than Mac and must weigh at least twenty pounds more, but he showed no signs of strain in lifting me. He ignored my demand, shifting me to a better position for walking and carrying, and strode to the bedroom.
“My hero,” I said, still trying to be flippant despite the fact that I was getting hard at this unusual show of dominance.
“On occasion,” was all Mac said, before toppling me onto the bed. He climbed onto it too, straddling my prone body.
“Am I going to be ravished now?” I asked, my body showing more interest than I would have thought I had in me after such a rough day.
“Hmm, you do look pretty ravishing, Mr. Kinney...” Mac leaned down, his arms on either side of my shoulders to brace himself. “Is this where I tell you to lie back and think of England?” He nuzzled my neck as he ground his cock against mine. I moaned as he moved one hand inside my shirt to caress my chest. “I want you naked,” he murmured.
I nodded and he started unbuttoning my shirt. I stayed still and enjoyed being stripped by those strong, capable hands. After taking off our clothes, Mac reached for a condom and put it on his cock and I watched, mesmerized, while he used the lube, first on me and then on himself, preparing himself to penetrate me. He looked so fucking hot as he knelt over me, his muscles taut, his tanned body gleaming in the low lighting.
“I want you,” I whispered. He smiled at me, his charming, boyish smile.
“Sometimes you get what you want,” he said.
Afterward, we lay contented in each other’s arms. I ran my hand along his muscular back, enjoying the feel of his skin. Mac had a gorgeous body, but few ever realized it as he favored baggy, comfortable clothes. The first time we made love, after a year of platonic student/teacher friendship, I knew we had a strong chemistry and I’d expected the sex to be good, really good. It was; finding out that he had a body that put Michelangelo’s David to shame, was a bonus. Even more deceptive than the baggy clothes that concealed his muscle, was his boyish face, which made him look at least ten years younger than his age. When we went clubbing, he still got carded – to his embarrassment and my amusement.
Mac rolled toward me and wrapped his arms around me. “I’m so glad you quit smoking, Brian. I can see the difference in you already. I hope you’ll be done with this campaign soon so we can go hiking again. I’m on spring break next week, you know.”
I groaned, his mentioning the campaign reminded me of my problem. Holding him close, I told him about Gus’s phone call. After I finished, he was quiet and I wondered if he’d fallen asleep on me. But looking at his face, I saw that he was just thinking about what I’d told him. No doubt trying to imagine me doing wilderness camping without him to hold my hand, I thought, amused.
All he said, though, when he did finally speak, was, “We need to do something about this. I know you can’t disappoint Gus, but you can’t go into a camping weekend totally exhausted. Either you’ll get hurt or you won’t be able to keep up with Gus and help him.”
My ego made me say, “Of course I will...I’m stronger than you give me credit for, Mac.”
He looked skeptical. “Bri, we went on a field trip when you were in my Natural History class at Carnegie, remember?”
I shuddered. That experience was a nightmare...except for the fact that I got the professor’s attention completely as he repeatedly had to rescue me from one disaster after another.
“Exactly,” Mac said, reading my expression. “I know you’re in better shape now, Brian, but I don’t know if you understand what you’ve committed to. I’ve known some Canadian scouts. They take roughing it to a whole different level than our scouting programs here in the States.”
“Well, I promised Gus, and I won’t disappoint him. Even if he would understand, I’ll be damned if I give Mel the satisfaction of being able to say ‘I told you so’ to Gus about me not doing it.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“Yeah, but you love me anyway.” I smiled at him once more before closing my eyes to sleep. I just heard his soft whisper as I drifted off. “Yeah, I really do. And I’ll work something out so I can keep an eye on you.”
Friday evening; Nova Scotia; POV/Brian
As I watched the required film on Camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park with Gus’s group of scouts and their dads, I reflected that it was a good thing I’d finished the campaign late last night so I didn’t need to do more at the office than leave it – and detailed orders – with Cynthia before catching a morning flight to Canada. I hadn’t realized that as soon as I arrived, Gus would be hustling me off for a trip to Nova Scotia. If he had told me, I must have glossed over it. But it made sense, since there was no place near their home in Toronto that provided wilderness experience. Gus had been relieved that I passed the test they gave all those not previously certified to camp in this Park. Canada took its national parks seriously, and before they let a person go into one of the areas designated as backcountry or wilderness, you had to prove that you knew what you were doing. As Gus’s designated adult, I needed to demonstrate that I knew what I was doing so I could safely take care of him.
I tried not to worry about who was going to take care of me. When I kissed Mac good-bye, the lucky prof getting to sleep in, he’d just smiled at me and told me to have fun. Other than loaning me what I needed to take with me, he hadn’t again mentioned anything about helping me in this situation. Not that there really was anything he could do – this was a father/son weekend, not father, son and father’s boyfriend gig.
The mini-training session done, along with the testing, which only a few other dads had to take, most of the group being old hands at this stuff, we prepared to head out to the place where we were going to camp for this first night. It was called Robert’s Brook, and I was relieved to learn that there were showers and even a cooking area. Tomorrow, bright and early, we were heading to the backcountry area, Fishing Cove. We had to complete a five mile hike, with full packs, before reaching the approved area for camping. To stay in that area, we not only had to bring camp stoves, but all our water, since there was no potable water there. All trash had to be packed out also. I strongly suspected that this little bonding adventure would make Mac’s field trip seem like a walk in...well, the park. Just not this particular Park.
Grinning to myself, I sat down next to Gus in the small bus they had to take us down to Robert’s Brook. He leaned his head on my shoulder. At twelve, he was just entering his growth spurt, and it seemed like he grew half a foot between visits.
“This is going to be great, Dad,” he said happily. I put my arm around him and agreed, pushing away all thoughts of how beat I already was.
It was while Gus and I were figuring out the tent, that I had my first sign of trouble. One of the other dads, Bill, who also was the leader of this little troop, came over to watch us. He was a big, burly guy, with a loud, gruff way of talking. Former football player was my guess.
“You boys need any help with that fancy tent? Sometimes putting a tent up for the very first time can be...challenging.” He looked over toward a couple of the other dads as he paused and I could see them grinning. I straightened up, glad to see that I was a good two inches taller than the dickwad. But, before I could make an insulting comment back at him, I saw Gus’s expression. He looked anxious – no doubt afraid that I’d blow up at the jerk. So, I smiled and replied pleasantly.
“Thanks for the offer, but Gus and I’ve set this tent up before, in sites along the Appalachian Trail, so it’s far from the first time it’s been used. I just take care of my equipment so it looks new.”
Gus grinned at me, his worry gone. Dickwad just nodded and walked away. A little red-headed kid came up to us. He reminded me of Mac slightly. Maybe it was his earnest expression and glasses.
“Sorry about my dad, Mr. Kinney. He likes to take control and ‘help’ everyone, whether they need it or not.”
“No problem at all, uh...” I looked at Gus, who blushed.
“This is Chris, dad. He’s the one who got me into scouting. Chris, this is my dad, Brian Kinney.”
I shook the small hand that was offered, trying not to show my amusement at this little munchkin being the big dickwad’s son.
