They ate dinner mostly in silence. The only talk from Jason's father was about work needing doing. His mother asked Jason, "Are you going to see your new friend?" Jason knew she meant Jonathan and that his father would think she meant North.
"I was hoping to go over after I got my work done."
"I'm not sure that you should spend a lot of time over there. I mean, you can't help but be influenced by what goes on over there."
Jason was about to answer when his mother stepped into the breach. "Fred, do you remember when Belle died and the dog took over raising the surviving kitten?"
Fred nodded. "That kitten didn't turn into a dog, did it?" Fred looked at her as if she were calling him stupid or silly. "I'm just saying that everything has a nature, and being around other natures doesn't change your own."
"Maybe not, but why put temptation in your way? The Bible warns against it."
Looking at Jason, he asked, "You sure there are no diseases over there? God hasn't been too kind to people like them."
"Fred, you're close to being a fool here. Was God punishing the Nation when whites brought smallpox? Be careful what you say now." Jason was shocked to hear his mother's vehemence.
Fred knew not to push this any further. Jason said, "No one's sick over there. They are a family, just like ours in most ways. Jim and Tom love North and he loves them."
"I can't say I'm happy about it, but if your mother thinks visiting occasionally is okay, then go. But be sure to get your work done, and done well. And, the sickness we brought to the Nation has nothing to do with this."
Jason's mother asked, "Has he ever not done his work well?"
"No. You're right. I appreciate the way you pitch in, Jason. Your mother and I can't manage it alone."
"No one manages life alone. That family is new here, and we need to make them welcome. I don't think God will take offense if we're kind to any of his children. Jason has found a good friend in that boy, and we don't find good friends that often in life. As to the rest, it will work itself out."
"All right, all right. I've said my piece. Remember that I'm going over to The Dalles tomorrow afternoon." Jason's father finished his milk and left the kitchen to check one of the barns and then go to bed. His day started in a few hours.
"Mama, why's Papa going to The Dalles?"
"He has an appointment with a doctor over there. Don't you worry, now."
Jason was worried. His father never went to doctors. He couldn't remember his father being sick, except for colds, and they never slowed him down. As his mother and he finished dinner, he couldn't be sure whether, when she said "that boy," she meant North or Jonathan, but he could see the outlines of a campaign forming. His mother was no fool and a fair tactician. He decided that he could make it, even if his father pulled away, but every boy values and needs his father's approval.
* * * * *
North watched Jonathan pick at his food. He looked at Annie and shrugged, as if to ask what to do or say. "Any news from your boy?"
"Yeah. He told his mom about us, and she was helpful. He promised to come over tomorrow."
"Then, why this distracted performance?"
"I'm worried about what his dad will do, and I can't figure out how I'm going to fit into the rest of his life. None of his friends know he's gay. He's a jock. This isn't going to go down well for him out here in the wilderness."
"You may be overthinking this," Jim said. "We looked into the school system before we moved, and they have very strong anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies."
Jonathan replied, "Jim, you know how far the rule of law extends beyond the teachers? About two inches, and many of the teachers look the other way. It's like creating rules for life in a shark tank. The sharks do what sharks do."
Tom added, "Jim, he's right. Neither of us was out in high school. Coming out wasn't safe for us, and Jon's the expert on the experience. Jon, we'll have to help him. What if he doesn't want to come out to anyone else? Could you handle that?"
"No. But, I know he will come out. We showed him what not hiding is like. He was so happy."
Returning to his bedroom after a shower and passing by North's room, Jon heard whispered moans. At first irritated, he took a breath and let himself feel happy for his friends. Annie and North had been his lifeline; he wouldn't begrudge them their passion or their joy.
He closed his bedroom door, took off his shorts, and flopped onto the bed. The room was warm, so he didn't need the light blanket. He felt like screaming, "Perfectly good naked guy here!" His problem was that only one recipient of that message was acceptable. He disliked the attitude he'd developed during the day. How many gay kids even got the chance to have someone like Jason in their lives?
