Fighting his rising fear, the boy forged ahead, the beam from his little flashlight penetrating but a few feet through the dark, the trees, and the fiercely blowing snow. He was shivering. He knew he was lost and had to find shelter if he was to survive the night. His sneakers were soaked through, and his thin jacket and pants were no match for the storm. He wore no gloves, and his hands and feet were growing numb. The fierce wind brought tears to his eyes, but he angrily brushed them aside for they limited his vision even more. On he trudged with no idea where he was going.
Earlier in the day, a man entered his cabin with an armload of wood. He dropped the wood beside the fireplace, patted his dog, Boris, on the head, and returned outside for more wood. When he was satisfied that he had enough, he closed and bolted the door. In the small entryway which he referred to as his mud room, he removed his jacket, hanging it just inside the entrance, and placed his boots neatly against the wall. In the main room, he added a couple of logs to the fire, then went to his worn old recliner to resume rereading his current book, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, while Boris lay before the fire, warming himself.
The man was a bit stooped and only about five-and-a-half feet tall. He wore his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. His woolen shirt was red plaid while his heavy trousers were dark brown. His face was lined with age, but the most telling signs that he had seen many, many winters were the gnarled hands holding his book. The joints were swollen, and the fingers could no longer be straightened. In the last few years, arthritis had settled into many of his joints and made chores like splitting wood or cleaning his cabin somewhat painful, but he continued to do both as well as tasks around the cabin. He was not one to give in to pain.
He knew he was quite old, well over 80, but he didn’t know how far over because he had lost track of the years once he had moved into the cabin.
Boris was a German shepherd and husky mix. He had been with the man for several years and the two of them were growing old together.
The cabin was constructed of pine logs with pine boards on the interior walls. On one side near the back of the large room was the man’s kitchen, with an electric stove, a sink now partially filled with dishes, and a small electric refrigerator which was kept cold when the power was off by two blocks of ice in old milk cartons. The man’s bed was beside the wall between the kitchen and the stone fireplace.
The long wall opposite the fireplace was lined with bookshelves filled from floor to the top of the wall with well-worn volumes. Above them, the wood angled toward the ridgepole, meeting the wood angled up from the other side.
At each end of the room was a door. In the rear, the door opened into a bathroom and utility room which housed, along with the man’s tools and guns, a hot water heater. An outside door was on the far wall.
In the front, the door opened into the mudroom which likewise had a door exiting the cabin. There were windows in two of the walls, which provided light during the day. Behind the cabin was a generator, which was timed to go on from 7:30 to 9:00 in the morning and from 5:00 to 10:00 in the evening. The man could easily override those settings if he wanted to. He did that, for example, when he drove into town.
There was a radio in the cabin from which he got the news. There was no TV and no phone, neither of which he felt he needed.
For most of his life, the man had worked as a carpenter and builder. After encountering trouble from thugs where he lived, he withdrew to a town in the far north where he built his cabin and retired.
He owned an old Ford truck which he drove into town on Wednesdays for food, fuel for his generator, ice for his icebox, and mail. Before leaving town, he opened his mail and paid the few bills he received. The mail always included a weekly news magazine.
He was amiable enough with the people he met in town but didn’t consider any of them friends. He was fine with that. He’d had friends who had turned against him during his troubles farther south. That had hurt him, and he now felt he could survive better with no friends. He knew that the people in town called him “The Hermit”, but he didn’t care about that so long as they left him alone.
While his truck was old, it served him well. He repaired many of its problems himself and had only once needed a mechanic since he had moved into the cabin. At present there was a snowplow attached to the front because he knew that the first winter storm was on its way.
Towards 6 o’clock, the man put down his book and went into the kitchen to prepare his supper, which usually consisted of hearty homemade soups or stews along with a few pieces of toast. While he worked, he put the radio on to listen to the latest news.
What he heard was mostly stories about the latest awful things the president had done and recent tragedies—fires in California, a plane crash in Africa, and miscellaneous deaths from murder and automobile accidents. The weather report assured him that a storm was on its way and could dump two to three feet of snow where he lived. Before settling at his table to eat, he switched the radio off because he had no use for the sports news which usually followed the weather report. As he ate, he began to read his magazine.
About half an hour before the man’s generator was set to go off, he banked his fireplace fire and got ready for bed, stripping off his clothes down to his long johns, washing his face and hands, and brushing his teeth. Perhaps in the morning he would shave, for it had been about a week since he had last used his razor.
He climbed into bed and Boris climbed in beside him. They listened as the wind swept through the trees outside. If he listened very carefully, the man could hear snow falling. Most people believed that you couldn’t hear snow fall, but he knew better. Soon they were both asleep.
