A third of the school year had passed. Last night the football team had ended its regular season with a loss against Granger, but the season hadn't been a disaster, and toward the end Jason had begun to enjoy playing again. Most of his teammates were friendly now, and those that weren't had developed an attitude of disinterest about his sexuality. He no longer feared physical injury either on the playing field or in general.
From Jonathan he found out what maneuvers Tom and North had used to bring him to this pass, but he was especially encouraged by the change in attitude in old friends like Steve, who in a relatively brief time had repaired their relationships.
Very early on the last Saturday morning in October, Jason made the long drive to Portland, where he would stay at Jon's home for the weekend and, as always, be welcomed by Jonathan's parents. His purpose in going to Portland was to follow through on his promise to help Dr. Gerard. While Frank had never pressured Jason to visit the Drop-in Center where he volunteered, Jason couldn't let the promise to do so rest any longer.
Vi had insisted that he take one of the little newer sedans, because she didn't think the old pickup was safe for the long trip, and the F-350 would have used a fortune in fuel.
The Decembrists played through the car's sound system from his iPhone, but he lost track of the lyrics when he thought about his mother, Jon, and his friends in Goldendale; Brent, North's cross-country running partner, was becoming his friend as well.
While driving west on Washington SR-14 he also thought about his recurring night dream — the dread, the nakedness, the barn, the horses, the powerlessness. During one long phone conversation, Frank had told Jason that every character in his dream was probably a version of himself waiting to act — to leave the barn where he always found himself at the end of the dream. Jason was coming to realize that nobody was holding him back and that he had to risk moving out of the barn where the dream always ended regardless what his father might have done had he lived.
He passed through the five short, highway tunnels cutting through volcanic rock, heeding the yellow warning lights that would have flashed if bicyclists were in them, on his way past White Salmon to Stevenson. He would cross the Columbia River to Oregon on the Bridge of the Gods.
He felt as if he were going home, because anywhere Jonathan was seemed like home. Thinking of Jon, he was in wonder that, at seventeen, his life's direction in terms of companionship was so settled. Most of Jon's flaws — they were few — provoked laughter, not frustration, and Jason saw such a core of familiar values in Jonathan: compassion, loyalty, and curiosity, combined with fearless trust in his Jason.
It shouldn't be this easy, he thought. He reflected on his father's death and how much he missed some things about him but also how memories of his father produced anger and pain. However, his happiness seemed to overwhelm his pain. But he could not forget the physical punishment on the football field after he had come out and the near-isolation forced on him, broken only because of North and his friends from Portland. Particularly, Jon, he thought, there aren't many questions about Jon.
The road became curvier, and his thoughts were increasingly interrupted by the need to concentrate on driving. When the course straightened again for a few miles, he smiled as he thought of sex with Jon.
He and Jon were at least honest enough to admit to one another that they occasionally found other guys attractive. Early in their relationship they had talked about their early infatuations with North, experiences that had made lusting after others a little, but safe game.
The only problem Jason saw in Jon was his need to see Annie and North remain together. He worried that if North and Annie separated, Jon would come undone.
In bed at the farm, Annie moved her lips down North's jaw to his neck, and her hand left his face and dropped along his side to his hip. Her exhalations moistened the flesh of his throat under her lips. When her hand moved between his legs, she was mystified.
"Well, that's never happened before."
"Shit, this isn't supposed to happen for another hundred years. I'm in my sexual prime; you're the one who's supposed to be catching up."
"What's going on, North?"
"I'm not sure. I'm confused, and I don't know how to fix whatever you think is wrong. I offered to move back to Portland. Jon's a basket case because he thinks we're headed for the drain."
"We've been together in one way or another since we were four. Why do you think something's wrong?"
"Because something's different between us. I never want us to stop loving each other, and I'm afraid you're unhappy enough that you might quit on us."
"Listen, sweet thing, I'm not happy having an excellent boyfriend on all counts and only seeing him two or three days a week. For that, I'm allowed to whine, and I'm allowed to be pissy."
She interlaced the fingers of her right hand with the fingers on North's left hand. "What's the deal with the existential crisis? This isn't like you."
