The trees in the planters outside the building were losing their leaves in fall's prelude to winter. As Jason and North walked through the atrium of the high school on Monday morning, the small groups of kids ignored the two boys and stayed involved in discussions of their weekends. It was intended ostracism, a kind of shared and knowing secret handshake that had been the norm since school started. Eyes turned on them as they passed, either in judgment or veiled curiosity, but some unspoken agreement resulted in conformity of reaction to the two boys.
Goldendale High, like most high schools, didn't give its students what they needed most — a thoughtful way to reconcile two colliding messages from their culture and their parents: to fit in and obey the rules on the one hand and make your own decisions on the other. Adolescence is the minefield of solving that conundrum, a minefield that produces casualties.
Fear of seeming different, even to the extent of acknowledging those who dared to show the slightest difference, enforced a painful reality for any outsiders. Here, kids were unwitting accomplices to conformity because most of them craved acceptance and, more than acceptance, craved the safety of hiding their own differences by keeping eyes relentlessly focused on the familiar.
As the boys made their way through the main entrance, Brent approached them. Sometimes, small gestures produce tectonic shifts. Brent wasn't whispering, and no one could mistake his motive: "Jason, you played a great game. I know the team generally sucks, but that first sack should make the highlight reel."
North nodded to Brent. He was going to help this guy. Jason was so surprised that someone other than North was talking to him that he couldn't reply for a moment.
"Thanks, Brent. I wish we could have done better." The suspicion engendered by weeks of separation from his old friends darkened the response in his mind. Why the sudden change? Surely, Brent understood that other kids were going to start in on him now. But something in the openness of Brent's expression and in North's smiling calm quieted his doubts.
"Can I sit with you at lunch? I need to talk over a few more things," Brent asked.
North replied both for himself and Jason, "I'd love to have someone other than this cowboy to talk with at lunch."
As the boys went to their classes, they couldn't see the subtle shift started by Brent's very public conversation with Jason. Brent was a bright kid with a wide circle of friends. North had picked off a good one.
At lunch, North and Jason were still alone. "I don't know what to say, North. Does Brent understand the position he's put himself in?"
"Yeah, he does, and I think he's not worried about what others think, or at least he's willing to take the risk. He won't be the last one to take a chance, you just wait."
After Brent joined Jason and North at a table that could hold a dozen but today held only three. Kids at the tables surrounding theirs watched as if they were seeing one of their species make contact with two ETs. Brent extended his hand to Jason and North, who both shook it.
As they started eating what healthful options they could find in the cafeteria, Brent began, "Jason, I want to apologize for standing by while everyone turned on you. I just wasn't thinking very clearly."
"What made you change your mind?" Jason's tone was frankly accusatory.
"I guess I figured out that there's no reason to be frightened by you. At first, I thought you'd changed because you met North and started going to Portland. But North got me to thinking that maybe you were always this way and that you're just trying to live your life as you thought it should be lived. It might seem as if Jeremy's the problem, but he's just taking advantage of everyone's fears: if you could be tempted to change, so could any of us. I just don't feel right not sticking up for you now."
"Thank you, Brent. You realize that sticking up for me may make you a target, too?"
Brent smiled for the first time during the conversation. "I'm still chasing tail, so I doubt that anyone will think you've converted me." Then, more seriously, he said, "Besides, I'm tired of my conscience nagging me."
The rest of their conversation was about Brent and North becoming running partners. Brent even asked about Jonathan. When the boys finished lunch and left the cafeteria, many of the other students realized that the unacknowledged pact to isolate Jason was broken.
Annie and Jonathan left Room 116 after the regular Thursday lunch meeting of the Lincoln High School Gay Straight Alliance. Lincoln had been North's school before the move to Goldendale, and he had been a member of the GSA. Many of Jim's colleagues sent their children to private schools like Catlin Gable, but Tom and Jim valued public education and thought that Portland public schools like Lincoln could provide advantages that North needed.
The GSA was part of a remarkable group of student organizations at Lincoln High, Portland's oldest high school, dedicated to diversity issues.
"What would you think about suggesting that Northy and Jason start a GSA at Goldendale?"
Jonathan replied, "Wouldn't it be a little short on the Gay side?"
"I can't believe you think that this is a bad idea."
"Jase is going through enough shit without making him a martyr to the cause."
"Jon, even if it only pulled a bunch of straight kids in, a GSA could bring the whole bullying thing to the front burner."
