After dropping Annie off at her home, Jason and Jonathan stopped off at the SMYRC Drop-in Center, even though the visit would make for a late arrival in Goldendale. Anticipating a late departure from Portland, Tom and Jim had told them to stay at the Portland condo if they didn't want to drive back at night.
With the football and cross-country seasons passed into statistics, the boys had visited the center a number of times and had made friends of many of the kids who hung out there. The center was cheery enough, but Jason came to hate the fact that the kids who spent a lot of time there couldn't just be freely themselves outside of the building. Jon reminded him that the center's purpose was to deal with the behavioral-health issues, sexual health, and even substance-abuse problems experienced by LGBTI kids. That's why people like Frank volunteered there.
Of the boys they saw on their visits, Lucas, especially, had become a friend. He had latched onto Jason almost as he would have an older brother. Jonathan half-joked to Jason that Lucas was becoming his groupie and half-seriously warned Jason not to encourage the boy to fall in love with him. Jason thought that Jon was overestimating the degree of attraction that Lucas felt.
Usually, Jason and Lucas would play video games, and Lucas would stomp Jason, or Jason would encourage Lucas to read by reading aloud with him. Mostly, though, Lucas reveled in the stories Jason shared about the farm and his friends.
Lucas's need for family was plain and disturbing to Jason, and the boy's loneliness pained him because he knew the kid didn't have anyone who would stand up for him. Finally, he talked with Frank about inviting Lucas to Goldendale for a visit. Frank, who had mentioned this possibility for some of his clients when he had first met Jason, thought that, with the proper preparation, Lucas would benefit from a visit.
Despite it being late in the afternoon, Jonathan and Jason decided to drive back to Goldendale rather than stay in Portland overnight. They gassed up the car at a Citgo. As Jason began to get out of the car, Jon grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back in. Jason looked sharply at Jon and then remembered that in Oregon, unlike Washington, people couldn't pump their own gas. "Oops, I forgot. It's unsafe for me to pump my own gas. I'm sure the kid who is going to fill our tank has had hours of safety training." The sarcasm was not lost on Jon.
As they headed east on I-84, passing Gresham and Troutdale, the sun dropped behind them to end another increasingly short day as fall turned toward winter.
The car was a capsule in which Jon felt particularly close to Jase. The vibration of the tires on the recently resurfaced roadway, and their sound, along with the darkness spoiled only by the dashboard lighting, emphasized the intimacy of their journey.
As if he had heard Jon's thoughts, Jason glanced at his partner. "Hey, what would you think of taking North with us to Seattle when we go up to look for apartments?"
"Great minds. I was going to ask you the same question. Let's talk to him when we're at the Flying L. He needs some diversion."
"What's gotten into Annie? I can't believe she's seriously thinking about breaking up with North. She met someone else?"
"No. I'd know if that was the problem, and she'd tell North if that were so. I think she just can't handle missing him when they're apart."
"I get that. I'd miss you, Jon, if we had to be apart, but I wouldn't think about breaking it off. We'd find a way."
"Easy for us to say. I don't know, but I wouldn't give up on them yet. Silly, I guess, but I think they're destined for each other, just as we are."
"We are, aren't we?"
"I knew you were the one for me, Jase, the first time I saw you. You were so quick and so hot. You were what I was waiting for."
"Let's face it. We are the best couple in the history of the human race," Jason said. They sat in the car's darkness enjoying each other's company.
"Do you think he'll come with us?" Jason asked.
"He's the most stubborn guy I know, but if we both lean on him gently enough, I think he will."
After a comfortable silence, Jonathan plugged his iPhone into the Aux socket of the car's sound system and the music of Tokio Hotel began to play.
Will you stand the pain
When I'm by your side?
Will you follow me into the night?
They're not gonna get us.
We'll be all right.
And one day
The dark side will
"Should I consider North available?" Frannie asked.