'Not many, so grow a backbone and stop whining,' Jon told himself. His phone rang with the ringtone he had assigned to Jason, part of the Adam Lambert song, "Aftermath."
Jon moved the slider on his screen and said in mechanical voice, "You've reached Jon's iPhone, if you're not Jase, leave a message. Beep!"
"Very funny, Jon… . Jon?"
"That's a voice I'm glad to hear. Things going okay out your way?"
"Jon, I'm only a mile or so away."
"Which means you're not here. Jesus. Did I just say that?"
"I believe you did, city boy. You think that sounds too needy? I'm feeling pretty needy right now, myself. Did you have a good dinner?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. You were a main topic of conversation."
"Ooh. How were my reviews?"
"No reviews, Jase. But, everyone knew that I was distracted."
"Distracted? Don't you mean overcome by desire?"
"Well, that, too. Look, I just don't want to be the one that causes a problem in your family … or with your friends."
"Jon, you're not the one who's coming out to them. I mean, maybe you will also, but not until after I do, please."
"You know what I mean, Jase. I'm going to be a big part of the drama. I've been through it once, so I know how rough it might be unless your friends are saints."
"They're definitely not. You know what? I don't give a flying fuck what they think. There's another world out there, and if we have to, we'll try living in that world."
The two boys, circling each other in the process of finding love, talked for another half-hour—a little about music, about school, about their lives, about the weekend, a conversation much like the ones between boys and girls anticipating a deepening relationship. They both felt less agitated when they said goodbyes. Jason again promised he'd come over for lunch and stay the afternoon tomorrow.
* * * * *
Jason's father was up well before Jason came out to do his work. Jason was up at his usual hour, four a.m. A little after dawn, Fred came into the building where Jason was working. Fred almost smiled as he watched Jason lift and stack feedbags. When Jason became aware of his father's presence, he asked, "Papa, are you okay?"
"What do you mean, Jason?"
"You never go to the doctor."
"Oh. I've been a little tired and I have some belly pain. Your mother bothered me until I went for some blood tests. I'm going meet with the doctor about the results. They're having me see some new guy. Why Dr. Anderson can't manage it, I have no idea, but he told me to make an appointment with the guy I'm seeing tomorrow. It's all about nothing, I'm sure."
"I hope so, Papa. Where is the new guy's office?"
"At MCMC, some place called the Celilo Center, over on 19th by the hospital."
Jason froze. North had told Jason that Jim had moved to Goldendale to work at the MCMC Cancer Center, a center named Celilo. He realized that his father had left the word cancer out of the description. He started to say something, but thought better of it. Fred wandered out to finish his work, and Jason finished his, thinking of lunch with Jon, North, and Annie. He knew that Jim was going to be at work, but Tom might be there.
* * * * *
As Jason shouted goodbye to his mother and hopped in the old truck, his father was crossing the river and heading west to The Dalles. Fred pulled into the lot by the building and for the first time realized that he really was at the Celilo Cancer Center.
'What the hell,' he thought.
He hadn't listened very carefully when Anderson had given him the appointment information. Anderson had told him that the blood tests were "suspicious," and that he needed to see a specialist. When Fred had asked about cancer, Dr. Anderson had told him it was too early to jump to conclusions.
Fred sat in his truck, the engine ticking as it cooled. He almost left the lot and drove home, but he knew he'd catch hell from his wife if he did. He locked the truck and went into the cheerily decorated lobby. A young girl at the reception desk greeted him and handed him a stack of forms to fill out.
He asked, "Why so many?"
"Just routine," she answered, her warm demeanor never wavering.
Fred sat in the waiting room and filled out the forms. He wasn't happy about what this might cost. The tribal health system would help with it, though. He returned the completed forms to the girl and went back to his seat.
About fifteen minutes later, almost at the appointment time, a nurse came out and called his name. Fred followed him back to a brightly decorated exam room where the nurse took his pulse, blood pressure, temperature, and weighed him. Fred was surprised that he'd lost a bit of weight. The nurse thanked him and said the doctor would be right in.