They were awakened in the night by pounding on the front door. Without moving, the man lay still and listened. The pounding came again. He and Boris got out of bed as the dog growled low in his throat. The man stepped into his slippers and took his flashlight to the mudroom door, where he grabbed the rifle which he always kept beside the door. He told Boris to sit before he opened the door.
As soon as he opened the door, biting wind blew snow in his face. In the beam of his flashlight he could make out a snow-covered figure huddled over as though to protect itself from the wind. “What d’ya want?” he bellowed over the howl of the wind.
The figure shouted, “C…c…can I come in before my b-b-b-balls freeze off?”
“I guess we wouldn’t want that,” the man said, opening the door wider and standing back, still holding his rifle at the ready.
The figure appeared to blow into the cabin. It turned and leaned against the door, trying to close it, but it took both of them to shut the wind out. As they pushed the door closed, the man concluded that the figure beside him was a boy, probably in his teens. The boy was shivering. His cheeks were bright red, and his bare hands were beginning to turn blue. Boris sniffed at the boy, decided he wasn’t dangerous, and went back to bed. The man went to the fireplace and rekindled the fire. Then he switched on the generator, and the overhead light in the kitchen as well as the lamp by his reading chair came on.
As the quivering boy drew near the fire, the man could see that his trousers and sneakers were soaking.
“Ya need ta get out of those wet clothes,” the man said.
“What, and run around naked? No way,” replied the boy.
“Follow me,” the man said and turned towards his bathroom. The boy was reluctant to leave the fire until the man said, “C’mon. We gotta get ya out of those clothes.”
“But I don’t have any others.”
“Yer close to my size. I guess my clothes’ll fit ya in a pinch.” With that he opened a dresser near the door to the bathroom and pulled out some long johns, a flannel shirt, warm pants, and wool socks. Then he opened the door to the bathroom and again said, “C’mon.”
Reluctantly, the boy left the warm fire and went into the bathroom.
“The water in the heater’s still hot, so first ya should take a warm shower. Don’t make it too hot at first because there’s probably no feelin’ in yer hands or feet, and ya could burn yerself. There’s a towel here for ya. Put on the dry clothes and bring yer others out. We’ll dry ’em by the fire.” With that the man left the room.
As directed, the boy removed his wet clothes, realizing that he felt warmer with his soaking clothes off. Cautiously, he turned on the shower, following the old man’s directions to not make the water too hot. He climbed in and let the water play over him. His hands and feet began to tingle, and he knew the feeling in them was returning. He hoped he didn’t have frostbite. He had read about that in a book about climbing Mount Everest, and he knew it could be nasty, often necessitating amputations. But as the feeling continued to return, he decided he was okay. As he stood thawing out, he slowly turned up the water as hot as he could stand. He finally stopped shivering.
When he was warm and clean, he turned off the shower and dried himself. Before dressing, the boy looked at himself in the mirror, as teenage boys often do. Reflected back to him was a pale face set off by black, rather untamed hair, black eyebrows, and dark gray eyes. His chest and shoulders were beginning to develop but were still those of a boy. He ran his hand through his hair, trying to arrange it in some sort of order, but he failed. He put on the clothes the old man had left for him. He had never worn long johns before, but he enjoyed their warmth. As he dressed, he wondered about the man. Who was he? Was he the “Hermit of the Woods” he had heard about? In his wanderings that night the boy had lost all sense of direction and he wondered where he was.
He went back to the fireplace and sat in front of the fire while the man took the wet clothes and laid them on the hearth. Neither one said anything for a few minutes.
Finally, the boy said, “I guess we should call my parents and tell them I’m okay.”
“Can’t,” said the man.
The boy fished his phone out of his trousers and tried to call but realized there was no signal where they were. He shrugged and returned his phone to his pocket.
“So how do you communicate with the rest of the world?”
“I don’t,” the man replied. “I’ve no need to.”
“But what if you got sick or hurt yourself? How would you get help?”
“I wouldn’t, unless someone in town figured out that I hadn’t appeared on my regular Wednesday and came out to check on me.”
“But that could be almost a week. What if you died?”
“Then I wouldn’t need help, would I?”
The boy thought about that for a while, but weariness soon overcame him, so he asked, “Where can I sleep?”
“In my bed.”
“But where will you sleep?”
“In my bed.”
“I can’t sleep with you.”
“Why not? D’ya think I’ll bite? Yer perfectly safe with me.”
“I’ll just get some blankets and stretch out here on the floor.”
“The only blankets I’ve got are on the bed.”
“Well, the fire’s warm enough. I’ll be okay here.”
“Suit yerself.” The man turned off the generator, which turned off the lights, and climbed into bed with Boris while the boy stretched out on the floor.