"Right now it would be like a support group for the one gay kid in Goldendale."
"You know very well that there are others. Think about helping them."
"Right now I just want to help Jase. Annie, I know how you are when you get your mind set on something. Please don't mention this to North or Jason until we talk more."
"Jonathan Sumner, I never thought I'd hear you pass on an opportunity like this one."
"Everything in its own time, Annie. I have my priorities in order. By the way, the train's a pretty cool way to get to Goldendale. We're all set for tomorrow afternoon, right?"
"Yep. I have our tickets. Back to the country. Jason has another home game Friday, and Northy is going to a cross-country match on Saturday somewhere near Yakima."
"I can't wait. I've always wanted to be a professional sports fan."
"You have to admit that the scenery's not bad."
"I guess watching runners is satisfying, and if you eliminate the football players up front, there are some nice asses on display at Jase's games."
"Does he know you drool over some of his teammates?"
"We agreed, looking okay, touching not okay," Jonathan laughed. "You never look at anyone but North, do you?"
"I'm not a nun, Jon. But, I admit I don't find much out there to compare with my guy."
"Pretty lucky, aren't we?"
"No doubt. You know that Jim and Tom want to go to Smith Rock on Sunday if Northy and Jason are up for the trip."
"I hope we get to climb, but if Jase would rather just walk beside Crooked River I won't mind a bit."
The same day, after school and football practice, Jason wandered over to North's. He knew North was probably still running with Brent, but he thought he'd wait around to talk with him. As he approached the farmhouse porch, he saw a stranger mucking about in the plant bed to the right of the steps. On his knees and bending over and surrounded by plants with burlap around their root balls was a slight man with thinning, sandy hair. He wore cargo shorts and a dirty t-shirt. He was wiry and taut like a compressed spring awaiting release.
He had planted a spade near him in the bed but was using his hands to mix dirt with a potting mix. Jason was about to go into the house when the man rocked back on his knees and looked at him, smiling. The man's gaze was appraising, and Jason felt as if this gardener could see more deeply into him than he himself could.
"Hey, I'm Frank Gerard, a friend of Jim's and his sometime gardener. I'm just replacing some annuals with shrubs." Frank held up his hands. "I'd shake hands but I'm pretty filthy."
"No, that's okay. I'm Jason Johnson, a friend of North's. I was going inside to wait for him to get home."
"I thought you might be Jason. Want to give me a hand while you wait?"
Jason didn't particularly want to get dirty, but his father had always insisted that he lend a hand where a hand was needed. "Sure, what do you need?" Jason asked as he shed the long-sleeve outer shirt, throwing it onto the porch steps.
"Just hand me the plants when I'm ready for them. I don't want you to end up looking like me."
Every time Frank looked at him, Jason felt his deep curiosity. Thisguy is more than a gardener, Jason thought. He walked over and squatted next to Frank. "Thanks, I don't mind a little dirt."
Over the next hour, Jason and Frank managed to get the shrubs in the ground. Frank worked silently, only answering when Jason spoke.
"How do you know Jim?"
"I work with Jim, or I used to when he was still at OHSU."
"Is it Doctor Gerard, then?" A doctor from Portland coming to Goldendale to plant shrubbery was beyond strange.
"I prefer Frank, but I am a doc."
"Are you an oncologist like Jim?"
Frank continued to pack dirt around the root system of one of the plants, occasionally pouring on a bit of water from a large watering can. "Water helps me get air pockets out from the root system. No, I work in neurology and psychiatry."
"Wow, that must be interesting," Jason said politely, but now he understood. He knew that Jim and Tom — for that matter, all his friends — were worried about him.
Frank watched Jason's face and saw the question forming. "Psychiatry these days is interesting and frustrating. By the way, Jim asked me to drop by to catch up, and my hobby is gardening. We haven't seen each other for a while. He also thought that I'd enjoy getting to know you."
"Were you friends before you started working at OHSU, or did you meet there?"
"Jim and I met at UW in medical school when I was a fourth year and he was a first year. We both ended up working at OHSU after finishing fellowships. He and I had a shared interest."
Jason immediately wondered if Frank was gay, but he didn't get that impression. "Jim treated my father before he died."
"I know, although I don't know any of the details. Do you mind if we sit, Jason? I've had a long day already. Jim called earlier to let me know he'd be at MCMC for a while. If it's okay with you, I'm ready for a rest. We're almost finished, anyway."
