Lucas was panting; North was breathing easily, "What the fuck's going on, Fry? I thought you'd decided to stick around."
Lucas's eyes flicked from side to side as if he was evaluating avenues of escape. Finally he looked North in the eye and knew that there was no escape just now. "You have no idea how much I need to go away."
North used his iPhone. "I have him. We'll be back soon." He slipped the phone into his pocket. North was coiled, ready to intercept the boy regardless of which direction he chose to run. "What's the big, mysterious problem? What's different now than yesterday?"
Lucas looked at the older boy. He saw between them a chasm. The blond was handsome, bright, clean, and had been loved since he was a toddler. He, on the other hand, was plain, tarnished, unworthy, and, now he knew, diseased. What could he be other than an object of charity — a project for a rich couple and their son? "I'll turn your lives to misery; I'll infect you all."
North looked at the younger boy. He saw between them only the hair-breadth's difference of happenstance. "Infect us?"
"I have AIDS."
"What? Who told you that?"
"Dad Squared told you that you have AIDS?"
"He told me a blood test showed I have HIV."
North had been moving closer to Lucas during the interrogation. "That's not the same thing as having AIDS." He reached out and pulled Lucas to him, embracing him until the boy stopped squirming and began to cry. "You have the annoying habit of running from help."
Lucas sobbed out, "I am so tired."
"You'd feel less tired if you let yourself stay in one place for a while. Come on. Our fathers will be worried."
North kept his arm around Lucas as they walked back to the house. Tom and Jim were bundled up, waiting on the porch. When the boys made it up the steps, Jim grabbed Lucas in a hug. He whispered to the boy, "I might have run, too."
Lucas pushed away from the man and asked sadly, "You've never run from anything in your life, have you?"
On a February mid-day, Lucas walked alone back from Jason's place where he had helped Martin with the livestock and finished lunch with the other hands. He knew that he would have to talk to Martin about his condition eventually, but he would put that discussion off for a while.
His thoughts turned to North. He was thinking of North more and more as a brother, although he knew that North was also something of a monitor. His propensity to run away from trouble, he knew, had earned him a monitor. He pulled his new jacket tightly around him in the gray of this winter day. As he walked up the drive to his new home, he spotted a man sitting in a wheelchair near the base of the ramp to the porch. The man was thin without being emaciated and old but alert-looking and, even though imprisoned in the chair, somehow commanding. The man was watching him closely as he approached.
Lucas knew who the man was, and the man knew that Lucas knew who he was, but the boy didn't know why he was here and why he was outside on a February afternoon. Neither Jim nor Tom had mentioned a visit by the war hero. He didn't much look like a hero, but Lucas knew he wouldn't want to fuck with him.
Sam Marshall gave Lucas an impatient stare. "I can't get up this ramp by myself. What are you waiting for?"
Through the front window Tom watched the confrontation. When he saw Lucas move behind the wheelchair and begin to push Sam up the ramp, he was amused. The old bastard.
Lucas had to lean forward sharply and push hard with his legs to develop enough force to get the chair up the ramp. When the chair was on the porch, Sam stopped it and locked its brakes. "I thought you worked with horses. That was harder than it should have been for you."
"Let's go. Have you ever been to the Stonehenge circle?"
"I've never been out of Oregon — or Washington, now."
Marshall took the brakes off the chair and wheeled effortlessly back down the ramp. "We don't have time to waste. We're going to the Stonehenge replica." Marshall began to wheel himself over to a black van parked near the house. A young man, maybe in his late-twenties, left the driver's seat, walked around, and slid open the side door of the van. He activated a ramp that turned, moved out of the van and descended to the ground. "Well, come on. I don't have much time."
Lucas looked at the front door and then marched down the ramp and over to the van. "I need to let Tom or North know where I'm going."
"For a smart kid, you're behaving stupidly. Think!"
After a moment's reflection, Lucas answered, "Right. They know. Hey, I don't have a passport." The last comment Lucas made facetiously.
Marshall smiled slightly and very briefly for the first time during the discussion. "How can you live in a place and be so woefully ignorant of what's around you?"
Marshall backed his chair onto the ramp and locked its brakes. The young man set the ramp in motion until Marshall was in the van with the chair pointed to the rear. Marshall rolled off the ramp and locked himself into position against the van's far wall, facing out toward the door. The young man then walked around and opened the driver's door.