“Nice to meet you, Chris. I’m glad you and Gus are enjoying this camping stuff, but your dad wasn’t completely off – I’m not all that experienced a camper. Though I suspect I will be after this weekend.”
The boys shared happy grins and then Chris joined in setting up the tent, essentially taking my place. I sat on a nearby rock and marveled at how well the boys worked together – talking non-stop the entire time. I was glad that I was there, I realized. This would be the first time Gus and I did something like this together, just the two of us. We’d done a little camping last summer with Mac, but nothing too rough, given Gus’s age then and my inexperience. I was glad for those couple of trips now, since it enabled both of us to handle the tasks of setting up camp without looking like total novices. I got up to help, some of the set-up requiring a little more strength than the two boys had. All in all, though, they did a pretty good job and I told them so. They both blushed, but seemed proud that I complimented them. Especially Chris. I’d caught him stealing glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. If I did catch his eye, he’d quickly looked away.
Interesting, I thought. My instincts told me that Gus’s little scouting buddy was gay. Bet his dad didn’t know that.
We all were woken up at the ridiculous hour of five a.m. by Bill shouting “revel-lay, revel-lay!” Obviously a time-honored joke; young Chris, who had shared our tent, just rolled his eyes and grimaced.
“Sorry, Mr. Kinney. He loves doing that. My Granddad used to always say it too.”
“How...nice. A family tradition,” I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. I stretched, trying to get out the kinks from sleeping on the ground with just a sleeping bag for padding. And to think that people did this for fun. I stumbled off to take a quick shower and use the latrine. Where we were headed, I was assured by a cheery dad named Jim, there wouldn’t be such luxuries. Cat holes and a cold river to bath in when we camped at Fishing Cove.
By the time we’d hiked about three miles, with heavy packs, I was really wishing I’d let Mel be the dad this weekend. When I’d asked Gus what the fuck a cat hole was, he’d happily described the process for polite pissing and shitting in the woods. I realized why Mac had been concerned – he must have been breaking me into camping gradually as he never pitched our tent anywhere that didn’t have a real latrine with running water nearby. I was glad I’d let him pack what I’d need, even if it had seemed like a ridiculous amount of water.
Once we got to where we were to camp for the night, I was exhausted. The two boys wanted to go exploring the area, which was beautiful, and something I would normally appreciate but not on so little sleep. I waved them off, assuring them that I could put up the tent without their help. I warned them to be back in an hour in order to set up the Coleman camp stove, as they were doing the cooking. I fully intended to crash once the tent was up. Five miles wasn’t all that far, but it was downhill along a very rough, often slippery terrain and my legs were aching. I was happy to see that at least I wasn’t the only dad who looked beat. Most of the others had collapsed onto the ground as soon as they shrugged their packs off. Bill, Chris’s dickwad dad, was still blustering about, making himself even more obnoxious, hard as it was to believe that he could, but his ass was definitely dragging also.
He finally made his way over to me, surveying the job I’d done putting the tent up.
“Can I help you?” I asked curtly. The man just bugged me.
“Where are the boys? Aren’t they helping with setting up camp?” was his gruff reply.
“We’re taking turns, they did most of the tent work yesterday so I’m doing it today, just pitching it. They’ll take it down tomorrow. And they’re doing the cooking.”
“Well, uh, they’re supposed to be learning on this trip,” he answered, looking like he wanted to find fault but was having trouble doing so.
“I’m sure they’re learning a lot. This is an amazing park, very different from those we have in the states,” I said, trying to make nice with the man for the boys’ sake. I knew his type. If he felt like he was losing control of a situation...or a person...he’d lash out. In this case, young Chris would be his target, I suspected, rather than a man capable of giving as good as he got. My dad had been just such a bully.
My comment did bring a more relaxed look to his face. “We’ve reason to be very proud of our parks. They’re in their original condition in many places, areas where a man can really get back to nature. Not like the ones you have down in the States, where there is electricity and all the conveniences of home in a place called a campsite.”
“Many of our parks are just as preserved,” I responded mildly, thinking of Shenandoah and Yellowstone. “Our forestry service finds that man can aid in that, saving types of plants and animals that otherwise would disappear.”
I’d have to thank Mac for his lessons on our parks, I thought, as I watched Bill flounder for a response. Finally, he just said, “Well, tell Chris to check in with me when he gets back from his hike.”
I nodded and returned to setting up our campsite, laughing to myself at the way Bill had tried to imbue two boys having fun running around the woods with an aura of work.
Lunch was fun. Gus and Chris had returned completely filthy, but bright-faced and eager to tell me about all the fun they’d had, exploring near the camp. I made them wash their hands with the water and some anti-bacterial liquid I’d brought, the latter minimizing the amount of the former needed.
“There were these great cliffs, Dad! You could climb out on them and see the river below, even the camp. It was amazing, wasn’t it, Chris?”
“Yeah...you could see really great views and....”
“So you boys spent your time admiring the pretty views instead of working?” Bill had walked up to our camp stove. He stood over Chris, his arms folded, and this fake smile plastered on his face. Chris turned a whiter shade of pale – now I knew what that song meant. In an instant, he went from a carefree, cheerful kid to a cowering soldier in his dad’s army of pre-adolescent boys. He jumped up and for a second I thought he was going to salute.
“We weren’t just admiring the views, Dad. We found some really challenging paths out over the cliffs and....”
“I don’t want to hear excuses, son. You don’t win the Chief Scout Award by playing. I would have hoped that you were working on your Challenge badges.”
“Commissioner Burns, we were working on ideas for our Challenge badge, the environmental one,” Gus spoke up in their defense, getting up to stand next to his friend. Bill smiled condescendingly at my son. I wondered if I would get in trouble if I punched the smug smile off the dickwad’s face.
“Well, I’m sure you’re doing the best you can, Gus, and no one is expecting you to do too much this first trip into the back country. But Chris has been scouting for seven years now. He should know how to make better use of his time than in the ways I heard you boys discussing. Besides,” Bill added, looking at me briefly, “we’re aware of your situation and wouldn’t want you to overdo it.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I asked. I stayed right where I was, sitting on the log, my legs stretched out. This prick wasn’t worth my standing up.
“Please, Brian, watch your language, we dads try to be good examples for the boys on these weekends,” he chided me, a smug look on his face. “All I meant was, well, Gus’s family situation is a bit different than the other boys, isn’t it?”
And to think that Lindz had moved to Canada to escape homophobes in Pittsburgh, I thought. It may be Scouts Canada instead of the Boy Scouts, in Canada’s bid for inclusiveness, but obviously some of these men still carried the same old attitudes I’d lived with all my life. However, seeing the tense looks on the boys’ faces, I bit back the retort I wanted to make, which would have set them a fine example of the manly art of cursing, and simply said, “I’m not sure what you mean, Bill. But then, I don’t go butting my nose into other people’s family business. If you mean that Gus lives with his mothers during the school year and with me during summers, I’m sure there are other kids here with part-time dads.”
I gave him my best Kinney stare, daring him to say something about Gus having two mothers. If he did. I was all ready to tell him that Gus’s mom Mel was more of a man than he’d ever be. But he retreated into his bluff, good-natured scout leader persona, Devil Dad being tucked away for the moment.