Five minutes later, the door opened and a rangy guy a little younger than Fred came in extending his hand. The doctor was wearing black jeans, a polo shirt, and sneakers. The jeans weren't the kind you wore to work in. He was almost as tall as Fred with dark, relatively short hair and gray eyes. Fred rose from his chair and shook the doctor's hand.
"Mr. Johnson, I'm Jim Underhill. Dr. Anderson consulted with Dr. Chen, who heads the oncology department here, and they asked that I see you."
"I take it the tests revealed cancer?"
"I'm sorry, they did. But we need to do a few more tests to be sure what you're dealing with and how I can help you deal with it."
About that time, Fred put some puzzle pieces together. Almost simultaneously, Jim saw the address on Fred's forms. "I think we're neighbors," Jim said.
"You're that boy North's father," he said. Jim noted the slight note of disapproval in Fred's voice.
"I am, one of them. And, Jason belongs to you. He's been very helpful to North in getting settled here, and we enjoyed having him stay with us in Portland. You should be very proud of Jason."
Finally, Jim tried to clear the air. "I know you're not thrilled to have gay neighbors, and I imagine you're not thrilled to consider being treated by a gay physician. Unfortunately for you, I'm probably the one with the most experience out here in dealing with the disease you almost certainly have. There are a number of very capable oncologists who are experienced with your problem in Portland or Seattle. I can refer you. If I'm going to be your physician, you'll have to trust me and be comfortable talking to me."
"Tell me what you've found, and we'll see." Fred thought the guy was direct with him, not sugarcoating the diagnosis—no BS.
"Okay. Your blood work revealed that you almost certainly have a condition called T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia. The reason I say that is that this disease produces cancerous white blood cells that have a peculiar shape. Basically, these white blood cells are multiplying and finding their way to your spleen, liver, lymph nodes, and bone marrow. Like all cancer cells, these blood cells, in addition to being malformed, are out of normal cell-development control. Questions, so far?"
'He's not treating me like an idiot,' Fred thought, 'and he doesn't seem to care that I don't approve of his lifestyle.'
"We think these cancerous white cells probably arise from normal T-cells. T-cells are cells from which many kinds of white blood cells that fight infection form. These abnormal cells crowd out the normal ones and accumulate in your marrow, which is where normal blood cells are made, as well as in your spleen and liver. Dr. Anderson thinks he noticed some accumulation of these abnormal cells in your lymph nodes and skin."
"So, what do you think I should do?"
"This is a very rare form of leukemia. The pain in your belly is from your enlarged liver and spleen. If you want me to help you, I'll recommend a course of treatment I've had some success with."
"How long would I be out of commission?"
"I'm not going to lie to you, ever. This is a very aggressive disease. Even with treatment, most patients don't have a normal life span. The standard spiel from an oncologist is that we can't know exactly what your prognosis is, and that some people live for quite a while with the disease. Honestly, those patients are very few, but the treatment can give you more time and give you a reasonable quality of life."
Jim saw the realization dawn in his patient that he was likely to die soon. Jim wouldn't have been as blunt with most patients, but he sensed that this man expected direct and accurate answers. Fred, he thought, was a problem solver who didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the justice of his fate. Jason had mentioned his father's religious nature. That nature could be very helpful to cancer patients.
Fred thought about this situation as he thought about all problems. He could go to Portland or Seattle for care, but that meant time away from the farm. It seemed as if people who knew a lot about this disease weren't littering the landscape. Dr. Underhill seemed like a guy he could work with, even if he disapproved of his lifestyle.
Fred looked at Jim. "Okay, cards on the table. I'll probably never approve of your lifestyle or you and your friend raising that boy. As far as I can tell, you know what you're talking about, and Dr. Anderson picked you. I can put my personal feelings aside, if you can take care of me feeling the way I do."
Jim stifled the desire to slap the guy and remind him that he and "his friend" were married. "Mr. Johnson, I can live with that, assuming that you're okay with me examining you, that you'll be honest with me about how you're doing, and that you won't stop a course of treatment without talking to me about it."