Marshall shouted to Lucas, "Get in the driver's seat. Eric will be your co-pilot. I'll be the navigator." Lucas couldn't believe what he was about to do, nor could Eric, and he wondered if the old man had a death wish and if Jim or Tom would kill him for going along with this plan. Eric walked around the front of the van and slammed the side door shut, finally climbing into the front passenger seat. "Belts on, please."
Sam growled and attached a four-point restraining system to the chair and then belted himself into the chair, while Lucas put on the standard seatbelt. The passenger turned to Lucas, holding out his hand. "I'm Eric, Doc's assistant. I don't travel with Doc, except for extended trips or when he doesn't want to rely on his hosts for wheels." He said this as if he knew that Marshall would never make the introduction or an explanation.
"You're a doctor?" Luke turned to ask Sam.
"Eric, you're a shit. PhD, and an accidental one at that. Eric has a mission while we're here, otherwise I would have flown and been deprived of his company." Sam's comment didn't hold the irritation that Lucas thought it would.
Lucas could hear Eric's smile in his response. "I was one of Mister Marshall's doctoral students, and after I finished I signed on as his assistant."
Luke could see that Eric was more than Marshall's assistant but restrained himself from asking about sex with a guy who was old and paralyzed. Lucas looked at Eric, who asked, "You have driven before?"
"Oh, sure. Lot's of times," Lucas lied. Only the ‘lots of times' part was a lie. He had driven before when friends had let him, but nothing as big as this van and never for more than few turns around an empty parking lot.
Eric pointed to the key in the ignition switch, and Lucas adjusted the seat closer to the front of the van. Even then, he had to stretch a little to reach the pedals. Fortunately, the van was pointed out toward the road so he wouldn't have to back up. He fired up the engine and slowly piloted the van down the road toward US97.
"Jesus Christ, you drive more like an old lady than Eric does," the old man's voice rang from the rear of the van.
Lucas giggled and pressed harder on the accelerator. Eric said, "Maybe we should stick to the back roads until you get familiar with the controls."
"You are a giant wuss, Eric."
"Well, Doc, I'm in the death seat, and there is one hell of an elevation drop down to SR14, so I'm okay being a wuss."
Marshall growled to Lucas, "I don't have all goddamned day, you know."
Lucas was stretching his neck upward to see the road and stretching his legs downward to reach the pedals. His driving jounced them around on the dirt roads, Eric wincing and Marshall laughing until he had a coughing fit.
When he reached the turn onto US97, he braked hard and everyone lurched forward. Marshall shouted, "I love a decisive stop!" Eric just sighed and chuckled.
Lucas took a deep breath, thinking how cool this was and that Jim would certainly kill Marshall if he knew what was going on, and headed south, steeply downward, the few miles toward State Route 14 high above the Columbia River.
"Eric, for Christ's sake, show him how to use a lower gear. Mister Mervic, you are riding the brake. Your responsibility is to get us where we're going in one piece."
Lucas rejoined, "How the hell do you know what I'm doing from back there. You asked me to drive; let me drive. For a war hero, you're not very brave."
"I was never a hero, young man. I was an invention."
Lucas, who had no idea where he was going, shifted from Drive into D3 with a little instruction from Eric and found that he had to use the brake less often. At the State Route 14 stop sign, Lucas was told to turn left, and with each yard he was farther east than he had ever been before. Driving on the highway was a breeze, he decided.
"Drive five miles over the speed limit, Mr. Mervic. We're not going to a funeral."
Lucas sped up slightly, but only about a mile from US97, Eric told him to slow and turn the van right onto Stonehenge Drive, a road that cut back west and south on a diagonal line toward the river. Ahead and to the west, Luke saw a bluff looking out over the Columbia and beyond where a gravel parking area lay, there was a circle of what appeared to be stone columns. He had seen pictures of the Stonehenge site that he knew was in Wiltshire, England, but what he remembered was a ruin. This circle was perfect with all the lintels resting perfectly atop the trilithons, the upright, irregular stone columns. The replica, he would learn, was almost exactly the size and orientation of the original.
Lucas stepped hard on the brake, and the van skidded to a stop in the long parking area north of the monument. When the three decamped from the van, Marshall began to wheel himself across the gravel with apparent ease. He said to Lucas, "Great job; that was fun."