Frannie's North Portland bedroom had a clean, almost Norwegian look, everything spare and modern. She had invited Annie to spend a night, because she and Mary, her girlfriend, were tired of seeing the girl at sea. Boys' undershirts and shorts were the costume of the night, and Frannie and Mary had decided earlier that one of them was going to attempt to shake Annie up. Frannie drew the short straw.
Frannie wasn't what you would call femme. She was slender with large breasts, narrow hips, and broad shoulders, a perfect complement to Mary's more traditionally feminine figure. Her hair was cut short and styled like a late-fifties "cat." She knows I'm not seriously interested in North, but at least I'll plant the thought that someone might go after him.
"I'm just asking. You of all people can't ignore the fact that he is one hot boy. He'd never give another girl the time of day unless he figures you've cut him loose."
"Fucking H Christ, why are my best friends so determined to butt in here? North and I are capable of taking care of ourselves. This isn't 'a great tremor in the Force.'"
"Well, maybe not to you, but to your friends it is. You know I love Mary, but I'd fuck North in a heartbeat just to be able to say that I had, if you and he weren't together."
"Oh really? That's comforting."
"I'm not trying to comfort you. I'm trying to help you get your head out of your ass."
"Gee, thanks, Frannie. But that's a bit harsh."
"Annie, you don't understand that the longer you keep wandering around in … whatever state you're in … the better the chances are that you'll break the relationship beyond repair."
Annie's eyes filled with tears. "All I want is a little time. North is willing to give me that. Why the fuck can't the rest of you do the same?"
Frannie moved to hug Annie, letting the girl shudder against her breast. "Shhh, let it out. I'm sorry. We're all just so worried."
On Tuesday of the week of Christmas vacation, Jason showed up at North's home at one in the afternoon. Jim and Tom were loading up the Forester, and Jason threw his bag in the back with the others. Vi and he had recommended the Flying L Ranch up by Mt. Adams, and Jason hoped that no one would be disappointed. Snow had fallen periodically during the past three days, but the accumulation was modest owing to daytime temperatures in the forties. "What can I do to help?"
"Go in and pry your 'brother' and your beloved out of the house so we can get going."
Jason laughed and ran up to the porch, up the steps, and into the house. "Hey. What are you two doing?"
Jon's voice came down from the second floor, "Wouldn't you like to know? Maybe I'm trying out your replacement."
"I wouldn't stand a chance," Jason joked.
Jon appeared at the head of the stairs. "Oh, I think you'd do nicely in any contest of that sort."
North appeared behind Jon. "Don't let him kid you. All I hear about is how perfect you are. It's really nauseating."
Before he could pull them back, the words were out. "Some of us have the good fortune to be worshipped …. Shit, sorry, North."
"Will you two please stop all this crap? You can talk about Annie. You can talk about how happy you are. I'm tired to death of everyone acting like I'm a wounded fawn."
"You're right. I'll stop trying to spare your feelings," Jason said with a smile. The comment made North smile, as well. "Your dads are getting impatient. Let's go."
When they were all bundled into the car, Jim, in the driver's seat for a change, asked, "Everyone have everything that he needs? Once we're on the road, we're not turning back."
The three boys in the rear seat rolled their eyes, and their silence was the only answer Jim got. North was in the middle straddling the hump over the drive train. Jim headed on Washington 142 across the flat plain west of Goldendale. The highway ran straight for about six miles then turned north, then west, then north and then west again, the many skirted farms being more important than the straightness of the road. They turned off S.R. 142 onto the Glenwood Highway, which took them along the east bank of the Klickitat River flowing 1500 feet below them toward the Columbia. The highway then dropped in spectacular fashion to the river's elevation, crossed it, and followed the west bank for several miles before climbing again to the flat plain at the base of Mt. Adams.
The boys, each in his own little space, listened to music and watched the scenery from time to time as Jim drove. Tom rested his hand on Jim's right thigh, a gesture that brought a now-rare smile to North's face. He nudged Jason and nodded toward the front so that Jason would see the gesture. Jason looked back to North and smiled, nodding approval.