Jason was curious now and wanted to see what would develop. He knew that Frank wouldn't be here if Jim and Tom didn't trust him. They sat back on the grass in front of the transformed bed, and Jason asked, "What interest did you and Jim share?"
"A certain blond-haired interest."
"Yep. I came to know Jim well when he and Tom adopted North. You know, when Jim and Tom adopted him, adoptions by gay couples were rare and not even legal in Washington. Fortunately, Oregon permitted petitions for adoption by gay couples."
"So why did you get involved?"
"I was an expert as to any potential mental-health issues facing North if he lived with Jim and Tom. Pretty straightforward, actually. I'm only talking to you about this because North and his parents have given me permission. I don't generally talk about conversations like this to anyone except my own shrink."
"So, anything we talk about is confidential."
"Jim said that you were quick."
"So, am I your patient?"
"No. I'm not offering you treatment unless you ask for it. But I would like to talk with you a bit in general about how you're doing."
"I'm not sure I want to."
"How about I tell you a story, and then if you don't want to talk, I'll just finish up here and wait for Jim?"
"Jim and I are very close. I'm straight, but we are very close largely because of a person no longer in my life. You see, Jim helped me stay alive. I had a son who was a little younger than you when he killed himself. I found him a few hours after he hanged himself. I have never found a way to describe the agony of that moment."
Jason saw Frank's face harden as he must have relived the moment of that awful discovery of his son. Jason felt nausea and dizziness. He grasped for a way to proceed.
He was saved by Frank. "I want you to understand that I know how death can interrupt a necessary journey you think you'll finish."
After a pause Frank continued, "You are only the fourth person I've talked with about even these sketchy details."
"I'm honored, I…"
"You don't need to say anything, because nothing you say can open that closed door."
"But why are you telling me this? Jesus fucking Christ, I'm not going to hurt myself." Jason was on the edge of the kind of loss of control he had never experienced.
"I'll bet you're angry a lot and can't figure out why. You're gay, right?"
Disconcerted by the question, Jason managed, "Yes. What's that got to do with anything?"
"I doubt if your difficulties being a small-town gay kid have much to do with what's really eating at you. The practical difficulties of being in a minority in Goldendale aside, Jim believes that you're quite at ease with your sexuality. The fact that you just answered so quickly tells me that Jim's right about that part. He tells me you already have a strong relationship with another boy."
Jason decided to go through the door Frank had opened. "In many ways I feel much happier since I came out."
"You're surrounded by good models," Frank laughed, tossing a clod of dirt at Jason.
Brushing the dirt from his leg, Jason asked Frank, "After your son … died, did you have trouble sleeping?"
"For a long time. I felt as if I had something I needed to do but couldn't remember how to do it. I wanted to beg Danny to forgive me for not seeing the depth of his pain, for not knowing what he was thinking. Then, I got angry at him for leaving his mother and me in hell."
"Was he gay?"
"No, as far as we knew. I don't think I'll ever know what brought him to suicide."
"How long until you found a way to do what you needed to do?"
"Never have, and I don't believe I ever will."
"Well, shit. You're full of good news. I'm just supposed to go on like this?"
"Wait, Jason. Not being able to do what you feel you need to do is not the same thing as being stuck where you are. I learned to live with my inability ever to understand what Danny did or to ask him to forgive me. I carry pain with me all the time, but I've learned not to let it wreck my life. So can you."
"I don't know how."
"I could help you with that."
Jason was quiet for minutes, and Frank waited. Sighing, Jason began, "In some ways, I'm happy that Papa died. I was tired of coming up short in his eyes. When he got sick and I came out to him, there was a little thaw. I think Jon and Jim won him over a bit, because he respected them some. I don't feel as if he ever respected me. He told me he was hard on me because I was precious to him, just not precious enough for him to completely accept me for who I was. I never measured up in his eyes, not just because I'm gay but because he was all impossible standards and judgment. Now, I'm pissed off and ashamed of the way I feel about his death."
"Maybe because you know that there's no way to work your relationship out with him now."
Jason was silent again, and he could feel the anger and the tears reaching up from some dark place inside. Frank touched Jason's knee.
"Jason, I can tell you that on a list of all the sources of men's problems, fathers are right at the top. Gay or straight, it doesn't matter."
Tears welling, Jason touched Frank's hand and said haltingly, "I'm so sorry about your son."
"Thanks for that, Jason. I can see why Jim, Tom, and North think so highly of you, and Jonathan's a lucky guy."