Lucas asked himself, Where is the guy who needed help up the ramp? Lucas walked beside Sam; Eric brought up the rear. He treats Eric like an afterthought.
"This is very cool, Mr. Marshall." Then Lucas pointedly said, "Thanks for your help, Eric." Eric smiled, and Sam did not.
"All right, Mister Mervic, what was the original Stonehenge circle's purpose?"
Lucas thought a moment before replying. He was tempted to regurgitate all the theories he had heard. "I don't think anyone knows for certain, Mr. Marshall, but there are a lot of theories."
For the first time, Lucas saw Samuel Marshall really smile. "You may call me Sam, and I'll call you Lucas. That's how it is between me and friends. I can always use friends that aren't full of bullshit. You're right. No one knows what the circle in Wiltshire really was."
They had reached the circle now, and Sam led them under one of the lintels to the interior. "This Stonehenge — we know its purpose."
"June 1918 — five months before the end of World War I — Sam Hill began building this to honor men from this county who had died in combat. This is the first World War I monument in the country." He rolled over to one of the inner stones. "This is the altar stone. Come over and read the plaque."
Lucas followed and read the bronze plaque: "To the memory of the soldiers and sailors of Klickitat County who gave their lives in defense of their country. This monument is erected in hope that others inspired by the example of their valor and their heroism may share in that love of liberty and burn with that fire of patriotism which death alone can quench."
"What do you think?"
"You're the war hero. What do you think?"
Marshall scowled at the boy. "You know what a war hero is? A war hero is some kid sent by old white men to kill other kids, but who is lucky enough to survive. War heroes are commodities that people remember occasionally before they get on with their lives. So, I think being a hero is bullshit."
"Some old guy at the school-board meeting read about your medal. It sounded heroic to me."
"Yeah? I was scared shitless, but I was responsible for my men. You know what responsible means?"
"I'm not stupid."
"No, you're not, but you didn't answer my question."
"It means having an obligation to."
Marshall nodded. "You're very close, Lucas. The word comes from the same Latin root word as the word respond does. To respond is to pledge in return."
"Like a promise?"
"Not like a promise, young man, exactly a promise. A promise, a bond."
"A pledge that binds you to fulfill it."
"You got most of them out, right?"
"That was the easy part. The hard part was how to fulfill the pledge when I came back home."
"I don't understand."
"The war was the source of my nightmares; the pledge was the source of the rest of my life. What is the source of your nightmares?"
Lucas knew what the man meant. He wasn't talking about actual dreams but about deep fears. For some reason he couldn't put words to, Lucas felt right talking to the old man in the wheelchair. He sensed that the old man was wounded in more than physical ways, like he himself felt. "I don't think I'm worth much, and I guess I don't think people who want to help me are being honest about why."
"Okay. This is a good start. Tom tells me you're a math prodigy. If that's true, you see the world in a unique way. What's worth more than seeing the world in ways that others don't?"
Lucas had no idea how much Tom had shared with Samuel Marshall. "I've done some pretty bad things, and I'm sick."
"Have you killed more people than you can count?"
"No, of course not."
"Then, I think you can begin to fulfill your pledge. What do you mean, sick?"
Lucas sighed and told the old man about his HIV-positive status. Marshall sat back in his chair, and his hard edges seemed to melt. "I'm sorry, Lucas." Lucas couldn't know that as Sam looked at him, he saw behind the scared boy the ghosts of a hundred friends dead of the plague, and then those hard edges reformed. "The past can't be undone. I can't bring back the dead, and you can't change what's running around in your blood, but you can make this trial the source of the rest of your life."
"The rest of my life, huh? All two months or two years of it."
"You know how hard it is to kill yourself from a wheelchair? I didn't think I'd make five years when I came back, and now I'm almost seventy. The reason I'm here is that Gary Snyder told me to get my head out of my ass and tell my story. You know who Snyder is, right?"
Lucas nodded because North and Tom had told him about San Francisco and the poets there in the sixties. He remembered that Snyder was a Buddhist or something.
Sam continued, "The length of your life doesn't really matter. What you make of your time is what matters. It's either more pain, or it's fulfilling your pledge."