Later, the man felt the boy climb into bed next to him, so he shooed Boris off the bed and moved over to give the boy some room. They both slept until the power came on in the morning.
At the sound of the generator, the man climbed over the boy and out of bed, saying, “Stay there until I get the fire goin’.” Soon he had a good blaze going and the boy climbed out of bed and stood shivering in front of the fire until he warmed up. His clothes had dried some but weren’t dry enough to put on yet, so he stayed in the man’s clothes.
The man went to the front door and looked out for a moment before returning and beginning to cook breakfast. Soon the tempting smells of cooked sausages and scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee filled the cabin. “I’m afraid I don’t have any milk or juice. D’ya ever drink coffee?”
“Sometimes.” So the man poured him some and returned the pot to the stove to keep it hot.
As they ate, the man said, “It looks like we’ve got nearly a foot of snow already and it’s driftin’. The radio said the storm was a nor’easter, which means it could go on for about three days.”
“So how do I get home?”
“Ya don’t until the snow stops and I can plow us out.”
“You mean I’m stuck here?”
The man looked at the boy with a raised eyebrow. “Ya can look at it two ways. Yer stuck here but I’m stuck with you. I don’t like company. I don’t want company, so try to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
They were silent as they finished their meal. The man put the dishes in the sink and began to run hot water for dishes. “I’ll wash; you dry.” They finished the dishes and put them away. Then the man went to his chair.
“What do you do all day?” the boy asked.
“Yep. On a day like this there’s not much else I can do.”
“Oh. Can I read one of your books then?”
The boy went over to the wall of bookcases and searched for one that might interest him. He browsed for some time, finally pulling out a book titled A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. He’d never heard of either the book or its author, but on the cover it had a picture of a boy who looked about his own age. He went over to the fireplace and lay on his back using the uncomplaining Boris as a pillow. The boy liked the smells in the cabin. He closed his eyes for a few minutes and savored the scents from breakfast as well as those of raw pine and wood smoke. When he realized he was getting hot in front of the fire, he stood and removed his clothes except for his long johns. Then he settled back down to read.
The cabin was silent except for the crackle of the fire and the wail of the wind. The man read. The boy read. The dog snored.
An hour or so later, the boy exclaimed, “Holy shit! There’s sex in this book.”
“Yep. There’s sex in several of my books.”
“But this is like queer sex.”
“Yep. But don’t ever use the word ‘queer’ near me again.”
The boy was startled. But then he started thinking. The man thought he could almost hear the wheels grinding and smell the smoke as the boy thought. At last he turned to the man and asked very quietly, “Are you gay?”
“Oh.” The boy thought again before saying, “But you said I would be safe in your bed and I was. You didn’t touch me.”
The man sighed, put his bookmark in his book, closed it and said, “There are at least three reasons why I didn’t and won’t touch ya. The first is that there’s such a thing as hospitality, which wouldn’t let me touch a guest in my home without his permission. The second is that I’m not interested in having sex with boys. I haven’t been since I was a boy myself. The third is that, when ya get to my age, the plumbin’ doesn’t work very well and ya seldom get the urge to do anythin’ about sex.”
The boy mulled that over in his mind before he asked, “Can I tell you something?”
The man nodded.
“I guess you’re probably wondering what I was doing out in the woods last night.” Again the man nodded. “Well, I had a fight with my parents, especially my dad, so I decided to go out and walk for a while to cool off. I guess I walked longer than I planned to, because I suddenly realized it was nearly dark and I was lost. By then the wind had come up and the snow had started to fall. I knew if I didn’t find shelter I could be in real trouble. I went the way I thought I should to get home, but I found myself wandering in the woods. Fortunately, I always keep a small flashlight in my jacket pocket. It helped a little, but not much. All I could do was keep walking. It felt like forever before I finally smelled wood smoke, but I had no idea where it was coming from. I was about to give up when I walked straight into your truck. You didn’t have any lights on in the cabin, but I worked my way from the back of the truck and found your door. If you hadn’t let me in, I could have been dead by now.”
“Are ya gonna tell me what the fight was about?”
The boy hesitated. He was about to say something that he had never said to anyone until yesterday when he had told his parents, and he knew the reaction he had gotten then. But he thought the man would probably be okay with it.
“I told my parents that I’m gay. They got angry, especially my dad, who said that it was bullshit; I wasn’t gay, and I never would be.
“I asked him how he knew.
“He said, ‘You don’t act gay. You don’t walk around flapping your hands and lisping. You can’t be gay.’
“But I am, I said, and I have a boyfriend.
“Mom put in, ‘You’re just going through a phase.’
‘‘I’ve known ever since I was about 5 that I was gay, although back then I didn’t have a word for it. ‘I AM GAY!’ I shouted.