“You’re quite right, Brian. And that’s why these weekends are so important. Fathers and sons spending time together. After you clean up lunch, boys, why don’t we hike up to the observation plateau?”
Both boys nodded glumly. Gus shot me a pleading glance and I nodded also, saying brightly. “Sounds like a great idea. I’ll get the camera out, guys, and we can get some great pictures from up there, I bet.”
Bill nodded and told us to be ready in thirty minutes. Once he walked away, Chris slumped back down on the ground, all the happiness gone from his face. He looked close to tears, which would be deadly in a group like this, with the other boys close enough to see.
“Well, boys, I'm looking forward to getting some great pictures. And I’m sure more hiking is just what my aching muscles need.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kinney,” Chris said, his chin trembling. “I wish my dad wouldn’t act like that.” Gus had his hand on his friend’s back.
“It’s nothing for you to be sorry about, Chris. A person is only responsible for his own attitudes and actions, and yours are just fine. Now, what have you two planned for my lunch?”
The kid smiled at me, the threat of tears receding for a bit.
As it turned out, we were saved from having Bill come with us, although a group of other pairs did come. Bill, very self-importantly, announced that he had to stay behind to meet with the park ranger, who would be giving some talks to the kids. But he did take a moment to lecture Chris about not wasting his time taking “pretty pictures” when he was out here to learn more about the back-country life.
Uh, yeah, I thought, but since when couldn’t a person convey their observations in pictures? I kept my thoughts to myself, though, as Chris and Gus dutifully put their journals and pens in their packs, along with some snacks and water. I made sure I had the first aid kit in my bag, as well as our rain ponchos. I didn’t like the look of those storm clouds
I hadn’t felt comfortable with Brian and Gus being on their own, camping without me. I tried reassuring myself, after all, Gus was a bright kid and had shown a real aptitude for camping. I told myself that I was being foolish to think that Brian wouldn’t be able to stay safe in a group comprised of young scouts and their dads. If I knew Brian – and after two years, I was beginning to feel like I did, though he was a fairly complex man – he’d get the boys to do all the work and he’d do the least possible. In a charming way, of course, but most definitely with the goal of being as lazy as possible. It was what he did when we camped, but he was so much fun that I didn’t mind that he didn’t pull his own weight. He had other ways of contributing, I recalled fondly.
But that was the trouble. I’d received an email from Gus telling me about the plans and while I didn’t say anything discouraging to Brian’s son, I became more...anxious. I knew that Park. I’d camped in its backcountry area and it was subject to sudden changes in weather. It was a far cry from the type of camping we did. It was real camping, and the hikes were strenuous. Rather than waste my weekend off sitting around the loft feeling worried, I called up an old friend, one of the rangers at the Park, and reserved a camping spot. When he mentioned, as I thought he would, that one of their scout troops was going to be there also, I casually offered to give them a few talks around the campfire about the wildlife in the park, the species that were indigenous to the area.
That was how I found myself hiking along the trail, coming out to the beautiful river that the campsite was set at. I assumed my professor demeanor, when Greg, my ranger buddy, introduced me to the troop leader, Bill Burns. I let Greg give the explanation for my presence. I was busy looking for Brian and Gus.
“Bill, this is Dr. Mac Williams, a well-known expert in the field of natural history. He’ll be sharing the site with your group while he does some research here at Fishing Cove’s river especially. When I told him your boys would be here, he was gracious enough to agree to give a talk or two about his work to the scouts. Mac, this is Bill Burns, one of our Scout Canada’s commissioners.”
We shook hands as Greg continued to praise me to the skies, though I suspected that my status as a former award-winning Eagle Scout was more impressive to this man than my diplomas and published works . The troop leader was a big, beefy sort. From what Gus had told me over the course of his months with the scouts, Burns was a very strict guy. While he seemed to have been nice enough to Gus, he was always putting pressure on his son, a buddy of Gus’, to try harder.
Since I was here to make nice, and wanted to be welcome to mingle with the scouts – and one particular dad – I complimented him on the set-up I could observe, attributing the camp’s neat appearance to his leadership. He preened like one of my birds.
“Well, I like to instruct the boys in the right way to do things from the start. That way, there’s no bad habits to get them out of. We have some novices this time around, but I try to match the new boys up with experienced campers. Of course, the dads, that’s a whole other story.” He gave me a conspiratorial wink. I smiled faintly in reply but didn’t comment. I could just imagine how Brian was taking this man. My concerns over showing up unexpectedly were allayed slightly. Gus would need me to keep Brian from killing his troop leader before the weekend was over.
Greg waved good-bye after he made the introductions. He was going back to the office by the shorter return route. We’d both noticed that the cloud cover had been getting heavier as we traveled the last mile or so, and he was too smart to go back the long way, on the slippery path that led down from the cliffs. Now he needed to get back to where he could help those campers who got in trouble in areas like that. He and the other rangers maintained contact via a more high tech version of walkie talkies. He’d been good enough to give me one, knowing I could be trusted not to use it unless absolutely necessary.
“Is this your whole group, or are some out on the trail?” I asked, steering him to tell me where I might find Brian.
Bill rolled his eyes. “Well, there’s a few still out on the trail leading to the cliffs, lollygagging with cameras. Most of the boys and dads are down by the river, seeing if they can catch fish for dinner.”
I smiled sweetly. “Unsuccessfully, I hope, since fishing isn’t allowed here. But, since this isn’t the right time of year for any fish to be biting in that river, there is little risk of anyone actually catching one. I’m sure you were counting on that, experienced as you are.” Something about my young looking face allows me to get away with a certain level of sarcasm undetected. With Brian, there is never any doubt as to his meaning.
“Of course, of course! But, it’s a good learning experience in any case, to learn how to make a rod.”
I nodded politely. I doubted Brian would be doing anything so pointless as fishing when he shouldn’t catch any fish – not with a hand-made rod, that was for sure. Besides, the only time he’d be likely to eat fish was at a fancy restaurant – minimum four stars. I excused myself from Burns, telling him I wanted to get my tent up before the rain came. He looked up at the sky a bit surprised, seemingly unaware of the change in weather that was coming.
“You do that, Dr. Williams, and let me know if we can be of any help. I’ll let my folks know about you – quite nice of you to give them the treat of telling them about your work.”
“Please, call me Mac. And the treat is mine. It’s always a pleasure to talk to young people.”
“I know what you mean – it’s why I stay involved in this. My youngest isn’t a natural at this stuff like his older brothers, but I’m determined to spend the time it’ll take to turn him into a top scout. And his friend, too. I probably should warn you...um, not sure how to say this.”
I raised an eyebrow inquiringly, wondering what the man was trying to get at. He looked a bit red in the face.
“Well, we have a broad spectrum of folks here. One of the newer boys, nice kid, but he comes from one of those ‘alternative families,’ if you catch my drift.”
“I’m not sure I do, Bill. In what way do you mean alternative?”
He leaned a little closer and said in a low voice. “He’s got two moms, you know, married to each other? And I’m pretty sure the father, who’s with us on this trip, is gay. But don’t you worry...we’ll make sure he doesn’t go sneaking into your tent.”
Not if I can help it, you won’t, was my thought, but I just repeated my intention to go set up my camp, and walked away.