He gently squeezed Annie's hand. "All right, I'm afraid. I'm afraid of things changing between us, so, yes, something is wrong."
"I think Jon's brainwashing you. I don't feel any different about you than I ever have. I'm just not happy about the practical difficulties of living a hundred miles apart, and if I'm not happy now, how will I do if we're across the country from each other after we graduate? I don't think I can do four years of that, but I'm not going to suggest that either of us change our plans."
He sat up, legs crossed on the bed and waited for Annie to do the same. He placed his hand on her calf and looked at her legs, unable to remember a time when he feared to look at her face. "You can't see how obvious your unhappiness is, at least to me. You don't act like it's a minor inconvenience."
"Look, sweet thing, I'm just unsettled about everything. Maybe we could just back off a little until I get my own mind straightened out."
North toppled sideways onto the mattress, ending up in a fetal position, feeling his heart race and a dull headache. "Sure."
Annie lay down behind him and kissed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry."
In the late afternoon, Jon and Jason took a bus from Jon's house in the West Hills to downtown where they hopped on the Max train and crossed the Willamette River to Portland's east side. Another couple of buses brought them to SMYRC on MLK Boulevard. The Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center where Frank Gerard volunteered and served on the Board of Directors housed the Drop-in Center. The whole project was supported by a behavioral-health-service grant.
The boys left the Number 6 bus and walked across a frontage parking area to the doorway of the center, which was devoid of obvious signage.
Neither of them knew exactly what to expect. Jason hesitated at the door. "Ready?"
Jonathan nodded and opened the door. The center was in a brightly decorated, large, open space divided into areas, including a computer lab, a library, and even a kitchen. The space wasn't crowded at six-thirty, but a few kids were spread out among the areas. A young man greeted Jon and Jason and invited them to a seating area where he explained the services offered and reviewed the house rules, especially about confidentiality. The staffer never asked them to identify themselves either personally or by orientation.
After the brief introduction, Jason informed the man that he was meeting Frank Gerard. "Oh, you must be Jason. Frank mentioned you'd be dropping by. He's around somewhere. Why don't you just hang out 'til he finds you?"
Other than meeting Jon's friends at the club and at the Aladdin, Jason hadn't hung around with gay kids other than Jon. In fact, he had never thought about being in a safe enclave where sexual-minority kids were presumably a majority. Some of the kids in the center were looking at the newcomers with curiosity, and to Jason, some of them looked very young. There were others that Jason couldn't identify for certain by gender, and there were kids who were dressed much more flamboyantly than Jonathan ever dressed.
Jason was embarrassed because of his anxiety at being there. Jonathan took his hand to comfort him. Jason almost jerked it back, though, when the young staff member smiled at them. "Look at the sheet of rules I gave you. We don't mind reasonable PDAs, but no touching breasts or genitals." Well, Jason thought, that's pretty direct.
Jonathan scanned the room to see which group of kids to join. He pulled Jason by the hand past the library space to a small sitting area where three boys sat relaxing and talking. Jon walked right up and introduced himself and Jason. "Hi. I'm Jonathan, and this is my partner, Jason. It's our first time here."
The three boys, all younger than the newcomers, stood and offered their hands as they introduced themselves. Curious, but trying to obey the house privacy rules, a slender brown-haired boy asked Jason, "Did you guys come together?"
Jason recounted the facts about Jon and himself, telling the three that he was from Goldendale, Washington, and that Jon was from Portland and that they had met through a friend who had moved to Goldendale from Portland. The younger boys had never heard of Goldendale, but they engaged in a brief conversation about living in a small town compared to a large city like Portland. They talked about their homes and schools.
During the conversation, Jason realized that one of the boys was reluctant to talk about his home. Frank had earlier made Jason aware that a lot of kids who spent their days at the center were homeless — or close to it. So it was no surprise that none of the three regulars at the center related good experiences coming out to their families. Jon and Jason felt helpless to offer them anything but sympathy. They changed the topics to music and movies and Klub Z, and the boys hoped they would see Jon and Jason there sometime.
As Jason and Jon relaxed with these young people, Jason noticed a lone boy sitting against the back wall of the computer-lab area. The boy kept staring at him until Jason looked over, and then he looked quickly away. That little interchange repeated three or four times until Jason got up and walked over to the boy whose position against the back wall prevented escape.