“My dad blew his top and told me to go up to my room. Instead, I grabbed my jacket and went outside. You know the rest.”
Before saying anything, the man thought for a long time. “Ya know that I’m gay,” he finally said, “and I understand what ya mean about knowin’ that even at a very young age. We didn’t even have the word ‘gay’ when I was young. All the words were derogatory. Ya probably know some of them.” The boy nodded. “Well, I’m not gonna tell ya my life story. Nobody needs to know that. But I will say that it wasn’t pleasant. I was beaten up, and a friend of mine was murdered. Not fun. So I decided the best thing to do was to live alone. And here I am.”
The boy sensed that the man was finished talking for a while, although there were still things he wanted to know. He simply said, “Thanks,” and they both returned to reading in silence.
For lunch they made BLTs. The man cooked the bacon while the boy sliced some tomatoes and got out the lettuce and mayonnaise. They ate in silence except when they boy said, “This is really good,” and the man nodded.
As they were finishing, the man asked, “How old are ya?”
“Fourteen. How old are you?”
“I’ve lost track,” he said. Then he told the boy what year he’d been born.
Doing a little figuring the boy exclaimed, “My gosh, you’re 88.”
“I guess so.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I’ve no idea what 88 looks like.”
As the boy thought about that, he realized he had no idea either.
After lunch they went to the front door to see how much snow had fallen. There was nearly 2 feet drifted up against the door, but it was hard to tell how much there was where the snow hadn’t drifted.
They continued to read through the afternoon. Occasionally, the man let Boris out the back door, which was sheltered from the wind, to do his business. When Boris scratched at the door the man let him back in.
The boy finished his book and put it back on the shelf before searching for another. He found one called The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault, another writer he had never heard of. He thought it looked interesting, so he took it over to the fire, where he read, again using Boris as a pillow. Soon he was immersed in ancient times and the story of Alexander the Great and his Persian slave. From time to time he dozed in the warmth of the fire but then awoke and continued reading. For a long time, he thought there was no sex in the story, although he was pretty sure there was something going on between Alexander and his slave.
When the boy looked up at the clock, he realized he had read all afternoon and hadn’t missed his phone or his laptop at all. He stretched and stood up, laying his book on the table. He went into the bathroom for a long overdue pee and then went to the mudroom door to look out. All he could see was white. He sighed and returned to the big room, knowing that he was destined to spend another night in the cabin.
He had been enjoying the book he was reading, so he wandered over to the bookcases to see if there were any others by Mary Renault. As he searched, he realized the books were arranged alphabetically by author. He found several more by the same author and decided that when he got home he would look in the town library for her books.
For supper they had hot soup and warm rolls. Although he hadn’t done anything all day except read, the boy realized he was famished and ate everything in sight.
After supper, they read. When the man said it was time to get ready for bed, the boy went into the bathroom, peed, and brushed his teeth. Boris went outside again. When the dog returned, he began to get up on the bed, but the man shooed him off. The dog groaned and went back to the fire.
After the lights went out, the boy lay listening to the storm before his thoughts turned to other things. He thought about the boys in the first book cornholing and soon he had a hard erection. He turned away from the man and wondered what to do. He didn’t want to masturbate in the bed because he knew he would leave a stain. He thought about going into the bathroom but thought that, if he got up, he might wake the man. Finally, he tried to think about The Persian Boy, because at least so far it didn’t have any sex. He thought about what he had learned so far about ancient Greece and Persia, and soon he was fast asleep.
In the morning the snow was still falling and the wind was still howling. After breakfast and doing the dishes, the man and the boy settled down to read. The boy had been thinking about the man and now he wondered if he dared ask his question.
Taking a deep breath, he asked, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Ya can ask. Whether or not I’ll answer’s another matter.” When the boy was silent for a few moments, the man said, “So go ahead and ask. I don’t have all day.”
The boy thought that was pretty ironic since both of them apparently did have all day. He took another breath and asked, “Did you ever have a partner?”
“What became of him?”
“None of yer business.” The man pretended to go back to his book. Finally he sighed and said, “I might as well tell ya because ya probably won’t leave me alone until I do.” He gathered his thoughts a little then said, “When I was young, I had a few relationships. We always thought we were real serious at the time, but in fact the relationships didn’t last long.
“Later, I was workin’ as a carpenter buildin’ houses. There was a man named Roger on our crew. Well, we went out for a beer or two a few times and then we realized that we were both gay. The friendship turned into a relationship and soon it became real serious, if ya know what I mean.”
The boy nodded but didn’t say anything because he didn’t want the man to stop telling the story.