"Will you try to help me?"
"I'll do my best, I promise. Good research shows that the risk for suicide increases in young men when they become fatigued by persistent anxiety. Just as in chronic physical pain, the constant experience of anger or sadness can make climbing out of the hole more difficult over time."
"So, now I'm your patient?"
Frank smiled at Jason, "I don't want to make light of your problems, but I'm not worried about you. There are a lot of kids that have lost people or homes or who have been talked into seeing themselves as defective. Many don't have the support you do. You could be a big help to some of those kids, and I'll help you, one friend to another. Now, I see a common interest approaching."
Jason turned to see North bounding up the drive. The blond boy ran over to Frank and, smiling like a kid on Christmas morning, bent over to hug him as he would one of his fathers. "Frank, I'm so glad to see you. I see you're elbow deep in dirt again."
On Friday, as Jonathan and Annie were on the train making their way to Wishram, the closest stop to Goldendale, Steve and Jason met at Jason's place, as agreed, before the game against LaSalle High School. Steve had been having long conversations with his father, who was the Chief Criminal Deputy for the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, about what was happening to Jason at school. After discussing Biblical injunctions against homosexuality, Steve's father had reminded Steve about Christ's central message, the New Testament, which had more to do with mercy and forgiveness than with punishment.
Steve needed to talk with Jason before the game, and he hoped they could later ride over to the school together. Jason was a brain, and he had helped Steve with algebra and geometry when Steve was in danger of failing both courses. Their time studying together became the foundation of a deep friendship on Steve's part and he hoped on Jason's as well.
Jason's mother had greeted Steve as a returning child and then left the two of them in the living room to talk.
"I talked with my father about what a Christian should do in this situation. He told me that our views on homosexuality don't give us the excuse to hurt anyone who is struggling."
"So, you see me as a leper."
"No! You're a friend who's lost."
"I don't know. Maybe you're just not trying hard enough."
"Not trying hard enough for what?" Steve's remark had torn the cover from the dark place where Jason's anger and sorrow lived. He barely restrained himself from attacking Steve, and he shouted, "Oh, I see. Are you in a position to cast stones?"
"Jason, we're all weak. Your weakness is just a little … more serious than some."
"I can't help the way I feel, but you'll always be my friend."
Jason saw echoes of his father's words in Steve's attitude, and he responded as he might have to his father. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Either I'm the Devil's work or I'm not. Friends aren't DIY projects. You don't say, ‘Forgive him for he knows not what he does' to friends. You value friends as they are. There's a difference between Christian charity and friendship. You discovered something about me that's always been there, and everything changed for you. I am what I am, and I like what I am. You don't need to forgive me. I don't want your forgiveness. I'd rather you just tried to beat the shit out of me and be like Jeremy."
Vi had almost come into the room when she heard Jason shouting. She overheard enough to be proud of Jason for standing up for himself.
Steve was cowed by the emotion of Jason's outburst; he had never seen Jason like this. He had considered himself a moral hero for stepping between Jason and Jeremy. Now, he realized with piercing clarity that he, along with the others, was partly responsible for his friend's pain. In less time than five breaths take, he traced the sweep of his lifelong friendship with Jason. His beliefs tangled with memories of the boy sitting across with him, faltering enough to frighten him into a deeper understanding of his friend.
Steve almost whispered, "I'm so tired of struggling with this."
"I'm tired of struggling, too, Steve. I'm strong enough to be different, even if most people hate me, but I can't take the people I care about turning their backs on me or pitying me. I'm just tired of feeling like crap. You go on to the game; I'll be there in a while."
Steve lowered his head and walked out of the house and down the driveway. As he walked slowly, he thought of the depth of Jason's pain, and he began to feel that he had been wrong about a lot of things. I don't care what my church says; I know he doesn't have a disease.
Vi heard Steve leave the house and after a few minutes heard Jason's truck starting as he headed for the game.
Jim had picked Annie and Jonathan up from the train station and met Tom and North at the game.
Since Brent had started hanging out with North and Jason and running with North, the others on the cross-country team had become more civil to North. Part of the change in heart came from the rest of the team seeing how much Brent had improved as he practiced with North. The varsity team had many sophomores, and they seemed both ready to run with their exotic teammate from Portland and at the same time anxious about the exposure to any stigma attached to him. Most of the younger runners eventually took their cues from Brent and, discovering that North was helpful plus being funny, began to talk with him about his method of running. The fact that most of the girls on the team were drawn to North didn't hurt. By mid-September, his coach was only mildly surprised at how the team was coming together in such a short time.