Jason thought that the boy must be at the absolute lower end of the age range permitted in the center, which was twelve. The kid fidgeted and whispered, "Hi."
"I'm new here …"
"Lucas, you into computers?"
"Me, either, but I have a friend who's a genius at them."
Lucas began to warm to Jason and became more talkative. Within thirty minutes, Jason had pried a very sad life story out of young Lucas. "Shit, you've had a rough time, Lucas."
The boy's voice had yet to fully change. "I guess, but coming here has made things better. Kids here understand, and no one is down on you because you're different."
Just as Lucas had noticed Jason in the group of boys earlier, he stared across at Jonathan now. As if he were struggling to get the question out, he asked, "Is that your boyfriend?"
"That's Jonathan, and he is. Yes."
Without thinking, Lucas said, "He's hot," and then looked down.
"I agree. When I first met him, that was one of my first thoughts. He was already out, and I wasn't. He helped me a lot."
Lucas continued to talk with Jason, asking about life in Goldendale and football and high school. The boy had dropped out of school but was now attending an academy that helped kids catch up and earn their diplomas. "I like math and science most."
Jason felt a hand on his shoulder, and expecting it to belong to Jonathan, was surprised to see Dr. Gerard.
"I see you've met Lucas. He's quite a prodigy at math, and he usually doesn't open up to strangers, so you should feel honored."
"You're so full of shit, Frank," the high-pitched voice laughed.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Lucas. Do you have time to talk now?"
"Sure, Frank." The boy rose and hugged Frank. As they walked away, Lucas said, "I hope you'll come here again sometime."
"I will, Lucas."
Frank added, "Let's talk before you guys leave."
It was two Saturdays before Thanksgiving, late in the afternoon. The four had walked to North's place from Jason's after they had ridden out onto the now-fallow fields.
They found frenetic construction activity at North's front steps. Jason asked North what was going on, and North told them that the writer coming to visit was confined to a wheelchair, so Tom and Jim had decided to put in a ramp.
"So, this is for the writer who's coming to school with Tom?" Jason asked North.
"Yeah, he's a strange one, and not because he's paraplegic. I don't think he ever got over the war."
Annie added, "He's wickedly handsome, but he has this barely submerged anger, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. He curses like a sailor."
"I'm really surprised that Dad asked him to come to read at school. He's a bit of a loose cannon. I don't think he ever found someone to love."
Jason asked, "He's gay, right?"
"Yep," Jonathan threw in, "Tom says he was gay when he went to war and gay when he came back, but he was changed when he came back. I don't know all the details, but I know he was a big-time hero. Just don't make the mistake I did and ask him about what he did over there."
The kids rounded the farmhouse and went in through the back door. Jim was home and greeted them, asking how the ride went. Jason told him that the Portland contingent were now skilled enough that Vi and he would let any of them ride whenever they wanted.
"So, Sam's on the way?" North asked.
"Be here next week. Tom wanted to be sure he could get in and out without help. He is a bear about looking after himself."
Before talking to Sam, Tom had insisted on a long talk with Mr. Henrickson, the high-school principal. The man seemed enthusiastic about having Tom and Samuel Marshall speak to Miss Martin's class.
The principal, Miss Martin and Tom sat around a small conference table in Mr. Henrickson's office. A coffee carafe sat in its center, surrounded by coffee mugs emblazoned with the timberwolf school mascot. Tom started the conversation. "You did read up on the man, didn't you?"
"Miss Martin gave me some material to read. He's a war hero." The principal offered Tom and Miss Martin a choice of water or coffee.
Waving away the offer, Tom tried to paint an accurate picture of his friend. "Well, I suppose, but he served in a different war and in a different time. When he came back, kids were spitting on soldiers."
"I didn't know that. Still, the one story Miss Martin gave me to read was excellent."
As Tom observed the man across the table, he was unsure whether the man was enlightened or a fool. "You're not concerned about having two gay men talk to an English class?"
"You're talking about writing and literature, right?"