I had my tent up and my cookstove heating up some water to boil spaghetti when I saw Brian and two boys finally come back. Brian saw me almost at the same time and before he could hide, I saw the happiness in his expression. He switched to expressionless almost at once, but that look was enough to tell me I’d not overstepped my bounds in coming. He bent to say something to Gus who looked over quickly, a big grin bursting out on his face. That relieved my second worry, that Gus would prefer to have Brian to himself. I got up and started walking over to where they stood with a smaller boy, by their tent. Bill beat me to them, unfortunately.
“Well, about time you three came in. I thought I’d have to send our camping expert out to find you. Took you all that time to get to the top of the cliffs?”
I was close enough by then to hear Brian’s quieter reply. “It was far too slippery for the boys to go out on those rocks and that storm is getting close, so....”
Bill interrupted him. “I don’t know if you understand, Brian, but the boys are here to develop their skills...skills at camping, roughing it. They can’t learn anything if they’re afraid of a difficult trail or a little water.” Bill turned to the smaller boy then. I’d already guessed that this poor kid must be the younger son who needed to be toughened up. Bill was well into berating the boy, with people all around listening, when I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Well, Bill, now that you have all your campers back, why don’t we let them get to their tents to dry off and we can discuss what topics you’d like me to cover in my talks.” I smiled at Brian and Gus. “Hi, my name is Mac Williams. I’m a professor at Carnegie Mellon, a university in the States, here to do some field work during our spring break.”
“Brian Kinney, and this is my son, Gus. Carnegie Mellon? So you’re from Pittsburgh, my home town.” Brian picked up on treating me like a stranger, as I knew he would. We shook hands as though we were just meeting, which was for the best with this homophobic troop leader. The last thing we needed was for him to find out I was Brian’s lover, thus confirming his suspicions about Brian, and probably giving him a reason to complain about my being here. I disliked the pretense, but I didn’t want to create any problems for Gus. Though I had to wonder what his moms were doing, putting him in a troop led by a guy like this – problems would be unavoidable.
Brian looked at Bill pointedly and when the man didn’t pick up on it, he continued. “This young man is Chris Burns, Professor. Or may I call you Mac?” Brian’s smirk was toned down but quite definitely there. The wise guy.
“Mac is fine. Nice to meet you, Chris.” I smiled warmly at the young boy. He was a good four inches shorter than Gus, but had an adult manner to him as he shook my hand, his gaze averted from his frowning father.
“This is my boy that I was telling you about,” Bill added unnecessarily. “Chris, the professor here is an expert in the areas you want to focus on for your challenge project.”
“I don’t know that I’m an expert, certainly not in multiple areas, but I’d be glad to talk to you, Chris, if you have some ideas you’d like to go over.”
“Thank you, sir. I would like to very much,” the boy answered, his head up from the downcast tilt it’d had when his father was humiliating him.
“Well, right now, you have work to do. Get cleaned up and help with the cooking,” Bill ordered. I could see that he was torn. He liked the idea of having me work with his son, one on one, but he hated not being the center of attention and authority. I couldn’t imagine my father ever talking to me like he did his son, much less in front of an audience. I had an idea.
“You know, I have a pound of spaghetti ready to go into the water, and a large packet of sauce. I’d be honored if you and Chris would join me, Bill. And of course, that extends to you and Gus, Brian.”
I held back a smile at Brian’s expression. He wanted to be with me, but not if it meant time with Bill. I glanced at the two boys and he followed my look. Both of them were looking very hopeful, and I didn’t think it was just the hope of spaghetti that was doing it. Gus didn’t want to leave Chris to the tender mercies of his father. Brian’s face softened, as it always did when he looked at Gus. I loved seeing him with that look of love on his face, he became even more beautiful, and the rarity of seeing it made it doubly precious. Sometimes I let myself think I was seeing the same look when he looked at me. The longer I knew this man, the more I adored him.
“I think that could be arranged,” Brian drawled, finally. “We’ll bring the dessert – apples. And I think we have some carrots and celery to contribute.”
I bit back a laugh. Trust Brian to worry about calories even after hiking for miles carrying a full pack.
Soon enough, the five of us were sitting around the camp stove. Brian brought his stove over so that we could cook the sauce at the same time as the spaghetti. He looked at the sauce packet I’d brought. I’d frozen it to keep it fresh during the hike and it was mostly defrosted now. Sauce was fairly safe from spoiling in the short run, since it was so acidic, but I didn’t like to take chances. Brian cut the bag open with the pocket knife I’d given him for Christmas.
“Clever – had I know of this trick, I would have brought some Thai take-out,” he said, causing the boys to giggle and Bill to roll his eyes. Brian continued, uncaring of Bill’s reactions. “This wouldn’t be a meat sauce, would it, Mac?”
His eyes were mischievous even if his voice and face were innocent. He and Gus knew I was a vegetarian, and I’d gotten both of them to try sauce made with TVP, textured vegetable protein, a soy product, instead of meat sauce. Of course, the way I was able to convince these two dedicated carnivores to try it was by simply forgetting to mention it to them. They both had eaten seconds before I revealed the deception. Brian was daring me to do the same to Bill and Chris. I looked back at those teasing hazel eyes and asked, “Does it look like meat?”
Bill laughed, thinking I was implying that Brian had asked a stupid question. But Brian grinned also, amused at how I tossed the ball back to him.
“I would say yes, it certainly looks like a meat sauce,” Brian replied, straight-faced.
Chris looked between the three of us, confused. Gus bent close to whisper in his ear and an amused look replaced the bewilderment. The storm hit while we were finishing up. Bill excused himself from helping clean up, saying he had to check on the other campers. I nodded, glad to have him leave. When I suggested that the boys go to their tent and seal it up from the rain, they agreed. Before they left though, Gus paused.
“Can I explain to Chris why you’re pretending you don’t know us, Mac?”
Brian and I exchanged rueful glances. “Sure...do you understand?”
“It’s because of the way my dad is, isn’t it?” Chris looked so sad as he asked the question. I wasn’t sure how to answer, but Brian did.
“Not completely, Chris, but yes, in part. Not all people are comfortable with gay people. Mac didn’t want to crash this soggy party based on being my...partner...so he used his credentials to get invited in. It saves any awkwardness.”
Chris nodded. He seemed like he wanted to say something else, but instead, he just nodded a second time and turned to follow Gus back to the other tent.
Once the boys left, I said to Brian, “No sense both of us getting soaked. Get inside the tent and I’ll pass things in to you.”
He smiled. “Deal, but if you stay out there in that freezing rain, I think you’ll need to be warmed up.”
I laughed. “I most certainly will, but I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to have any assistance in getting warm. Go on, get in the tent or you’ll be as wet as me.” I’d put on a rainproof poncho as soon as the rain started, but the wind was blowing hard enough that it was impossible to stay dry.
As I worked quickly to clean the pans, using the rainwater to help in the proces s– it was coming down hard enough that I didn’t need to use up any of the rest of my water. Brian sat inside the dry tent, his wet shirt off.