The Apple Ridge Run Challenge was coming up on Saturday in Cowiche, a small town northwest of Yakima. The meet was run on private land, mostly apple orchards, and had three flights, each run on a different course. The meet was unusual in that JV and varsity boys and girls ran in the same flights. Their coach had decided to enter Brent and North in the third flight, the most difficult of the three-mile courses.
The Horseshoe course was a two-loop run with a few steep but short hills and intervening flat stretches. The surface was a combination of grass, packed dirt, and gravel, so North and Brent had decided to forego spikes and wear flats for their flight. At Goldendale High, the running strategy was to have every runner run the fastest race he or she could. Without the coach's knowledge, North and Brent had settled on a different strategy. They had been doing a lot of hill running on their own time, and North suggested a plan to deke the other runners.
North and Brent would both come out fast to get out of the pack. Then, while North ran to the lead hoping to draw other runners to try to keep up, Brent would drop back slightly. North would press the pace even after running uphill just enough to keep the other leaders pressing hard as well. By the finish, North hoped to have worn the other leaders down, allowing Brent to kick in and pass them all.
Brent wasn't at all certain that he had the talent required to do what North suggested but agreed that it would be fun to try. If Brent wasn't up to the final kick, North would turn the jets on and see what he could do.
The small team bus left the school at 8:00 a.m. with seven boys and four girls along with the coach. North was listening to Blink-182 on his iPhone and was oblivious to the chatter of the other runners in the bus despite the fact that most of the sophomore girls did their best to distract him. Brent ran interference, leaving North uninterrupted in the preparation routine he used.
The trip wound through mountain passes before dropping into the Yakima Valley and then west and north to Cowiche. After going past seemingly endless apple orchards, the bus finally turned onto Wherry Road, driving down it a quarter-mile to the parking and viewing areas. The weather was mild, which could mean excellent running times.
The flights were scheduled for 11:00, 11:40, and 12:15. North had imagined the courses based on his teammates' descriptions, and he had run the last flight in his mind fifty times. The course of his imagination was remarkably like the real thing now before him. The trails were fifteen feet at their widest and in some places eight to ten feet wide. The beginning of the race would be crucial due to the way the runners would have to bunch. North smiled because the hills would support exactly the plan he had concocted.
The first flight, in which weaker and younger runners were competing, broke on time at 11:00. The best Goldendale boy came in at 20:39 and the best girl at 24:31. In contrast to those times, North hoped that he and Brent would run their more difficult course in something like 16:00.
The second flight broke at 11:45, and the top time was 16:43 for boys and 19:24 for girls. Goldendale runners ended up three minutes off the pace. Still, they were hanging in the middle of the team scores. North and Brent realized that, although their team wasn't going to finish near the top, they could have some fun in their individual flight.
As soon as the last second-flight runner finished, the officials hurried the last-flight runners into the starting position. Many of the runners here hadn't seen North at the Ellensburg Invite the week before, and North hoped to turn their curiosity into a weapon against them, a weapon he'd only be able to use once.
Brent and North bumped fists and moved to their agreed positions in the starting scrum.
"God help me, I do love it so," he said to Brent as they took their places.
"George C. Scott in Patton."
At 12:15 the flight broke onto the course. As he had planned, North allowed some runners to get out ahead of him, and then Brent and he moved behind them and out ahead of the rest of the pack. North's mind quieted as the race started, and his body did what he had trained it to do.
The race developed as North had predicted. Two minutes out, North began to pass the leaders, and when he was fully in the lead, the others sped up a little to keep him in sight. They assumed he couldn't keep the fast pace up and would tire before the finish. Brent remained just behind the frontrunners. The other frontrunners were discouraged a bit when the hills didn't slow the blond from Goldendale down, and they had to work a bit harder to keep up. Their pace was dictated by the fact that North never allowed a big enough gap that they thought couldn't be closed with a kick at the end.
At fifteen minutes, North sensed that the runners just behind him were slowing, but instead of exploiting the lead, he slowed slightly as well. Brent, who had been cruising near the middle of the pack, made his move, moving past runners and toward the lead. When the runners just behind North saw Brent moving up, they sped up as best they could, but the physiology of their skeletal muscles was immutable.