"Yes, but kids will have found out more stuff about Samuel Marshall and me in thirty minutes on the web than you or I could in a month. If they ask questions, neither of us will be dishonest."
Miss Martin finally ventured a comment. "I'll talk with the students about the boundaries of the discussion. The class is an honors class. I don't think we'll have any problems."
Tom wondered if he and Sam were being set up for an easy controversy, but he didn't think that Miss Martin operated that way, and the principal didn't seem bright enough to look that far ahead.
The night after the discussion, Tom had asked Sam if he would talk with a high-school English class while he was in town. Sam had agreed immediately, and Tom had mentioned the ground rules. Sam had replied that Tom knew how intimately he hewed to any rules, ground or otherwise.
"Just don't embarrass me too much, Sam," Tom had pleaded.
"You're a friend, Tom," was the reply.
The next Saturday everyone was at North's place while Tom made the run to the Portland Airport. Around two-thirty in the afternoon, they all heard the Tribeca pull up to the front of the house. Jason encountered Samuel Marshall for the first time. He had to agree with Annie's assessment; Mr. Marshall was handsome and didn't look his age — sixty-seven. He was angular and slender with a shock of only slightly graying, coal-black hair that was carefully styled with a razor cut.
Tom pulled the chair from the car's rear compartment and brought it to the front passenger door and locked the wheels. Sam transferred out of the front seat of the Tribeca and into his chair, then unlocked the wheels and propelled himself across the short piece of ground to the ramp. He frowned and looked at Jim.
"This wouldn't be for me, would it?"
"Of course not. It's for anyone who wants to use it."
"Yeah, sure," the older man said with a skeptical but thankful tone as he effortlessly wheeled up the incline. When he was on the porch, he looked at the kids. "North, Annie, good to see you again. Jonathan, I think this must be your cowboy," he said, looking toward Jason.
"Sam, this is Jason, and he is my cowboy."
Sam wheeled up to Jason and shook his hand, staring at Jason's face. The grip was firm, and Jason saw the developed muscles in the old man's forearms. In fact, his entire upper body was disproportionally muscular compared to his lower body. "I'll be deeply disappointed if you don't take good care of young Mr. Sumner here, and you don't ever want to disappoint me."
Jason looked for the laughter behind the warning, but he didn't find any, which shook him a little. Mr. Marshall was direct and intense, bordering on being inappropriate. Jason released his hand and answered, "I love him."
Sam nodded and went through the door Tom was holding open. Jason learned what his friends had learned over the years that they had known Samuel Marshall. He took care of himself, and Jason marveled at how he managed his paralysis. The day passed in reminiscences by the adults of how they had met one another and how Tom had pulled Sam out of depression and championed his writing.
Samuel Marshall had been a sensation when he had come back from the war and written a series of essays on its human costs as well as the heroism of the Vietnamese civilians on both sides of the conflict. His poetry at that time was, by turns, mordant, tinged with what would become post-modernism, and lyrical. But Sam faced a long writing drought in the late eighties and early nineties until Tom's interest had resurrected his career and enabled him to begin writing and publishing again.
For kids who read voraciously, Sam's stories about his sixties' contemporaries like Berger, Jones, Vonnegut, and Pynchon, who eventually turned him on to Spike Jones, were a confection. He had also known Rexroth in San Francisco and, by extension, many of the SF Renaissance poets, including Gary Snyder with whom he shared an interest in Buddhism.
Jason knew most of the names discussed across the dinner table, and Samuel Marshall's presence began to teach him how men lived behind the names, some with huge egos who became celebrities and some who wrote in near solitude and hated to give anything of themselves away.
But, Sam's demons were apparent to Jason. Unlike Tom, the man rarely laughed, and he acted as if he were waiting for the next round of incoming fire. Jason thought that he showed no generosity of spirit, unlike Tom who invigorated everyone whenever possible. Sam's hard edges would make friendship with him a chore, a chore that Tom was apparently willing to undertake, although Jason wondered why he would make the effort.
The last utterance from Samuel Marshall that Jason remembered was, "Rexroth was a grownup by age, and I was a grownup by experience. The rest of them never grew up, except Snyder who was spiritually old when I met him. I regret most that Patchen was already dead when I wanted to meet him."