“Take one of my spare shirts from my pack before you freeze,” I told him. He nodded gratefully. Brian liked the cold but he was beginning to turn blue. The temperature seemed to have dropped twenty degrees. Once I finished, I went under the tent flap and found Brian lying down on my sleeping bag, wearing just my wool shirt and his boxer-briefs. He was sound asleep. He was no doubt exhausted from the day. I didn’t have the heart to wake him. I put my blanket over him and headed over to his tent. I met Bill when I was half-way there.
“Where’s Kinney?” were the first words out of his mouth. I did my impersonation of a good old boy camper and did my best to look amused – not easy when talking to someone I was beginning to intensely dislike. Mentally, I begged Brian’s pardon as I said:
“Sound asleep in my tent. I don’t think he’s used to this type of activity. Besides, he’s in his forties, he said, so all of this is probably hard on a city guy like him.” Like Brian would ever admit his age to someone he’d just met, I thought, amused. But Bill was nodding smugly, as though he, with all his extra weight, was twice the athlete my slim, leanly muscled partner was.
“Well, stands to reason he can’t take this type of roughing it – a pansy like him.”
I couldn’t help myself, I had to say something. “Bill, that’s the second time you’ve said something offensive to me. I don’t appreciate it....”
He interrupted me, total bewilderment on his face. “I don’t know what you mean. All I said was that Kinney, being....”
“Gay...’a pansy’...wouldn’t be able to hack it. Well, so far, you’ve been wrong. And I guess you haven’t picked up on it yet, but I’m gay also.”
I watched as the man struggled to process that revelation. For a moment, I thought he was going to dispute me, argue that I couldn’t be gay.
“But...the ranger said you’ve camped all over the world...in some of the toughest conditions there are.”
“Your point?” I asked politely, my arms crossed over my chest. Not that it was possible to look too intimidating in a rain poncho, with rain pouring down my face. Just then, Gus came running up to me. He pulled on my arm to get my attention. I excused myself to Burns, who was still standing there in the rain, his mouth gaping open like a fish. I waited until we were far enough away not to be overheard, and asked Gus what was wrong.
“Mac, I need your help!” His eyes looked huge – he was frightened!
“What is it, Gus? Who’s frightened you?”
He turned around, making sure no one was listening. “It’s Chris. He went back up the trail. I told him not to but he was...upset. His dad called him some names after we ate and he feels like he has to prove he’s tough.”
“Damn. Do you know which area he was headed for?” I scanned the rocky hillside that led down to Fisher’s Cove. In this storm, visibility was really limited.
“He said he was going to the third cliff, the one Dad didn’t let us go up to because it was too dangerous. He made me promise not to tell, but I had to tell someone.”
“Your dad was right, Gus. It is too dangerous for anyone to be out there. You were right to tell me.”
“You don’t have to tell Mr. Burns, though, do you? He’ll...he’ll be really angry at Chris.”
I thought for a moment. I knew that trail well – it led to some outreaching cliffs that were perfect for bird watching. Normally I would raise an alert and have a team go out looking for the boy, but I understood why Gus didn’t want me to tell any of the others, especially Burns. Plus, there was the fact that few of these men could safely traverse that cliffside trail in the rain, with the cloud cover making it dark. I’d have the best chance of finding Chris. If I hurried, I should catch up to him before he reached the cliffs.
“You go wait in my tent, Gus. I don’t expect Mr. Burns will go looking for you or Chris in there. I should be back within a half hour, but no later than an hour.”
“Thanks, Mac. I don’t want Chris to get into trouble because I broke my promise.”
“Well, that’s the least of Chris’ worried right now. Go on now, get into the tent and try to dry off. Don’t wake your dad up; he is really tired.”
I walked Gus back to my tent as I needed to grab my emergency pack, which contained items like a flashlight, a first aid kit and water. Not that getting dehydrated would be a problem, I thought, looking again at the steady rain that was falling. I tucked a spare poncho inside as a last thought, and then hugged Gus.
“Don’t worry,” I said in a low voice, not wanting to wake Brian. “I’ll go get Chris and then we’ll figure out a way to help him with his dad situation.”
“Thanks, Mac.” Gus hugged me again. I tousled his hair and smiled at him, before heading off at a brisk pace. I hoped I would catch up to him fairly soon, before he reached the treacherous rocks of the cliff.
Once I was outside hearing distance of the campsite, I started calling Chris’s name, hoping he’d recognize a friendly voice and head toward me. Every so many minutes, I stopped and listened for any sound that might give me a clue that he was near. I was beginning to question my wisdom in heading out alone, especially once I reached the cliffs and there was still no sign of the boy.
I stood in the clearing before the rocky area, and yelled his name a few more times. Just when I was debating turning and going back to the other cliffs, those closer to the camp, I heard a small sound. Faint, but human.
As carefully as I could, on a surface that felt like ice, I made my way over the rocks, heading toward the sound. I was getting frustrated with my inability to find him – and with the conditions that made movement next to impossible.
“Chris! Chris, can you call to me? Where are you?”
Just barely, I heard a small, “here” that was carried by the wind from the direction of the highest point of the cliffs. I took a deep breath. Climbing out onto that was enough to scare me, and I was used to rock climbing. But, I reminded myself, when I went rock climbing, there were safety precautions taken that just weren’t available to me now. I had to make a choice – continue out onto the cliff in the hope of finding him, or head back to the camp for help – and some ropes. The next cry made my choice for me.
“Mac...is that you? Help me! I can’t move. I...don’t leave me here!” There was an undercurrent of hysteria to his tone, and I knew I couldn’t take the time to be more careful. I’d have to make my way to him, evaluate if he were hurt, or just got himself into a bad position. Before doing it, though, I took a couple of sticks and fashioned an arrow, pointing toward the rocks. If I slipped, I wanted someone else to know where we were.
“I’m here, Chris, stay still and I’ll get to you.”
Biting my lip, I started to make my way out onto the cliff, moving on all fours to keep my balance as best I could. I finally reached the edge of the higher peak, and looked over. There, on a small ledge about twenty feet down, was Chris, leaning against the rock wall behind him. I couldn’t see how he fell that far and didn’t break something. Or, maybe he did.
I called down to him. “I see you, Chris. Let me go get some of the men from the camp....”
“No!” he yelled, cutting me off. “My dad can’t know...I’d rather die than have him find me like this.”
The boy was hysterical. There would be no reasoning with him, I determined. I was worried that he couldn’t be trusted to stay put if I left him now. If he were thinking, he’d realize that there was no way his father wouldn’t find out about this. He was injured. Still, I couldn’t take the chance.
“Okay, I’m coming down to get you,” I told him. Looking around, I saw absolutely nothing I could tie a rope to in order to let myself down. I had a little rope in my pack. Enough that if Chris weren’t hurt, I could pull him up by it. But, I didn’t want to risk asking him to tie the rope securely around himself and pulling him without first seeing how he was injured, if he was injured. I’d have to climb down to him – without a safety net.
I almost made it, too. I let myself down over the side, finding small hand holds. I was close enough to see his pale face and the flash of red hair. Even wet, it was a fire red, I thought irrelevantly. I kept up a steady chatter to him in an effort to calm him. Suddenly, when I was about ten feet from him, there was a flash of thunder and lightening directly overhead. Chris screamed and I twisted to see if he’d been hit somehow. That’s when I lost my footing and everything went dark.