“We were together for nearly thirty years, and we both thought we would always be. But one night, we were holdin’ hands and strollin’ back from a movie, and we were jumped from behind by about six guys. Two of them held each of us, and the last two began beatin’ us. One of them shouted, ‘Take this, faggots!’ Somehow, I managed to break away and I ran, thinkin’ that Roger was right behind me. When I finally stopped runnin’, I looked around and Roger was nowhere in sight. That was when I began to really worry.
“I knew I had to go back to find him. I was afraid that if I did the thugs would get me again, but I began joggin’, retracin’ my steps.
“When I got back, the bullies were gone but Roger was lyin’ on the sidewalk, unconscious and bleedin’. I ran into a nearby convenience store and asked the clerk to call 911. Soon a police car pulled up, joined a few minutes later by an ambulance. The EMTs did what they could and then loaded Roger into the ambulance. I climbed in beside him.
“At the hospital, Roger was immediately taken into surgery. I’m sure the doctors did the best they could, but Roger never made it out of surgery.”
The boy could see that there were tears in the man’s eyes, and, in fact there were tears in his own eyes as well.
“I never looked for another partner. I was angry and I guess I was pretty hard to get along with, because the few friends I had began to avoid me. I thought about killin’ myself, but I knew that Roger would be mad if I did. Maybe I’m just not brave enough to do it. Finally, I said, ‘To hell with it.’ I came up here and bought this land and built the cabin and I’ve been here ever since.”
The boy knew he should say something, but he didn’t know what. Saying he was sorry was too obvious and not strong enough. At last he blurted out, “Shit! That really sucks!”
The man nodded and sighed and went into the bathroom. When he emerged, the tears were gone but the sorrow in his face remained. He sat down and asked, “So, are ya glad now that ya pried into my business?”
“I can’t say I’m happy, but I’m sort of glad that you trusted me with your story. Have you told it to other people?”
“Nope, and I had no intention of tellin’ it to you. It just kinda came out. And I don’t want ya tellin’ anyone. Let’s not talk anymore about it.”
The boy agreed and they returned to their books, or at least pretended to. The boy was actually thinking about what he might do to help the man. He seemed so sad and alone, but the boy couldn’t come up with anything that would help.
Somehow, they made it through the day, fixing their meals and saying little.
In bed that night, something woke the boy. He didn’t know what it was at first, but then he realized that the man was behind him and had an arm around him. He smiled and went back to sleep.
Later, he awoke again. The man’s arm was still around him but there was something else different. He was puzzled until he became aware that he wasn’t hearing any wind. He breathed a relieved sigh and went back to sleep.
The generator came on in the morning, and even before going into the bathroom to pee, the boy went to the front door and opened it. Peering over the drifted snow, he saw that the sun was shining, and he thought the sight before him was the most beautiful he had ever seen. Snow covered everything—glistening, almost blinding snow. It lay heavily on the evergreen trees, weighing them down. The truck was a white form, reminding him of some buried animal. The sky was a cloudless, cobalt blue. The world was silent.
He returned to the main room where he and the man dressed and made a hot breakfast of pancakes with lots of maple syrup and hot coffee. When the dishes were done, the man went into the back room and emerged with a warm jacket, two pairs of boots, a pair of gloves, and two snow shovels. The boy put on the jacket and boots and then took the shovel to the mud room, where the man was also putting on boots and a jacket.
When the man opened the front door, they were met with a wall of snow up to their chests. Slowly they began shoveling it to the sides as Boris surged like a dolphin through the snow, bounding up and then disappearing before bounding up again. It took them two hours to reach the truck and another hour to dig the truck free and clean it off.
After they had done that, they went in and had lunch. As they put the dishes in the sink, the man said, “Well, let’s see if we can make it to the road.” The boy grabbed his clothes, now dry but inadequate for the weather, and they went out to the truck. He put his clothes behind the truck seat while the man put the shovels behind the seat on his side. They climbed in and shut the doors, while Boris jumped into the truck bed.
At first, the engine barely turned over, but the man kept trying and soon it roared to life. They had shoveled out some both in front of and behind the truck. The man backed the truck up until the tires were nearly in the snow, and then he shifted into low gear, lowered the plow, and the truck began moving forward. Slowly, the truck moved through the snow. When it couldn’t move forward, the man backed the truck and drove it forward again. Little by little, they drove the two miles to the road where, they were happy to see, one lane had been plowed. The man turned into the lane and headed towards town, praying that no vehicles would come the other way.
When they neared the town, the man asked the boy how to find his home. The boy gave directions until they came to a little side street which had yet to be plowed.
Again, the man maneuvered the truck and plowed slowly forward until the boy pointed to his house. The man decided to plow the driveway while he was there. While he was doing that, the front door of the house opened, and a man and woman stood in the doorway. The old man called to them to wait, and when he had finished the driveway, he and the boy got out of the truck, took the shovels from behind the seat, and shoveled the sidewalk up to the door. Boris was right behind them.