Forty-five minutes later, the boys felt the car slow as they approached Glenwood. "Jason, you're the navigator," Jim said. "Don't let me get us lost."
Jason pulled his earbuds out. "You'd have to work to get lost. We can go into Glenwood if you want and then backtrack to the Mt. Adams Highway, which, incidentally, we are about to pass."
Glenwood provided the last cell-phone service they would have. North checked his iPhone — no texts from Annie. They stopped briefly to pick up a few things at the Glenwood General Store where the free wi-fi was the last they would find for a few days. The stop gave them a chance to stretch. North checked his phone again, an act that both Jonathan and Jason noted.
Jason leaned forward behind Tom as they returned east out of Glenwood to be sure they didn't miss the turn north onto Mt. Adams Highway. A half-mile out of Glenwood, Jason pointed out the left turn, and they travelled another half mile to Flying L Drive, where they turned into the entrance for the lodge and cabins.
The sky was gray, and a little more snow would fall tonight, but the forecast called for clearing skies. Low, moisture-laden clouds hid Mt. Adams. Jason met the discouraged comments of the others about the weather with reassurances that tomorrow would be brighter. Snowfall the week before Christmas wasn't rare, but more often held off until January.
They parked in a little corral-like parking area. Tom and Jim checked them in at the office, and Jason chatted with the woman, one of the owners, about how Vi was. She also gave Jason a hug and condolences on his father's death. Handing the keys to the two adults, she asked Jason, "You can show them where the cabins are?"
"Sure. I'll get everyone settled."
Tall grass poked its way up through the foot accumulation of snow that had fallen over the last three days. Jason's weather promise was for a morning of the kind with deep-blue sky that almost pulsates, found only away from the pall of hydrocarbons hanging over most cities.
North was determined to run on the winding trails of the Flying L's property that he had seen on the resort's brochure. He might get in three or four miles if he made two complete circuits. The system of trails on the eighty acres of the ranch property was well-marked with blazes and at its extremes wandered far from the cabins and guesthouse.
North was to sleep in the loft of the Log Cabin, the place's largest cabin, with a porch and entrance that faced to the east away from Mt. Adams. The rungs of the simple ladder to the loft were rounded timber and, as North found out later, slightly uncomfortable to bare feet. At this time of year, the living area with its south-facing windows wouldn't brighten much until the afternoon.
Vi and Jason had suggested this place for a holiday getaway, and North found that he loved its informality and proximity to the mountain, which loomed hidden to the west and north.
Jonathan and Jason were still asleep in the large downstairs bedroom, and North's fathers were in the smaller Woods Cabin, fifty yards away. When Vi came out tomorrow, that's where she would stay.
After lacing his cleated running shoes, North carefully opened the door to the porch, closed it as noiselessly as he could, and stepped down onto the crunchy snow. He was dressed in long tights and layers of clothes on his upper body to prevent loss of body heat in the sub-freezing air. He walked a bit to encourage blood flow to the long muscles of his legs and then, as the sun was rising, began a slow jog. In the snow he wouldn't be able to go full out.
Running was the method of confronting problems that North had perfected his entire life, as it was that morning. The persistent ache of Annie's absence decreased with each half-mile until a blessed silence replaced the sadness North felt most of the time as a result of the litany of doubt that had marked his days lately.
His body warmed to the task, and he smiled as he felt the physical power of his stride. Time wasn't measured by any clock save the rhythm of his breathing and the alternating contraction of his leg muscles. At one point far from the cabin, the trail ran along a fence line placed to keep guests from traipsing onto delicate grasses and the few remaining working areas of the ranch, and he stopped briefly to watch a ground squirrel not yet hunkered down for the winter.
He felt better when he returned to the cabin. He had worked some things out on his run. Annie would decide what she would decide in her own time, and he would wait because he couldn't imagine life without her by his side and in his bed.