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Tom and Sam drove across the highway to Goldendale proper and checked in at the high-school office.
The wheelchair had become an extension of Sam's nervous system, almost as responsive as any other man's legs. The chair turned sharply into the classroom, its slender occupant finding and fixing the eyes of each high-school student in the room. Tom followed his friend and took a seat at the front of the room after setting up an iPod and a set of powered speakers. Miss Martin introduced the guests to her class and to a few students in her other classes who had received special permission to attend.
"You all have been practicing writing this semester," Miss Martin started, "and some of you have been writing since you started school here, and before. I thought you might benefit from hearing from two men who make their living with the pen. Both have published verse and fiction, and one has published essays based on his experience in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Please welcome Tom Jansen and Samuel Marshall."
A small smattering of polite applause arose from the students, most of whom were leaning back in their seats regarding the men with a little condescension. North was in his usual neutral posture, and Jason was in the back sitting on a counter while a couple of nerdier looking kids were leaning forward in their seats ready to engage the speakers. Samuel Marshall looked at each one of the students for a few moments, and they fidgeted in discomfort under his gaze.
Finally he said, "Why the hell would anyone your age be remotely interested in poetry?" He looked around the class, but saw no response. "Poetry is where you find it. How about this?"
From the powered speakers in the front of the room came the unmistakable beat of hip-hop:
It's the year, thirty…thirty
And here at the Corporate, Institutional
Bank, of Time
We find ourselves, reflecting
That in fact
We came back
We were always coming back.
After the music stopped, Samuel Marshall wheeled across the front of the room. "You all look constipated. You know, all bound up and can't move? You want to move, but you're scared of what others would think, especially Teach here. Take a spiritual laxative and just move when you're moved." He pressed play on the iPod.
Yo its three thousand thirty
I want y'all to meet Deltron Zero, hero, not no small feat
It's all heat in this day and age
I rage your grave, anything it takes to save the day
Neuromancer, perfect blend of technology and magic
Use my rappin so you all could see the hazards
Plus entertainment where many are brainless
We cultivated the lost art of study and I brought a buddy
Automator harder slayer fascinating combinations
Cyber warlords are activating abominations
Arm a nation with hatred we ain't with that
We high-tech archeologists searching for nicknacks
Composing musical stimpacks that impacts the song
Crack the motor what you think you rappin for?
I used to be a mech soldier but I didn't respect orders
I had to step forward, tell them this ain't for us
Living in a post-apocalyptic world morbid and horrid
The secrets of the past they hoarded
Now we just boarded on a futuristic spacecraft
No mistakes black it's our music we must take back
By the end of the rap, most of the kids were up and dancing a bit to the heavy bass. "That's better! How about this?" Again the speakers produced chanting, but this time in an Irish lilt:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
"That's it — the last you'll get from me for now. Quid pro quo, Clarice," Samuel said with his best Hannibal Lecter impression. Then he looked at them from his chair, looked them in their eyes until most of them flinched and looked away. How many of them thought he was crazy?
Finally, one little voice from a seat in the back corner asked, "What does the last thing you said mean? The quid stuff. Where did the first thing you played come from? The Yeats was easy."
Now the students were leaning forward, challenging. Miss Martin worried that things had gotten out of hand. Samuel Marshall had used the word hell, and she wondered how long it would take for the principal to hear about that.
"The phrase quid pro quo is in a dead language, and could be translated as this for that. I'm not going to give you this unless you're willing to give me that, and right now, that means your poetry. The first verses are from an opera by the poets Dan the Automator, Del the Funky Homosapien and DJ Kid Koala, written in 2000. The second poem is by an Irishman who wrote it in 1892. By the way, ten bucks for the class if anyone can tell me the significance of the word Neuromancer in the first selection." Then he quickly added, "Not you, North or Jason."
Another voice, this one from the front responded, "The Irish one's not rap; they didn't have rap in 1892. You think rap is poetry?"
Another voice shouted, "They both were, like, chanting, so they were both rapping."
"No more I this until you that. You have twenty minutes to come up with one really nice poetic image. Who judges how nice it is? You. Paper! Write!"