As soon as she could, the woman grabbed the boy, embracing him and weeping. “We were so afraid you were lying out in the snow somewhere,” she sobbed.
The boy’s mother invited the man into the house, thanking him over and over, but the man declined, and went back to his truck. Before he could get in, the boy raced down the sidewalk and hugged and hugged him, while the man hugged back. Finally, he said to the boy, “They need you now. Go ahead back in.” The boy hugged Boris and backed up as the man climbed into the truck and drove off.
When he got back to the cabin, the man looked at the roof and grabbed his shovel. He was worried about the weight of the snow on the roof. He got a ladder, climbed onto the roof, and cleared off most of the snow before going inside the cabin with Boris. By then it was supper time, so he heated some soup and ate it slowly. For some reason he couldn’t stop thinking about the boy who had blown in out of a snowstorm and gotten him to talk about things he had never spoken of before.
That night he climbed into bed, still thinking about the boy. He knew that the boy had now gone out of his life as quickly as he had come in, and he found himself feeling sad about that.
In the days that followed, the man returned to his usual routine, but he never stopped thinking about the boy.
Ten days later, on a Saturday morning, as he sat reading, he heard a car pull into his driveway. Boris growled as the man stood and went to the door. Before he got there, he heard a loud knock. Taking the rifle from beside the door and telling Boris to sit, he opened the door. There stood the boy with his father behind him.
“What d’ya want?” he asked.
The boy replied, “Can we come in before our balls freeze off?”
“I guess we wouldn’t want that,” the man said, smiling a little. He opened the door wider, stood back, and lowered the rifle. The boy noted that that was the first time he had seen the man smile, but he didn’t say anything. Boris went to greet the boy, putting his paws on the boy’s shoulders and licking his face. The boy laughed as the man said, “Down, Boris.” The dog immediately obeyed.
The boy and his father removed their jackets and boots and walked into the main room. The boy then brought the two kitchen chairs over and placed them facing the man’s recliner. His father looked a little uncomfortable but allowed the boy to take the lead.
“We brought you a present,” the boy began. “My parents and I thought this was the least we could do for saving my life, and you did save my life you know.”
“Hell, all I did was open the door. Ya saved your own life by findin’ the cabin.”
“Okay, let’s say that we both saved my life.” With that, he handed the man a cell phone and a charger.
Remembering his manners, the man said, “Well, that’s very nice of ya, but ya know this won’t work out here.”
“That’s the second part of the present,” the boy replied and handed a box to the man. “It’s a cell phone signal booster,” the boy explained. “The man at the store said that this was probably what you needed. You just mount it on a wall in the room. If the signal’s not strong enough, you can mount the antenna outdoors. It’s got complete instructions.”
“But what do I want a phone for? I have everythin’ I need.”
“You need the phone for two reasons,” said the boy. “First you need it for emergencies. You’re not getting any younger you know.” The man looked a little annoyed. “Second,” the boy went on without acknowledging the man’s look, “you need it so we can call each other.”
“Why would we do that?”
“Because now you’re my friend and I wanna be able to talk with you.”
The man harrumphed. “We hardly talked when ya were here.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but that’s gonna change.”
“I don’t wanna change,” the man protested.
“I just want to check from time to time to be sure you’re okay. You don’t have to say much unless you want to.”
Again the man harrumphed. He opened the box and took out the booster and the directions. Looking at the directions he could see that setting up the booster should be fairly easy.
The boy and the man went to a corner where there was a power outlet, and, following the directions, hooked up the antenna and connected it to the booster. The booster had a battery backup so it would still work if the generator was off. The boy turned on the phone and pointed to the little bars at the top that showed that the phone was getting a signal. He plugged in the charger and demonstrated how to charge the phone, how to turn it on, and how to make a call.
“How much does it cost to use the phone for a month?” asked the man as they went back to their seats.
“That’s the third part of the present. Your phone is on our family plan, so it just gets paid for with our bill.”
“That’s charity. I don’t want charity.”
“It’s not charity,” said the boy’s father. “It’s our way of thanking you for helping our boy.” With that, he and the boy rose, went to the mudroom, put on their boots and jackets, and prepared to leave.
The father turned, reached for the man’s hand, and shook it, saying several times, “Thank you.”
The boy hugged the man hard, whispering in his ear, “I don’t care what you say. I love you.”
There were tears in the man’s eyes as the boy and his father returned to their car and drove off.
Closing the door, he looked at Boris and said, “Well don’t that beat all.”