The living room was still dark, and North brought wood from the porch for the wood stove, taking a moment to admire the light cast on the snow of the mountain from the early-morning sun. Since he wasn't wearing his watch, he had no idea what time it was.
A fire would make a more pleasant wakening for his friends. He carefully loaded the stove, using kindling to start the fire. The wood was seasoned and burned slowly at first before more rapidly turning through chemistry into heat and ash. North climbed the ladder to retrieve a book and a quilt and then took a quick shower before settling on the couch to read.
Jonathan woke in the chill of morning to find himself under the heavy quilt, wrapped up in Jason's arms. Jason had worried that if the two of them carried on as they usually did, North would be sadder than he already was, but Jonathan had told him that North wouldn't want them to avoid happiness because he was having a rough time. So, they carried on as they usually did, spending the first night at the ranch alternately screwing their brains out and making love. That they were a good fit, physically and by temperament, was becoming increasingly apparent to them. In addition to loving one another, they really liked each other.
Jonathan pulled out from under Jason's arms and quietly went out to the bathroom. On his way, he saw North on the couch curled up under a quilt, rapt in a book. He almost spoke, but his friend looked peaceful and was concentrating on what he was reading. After peeing, Jonathan crept back into the bedroom to rejoin Jason who roused a bit when the bed jostled. The boys shared a good morning kiss followed by a good morning snuggle followed by a good morning pair of shared blowjobs. When they finished, Jason looked at his phone. The Flying L was in a pocket unreachable by cell phone or internet service, but the internal clock on the phone proclaimed the time: eight thirty.
Jonathan and Jason had bought matching, long, sleep pants and long-sleeve tops in which they finally appeared in the living room. North looked up. "You're kidding, right? Bobbsey Twins? Which of you is Bert and which Nan?"
The two recent arrivals in the room rushed the couch and jumped on North. "That statement is a terrible affront to one of our masculinities," Jonathan shouted.
"All right, Nan, I give!"
When they were all settled on the couch, Jason asked North, "How early were you up?"
"Don't know, but it's been a while. I went for a run."
"That's great, North. You should have gotten me up so I could run with you," Jason said a little crossly.
"I will drag you and your great love's asses out this afternoon for a run. I wasn't about to interrupt whatever was going on in there, even if it was only sleep, which I doubt."
Jonathan smiled at Jason. "Good instincts. How cold is it out there? And, thanks for starting the fire."
"Cold. Your turn tomorrow, or one of you anyway."
Jason's stomach was orchestrating a variety of noises. "Time for breakfast yet?"
North said, "I'll never understand how you stay in shape eating like you do. I didn't stop by to see if the dads were up. They were probably up to what you two were. Apparently gay guys are single-minded."
Jonathan laughed, replying, "That's how he can eat like he does and stays in shape."
"You two need to shower so we can get to the cookhouse. You smell like sex." A flash of sadness crossed North's face. "I'm envious."
Jason and Jon trundled off to the shower, and North scrambled up the ladder to get dressed for the morning. By the time they made their way to the cookhouse, the endorphins in North's blood from his run were waning, and he was feeling glum again.
The cookhouse, adjacent to the main building, had two long picnic-style tables with moveable, heavy benches and a small four-person table in one corner. Jim and Tom were already at one of the long tables and had saved places for the boys.
"About time. What took you so long?"
"North had already taken his morning run by the time Jon and I were up. He was very considerate not to wake us."
Tom took a long look at his son. "You know, if this is too much for you, I'd be happy to go home with you, although I know your pain doesn't have much to do with place."
"Thanks, but I'm fine. I like the place, and I don't want to miss Vi's visit, plus you and Dad Squared need the time together."
"The offer's always good."
Breakfast was homemade granola and fresh yogurt with warm huckleberry muffins. They managed some neutral conversation and decided that they'd just hang out today. Tom was going to spend some time writing, and Jim had journal articles to read — not much different from normal days except that they would do the normal things in the clear, cold air, on wooden chairs facing Mt. Adams, and they would do them together.