Approaching sixteen minutes, North maintained his steady pace, and Brent began a real kick. Unfortunately, one of the runners from Cle Elum had something left in his tank and, trying to catch and pass North, pulled away from Brent. Brent didn't give in and maintained his pace, but North saw that Brent wasn't going to pass this guy, so he turned on the afterburner.
North finished at 16:02. The runner from Cle Elum came in at 16:16, and Brent came in at 16:34, his best time ever. Brent and North threw their arms around each other as they recovered, and the runner from Cle Elum came over to congratulate them. "Underhill from Portland, right? I was at the same camp as you in Eugene early in the summer."
"Underhill from Goldendale, now."
The three shook hands, and they walked off CO2excess. Their coach and teammates surrounded them with laughter, congratulations, and a bit of awe. Brent's and North's performance had pushed Goldendale into fifth place. The coach smiled at North and nodded in pleasure.
North was always exhilarated after a run, even a fast three miles like this one. Sixteen minutes represented three five-minute-20-second miles across hilly terrain. Brent and he were in elite company. Annie and the rest of the extended family enjoyed another of North's performances like this one.
"You still want to ride back with us instead of the bus?" Jim asked.
"Let's see, more time with Anns. Yeah, I think so. Wait a minute."
North found Brent and, putting his arm around his friend's neck, leaned in and whispered, "You, my friend, are a steely-eyed hero. I am so proud of you."
Brent nodded, saying, "I couldn't have done it without you. You are a fucking genius. I may just have to French kiss you in the cafeteria. That'll show 'em."
The ride back from Cowiche was filled with laughter, and Jason was laughing along with everyone else. The absence of tension was notice by the dads. Jim and Tom were anxious to talk with Frank about his conversation with Jason, although they knew Frank would never reveal specifics without Jason's permission.
"North, that was a first-rate race. You must have cooked up a strategy with Brent," Tom said.
"Thanks, Dad. Brent was great. He has real talent, and once he gets his mind squared away, he'll be a great runner."
Annie pushed against North. "He has a great running partner."
Jason said, "He's been really good to me." Speaking to both Jim and Tom he continued, "I would never have thought that your plan would work, but you were right. More and more people are coming around."
"I'm sure a lot less worried," Jon added.
Jon and Jason were in the back row of the Tribeca, and North and Annie were in the second row. Jon and Annie had conspired to arrange the seating. Annie wanted the Js to have a little time to catch up with each other before they arrived in Goldendale.
"You played a great game last night, Jase."
"Jon, we lost. You wouldn't know a good game if it bit you in the ass."
"Jason Johnson, I'm miffed. I've become quite a student of the game."
"You just like the nice asses in the uniform pants." Jason saw that the remark had hurt Jonathan a little. "Jon, I'm kidding, and I'm sorry. I know you're not drooling over any of my teammates."
"Shows what you know. Your team has some very nice asses in the backfield. I'm upset that you think the little gay boy doesn't know anything about the game."
"Whoa, Jon. First of all, you're not a little gay boy. Second, I know you've learned a lot about the game, and I appreciate that. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."
Jason took Jon's head in his hands and gave him a deep and lasting kiss. The kiss was met with cries of, "Get a room," from the second row, to which the Js, still kissing, raised the traditional finger.
The companions rode silently south on US 97, the highway sweeping up to Satus Pass through the Simcoe Mountains as they left the Yakima Valley. The setting sun threw light on the eastern sides of the hills and mountains, giving them the golden hue for which Goldendale was named. They were three couples at different stages of relationship — all gratefully entangled with their partners. As they came down the pass onto the plateau, they drove past the Greek Orthodox religious community with its roadside bakery and then on to North's and his dads' home.
All six would spend Saturday night there along with Frank, who was going to finish the front beds tomorrow. When they were bundled into the house, Jim asked the kids, "Are you still up for Smith Rock tomorrow. We should leave early in the morning, but not at the crack."
Annie and Jonathan looked to Jason and North who were the most likely to be too tired to hike along the Crooked River or climb on the cliffs. Jason and North looked at each other and, as often happens between close friends, decided without speaking that they would go.
Annie smiled and, hugging North, said, "Thanks, warriors."
Jim said, "Quick light supper and then to bed."
Settled into their bed after a very light repast and a shower taken together, Jon and Jason cuddled. Jon wanted to ask Jase about his conversation with Frank but didn't want him to know that he had been part of the team that arranged Frank's visit.