That evening, the phone rang. Reluctantly, the man answered, and the boy said, “Hi. I just wanted to be sure that the phone’s working.”
“It’s workin’,” the man replied.
“Good. Take care of yourself. I’ll call in a few days.”
“Ya don’t hafta,” the man mumbled.
“I know. But I’m gonna anyway.” With that the boy hung up.
The man grumbled to Boris, but, lying in bed that night, he had to admit to himself that he was pleased by the boy’s persistence.
They talked a couple of times a week for several months. The man never said much, but sometimes the boy chatted away about what he was doing, or school, and once about his birthday.
In April, there came another knock on the door. “Not again,” the man thought. He went to the door, where the boy was standing with a small suitcase. The man watched the boy’s car back out of the driveway. Puzzled, he began to ask what was going on, but then he just stood back, held the door open, and said, “Ya better come in before ya freeze yer balls off.”
The boy laughed, hung his jacket in the mud room, and went into the main room, where he sat by the fire and leaned back on Boris.
“What d’ya think yer doin’?” the man asked.
“How long were ya plannin’ ta’ visit?”
“Oh, three or four days.”
“Because I wanna be alone.”
“No, you want to be antisocial. That’s different. Just like before, you don’t have to say anything unless you want to. We can just sit and read. If you really don’t want me here, you can call my dad to come and get me.”
The man thought about that and groaned. “Well, I guess I know when I’m beaten.”
The boy went over to the bookshelves, returning The Persian Boy and selecting another Renault book. Sighing contentedly, he lay again before the fireplace, propped his head and shoulders on Boris, and began to read.
At supper that night, the man asked, “Why aren’t ya in school?”
“It’s April vacation.”
The man grunted. They ate the hearty soup and toast in companionable silence. When they finished and had cleared the table, they went back to their reading.
At bedtime, the boy went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth, he removed his clothes, and put on some pajamas.
Climbing into the bed beside the man, he reached over and hugged him before turning on his side and saying, “Good night.”
“Night,” the man replied quietly. Soon they were both asleep.
When the boy awoke in the night to pee, the man’s arm was around him and he was cuddled up beside him. The boy got out of bed, trying to not wake the man. He went into the bathroom and peed. Relieved, he went back and climbed into bed, again trying to not disturb the man. If the man woke, he didn’t say anything, and soon the boy was back asleep.
After the second night, the man took out an old backpack, put in some sandwiches, and said to the boy, “C’mon.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see. You’ll need yer jacket.”
The boy grabbed his jacket and he and Boris followed the man out the door. The man turned into the woods. Only when he looked closely could the boy see that they were on a nearly invisible path. They walked along, saying nothing, while Boris bounded ahead, sometimes disappearing into the woods but always returning. The path began to rise. Slowly it became steeper, and the boy had to work hard to keep up with the man, who didn’t seem to notice the incline. Soon they were scrambling over large rocks and boulders and the boy began to fall behind. The man waited, giving the boy time to rest before they moved on.
Suddenly, they emerged from the trees and were faced by a huge granite summit which they clambered up. The man sat on the stone and the boy sat beside him. He looked all around, taking in the 360° view. Boris, who had had no problems climbing up, sat beside them.
The blue sky held a few puffy white clouds and the sun shone on the landscape far below. There was just enough breeze to keep the boy cool but not cold, although he did put on his jacket.
The man reached into the backpack and pulled out the sandwiches, handing one to the boy, before giving some beef to the dog. “Got nothin’ ta drink but water,” he said, passing his canteen to the boy. The boy took a good drink and passed the canteen back.
As they ate, the boy asked, “Do you come up here often?”
“’Bout once a month, except in the winter. When I was younger, I came up in the winter on snowshoes. But I think that’s a little beyond me now.”
“Wow. Are there other places where you walk?”
“Yup. Sometime I’ll show ’em to ya. Gotta admit this is my favorite, though.”
“Thanks for sharing it with me.”
The man nodded and they sat again in silence.
Finally, they stood, the man put on his backpack, and they started down again.
When they reached the bottom and entered the cabin clearing, Boris spotted a squirrel and bounded off into the woods after it.
“Dumb dog’s never figured out that he can’t climb trees,” muttered the man.
The next morning it was raining, so they didn’t go out. They sat and read most of the day, but at lunch, the boy said, “Tell me about when you were a boy.”
“Not much ta tell.” But when the man got going, he talked for over two hours about growing up in Chicago, what it was like to live in the city, what his school was like, how he was always afraid that someone would figure out that he was gay. He even took girls on dates and kissed them, not because he wanted to but because he was trying to hide his gay bent.
He asked the boy, “Do ya have ta hide?”