Because Jason's family had known the Flying L's owners for many years, on the way back to the cabin, Jason stopped in to visit with them and to buy some souvenirs. They had tried to sell the place a year ago when they were having a rough time financially but never found a buyer. Things were a little better now, and they were hoping to hang in. Jason bought long-sleeved Flying L t-shirts for the four others before heading back.
The air was now warmer, the temperature reaching into the low forties but with the peculiar, comfortable feel of cold days in direct sun. When Jason reached the cabin, North was sitting on the porch putting on his snowshoes, a pair of gray MSR Evo Denali Ascents with plastic decks. Jason sat beside his friend, watching him get the shoes settled. "Want some company?"
"No, thanks. I'm just going to wander a bit."
Jason watched North stand and hop down onto the snow, starting the walk without poles. "Be careful, please. You have enough water?"
North stopped and turned at the waist so his back was to Jason, showing his CamelBak. "You worry too much, you know?"
"North, … I love you. I don't think I would have survived if I hadn't met you."
"I love you, too. Thanks. You're a great friend, and I'm so happy that you and Jon found each other."
Jason waited until North was out of sight to go back into the cabin. He felt helpless now, just as he had when his father was dying. Frank had told him that sometimes just standing quietly by a friend was enough, but it didn't feel like enough.
Though North preferred colder weather with more powdery snow, he didn't mind the wetter, more compact snow as he walked out Flying L Drive from the ranch toward the main road. Despite the 40-degree temperature, the snow was still packed hard on the roadway, crunching slightly as the decks of his snowshoes slapped onto its surface; the noise was one disadvantage of the Denalis, but then they weren't likely to be damaged if he encountered bare patches. The walk was thus far effortless and pleasant, keeping him facing Mt. Adams. In a way, snowshoeing was like running in that his attention to his stride displaced thought.
He turned right, heading north on Mt. Adams Highway, a two-lane, paved road that hadn't been plowed yet this morning. He walked on the deeper snow near the road's edge. The population density out this far was more like Wyoming than Washington, and he passed only occasional driveways to homesteads he couldn't see from the road. He stopped to remove his heavy outer layer and stuff it into the CB H.A.W.G. that also held his water bladder. He moved relentlessly, trying to keep his pulse rate above a hundred, and the road cooperated by rising gently but steadily before him.
A few miles north, he reached the intersection with St. Regis Rd and continued north through the intersection. He had left the farms and houses behind and reminded himself that Jason had told him that this highway was also a Bureau of Indian Affairs road. He knew he should stay on the road, but the temptation to cut across the country was too great. He always hiked with a Green Trails map and a compass, but there was no cell-phone reception here and no way to call for help.
The land was treed but not densely forested, and he was sure that he could keep himself oriented, especially with Mt. Adams as a beacon from the clear patches. His shoes made clear impressions, and he could easily backtrack, if necessary.
Although the recent turn in his relationship with Annie had shaken his confidence, he was confident enough to turn right from the road. He meandered east through the forest, finding the snow deeper where less sunlight fell. He contemplated the pleasure of being alone, but being alone in the woods with the knowledge that Annie and he were together in spirit was different from confronting the land truly alone.
He pulled himself out of self-reflection and tried to keep his attention on his surroundings. The ground was mostly flat, but slight ridges rose ahead of him before the land dipped toward the Klickitat River. The smell of the evergreens and the warmth of the sun put a smile on his face despite his desire to wallow in self-pity. He stopped to look at some rabbit tracks in the snow, noticing the smaller foreleg prints trailing the larger hind-leg ones.
On the ridgeline above him, yellowish eyes regarded the creature below. She had been scouting the noisy animal for a mile or so. She was thin and tired, driven to risk roaming close to the road and the cars by lack of prey in her more familiar range. She had smelled and heard the brightly colored creature, and somewhere in her feline brain an unconscious calculation was forming about the energy that attacking would take versus the possible reward. If the creature came closer, she would try an attack. Now, she waited for that to happen.