Something made me wake up with a start. A louder than usual crack of thunder, I supposed, seeing the flash of lightning that was strong enough to shine through the canvas and nylon tent. I sat up and was surprised to see my son sitting near-by, looking pale as death.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, cutting to the chase. “Where’s Mac?” After a beat, as I looked around, I added, “And where’s your little buddy, Chris?”
“Dad, I’m so glad you woke up. I’ve been sitting here waiting for Mac, and he said no longer than an hour, and it hasn’t been an hour, but I’m getting really worried anyway....”
“Whoa, slow down.” I crawled over to where he was sitting. Fuck, my son was shaking like a leaf. I pulled him onto my lap and wrapped my arms tightly around him.
“Now, once more, slower. Where did Mac go that was only supposed to last an hour?”
“He went out looking for Chris.”
I had a sinking feeling. “And where was Chris?”
“Up at those cliffs you told us not to go onto today.” Gus’s voice was so quiet, if I hadn’t had him on my lap, I never would have been able to make out the words.
“Jesus Christ,” I breathed.
“Dad! You’re not supposed to say that, Mom says.”
“You are when you’re praying,” I told him. “When did Mac leave, how long ago?”
Gus looked at his watch. “Forty-five minutes.”
I tried to think, how long did it take us to get to that cliff area? Only about twenty minutes on the way out, and Mac was a lot faster than we were, though the conditions were terrible. That would slow him down.
And if he or the boy were hurt, they’d take even longer, I thought to myself. No sense making Gus even more frightened than he looked.
“We need to get a team together to look for them,” I decided. “Come on, let’s get up.”
“We can’t, Dad! Chris’s dad will find out!”
“I should hope so. He’s probably the fucking reason that his son did such a stupid thing.” One part of my mind noted that Gus didn’t object to my cursing. Must be Mel’s influence, I thought, amused despite the circumstances.
“You don’t understand, Dad. We...we can’t let Mr. Burns find out.” I looked sharply at Gus. He looked down to avoid looking me in the eye.
“Why can’t we let the dickwad find out?” I asked...almost calmly.
“He...he...” Gus lifted tear filled eyes to me. “He sometimes hits Chris, to make him ‘tougher’ and not what he calls a fairy.”
I decided that I wouldn’t just tell Burns – I’d knock some sense into him. Or the bullshit out of him. One or the other.
“Gus...this isn’t something we can hide from the others. Mac and Chris may be in trouble. They probably need help, and as much as I’d like to, I’m not capable of handling something like this on my own.”
“Can’t we give Mac the hour, Dad? Please? I told Mac what Chris had done, even though I promised not to, and now I’m telling you. He’ll hate me if his dad punishes him because I broke my promise.”
I took a deep breath. “Gus...normally I would agree. Nothing is worth breaking your word to a friend. But, this is different. Mac is good, but even really good hikers and climbers can get into trouble. Those rocks were slippery up there, even before all this rain. We can’t wait any longer. It will be even darker soon, when the sun goes down completely. Then what would we do?”
“But Mr. Burns...”
“I’ll handle Chris’s dad. Come on. Show me where their tent is.”
I should have realized there was a serious problem when Chris didn’t want to spend any time with his own father during a father/son weekend. As I ran my mind over their interactions, I saw much that was familiar. In my case, though, it was easier to stay away from my dad – he didn’t make any pretense of being father of the year.
When we reached the Burns’ tent, I called from outside. “Burns, get out here, I need to talk to you.”
“Go away,” came the cranky answer. “I don’t want to be disturbed...and especially not by you. Tell my son to get back to where he belongs.”
“That’s just it, I can’t. Now get your fat ass out here. There’s a situation that you need to know about.”
That got him to the tent flap. He glowered at me as he pulled his hood tighter around his head. Actually, I thought the rain was beginning to let up. Maybe I should pray more often.
“Where’s my son?” Burns asked gruffly.
“Out in this storm, thanks to you and your bullshit about being a coward.” Despite my own worry, there was a measure of satisfaction in seeing the fear come into his expression.
“What? Why did he go out in this? Why didn’t you stop him?” He directed the last question to Gus as well as me. Gus shrank back against me, as red color suffused the other man’s face. I squeezed Gus’s shoulder to lend him some support. And to let him know he had nothing to fear from this man.
“I tried to stop him,” Gus began. “He said he had to prove to you he was brave and not...and not a fairy.”
“Better dead than gay, is that your mantra, Burns?” I couldn’t resist hammering home to the man what he’d done with his ridiculous attitude.
“I didn’t...I never meant...we need to go out looking for him! Where...” Burns paused, then continued, “where’s that Mac fellow. He’d be the best person to lead us on a search.”
“He left almost an hour ago to find your son, right after Chris left.”
Burns looked angry again. “Why didn’t he come get the rest of us? Did he encourage Chris to do this tomfool thing?”
“No!” Gus yelled. “Chris didn’t want you to know until he did it. He's afraid of you! I told Mac to try to help him, but I didn’t want you because you hurt Chris!”
By this time, Gus’s yelling had drawn the attention of other campers, and they began to come out of their tents. I stepped closer, practically in Burns’ face.
“Stop trying to shift the fucking blame, and get together some men to come with us. It’s been an hour now and Mac still isn’t back. Something must be wrong.”
A few of the other men came over to us and I quickly explained the situation. Burns was quiet now, and still red-faced but the concern of the other dads, and the disapproving looks he was getting kept him quiet. Maybe it was even honest concern for his son.
Since Burns was useless, I quickly organized a search party. I told most of the men that they needed to stay to keep an eye on the boys, ensure that none of them decided to play hero on their own. Like Mac, was my thought, though I didn’t voice it.
“Shame we can’t communicate with each other,” one of the dads staying behind said.
I suddenly remembered that Mac had a walkie talkie in his pack. I wondered if he had it with him and sent Gus to check his tent. Ten of us were heading in and I agreed, being able to send messages between those of us going and the men in the camp would have been great, but if Mac had the walkie talkie, he’d be able to send for help and we might find the ranger arriving any minute.
That hope died a quick death when Gus came running back, the walkie talkie in his hand. I gave it to Burns.
“Can you contact the ranger station, tell them we probably need help here.”
“Should we maybe wait and see if Williams was able to....” Burns’s voice cut out. I turned to the man who’d been acting as the second in command.
“Jim, can you use this? Reach the ranger station and summon some help. Tell them where we’re going.”
Jim nodded. We headed off toward the cliffs.
The rain grew lighter and finally stopped as we made our way as quickly as we could to the higher cliffs. Along with Jim and Burns, we had seven other men with us. A few of them brought strong lights while others brought strong ropes. I continually scanned the trail ahead, hoping that at any second, I’d see Mac come around a bend, Chris in tow. But...nothing.
We left two of the men at each of the lower slopes. They were warned not to go close to the cliff, but to call Mac and Chris’s names. If they found something, they had flares to send out. At least with all the rain, there was no danger that the flares would set off a forest fire.
The ranger responded to the Mayday transmission with a promise to be there as soon as possible. He had several other calls for help and missing hikers.
“He says that Mac is the person he’d be radioing to help him and that we should be careful,” Jim told us, after calling the ranger for a second time. His expression was disgusted.
