North Underhill was alone in the living room of a farmhouse full of unfamiliar furniture and unopened boxes. Loneliness and isolation were feelings with which he had not reckoned in many years, but not novel feelings. He wasn't at all happy about moving from Portland, Oregon, to the wilds of Klickitat County in Washington, but he knew that this was what his fathers wanted. The whole damn county only had twenty thousand people.
The new home wasn't that far from Portland — if two hours means not far — where they had a condo downtown; his dads had promised him that they'd go back to visit often.
Portland was an easier place to be raised by two gay men than many, although North had had his share of run-ins with local holy rollers and wannabe skinheads. He had been able to develop a diverse circle of friends who liked his fathers and treated him like a normal kid, which he decidedly was. Laughing inwardly, he remembered how nervous his dads had been when they'd had the "talk" with him. He had jokingly told them that he was taking a big risk by coming out to them as straight.
Two gay men trying to teach a straight kid about sex with women was pretty funny. But they loved him, and they had a real sense of how people of any orientation should treat each other, including the importance of safer sex instruction. Since they had adopted him as a three-year old, they called him by his middle name, North, and he was given one of their last names, Underhill, because his dads had told him they didn't want him hyphenated. Now here North was, a 15-year-old boy in the boonies of Washington, wondering and worrying about how his unusual family would be treated.
* * * * *
Jason Johnson's mother had mentioned that the family that had bought the place adjacent to theirs was moving in this weekend. She didn't know whether the new people had any kids, much less kids near Jason's age. However, the message that he might want to stop by and see if they needed help was anything but subtle.
Because he was sixteen and had a learner's permit, he was only allowed to drive on the system of private roads that connected the farming parcels east of US97 where he and the newcomers lived. They weren't far from the largest town in the county, Goldendale, with a population of almost three thousand, but Jason couldn't drive there on his permit.
As he drove across the dirt roads, 12,000-foot Mt. Adams rose on his right 40 miles away, almost 11,000 feet above the plateau on which Goldendale and the farms around it sat. Jason had spent countless hours scrambling up its flanks and playing on its shoulders.
He pulled up to the drive to the neighbor's farmhouse and wondered whether to drive on in. He decided to park on the road and walk the quarter mile to the house.
* * * * *
The loud knock on the door startled North. No one here knew them, so he couldn't figure out who would be on the porch knocking. Opening the door, he saw a kid about his age with sandy blond hair. The boy was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and wore work or hiking boots. This kid was strikingly handsome, taller than North and solid. The visitor looked back at North and after a few moments spoke.
"Hey. I'm Jason Johnson. We live one place over. I thought I'd introduce myself and offer to help with unpacking or anything."
"Hi, Jason. Sorry I seem rattled. I'm North Underhill, North like the pole, and I wasn't expecting anyone."
North debated about inviting Jason in and then thought that the likelihood he was a serial killer was slight. "Come in."
"Where'd you move from?"
"Well, I'll admit this is going to be a major transition."
"What do your folks do?"
"One's a physician, and the other's a writer." North was going to avoid the rest of the revelation as long as possible.
"Which one's the doc?"
"Father. He's an oncologist, you know, cancer doc. He's going to work at the Mid-Columbia Medical Center at The Dalles."
"We're not all rubes out here, North-like-the-pole. I know what an oncologist is." Jason was laughing a bit.
"Yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean anything."
"I know. I'm just ragging on you."
"Come on up to my room. You can help me begin to unpack."
North led Jason up the stairs to his room at the end of a long hall. Pushing the door open, the boys stepped in among taped-up boxes. North already had a plan for the room, which he had seen when they first looked the place over a few weeks earlier. He looked up at Jason and began ripping into the box marked, "Fruit." He told Jason to open the one marked, "Game Stuff."
North pulled his MacBook Pro, with its associated hard drives, and his iPad out of the box along with the Apple TV module. He detested Microsoft products and the ugly, artless computers that ran them.
Jason had pulled the PlayStation out of the other box. They spent the next hour getting the room unpacked and set up while talking about school, the upcoming summer, and Jason's family. Jason related that he lived with his father and mother on land that had been farmed by their family since the 1800s. They were like many of the families east of the Cascade Mountains. North figured that meant they were probably fairly conservative -- religiously, politically and socially.
North thought that Jason was bright, liked decent music, but probably would run the other way when he met the dads. Jason hadn't said anything overtly anti-gay, but he had mentioned his family's roots in the church.
"Do you see yourself farming when you're through with school?"
"I hope not. I'm shooting for U of Washington and then who knows? My folks aren't leaning on me to stay around. Not a lot of kids stay. Farming is cool, but my heart isn't in it."
"It's cool that your parents aren't pressuring you. Seattle is pretty liberal compared to these parts. They aren't afraid you'll be polluted?"
"You're funny, North. I don't think I can be polluted against my will."
"I suppose not. What about girls around here?"
"Same as everywhere, I guess. No one special for me. What about you?"
"Yeah, someone in Portland. We're going to try the long-distance thing. I guess my right hand and I are going to get really well acquainted."
"That sucks. I hope it works out."
A voice from downstairs shouted, "North! I'm back."
Here we go. The disaster begins, North thought.
"Come on down and meet him."
When they thumped downstairs, North's father looked at Jason with a little surprise. "New friend already?"
"Yeah. Dad, this is Jason. Jason, my dad Tom."
"Nice to meet you, Dr. Underhill."
"Oh, I'm not the doc; I'm the writer, Jason."
Jason looked at North, trying to unravel the knot. "I thought you said your dad was an oncologist."
North tried to figure a way out. Tom answered, "That's Jim, the other dad, Jason."
"Oh… Well, nice to meet you. I'd better be getting back." Jason's flight couldn't have been more obvious or hurried.
Another one bites the dust, North thought.