North looked up to the ridge and then at the angle of the sun. He realized that he'd been out for more than two hours. He wanted to climb the low ridge to see what could be seen but decided that he should head back. Checking his compass, he took a more direct line getting back to the highway, and when he reached it, headed south. He stayed close to the east side of the road this time so that he would see oncoming traffic, although he had seen none this morning.
The tan cat watched the creature move away from the ridge, and she moved down as well and to her left to circle around. Perhaps she could cut it off. The noise of its steps and its smell gave her precise understanding of where the creature was. She was less certain of success over flat ground and preferred attacking from above and behind, but she was hungry.
North had walked about a mile and a half when something made him turn around. He saw her on the road a hundred yards to his north. At first he didn't recognize what he was seeing, but quickly realized that it was a cougar. He stopped immediately, wishing that he'd brought his poles. Without thought, he reached for his phone but quickly remembered that he couldn't call. From his earliest days hiking in the Cascades his fathers had trained him in how to manage encounters with bears and cougars. His pulse rate was well over a hundred now, and he concentrated on his breathing to regain some composure.
He stood as tall as he could and, putting his hands in the pockets of his fleece jacket, pulled it out from his sides so that he would look wider. He backed slowly away to the south, but she followed, closing with him, at first head down and then head up in longer, loping strides. He stopped and in a loud, firm voice told the cat to leave.
"Look, I'm not happy, and don't feel like dealing with you! I'm more trouble than I'm worth. Really, I am!"
She stopped at the sound of his voice, and another calculation occurred. Then, she turned back into the forest to the east. North relaxed a little, but wondered if the cat might be setting up another approach. All the way back to Flying L Drive, he kept to the middle of the highway and watched his flanks and rear as constantly as he could on the long walk.
As he approached the driveway to the ranch, he wondered if he would have survived a real attack. He silently thanked the cat's instincts and the randomness of life for sending her back into the woods. He dropped his pack and took off his fleece before sitting on the cabin porch to take off his snowshoes. Jonathan, hearing the noise, came out and sat beside North.
"We were beginning to worry. You were out a long time."
"You and your boyfriend worry too much, you know?"
"How was the hike?"
"Quiet, except for the cat."
"Yeah, I had a conversation with a cougar."
"A cougar? You idiot, you shouldn't be hiking alone. Jase, get out here now!"
Jason wandered out to find Jon nearly apoplectic. "What's wrong?"
"North had a run-in with a cougar."
"No shit. You're the lucky one, aren't you? I haven't seen a cougar around here in three years."
"Lucky? Are you out of your fucking mind? He could have been cat food."
"Cougars don't usually fool with humans, but we'd better report your sighting to the Ranger HQ. How far away from you was it, and was it male or female?"
"Maybe the length of a football field until I started to back away. Then it came toward me until I told it to get lost. I wasn't looking between its legs."
"Very cute. Jon, you may be right. I don't like the fact that it approached North when he backed off. I'll go to the office and phone the Ranger Station."
As Jason hurried to the office, Jon sat beside North. "Jase and I decided that you're sleeping with us tonight."
"Oh, really? That would redefine the meaning of third wheel."
"No, it won't. It will be just like when we were younger. We'll play cards, tell stories, and read to each other."
"Thanks." Jonathan's like community property between Anns and me. He's really torn.
North changed into sleeping pants and a long-sleeve tee before scrambling down the ladder to join Jonathan and Jason in the bedroom. Three in the Queen bed would be tight, but North figured he'd leave and sleep in the loft when the other two were asleep. The Js were dressed in their Bobbsey-twins sleeping clothes. "Okay, Nan and Bert, deal 'em."
Jonathan waved North to the bed, where a deck of cards and a score pad lay. North settled in at the middle of the bed with his back against the wall. Jonathan and Jason climbed on at the head and foot of the bed and sat cross-legged. Jason picked up the deck and said, "Gin, four and under to knock."