The old man grabbed Lucas's wrist and held it firm. "Get your head out of your ass and write your own story. Maybe for you the story is made up of numbers."
Marshall turned away from Lucas and wheeled over to the edge of the circle of stones. Eric walked over and talked to the older man briefly before walking back to Lucas. "He's a hard man to get to know, and he doesn't call many people 'friend.' The club of people your age consists of three members: North, Jonathan, and apparently you. Jason's almost a member, but he's on probation. Come to think of it, I don't think Doc has that many friends nearer his own age." Eric grinned.
"He wouldn't talk to an employee about friendships."
"No, he wouldn't. You need to understand that you can call him anytime about anything. He wouldn't like me telling you this, but he's the most loyal prick in existence. He just won't be even politely dishonest with anyone about anything."
"Did he come here just to see me?"
"That, you'd have to ask him."
Lucas walked across the inner circle to Sam's side. They were quiet together for a few minutes, and Lucas thought about responsibility. He saw that no one who was trying to help him was asking much of him in return, and he knew that responsibility was something he would have to undertake on his own. Smiling at Sam, he observed, "Eric's nice."
"Eric is a pain in the ass, but, yes, Eric's a good man. Now, take us home, Lucas, before I restrict your driving privileges."
When Lucas had fled Portland for Goldendale he had no idea what would happen after he dropped himself on Jason's doorstep. Then, without realizing how hard everyone was working to have him stay, he had tried to run again. He had fled a third time after learning the diagnosis, and until Doc had talked to him at Sam Hill's Stonehenge memorial, he had never thought seriously about anything but surviving and running. If Sam Marshall could survive his experiences, Lucas thought maybe he could survive his own as well.
Jim and he had travelled to Portland to consult one of Jim's colleagues, a specialist in infectious disease and especially HIV/AIDS, at OHSU. Dr. Salgado was about Jim's age. The office in which he met with Lucas was filled with pictures of his wife and children, obviously taken as they had grown up. The photographs of a particular child or of his wife showed a progression of them growing over time. Lucas also noticed pictures of another young man — pictures in which the man, wearing dated clothing, stopped aging at perhaps twenty-five years. Never bashful, Lucas asked about the young man and found that he was Dr. Salgado's older brother, who had died of AIDS in the eighties, well before Lucas had been born. Dr. Salgado had become a physician because of his love for his brother.
Dr. Salgado was friendly, open, and direct. On this second visit, he talked with Lucas without Jim or anyone else in his office, but he let Lucas know that he would be talking to Jim afterwards.
Dr. Salgado asked him how he became infected, but Lucas had not been able to figure out the source of his infection and probably never would. When Dr. Salgado had first examined him and taken his history, Lucas had been absolutely honest about his street life. The little deceptions that he routinely used were dropping away, and every time he was tempted to obfuscate the truth or omit something, he remembered Eric's comment about Doc's honesty.
Dr. Salgado told the boy not to drive himself crazy thinking about the past but to learn from it. Lucas had a lot of questions about how the disease would affect his relationships with his family and, if he ever had one, a partner. Dr. Salgado had been very frank about the precautions the boy would need to take, but although he was, like most kids his age, perpetually horny, Lucas was thankful that he wasn't having sex other than the solitary kind with anyone.
Lucas was infected with HIV-1, Group M, Subtype B, the most common variant in North America. This was good news of a sort. Dr. Salgado explained that he had deep experience in treating this variant and that because Lucas's viral load was relatively low and his CD-4 count relatively high, he might well be a slow progressor — slow to move from infection to AIDS, especially if he was diligent about taking his medication.
"I don't know. I have patients who have been otherwise healthy for fifteen years, and the literature reports patients with much longer periods before progression. We'll know more when we see how rapidly your viral load decreases with therapy. If it comes down rapidly and stabilizes, you'll have the best chance of not progressing."
"Still sounds like a death sentence."
"This is no picnic. Some people think HIV infection is now a chronic, treatable disease like diabetes, and in some sense it is, but the infection always carries the risk of eventual progression. There might be a major breakthrough and maybe not."
"I guess I'd better get busy with whatever I want to do."
"That's good advice for anyone, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I suppose so."
"Any other questions?"
"Until I get sick, will I feel okay?"