“Mac is the best,” I told him. “I’ve no doubt he found Chris and is probably waiting for us for some reason.”
“Well, I have doubts! Your boy should have told me as soon as....”
“Shut up, Bill. I would have done the same thing that he did,” Jim snapped at him. “We all know how hard you are on that boy. He probably took off to get away from one of your rants.”
Bill bristled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And it isn’t important right now. What is important is finding Mac and Chris. There are the cliffs ahead. Start calling for them.”
Jim and the other man still with us stayed back from the cliffs. Looking out over the cliffs, I saw a rainbow curving over the sky. It would have been breath-taking – under other circumstances. I bowed my head as I looked away from it – and saw a strange cluster of sticks weighted down with rocks.
An arrow. Pointing directly at the top of the cliff.
“Burns...look!” He came over and knelt down. He picked up one of the sticks and then put it back down.
“Mac must have left this. It was put here during the rain. So where is he? Where’s Chris?”
I looked again at the highest peak.
“I’d guess they went this way. Come on.”
“It’s too dangerous,” he protested. “With those rocks wet, we won’t be able to keep our footing.”
“What? I can’t be hearing correctly. Are you saying that you aren’t brave enough to go where a fag and a little boy went – during the height of the storm.”
I watched the angry red color wash over his face again. The man was going to have a coronary before he was forty. “You know about Williams? That he’s....”
“Gay? Queer? A pansy? Yeah, some of my best friends are. And this one happened to be gutsy enough to go after a scared little boy, even over those rocks. So, I’m going to do the same. We pansies watch each other’s backs. You can follow if you want.”
I called out to Jim and the other man, Derek, Dennis, some “D” name.
“They’re over this way, we think. Bring the ropes.”
I made my way slowly over the rocks. These jeans would never be wearable again. After slipping a couple of times, I dropped down to crawl. I heard sounds indicating that at least one man was behind me. The cursing would have been enough to win my admiration, if it weren’t for the fact that Burns was beyond any positive feelings.
“Fuck! I can’t make it...it’s too damn slippery. We don’t even know for sure they’re somewhere nearby.”
“Yeah, Mac left an arrow to trick us...dickwad.”
I continued to make my way forward, shutting out Burns’s protests that we should wait for the ranger to be available. I couldn’t wait, not if Mac were lying somewhere near these cliffs, hurt, or holding an injured child.
“Kinney, you’re acting recklessly. Wait!”
“Fuck off, Burns.”
I wondered if I should wait. What did I think I could do that Mac couldn’t? Maybe Mac had gone back by a different trail and he and Chris were already back drinking hot chocolate by the camp. He’d kill me if I died trying to perform an unnecessary rescue. Where was Mysterious Marilyn when I really needed her...and a sign of what to do?
Looking out over the peak of the cliff, a couple yards away, I saw a large bird of prey swooping and gliding. It was as beautiful a sight as the rainbow. Mac’s specialty was the study of birds, their habitats, mating habits. As a sign, I felt that was sufficiently clear.
“Mac! Are you here?” I dragged myself on my belly the last couple yards and leaned over the edge. “Jesus Christ,” I whispered. And I wasn’t swearing.
My head was pounding and I ached everywhere...in some places I hurt badly. But, that was the voice of a little boy...a frightened little boy. I forced my eyes to open.
“Chris...are you okay?”
“I’m sorry, so sorry.” Chris’s tear-stained face appeared above me. I reached out my hand and brushed his tears away.
“No problem, Chris. I only fell half the distance you must have fallen. Tell me where you’re hurt!”
I struggled to get up in a sitting position.
“My leg...I think it’s broken,” he said hoarsely. “I tried calling and calling but no one came. I’d given up when I heard you calling for me.”
“I’m glad you had enough voice left to let me know where you were. I’m just sorry I got myself banged up so that it will take longer for me to get us out of this. Let me see your leg.”
I ignored the shooting pains in my head. I was badly bruised but I didn’t think I’d broken anything. From the light, I didn’t think I’d been out long. A couple of minutes at most. Just long enough to scare the kid to death, I told myself. Great rescuer I was.
“Does this hurt?” I asked, gently running my hands along the leg he’d pointed to. He gasped as I touched his tibia. It didn’t feel displaced, but there was definite swelling. Hopefully, it was only the one bone and not the fibula also. As I looked around for something to use as a splint, I asked Chris, “Did you fall all the way down from the peak?”
“No, I fell first to that higher ledge, it was...bigger... then.” He indicated some rocks and dirt on the ledge. He shook a bit.
“Lucky break,” I said, before I had time to think. Chris looked at me questioningly. “Sorry, unintentional pun. My dad is addicted to them, sometimes I think the failing is genetic. Worse sense of humor in the world.” I saw a branch that I could strip down and use as a splint, securing it with the bandages in my medical kit. I reached into my pack and pulled out the poncho and extra sweater I’d tucked into it.
“Here, see if you can lean against me for a moment and we’ll get that wet shirt off you and put this sweater on, then the poncho over it. Get you a little warmer.” I accompanied my words with actions. The rain was beginning to stop but the boy was soaked through. I was worried about him going into shock also. I hoped he didn’t have internal bleeding, but he seemed to be fairly alert. All the same, I wanted to keep him as warm and still as possible. He’d been damn lucky to hit that ledge. I shuddered to think of what might have happened if he hadn’t. I noticed the remains of a half built nest in the debris as I continued to talk quietly to him. He was being stoic but the more distraction the better.
“Look, that’s a falcon nest.”
“Oh no, did I kill the baby birds?” His eyes welled up again. He wasn’t shedding any tears over the pain in his leg as I splinted it, but the thought of harming a bird’s young distressed him. A boy after my own heart. I was quick to reassure him.
“No! It’s too early for any eggs. Mama bird can start over. Probably here, where the materials are, and where it may be safer, so you might have done her a favor.”
“That’s good, I feel bad enough you got hurt.” He looked away, biting his lip.
Finishing my work on his leg, I rummaged in my kit for some painkillers.
“Are you allergic to any medicines, Chris? The kind that you take for a headache, for instance.”
“No...I can take Tylenol and Advil.”
“Then here, two of these, sport, and you might feel a little less pain.” I gave him the tablets and some water. I decided to take a couple as well.
“What do we do now?” He looked better. Not as frightened.
I smiled at him faintly. “Now...we wait. Can I ask you a few questions, seeing as how we’re here?”
He nodded, giving me a wary look. I edged closer so that I could put my arms around him and use our body heat to keep us warmer. I hoped that Gus had told the others of our little adventure by now. I wondered what Brian would do. After he murdered Burns, that is. Which brought me to my questions.
“Chris, why did you do this? You’re too smart a boy to take such a risk.”
His bottom lip trembled again. I squeezed his shoulders. “Listen, I can be a pretty good listener and there’s little chance of us being overheard. But, if you don’t want to talk to me, you don’t have to. But...at some point, sooner rather than later, I suspect, we’ll be rescued by the others and they’ll ask questions. If you let me know what was going on in your head, maybe I can help with that part. At least a bit better than I have so far.”
“You’ve been great, Mac. I was so scared before you came. I...I....” He glanced toward the edge of the ledge, a mere two or three feet from us, and this time I was the one who had to blink back tears.