Jonathan was a profound strategist at gin rummy and won most of the games easily because, while the others were always trying to gin, he almost always relied on knocking quickly, settling for lower but more frequent scores.
Music filled the cabin as they played. Jon wanted to hear Fall Out Boys and, although not a favorite of theirs, the other two didn't mind. But, when Disloyal Order of Water Buffalos came on, Jason turned the player off.
Looking at North, Jonathan announced, "We've decided that you're coming to Seattle with us in January. We need your help finding a decent place to stay. Gay boys never consider the practical."
"That's so much bullshit. You're the most practical people I know. You think I can't see a rescue mission when I see it?"
Jonathan put a sad, puppy-dog look on his face. "Please, we need your help. Besides, having you along when we look on Capitol Hill will ensure we get a break on rent."
"You're going to pimp me out?"
"Oh, yeah. It's pricey up there, and all's fair in rent wars."
"I'll think about it."
Jon settled the matter. "You're going."
While Jason waited for his mother, a dark-haired girl he thought was about his age had joined him on the chairs in front of the lodge building at eight in the morning. She and her family were visiting from Seattle, and Jason learned that her name was Sue.
"Jonathan and I are going up to Seattle in January to get our living arrangements set for next year at U Dub."
"Is Jonathan your roommate?"
"That — and then some," Jason replied with a smile.
"Oh, well, that's cool. Seattle's a pretty welcoming place, and the University has a lot of gay people on staff, not to mention as students. Are you from Portland?"
"Really? Living there must be a little tough for you."
"It's been interesting, but you know what they say: it gets better."
"So, is the blond one your boyfriend?"
Do people just automatically fall in love with North? "No, the handsome one is my boyfriend."
The girl didn't know what to say, but Jason rescued her. "North, the blond one, is a good friend and neighbor and quite straight. Jonathan, the dark-haired one, is the boyfriend."
"They're both very handsome. My younger sisters will be devastated. They were hoping for a vacation romance."
"Well, I suppose North is a possibility, although he's involved with a girl in Portland."
"Fine by me. I came here to relax and read," she said holding up a book. "Chasing boys isn't on my agenda. Maybe I could take a walk with you and Jonathan later, though."
"I'll talk with him and let you know. Where are you staying?"
"The Wild Rose Cabin." Sue stood, as did Jason. "See you later." She walked with her book back to her cabin where she would probably deliver the bad news to her younger sisters.
Jason was still waiting in the small courtyard in front of the lodge when his mother drove in at eight-thirty. Vi had left the farm in Ben's and Martin's hands early in the morning so that she would arrive in time for breakfast. She had driven one of the small sedans with studded tires. She heaved out of the car and stretched her arms over her head before walking over to her son and hugging him. Jason, in his mother's embrace, inhaled the smell that he would always associate with love and comfort.
"I'm glad to be able to spend some time with you … and your adopted family."
Jason walked over to the car and waited for her to pop the trunk, but she walked to his side and looked at him. "I can carry my own weight, Jasey."
She didn't get the chance. The others streamed out of the Log Cabin where they had waited and surrounded her. After giving her a hug and kissing her cheek, North grabbed her bag out of the trunk and walked it over to his dads' cabin. By the time he was back at the car, everyone was heading into the cookhouse for breakfast.
The place was crowded, but people shifted around so that the newcomers could sit together. Jason saw Sue and her family at the other long table and took North and Jon over to meet her. Sue's sisters were suitably impressed that their sibling had wangled an introduction to the blond.
"Jase said you might want to walk with us. Maybe we can get one in this evening, or if you run, North could join us."
"I haven't run since we arrived. That would be great. You should sit with your family; we'll get the details set later."
Sue's sisters looked at her with undisguised displeasure that North would be returning to the other table. When the boys sat with the adults, Tom looked at North questioningly, and North just shrugged. Vi listened to a report on what the others had been doing at the Flying L. The story of North's encounter with the cougar concerned her, but she couldn't drag many details of the encounter from North, who was quieter than she had ever seen him.