"The meds have some side effects. You may tire easily, especially in the beginning, but otherwise, you should feel pretty good. We'll use a combination therapy that has a low side-effect profile, but at the beginning you may have nausea, skin rash, and trouble sleeping. I'm going to talk with Dr. Gerard because sometimes, though very rarely, the meds you'll take increase suicidal thoughts. Dr. Gerard will be talking to you frequently. If you have any thoughts of suicide, you talk to Jim or Dr. Gerard or North." Dr. Salgado stopped, and Lucas said nothing. "I mean it, Lucas. As I said, usually the side effects get better over time.
"Jim tells me you're working on a farm."
"I take care of horses."
"Oh. Well, that's going to be difficult." Dr. Salgado saw the boy's posture collapse and the dejection obvious in his face.
"Look, everything in life is a balance of risk and benefit. Here's the drill: no working with sick animals, particularly if they have diarrhea. Wear nitrile gloves under your work gloves and wash your hands immediately after working with the animals and after changing out of work clothes. Launder your work clothing as soon as you get home. If the place you're working is dusty, wear an N-95 mask. If you love the work, you will find a way. You need to talk with whoever is in charge about your situation."
"I've been working up to that."
"Lucas, you've been dealt a tough hand. What you make of it is up to you." He handed Lucas a card. "Here are all my numbers. You call me if you have questions or something doesn't feel right. I may not be able to talk with you right away, but I promise that I will very shortly."
Lucas nodded and sighed. As he had listened, he had stared at the pictures of Dr. Salgado's brother, thinking of how it must have been for him before all the research and the new medications and what it must have been like for Dr. Salgado to watch his big brother die. This was a lot to take in, and there was the word again that had consumed his thinking since his talk with Marshall — promise. He recognized that Dr. Salgado was fulfilling a promise, a responsibility, to his brother.
"Let's let Jim come in, and we can all review the situation." The boy nodded.
Jim came into the office and stood by Lucas's chair with a hand on his shoulder. Lucas felt comforted. Dr. Salgado began the talk again, this time peppered with a lot of medical terms that Lucas didn't get. At the end, they reviewed his medication schedule. He would take only one pill, Atripla, containing three drugs once a day.
He started taking the pills the next morning at the condo in the Pearl District.
Lucas was up at three the next Friday morning. He hadn't slept much at all, thinking about how he would approach the discussion with Martin. He was worried that Martin wouldn't want him around once he knew. He had never told Martin how much he appreciated the man's help and cheerful friendship. He really loved the horses, and the thought of being unable to work with them brought him nearly unbearable sadness. He worried much less about dying than about missing the animals.
He had to take his pill on an empty stomach, so he carried a sandwich he could eat on a break later in the morning.
As he walked in the clear, cold air between the houses, he thought about Jason and Vi. Jason knew about Lucas's illness because North had asked Lucas if he could tell him, and Lucas had agreed, but he doubted that Jason had told Martin or even Vi or Jonathan. Jason was like that.
Since no lights revealed the drives or roads around the farms, he had become adept at walking a little tentatively over the dirt paths. He could see the lights from Jason's house and from the outbuildings beyond, creating a vision like a black-and-white photograph. As he walked that morning, he thought about Sam and Eric. How can Sam have that kind of relationship and be such a loner? Of course, he didn't really know the character of that relationship, but he was pretty sure about it.
He walked around the house and back to the barn where the horses were kept. The place had become a third home, after his foster family's and Vi's. He looked up into a star-crowded sky and wondered how he had come to have three homes when two months before he had none. Maybe it was pure luck and had nothing to do with merit, and that would be fine with him. As he crossed the threshold to the barn, he saw Martin who, sensing his presence, looked up and smiled. If the term ‘hidden depths' described anyone, it described Martin, or maybe hidden humanity would have been a better description.
Martin, with a nod of his head, indicated where he wanted Lucas to begin. Lucas had several pairs of black nitrile gloves Jim had given him in his pocket and a couple of disposable N-95 respirators in his backpack. "Can we talk before I start?"
Martin was no mean judge of character or of people's motives. He had already seen what there was to this kid, and he knew that with patience a taciturn treasure would be revealed. He pointed to the bench along the tack wall. "Sit."
When the boy was seated, Martin took his place beside him, both of them looking toward the stalls. He knew talking would be easier for the boy if they weren't facing each other. He waited.