After twenty minutes, Samuel Marshall wheeled around the room while each kid spoke his or her image. All of them were at least a little interesting, and some were downright beautiful. Sam or Tom repeated each one and commented generously on each.
"You see the heart of poetry in the matching of image to thought or to a story. Today, you started with an image. Sometimes, you start with the story, and the images come."
North said, "Quid pro quo, Mr. Marshall. We gave you that, now your turn to give us this."
Sam looked almost pained as he responded to North, "Poetry is where you find it. I found it in Southeast Asia, near the killing fields. I hope none of you has ever killed another human? How about this?"
Ty, home in a box.
They told us about
the jungle, not
of Hué City.
Your last day,
spent among ruins
like Berlin in forty-five,
among snipers' nests,
not palms and rice.
Your sweetness lost,
no more glances
in gym-class showers
or wrestling in the dark.
Flinching at shots
over your casket,
I wish, of all things,
that you could have found
your way back,
found your way
Jason, having watched Samuel Marshall's performance from the beginning, thought, This is a very angry man, or maybe hurt and angry. This man's war experiences were forty years behind him, and he still hadn't worked them out. Is this what I have to look forward to? Then he wondered if that was how he himself sounded. He had expected nostalgia but heard a man interested in finding poetry in the present as well as the past.
The rest of the class passed with Tom and Samuel Marshall reading a few more things, discussing the poetry of war, and writing as a profession. After class, all but one of the students gathered around Mr. Marshall to ask about his experiences in Viet Nam. One shy girl approached Tom with a copy of the first volume of Gyres Chronicles and asked him to sign it. He quickly signed the book, putting his finger to his lips. She put the book in her backpack and walked away with a huge smile. Since lunch periods were next in the day, Miss Martin allowed a few students to remain and talk with Samuel Marshall.
She overheard him frankly discuss his return from Asia with heroin addiction and how he managed to get clean. He answered questions about paraplegia and how he had survived a disease that, when he was injured, usually killed people within ten years. Miss Martin had researched him, and what she did not overhear was any mention of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, or the Purple Hearts he had received for his actions during his two tours of duty in that almost forgotten war. None of the students, despite the lines about glances in gym-class showers, asked the author if he was gay.
A dark-haired boy was almost out the door when he turned his head back and called to the poet, "William Gibson."
The boy got the only real smile of the day from Samuel Marshall who left the ten-spot with Miss Marshall.
At dinner after the visit to the high school, Jason was at the table in North's dining room. Tom recounted the classroom visit to Jim, but Sam had little to say. After dinner, Jason was about to leave when Sam wheeled over to him and told him he needed a word. He led Jason out onto the porch while the others were cleaning up the dining room and kitchen. Jason stood beside Sam's wheelchair, each looking out to the yard.
"I understand that your father died over the summer."
"What do you think you owe him?"
Sam scowled at Jason. "Don't temporize. You know very well what I'm asking. If you need to think about how to respond, think in silence."
Jason was up to here with Mr. Marshall. "Why do you care about my father?"
"Because I know something about debts to the dead — relatives and comrades both. I'm still struggling to understand my debts."
Jason's heart softened a bit. "I'm not sure I owe him anything except to be as decent and honest as I can be."
"You're on the right track, and you've made a good start. I think I see why Jonathan might love you."
"We love each other, because we do. I'm not sure there is a why."
"There's always a why. How about your dreams?"
"You're doing it again. I'll give you this advice about dreams: when you've wrung everything out of them that you can, treat them like passing acquaintances. Otherwise, they'll play to every fear you have."
"I'm doing okay."
Sam turned his chair to face Jason and held out his hand. "Goodbye and good luck, Mr. Johnson. You're a moderately interesting fellow." The wheelchair turned, and Samuel Marshall left Jason alone on the porch.
The train ride from Portland had become a familiar ritual for Jonathan and Annie, but today, Tom picked them up in the city after depositing Sam at the airport. The traffic on Thanksgiving morning was moderate, as people travelled to dinners with friends and family. Tom noted that Jonathan and Annie were quieter than usual. He thought that maybe they were just tired.