In a lull in the conversation, Jim asked, "How are things going on the farm, Vi?"
"We're going into the slow season, so things are perking along. Martin and Ben are doing a great job." Looking at Jason, she continued, "Without them we couldn't make it work."
"I can stay home more, Mama."
"Staying home isn't your job now, young man. While you're useful, you're not irreplaceable."
Jason frowned, but seeing the laughter in his mother's eyes relaxed.
Vi looked at North again. "When these two go up north next fall, I may hire you to do Jason's work. But, I suppose you'll be running again."
"I don't think I'm going to run for the school next year, but I won't stop running for myself."
"No, you can't deny your bliss. By the way, Martin mentioned that he enjoys your visits. He's very proud of his family and thinks highly of you. He's not a man to favor others lightly."
"I like visiting with him. He's like the characters in old westerns that I love. He's so honest and open, and he doesn't mind sitting quietly." Vi nodded at what she thought was a very perceptive take on Martin.
Breakfast passed with more talk of Goldendale and happenings at the high school. When they were finished, Vi started to bus her plates and silverware, but Tom told her that the owners had their own way and that she should leave the dishes at the table. She didn't much like doing that but relented.
On the way out, Sue intercepted the boys. "You going for a run this morning?"
Jonathan said, "North's already been out earlier, and I'm not much of a runner, but maybe we could take an easy jog." He looked to North.
"I could go again."
Sue looked happy at that. "Twenty minutes, out front?"
Jason noted the mild interest in North. "See you then."
As they changed for the run, the Js knew better than to say anything about North's decision.
As the boys were preparing to play, Vi was unpacking a few things and putting them on one of the twin beds in the main room of the cabin. Among the last things she unpacked was a copy of the week's Sentinel. She set it aside, grabbed the box of tea bags she had carried, and wandered to the kitchen to start some water heating in the teapot. Tom and Jim came out of their bedroom and joined her in the kitchen.
"How've you been doing, really?" Jim was ever the physician.
"I'm fine, Dr. Underhill," Vi replied, the corners of her eyes crinkling. She would not mention her husband's name for another six months, but she talked about missing him, referring to him as "that stubborn man."
"Jason seems to be doing better. He and Jonathan are remarkable."
"I think they'll make it. Jonny is a wonderful second son, and he has helped Jason deal with loss and anger. So has Dr. Gerard. Jason's told me a lot about the Drop-in Center, and he wants to have some of the kids come out to see farm life. I will say that taking care of animals can help men heal their own wounds."
Jim observed, "Frank thinks that Jason would make a good therapist. I know he's suggested that he'd help Jason with an application to the medical school after his B.S., and so would I."
"Well, he'll figure out what he wants to do, but he does like listening."
They drank the tea that Vi prepared in companionable silence until Vi said, "I want to show you something." She walked out to the living area.
She picked up the folded newspaper and handed it to Tom. The Sentinel was the weekly paper for Goldendale and its environs. The issue was folded to the page of letters to the editor. Vi had circled a letter.
The author of the letter was bringing to the attention of the community a recent visit to the high school by two poets. The tone of the letter, while not overtly homophobic, used all the code words to make its intent clear. The final paragraph mentioned that one of the visiting writers had used the word hell. The literalist Christian tone of the letter clearly intimated that the visitors were godless heathens and inappropriate guests in a public-school class. Malcolm Foster had signed the letter.
Vi added, "That's Jeremy's father."
Samuel, Samuel, Tom thought. "Surely the guy's just blowing off steam. We talked with the principal, and he okayed the visit."
Vi looked at Tom with a smile. "What's the phrase? Playing to your base? This letter isn't for general consumption, it's for the school board. You can expect the board to discuss this at their next meeting."
Jim said, "Surely, they aren't going to pander to this guy."
"That depends on whether his story is the only one told at the meeting. I think we'd better be ready."