After a few moments, Lucas took a deep, long breath. "So, I've just found out that I'm HIV positive, you know — I have the virus, but I'm not sick yet. I have to be careful though and wear gloves and a mask while I'm working the horses. That is, if you'll still let me work them — I'll understand if you don't want me …" The boy's speech was interrupted by Martin's hand on his knee.
Lucas looked at Martin, who said without hesitation, "There's work to do, Niño." Although that was the last discussion the man and the boy had about his disease, Martin understood all too well what the diagnosis meant. When Lucas stood, the horses waited patiently for him.
The second weekend in February brought more clear, cold weather. The previous week had begun with rain and snow but ended with fine, clear weather. The Cascades had seen three or four feet of new snow. On Saturday, Jon and Jason were up early enough to help Ben and Martin — and Lucas. Martin was now letting the boy care for the farm's horses with little supervision.
Lucas had gone back to his home around eight that morning from his time with the horses, washed his hands and thrown his clothes in the laundry, and was getting ready to go snowshoeing. These people were going to kill him if they weren't careful, but he wasn't going to let the nausea or the dead weight of tiredness stop him from joining the others.
North and Annie had organized an expedition because North had a yen to get out on snowshoes again and because Jason had told him about the spectacular view of the south side of Mt. Saint Helens from McClellan Point. Five of them would make the trek, driving up Wind River Road through Carson in the Forester. North knew that Lucas was experiencing mild nausea and dizziness from the medication, but Jim had okayed the trip for the boy, provided that North kept an eye on his brother and didn't let him overdo it. The trail Jason suggested was moderate, and they could take their time.
A knock on the door startled Lucas. Annie asked, "You decent? Can I come in?"
"Compared to that lump you sleep with, decent doesn't begin to tell the tale." He laughed.
She opened his door, wearing only long underwear and finding Lucas in his underwear. Without hesitation, she sat next to him on the bed after depositing some clothing on it. "You still up to going?"
He took a breath. "Of course."
"Wear this stuff. It'll keep you warm and dry. Oh, wear your Tevas and bring your snow boots. See you downstairs in a few." Then she kissed him on the cheek. For some reason, he blushed as he smiled. He thought North and Annie perfect for each other, and, for a brief moment, that made him sad.
Lucas hadn't developed many personal boundaries in his short life, but even he was surprised with the casual way North and the other kids in his new family treated exposing their bodies to one another. After a few nights of sleeping naked with a naked North, he had asked Jason about it. Jason had told Lucas about his first night spent with North and urged Lucas that, if it bothered him, to talk with North. Everyone was just so damn casual about the way they interacted. He decided that it didn't bother him.
He stripped. Despite what was going on in his blood, in his nerve roots, and wherever else the virus lurked, he had put on weight, and working with the horses had helped him develop a little more muscle. Sick and in better shape — that's irony. He pulled on the wicking long underwear and then the other layers of clothes, ending with bibbed snowboarding pants with built-in gaiters and a down vest. Finally, he fastened his sandals and grabbed the fleece-lined waterproof boots.
Downstairs, the others, similarly dressed, waited. As he came down the stairs dressed like a catalog model, they applauded and hollered. He stopped halfway down and bowed.
Jason and Jon had filled the water bladders for their CamelBaks and loaded the packs with some high-calorie snack food. Lucas's stomach turned a bit at the thought of any food.
Because Jim was making rounds in The Dalles, it was up to Tom alone to tell them to have fun and to be careful. Five voices as one said, "Yes, Mother."
Jason and Jon were up front, with Lucas in the middle of the second seat and North and Annie at his sides. As they turned west onto SR 14, Lucas's eyes shifted left to the bluff where he and Sam had talked just days ago at the Stonehenge monument.
Although he was enjoying himself on this outing, he would have preferred being alone with Sam or with the horses. He shook these thoughts off and looked at the snow-covered bluffs to his right above the Gorge.
They drove past White Salmon, Bingen, and finally turned north on Wind River Road to Carson and beyond. Carson was just a little crossroads town, and the Wind River Road wound a bit before reaching a number of summer and winter recreation areas. Now the road was plowed through as far as the Oldman, Koshko, and McClellan snow parks, none of which allowed snowmobiles. Jason pulled the Forester into the parking area for the McClellan park. It was the only car, and the group poured out and around to the back where the gear had been stowed. They put on their snowshoes, North helping Lucas. North was using a pair of Tubbs and was letting Lucas use his Denalis to which he had attached short tails.