“Yeah. Kinda. There are kids in the school who would be okay with it if they knew I was gay, but others wouldn’t so I guess I do hide it, except when I’m alone with my boyfriend.”
That night, before going to bed, they hugged each other. “I like waking up in the night and finding you near me and hugging me,” the boy said.
When they got into bed, the man cuddled to the boy’s back and put his arm around him.
About 4 o’clock the next afternoon, the boy’s father and mother drove up. His mother hadn’t seen the cabin, so the boy showed her around, pointing out where the man kept things and how neat he kept it.
The boy returned home with his parents, and the man settled back into his solitary life.
The boy continued to call a couple of times a week. The man never called but was always willing to listen to the boy or ask a question. The boy visited for a few days every school vacation and made two longer visits during the summer. The man showed him all the trails he had made and sometimes, if the man didn’t feel up to hiking on a day, the boy went alone. Once in the summer, when there was a full moon, he climbed the man’s favorite trail at night. He carried a flashlight and used it occasionally, but he didn’t need it often. He loved the moonlight shining through the trees and the moonlight-bathed panorama below him when he was on the summit.
When the boy turned 16, his parents offered to buy him a car. He told them he wanted a Ford truck with a snowplow on it. Soon he was driving out to the cabin on his own. In the winter, he plowed out his driveway and then plowed the man’s drive.
While he knew the man had grown fond of him, the boy never took advantage of that. He never asked for anything and he never overstayed his visits. Both he and the man were comfortable with their arrangement.
In the early spring of his senior year, near the end of his last class for the day, the boy felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. As soon as his class was over, he stood in the hall, whipped out his phone, and found that the man had left a message.
“I’m not feelin’ too good right now. Ya probably should come.”
Immediately, the boy returned his phone to his pocket, ran out to his truck, and drove to the cabin. He knocked on the door but the only sound he heard was Boris quietly crying. He tried the door and found it unlocked, which surprised him.
Opening the door, he brushed past Boris and went into the main room, where the man was sitting in his recliner. He had a book on his lap but didn’t seem to be reading it.
The boy went up to him and called his name, but the man neither answered nor moved. He didn’t appear to be breathing. The boy put his hand on the man’s cheek and found it was quite cool.
Crying, he dialed 911 and then called his home. While he waited for help to arrive, he noticed an envelope on the table with his name on it. With trembling hands, he opened it.
If you’re reading this, you know that I have died. I wasn’t feeling well so I went to the doctor a couple of weeks ago. He said my heart was very weak and I probably had only a few days to live. He wanted me to check into the hospital, but I refused. Instead, I came home to be with Boris. I wondered whether I should call you, but I decided there was nothing you could do, and you’d just get emotional on me. I didn’t need that. I hope you understand.
I never told you this, but I suspect that you know anyway. Over our time together I grew from thinking you were a pain in the ass, to looking forward to your visits, to loving you. I’m sorry I could never bring myself to say that. Did you know anyway?
There’s a lawyer in town who has my will and has been instructed to contact you when I’m gone. I’ve left everything to you, including my bank account, the cabin and all the land it’s on, all the contents of the cabin, especially the books, which I know you will enjoy, and Boris. Take good care of him. He’s 13 or 14 now and probably doesn’t have a lot of time left, but I know you love him as I do. Oh yes, and the truck is yours, although I doubt it’s worth very much.
Being gay can be wonderful and fulfilling but it’s not an easy road. Be careful. I hope you find someone you truly love and who truly loves you.
Above all, take care of yourself and enjoy your life.
With all my love and respect,
The boy heard a commotion outside and went to the door. The ambulance was there, along with a police cruiser and the boy’s father. The EMTs went into the main room with their bag and the stretcher. One of them listened for a heartbeat, knowing that there wouldn’t be one. He looked at the boy and shook his head.
“Are you the man’s grandson?” he asked.
The boy began to shake his head but then said, “Sort of.” He looked at his father, who just nodded to him.
The EMTs gently loaded the man onto the stretcher and carried him out to the waiting ambulance.
It was then that the boy dissolved in tears, sobbing and sobbing. His father sat beside him, wrapping an arm gently around him, and Boris, looking worried, placed a paw in the boy’s lap. Through his sobs, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Boris, I’ll take care of you.”
The man didn’t want any kind of service. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered on his property.
At first the boy put the urn on the mantelpiece in the cabin, waiting for the day he would know that it was time to scatter the ashes. On a warm day in late spring he took the urn outside and began to spread the ashes. When he only had a handful of ashes left, he went back into the cabin and put the urn in the man’s backpack.
With Boris beside him, he started out on the man’s favorite path. At the summit, whispering, “Goodbye. I love you, and I always knew you loved me. Thank you for everything,” he held the ashes in his hand, and the wind took them gently away.