“You must have been pretty desperate to risk going up to the cliffs in a storm,” I suggested gently.
“I had to!” The words seemed to burst out. “I had no choice! My Dad, he was beginning to guess, he said....I just had to prove to him that I....”
He bit his lip and was quiet. I said gently, “I have had a couple of conversations with your dad, and I’m sure he’s a pretty good guy...sometimes...but he has a few odd ideas in his head.”
“Oh, like saying things like gay people are less brave or not as good at some things as straight people.” Seeing Chris’s stricken face, I rushed to add, “I had to tell him, he was full of crap. I’m gay and I like to think I can hike and rock climb with the best of ‘em. At least, usually I can rock climb; you didn’t get me at my best today.”
There was total silence. Then, in a small voice I could hardly hear, Chris said, “You’re gay?”
“Yep. I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable. Contrary to what some mixed up people think, gay men are not child molesters. Nor are we weak, cowardly or prone to lisping.”
“My Dad...he thinks those things.”
“Yeah, well, like I said, your dad is a little confused. But, between Brian and me, we think we can clear up a few of those misconceptions.”
“Gus’s dad, he’s really cool.” Chris looked shyly at me. “You’re...you’re boyfriends, aren’t you?”
I smiled again, thinking how Brian hated that word. But...he would understand why I would go with that term, considering the situation. “Yeah, we are.”
“You’re lucky,” was his final comment.
“Yeah, I am. Try to rest. I’ll do the yelling when I hear someone coming.”
I’d tested his pupils before splinting his leg and I didn’t see any risk to letting him sleep. He hadn’t struck his head and wasn’t showing any signs of concussion. Wish I could say the same about me. Once I saw that he was asleep, I shifted us both down to a prone position, as far from the edge as I could get us. There wasn’t much shelter to be had, but a little bit. I also didn’t want one of us to roll over without thinking and go over the edge. I didn’t think we’d be lucky enough to hit another ledge and the drop to the bottom was several hundred feet. I watched what might have been Mama falcon, flying near-by, the beautiful movements almost hypnotic.
What I didn’t plan was to fall asleep myself. But, the next thing I knew, a familiar voice was whispering in my ear.
“Wake up, hero. Your ride is waiting.”
I blinked, startled from sleep. Brian was crouching next to me, a rope in his hands.
“Brian!” I tried to sit up but pain made me wince. He wrapped his arms around me.
“Is it safe for you to sit up? And for Chris to be moved? Your friend Greg the ranger is up above, but if you can tie this rope around Chris safely, and then do some boy scout thing to make sure he stays with me, I’ll hold him as they pull us both up and then be back for you.”
“I can manage the boy scout thing but...are you sure? And how the hell did you get down here?”
“The others lowered me down. We drew straws and I won.”
I had to smile at his smug expression. “Careful, his leg is broken.”
“He already told me...he’s awake, by the way. I think he’s just giving us some private time like a good boy.”
“He is a good boy.” With Chris looking discreetly away, Brian kissed me.
“Are you ready yet?” It was Greg’s voice. I called back. “Give me a second. I need to finish these knots.” I quickly did what was necessary to ensure that Brian wouldn’t lose Chris.
“Be careful.” I told them, giving Chris a last hug. Brian had him tight against his chest. I hoped the splint kept the leg from getting worse. I watched anxiously as Brian was pulled up. I heard some cheers as he made it to the top with Chris. Within minutes, I saw his long figure being let down a second time.
“I could have made it up on my own,” I protested. “I should have told you...”
“Shut up, Mac,” he said lovingly and stole another kiss.
I decided he made a good argument for shutting up so I did.
I made a convincing show of not being terrified out of my wits as I made two trips up and down that cliffside. Compared to how I felt when I saw Mac lying so still on that small ledge twenty feet down, the worry over being let down on a little rope, by a bunch of possibly homophobic Canadians – it was a walk in the park. I was weak with relief when he opened those beautiful green eyes of his and smiled.
The ranger did a quick check over both of them and then radioed for a helicopter to come get them.
There was a quick discussion about who to send with them. Burns wanted to go, arguing that he needed to go to lend comfort and support to his son. Seeing the boy’s panicked expression, I butted in. “I think that Mac is quite capable of looking out for your son.”
“Brave man who just probably saved your son’s life?” Greg glared at Burns.
“You don’t understand. He’s a ...”
I couldn’t help it. I slammed my fist into Burns’s face and he fell...hard.
“Well, I guess that answers that question,” I commented lightly. “Mac, will you be okay until I can get Gus and get the hell out of here?”
“Yes. But, hurry?” He gave me a weak smile. I could tell he was in a lot of pain, but he was hiding it from the others.
“You can count on it,” I assured him.
Twenty-four hours later found Gus and me sitting by Mac’s hospital bed. He was trying to put his shoes on and not reaching. His taped ribs were making it too hard – and painful – for him to bend that far.
I looked at Gus. “I think someone should help this poor, out of shape guy, huh?”
“I’d do it but I promised Chris that I would say good-bye to him. See you in a few,” he said, giving us a cheeky grin as he dashed out the door.
“Alone at last,” I murmured, bending down to tie Mac’s shoes.
“Thank you,” he said, kissing the top of my head.
“I haven’t had the chance to talk to you about your ridiculous over-protective streak,” I told him, sitting back on my heels. He blushed...and I enjoyed his embarrassment.
“I’m really sorry, and I know I should trust you to be able to take care of yourself, and...”
“And shut up, Mac,” I said, pulling him into my arms. “Who would ever believe such a quiet man could talk so much? I asked, with a grin. Then, I kissed him.
By the time we came up for air, I was satisfied that he had a good sense of how little I minded his interference. I shuddered to think what might have happened to Gus’s friend if Mac hadn’t gotten to him as quickly as he did. The ranger told me that he was definitely at risk for hypothermia and was likely in shock when Mac got to him.
“Will Chris be okay?” Mac asked, leaning his head on my shoulder after I pulled him to his feet.
“I think so. I had a long talk with his wife, Lisa...a nice woman. I figured she had to be, for Chris to be such a good kid. She had a very long talk with her husband, and once Mel had a little talk with her about what had been going on between Chris and the dickwad, she told him to go stay at a motel for the time being.”
“A happy ending?”
“Well, in the short run. In the long run, dickwad has agreed to go to counseling. Mel had a little talk with him too – about child abuse and the criminal penalties. I only wish I could have been there.”
“It’s so hard for me to imagine the kind of...fear of rejection...that could drive a child to that kind of risk. When he thought I was going to get his father, he threatened to go over the edge. I had no choice but to go down to him immediately. But, I knew you’d come for us.”
Mac looked at me with total faith. That look was worth more to me than five Clios.
“You know, that’s the same feeling I had when I was so exhausted after the hike in. I felt sure that if I needed help, you’d somehow appear. And, you did.”
“Kind of nice, huh? For someone to have your back.”
Yes, it was really nice, I thought, as we headed out to find Gus. I could get used to this. In fact, I already was. Seeing a bird flying outside as we walked down the glassed-in hallway toward Gus and Chris, I thought of the rainbow and the bird – and was grateful.
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