"Just walk like you normally would. One of us will be in front to break the trail. If you just step in our tracks you'll have an easier time."
"I'm not a fucking invalid, North."
"No, you're not, but you've never done this before, Fry."
"Okay. Sorry." Although he had detested the nickname at first, he bore it now with some comfort, and he was determined to be less ungrateful than he had been in the past.
The five set off in a single file out of the parking area, across the road and onto a relatively flat area where they walked straight ahead for a quarter-mile before turning right and up a gentle rise. The fine-powder snow in front of Annie, who was in the lead, was pristine. She sank a foot and a half with each step, the baskets on her poles making small circles by her track. Jason and Jon walked a little behind her, widening the track so that for Lucas, it was packed and he could easily step. North trailed him, watching the boy for signs of fatigue, a self-appointed task that royally irritated Lucas. He kept turning to glare at his new brother until North called to Annie to stop.
"Go on up front, Fry."
Lucas smiled and went around Jon, Jason, and Annie to take the lead. He almost pitched over a couple of times but slowly and doggedly broke the trail. When he had been toward the end of the line, he had looked down at his snowshoes. Now, in the lead, he saw the light glint off ice crystals in the top layer of snow. To Lucas, the snow looked as if it were strewn with small diamonds. Something about stepping onto the unbroken snow delighted him, but eventually he became very tired, though not until they could see the mountain almost directly ahead in the distance.
Noting Lucas's fatigue, North and Jason suggested that they stop for a snack. The five plunked down in an arc on their butts, sinking into the powder and ate trail mix washed down with water while they teased each other like kids will. Lucas found himself happy among the couples rather than irritated at their closeness as he had been in the past. They treated him like one of their own.
North rose first, and Lucas marveled at how he could stand like that from the deep snow. North then helped everyone else to their feet. Lucas felt less tired after the rest, and they walked toward the mountain, this time with Jason in the lead. After nearly a mile, they faced the mountain, which stood like a mesa to the northwest, the remaining top of the mountain seeming nearly flat from their viewing angle. St. Helens was pure white, even in its grooves and gullies. The snowscape before him moved Lucas to unaccustomed inner silence, and he knew what Jason had meant when he described the place where he lived in the first weeks after they had met.
The walk back along the already trodden snow was easier. At the car, they were taking off their snowshoes when Lucas's hand slipped from one of the rubber straps on his left shoe. His hand snapped into the serrated metal rail running from front to back on the shoe's bottom, and the little-finger side of his palm began to bleed. The bright-red blood, falling to the ground, contrasted with the snowy slush on the parking-area surface. The others reached for his hand, but he jerked it away until North grabbed it, applying pressure to the cut with his own bare hand. Lucas looked at his brother as if he were insane and struggled to free his bleeding hand. North just held tighter onto the blood-slippery hand.
"Don't be an idiot, Fry. Jason, grab the first-aid kit from my pack." After North bandaged the hand, Jon helped North calmly wash the blood off his hand with water from his CamelBak. The cut would not need stitches, and Lucas realized for the first time how seriously his new family took its responsibilities to a young boy who arrived on their doorstep two months earlier. When they arrived at the house, neither Tom nor Jim commented much on the incident. Jim further cleaned the cut, put some antibiotic ointment on it, and replaced the bandage.
In the space of two months Lucas had come from being adrift in Portland to being moored in this little town. He had new clothes, and although he chafed at it sometimes, guidance from a lot of men, younger and older. While North thought of them as being alike, Lucas saw North and himself as being completely different. North was unshakably calm and always composed. Lucas saw his new brother's mind as entirely orderly, and North was unfailingly kind except to those who would harm his family and friends. Maybe, Lucas thought, he just had higher expectations of people. Instead, Lucas saw himself as a young Sam Marshall — angry and, if he had known the word, impolitic. But North seemed to care for him, because love came easily for North, where it was very hard for Lucas.