As he gently fondled Jason, he remarked as casually as he could, "You seem a little more relaxed, except down here."
Jason pushed himself into Jon's hand. "I do feel as if some of the pressure has dissipated. I talked with a friend of North's who helped, I think."
"Who was it?"
"You can't bullshit me, city boy. You know exactly who it was."
Jonathan kept stroking Jason. "Okay, cowboy, how'd you figure that one out?"
"I know you couldn't be the only one not in on the conspiracy. I guess I have been a little scary lately."
Jonathan stopped playing with Jason. "You've been through so much in so short a time. I don't think I could have managed what you have, Jase."
"I forgive you all for sending the shrink to me. At any rate, it was nice to hear a professional tell me I am basically all right. I like him." As he thought about their conversation, Jason didn't mention Frank's confidences about his own son.
"He really helped North when he started taking heat at school about his dads. North thinks of him as a third father."
"Yeah, I got that impression."
"Now, back to the business at hand."
In the midst of the post-exertion panting after they brought each other off, Jason rested between Jonathan's legs, his chest and belly resting on Jon's. Jason wanted to remain physically connected with Jon as long as possible. Jon had been so patient and loving with him. For his part, Jonathan was deeply happy that North had seen the possibilities for him and Jason in the beginning. He saw a way forward for them to the kind of relationship that Jim and Tom had.
On Sunday morning, the couples all took advantage of the last day of their weekend by staying in bed until just after 8:30. The four teenagers made it to the kitchen before Jim and Tom were out of bed. Frank was already at work gardening in the front beds. They agreed that they would let the old men sleep a bit longer, although they wondered if the dads were really sleeping.
By nine, they were breakfasted, and by 9:30 they were packing the Tribeca. Except for Annie, they were dressed in hiking gear; she was dressed for rock climbing. They packed six lapcoils of 70 meter Mammut Serenity coated rope along with a number of static lines distributed in Black Diamond rope bags and an assortment of harnesses, helmets, chalk bags, and hardware with which Jason was entirely unfamiliar. Jason had no idea that North's family was so into climbing.
A little before ten they started the journey south on US 97. Tom asked Jason to drive, and he sat with Jonathan in the second row, leaving the back row to Annie and North. When they were across the Columbia, instead of turning west on I-84, they continued south on US 97 toward Madras.
"You guys are serious about climbing, Jim." Jason commented.
"Annie's the real pro. She and North climb at Smith Rock a lot, and they also use climbing walls in the city when they can't get out. Jonathan's not too shabby, either."
"I hope he doesn't expect me to play Spiderman."
"Oh, he'll probably haul you up the Monkey's Face."
The drive took them by Shaniko, a ghost town, which used to have a great shoe tree, a tree decorated form top to bottom with more than a hundred pairs of abandoned shoes, before someone, probably a local, cut it down and burned it. The highway skirted the north side of Madras and on to Terrebonne where they arrived in the early afternoon. From Terrebonne, Smith Rock to the east looked like reddish sails, rigged on an old three-masted man-of-war, sticking up above a flat sea. The Smith Rock formations rose from one corner of a huge caldera left by an ancient volcano that had blown itself apart. By the entrance to the park, Jim paid the three dollar day-parking fee. The weather was mild and overcast, good conditions for this time of year, and the wind was light. The good weather had brought a fair crowd, but they found a space being vacated by early-morning climbers.
After stuffing the equipment in day packs, the crew walked down the steep grade to the floor of the river bed and across Crooked River on the footbridge. As they reached the base of the cliffs, Jason noted a crowd of beginners practicing on a short rhyolite knob on the other side of the river toward the parking area.
Annie said, "Climbing school."
Jason replied, "That looks about my speed."
"Northy, I'm headed up the steep approach. I should find someone willing to belay me. I think I'll scoot up the West Face."
"Be careful, Anns," North reminded her as she headed northeast along the shortest route to the Monkey's Face.
The others headed southwest along the trail beside Crooked River. Jim, Tom, and North set a faster pace, leaving Jonathan and Jason to their own devices. The river hugged the cliff faces on the right and the land across the river, at first flat, rose so that they were eventually walking in a canyon. At intervals, they passed climbers clinging to sheer rock faces or on the ground readying for an ascent. At one point, they passed a small building.
"An outhouse?" Jason asked.
"No, they put these sheds out on the path near the common climbing routes. They have Stokes baskets that can be used if someone has a fall."
"Fuck, Jon, you do this shit?"