The holiday dinner in the early afternoon in Goldendale passed in happy conversation with the sharing of good food. Vi had made some dishes she had learned from her mother to cook. She made pies, as well. Everyone at the table behaved as family, except that the give-and-take between Annie and North was more restrained than usual. Although they both tried to act as though they had no problems, everyone else at the table recognized the strain.
Early in the evening, Jason kissed Jonathan goodbye and left with his mother for a late-evening celebration with Ben, Martin, and the families of the hands. A light supper was held in the center of the milking barn. Jason's father had always served, and tonight Jason was performing that role. He felt real pleasure hosting the men who made the farm work and their families, and especially he felt thankful for Ben and Martin. Before supper, Jason had pulled Martin aside and expressed his gratitude for saving North and Brent from whatever Jeremy had planned.
Jonathan was in bed in the room he and Jason usually shared. He was about to take matters in hand when he heard a light rapping on the door. He covered his lower body with the sheet. "Come in."
North opened the door. "Not interrupting anything I hope."
Jonathan knew better than to lie. "As a matter of fact, yes."
"I can come back in a few minutes."
"A few minutes? Jerking off is an art, and my performances take more than a few minutes."
"Right. How about ten minutes?"
"Just come in now. Are you all right?"
North was wearing only a pair of shorts. "I just don't want to sleep alone. Mind if I bunk with you?"
Jonathan immediately lifted the sheet and scooted to one side of the small bed. "Sure. No problem."
When North had dropped his shorts and climbed in with Jonathan, he lay back and quietly looked at the ceiling. Jonathan asked the obvious question, "Where's Annie?"
"She wanted to sleep alone tonight."
"I'm sorry. I wish I could do something to help."
North turned on his side, facing away from Jonathan; Jon reached around to hug North's back against his front. He felt North's shoulders begin to heave, and he felt helpless. He pulled North tight against him, thinking of how long he had known his friend and how much North had helped him find his way. After four or five minutes, North had cried himself out.
"I just cruised along thinking how good things were, and I missed Annie's pain."
"She's a big girl. She would have told you if she felt ignored. I don't think she knows what she's feeling. She's not into anyone else, you know."
"She would have told me that. I don't want you ever to take Jason for granted."
"I won't, but I watch you with Annie, and you don't take her for granted either. You're always trying to fix things. Annie's having a problem that she has to work out; there's no way for you to help her."
"What if she can't find her way to staying with me?"
"I'll be pissed at her, but you'll eventually be okay. For now, give her time. What else can you do?"
"Maybe I can be more of a jerk."
"No, you can't. Come on, I'll hold you while you go to sleep." Like you used to hold me, Jonathan thought.
"Okay." He pulled Jonathan's arm tight around him and cried more quietly for a while.
Friday morning, Jim, back from his rounds, told everyone assembled for the breakfast — Tom and Annie were preparing it — that he had arranged for a four-day, midweek trip to the Flying L Ranch up by Mt. Adams during Christmas break. He had secured the log and the woods cabins, and needed a head count to plan for provisions.
"I talked with Vi, and she'll visit for at least one night. Anyone not interested?"
Jonathan looked at Annie, wondering where she was in her inner turmoil. Annie said, "I'm going to pass. I need to spend some time at home over the break."
"Okay, anyone else not going?"
North felt like saying that he was out, too, but he knew that wouldn't fly with his dads. No one was talkative after Annie's announcement. She was embarrassed by the effect of her announcement and hurriedly left for her room. Jon took out after her and knocked on the bedroom door, which he had heard slam. Annie didn't respond.
"Let me in, Annie, please."
Hearing Jon's voice, she invited him in. She asked him to close the door behind him. "I need to get out of here. I can't even look at North, knowing how miserable he is."
"None of us is happy about how this is working out. But it's not your fault, and no one blames you. If you need to go home, I'm sure Jason and I would drive you back, but selfishly, I'd want you to stay. I talked to North last night. He understands."
"He may understand, but I feel as if I'm twisting the knife every time we talk. I think I should go home today."
Jon embraced Annie. "I never thought I'd see you two in this situation, but you need to take care of yourself." Now the other half of his best-friend couple was crying in his arms. "Jason and I will drive you back."