That night Jon and Jason were in bed early after the long day. Tomorrow, Sunday, they would rise in the darkness to help Ben and Martin. Jon felt he was almost a farmer now, and the hands treated him as one of them, though most of them understood his relationship with Jason. They took their cues from Martin and Ben, and since they also admired Vi, they never let personal views about homosexuality color their interaction with either boy.
Jason was on his back, enjoying Jon stroking his chest. "Well, city boy, this was quite a day."
"Did you see the look on Fry's face when he cut his hand. He must have thought that we wouldn't help him."
"More like he was afraid he'd hurt us."
Jon swept his hand down to hold the hardness between Jason's legs. "So, Cowboy, what do you think Marshall and he talked about?"
"Does Marshall ever really talk to anyone?"
"You're just pissed off that he told you to take care of me," Jon said with a giggle.
"No. What pissed me off was that he assumed he had to tell me to take care of you."
"Easy. He likes you, you know?"
"I'm not sure I like him."
"He's really an old softy."
"There's nothing soft about that man. He's steel to the core."
"Like this," Jon said, squeezing Jason's dick. "Okay, new subject. You still all right with checking out Seattle?"
"Actually, I'm feeling less guilt about leaving Mama. Lucas is learning the ropes, and she's already grooming him as my replacement."
"That may be the silliest thing you've ever said."
"You know what I mean. She sees something in that kid, and so does Martin. Fry sure as shit loves the horses."
Stroking Jason, Jon said, "Oh, I can see the attraction in horses, too."
"That gross comment earns you a good fucking."
Lucas often slept in North's bed, where he felt less prone to loneliness, but when Annie stayed in Goldendale he slept in his own room.
When he knew that Annie and his brother were comforting each other in North's bedroom, he listened to music on his iPhone -- his iPhone. Jim and Tom had insisted that he needed a phone for emergencies and to wake him up in time to get to Vi's farm. The white phone came with their numbers, along with those of Jason, Jon, Annie, North, Dr. Salgado, and Frank Gerard, already entered in his contact list. North had shared his iTunes account and helped him find music that he liked.
Annie had returned with Jonathan to Portland for the school week, so Sunday night Lucas padded across the upstairs hall to North's room. He knocked softly and waited until North invited him in. From Jason, he knew that Annie and North had settled some issue, and he felt North's happiness. Standing at the bedside in his shorts and tee, he asked, "You mind?"
North turned on his back and lifted the cover. "Climb in, Fry."
As he undressed, he told North, "You know, showing that thing to a gay brother could be thought of as child abuse — or at the very least, attempted child abuse."
"I'm not going to stay dressed on the off chance that you'll show up. Now, shut up and get in — or leave."
"You know that I don't think of you that way … much. I did when I first met you, but not now that I know you."
"I know, Fry. You wouldn't be in here if you did."
Lucas climbed in the bed. "Jason told me about the first time he bunked with you, and you made him listen to opera. Opera?"
"That boy has a big mouth."
"Can we talk for a few minutes?"
"Has anyone ever been able to keep you quiet when you need to talk?"
"How long have you known Sam?"
"I can't remember not knowing him. He used to play with me when he visited my dads before I started school."
"He played with you?"
"Yeah. I found his wheelchair fascinating, and I asked him a whole bunch of questions about why he sat in it all the time. I think he could talk to a four-year-old about some things he wouldn't with people his age, but he never frightened me. Later, I couldn't see why people were afraid of him. There are four people in my life who've never lied to me: my fathers, Annie, and Sam."
"He was already old when you met him?"
"Almost sixty, I think, and famous. Dad was already kind of famous himself, and I didn't know or give a shit about Sam's fame. That's why we became his friends."
"What do you think of Eric?"
"Think of him? He's Sam's companion. He stays in the background, and that's what suits them both."
"Do you think they … have sex?"
"Ask Sam. You don't think he'd be bashful about talking to you about sex, do you?"
"Why did he come to see me?"
"I can guess. He's never, that I know of, dropped everything and come out here, especially with Eric or any of the others. You and he are a lot alike, and I think Dad made sure Sam understood that. He was intrigued, and he doesn't like unsatisfied curiosity."
"I guess." Lucas wasn't sure the conjecture was accurate.
"Are you doing okay with the meds?"
"Pretty much. I'm still sick to my stomach sometimes, and I don't get horny as much." He held up his bandaged hand. "Thanks for the other day."
"No problem, Fry. You're my brother."