"Sure. If you're careful and use good equipment, it's a lot of fun."
"I'm not sure I could do it."
"I'll get you up sometime, cowboy. After all, you got me up on a horse."
"Jon, how nice of you to describe me that way."
Before the trail made almost a hairpin curve back to the north, they sat on some small boulders by the riverside and ate sandwiches. The river was calm and wider here, with scrub woods behind them and on the other side as well. Ducks occasionally paddled by. Suddenly, a doe came out of the woods behind them followed by a fawn. The animals dashed across the river and into the tall reeds on the other side.
The boys looked at each other and smiled at the shared moment. After the quick lunch, they headed on until shortly Jason saw the top of a rocky tower ahead. Its profile was almost a perfect monkey's head, and as they drew nearer, Jason saw the facial-like features more clearly. Over the next twenty minutes, the height of the tower became apparent.
"Annie's climbing on that thing? She must be crazy," Jason marveled.
"She and North climb that thing frequently. There are at least twelve routes on the formation. Annie's going to try one of the easier ones today if she can get some belay help."
"You're talking Martian, Jon."
"Belaying is like anchoring someone's climbing rope from below so that you can arrest any fall he might take."
"She's going to let a stranger do that for her."
"No, she knows most of the climbers who are out here regularly. She'll find someone she trusts, and you know that everyone's eager to help Annie."
"I certainly can see that. I don't see how North isn't constantly jealous."
"He doesn't have the capacity for jealousy, and he knows how much Annie loves him. I think that if Annie left him, he would be devastated, but he'd wish her well."
"Just remember, city boy, my disposition isn't as charitable."
"Why, Jase, how charming!"
Jason didn't realize how long they'd been walking. As they got to the base of the tower, Annie was already down and repacking her gear. She was radiant as North helped her, and Jim and Tom stood by. She was talking with a very hot guy maybe in his late twenties, and Jason knew that this was her belay partner today. North didn't interrupt Annie's conversation with the guy.
When she had repacked all her gear, her climbing partner hugged her. "Great, as always, Annie." Then, turning to North, he said, "You better be up there next time, buddy."
North replied, "Thanks, Jeff. Any falls, Anns?"
Jeff answered for her, "Phht. I've never seen her fall, and today was no exception."
The whole group retraced the route that Jason and Jonathan had taken, stopping where the boys had lunch to hear about the deer sighting, and ending up at the parking lot by four. Frank had agreed to meet them in The Dalles for dinner and then to drive Annie and Jonathan back to Portland. The others would head back to Goldendale. Tomorrow was a school day.
Monday afternoon, Jason and Steve remarked on Jeremy's absence from the last class of the day.
The cross-country coach allowed North and Brent to do a little surge work on the road they usually ran between Jason's and North's properties. North was timing them as they got farther and farther from the highway. After thirty minutes of surge work, Brent saw someone ahead. In the weeks he and North had been running this road, they had never encountered anyone.
As they closed on the person, Brent's internal alarm systems went haywire: Jeremy was standing by the roadside. Brent pulled up, and North almost collided with him.
"What the fuck, Brent?"
Brent pointed to Jeremy. North turned to see a kid behind them along with two others he had seen with Jeremy at school but didn't know. While Brent was panicking, North was evaluating potential escape routes. Unfortunately, if they made a dash across the fences on either side of the road, Jeremy and his little crew would be on them before they cleared the fencing.
"You need to talk to me, Jer?" North asked the boy who was now ten feet away.
"You really shouldn't have yelled at me at the White Salmon game. Jason may be a pansy, but you and your fag fathers are the reason for all this trouble. Maybe if you're gone, things can get back to normal."
"So what, you're going to kill me?"
"No, I'm going to give you a lesson."
"There's no reason why Brent has to be part of this. Let him go home."
"Part of the lesson is for people who take your side."
"Are you crazy or just stupid? You're going to end up in jail, you moron."
"I think people will be happy to look the other way. Besides, I have witnesses who will say that you started it."
"Can you hear what you're saying. You're out here where you don't have a reason to be, messing with two kids who'll have a story to tell."
"You must think that people around here will give a rat's ass if a couple of fag-lovers get messed up. We'll be heroes."
"Have you even noticed what's happening at school. People aren't buying your shit anymore."
"You'll see." Jeremy closed the few feet between North and him.
A voice from across the fence along Jason's property shouted, "That would be a very bad idea."
Jeremy froze and looked to his right.