Fred thought for a few seconds and then reached out his hand. "Deal."
Jim took the offered hand. "Deal."
"You won't talk with Jason about this situation, or your … North?"
"What we talk about and decide is between us, although you can bet that I'm going to encourage you to let your wife and son know what's going on. No one gets through this alone. This disease, like most cancers, affects the whole family. I never discuss cases with my son, so you have no worries there."
"I don't want Jason knowing just yet. I couldn't hide this from my wife if I wanted to."
"Okay, Mr. Johnson, I'm going to make a few notes for your medical record while you undress and put that gown on, open in the back. When you're changed, sit on the end of the exam table. I'll be back in to examine you and then we'll set up a couple more tests for you."
Jim knew this was a test for Fred. Fred would be nearly naked and letting Jim touch him. More than any situation they might face together, this one would tell whether or not they could work together. At a workstation in the hall, Jim entered his initial notes. After a few minutes, Jim knocked on the exam room door and went in. Jim raised the back of the exam table slightly and pulled the leg rest out from the slot in the bottom of the table. Fred reclined on the table with his upper body slightly elevated.
"Mr. Johnson, have you been losing weight the past few months?"
"A little. I'm not eating like I used to. I thought that was a good thing. Maybe not, though?"
"Probably an effect of the disease. Just relax while I check you out."
Jim realized how odd that statement sounded in this situation. He felt the lymph nodes in Fred's neck and then, pulling the gown down to Fred's waist, gently pressed to find the margins of his liver. Next he went to the left side to see about the spleen.
"Your liver and spleen are swollen. The treatment I recommend will reduce that swelling for a time."
Jim assessed the lymph nodes in Fred's armpits. They were enlarged, as were the ones on Fred's neck. Jim pulled the gown back up, and told Fred, "I need to check the lymph nodes in your groin. Lie back and try to relax."
Jim lifted the gown's hem up to Fred's navel. Jim thought briefly that if Jason was as well endowed as his father, Jon was lucky. He then gently felt for nodes, avoiding touching Fred's genitals. The nodes there were swollen as well.
Jim finished and pulled the gown's hem back down. Fred was staring at the ceiling, and seemed to Jim to be in a dissociative state, hardly breathing. Jim thought, maybe that's the only way he can let me touch him.
"Take some breaths, Mr. Johnson."
Last, Jim looked at Fred's arms and legs, where he found likely accumulations of abnormal cells in the dermal layer.
"Okay, the worst of the exam is over, Mr. Johnson."
Jim moved the back of the exam table to a more upright position and pushed the leg rest back into its slot.
"Mr. Johnson, unfortunately, everything I see in your blood work and the physical exam confirms the conclusion that you have the disease we've been talking about. To be absolutely sure you don't have an unusual variant of the disease, I'm going to order some specific blood tests and schedule you for a bone marrow biopsy. The blood tests you can get here today. I'd like to do the bone marrow aspiration tomorrow. I think you should start the treatment the day after the biopsy."
Fred interrupted, "What's the treatment?"
"I recommend a biotherapy developed in the late nineties. The reason I need to look at the new blood tests is that this therapy depends on the presence of some binding sites on the surfaces of the cancer cells. We'll try to kill as many existing cancer cells as we can and try to suppress the rate at which new ones are forming. I wish I could tell you that the treatment is more than a holding action."
"Will it make me sicker?"
"You're not going to feel great, but it's not a chemotherapy. It will target the cancerous white blood cells without destroying cells in other body systems. However, the therapy will also kill normal white blood cells. You will almost certainly have fever, muscle aches, and nausea during the treatment. You won't feel up to work for a while. The biggest problem with this approach is that it will impair your immune system. We'll give you some drugs to limit common infections, but they may occur. I know this sounds bad, but the alternative is worse in my judgment."
"I need to be able to work."
"Mr. Johnson, I believe that the patient should drive the boat. You need to know that if we do nothing, you're likely to die in a matter of months, and you'll get very sick very soon. I think the treatment will allow you the best level of activity over time. But, the decision about what to do is yours. One more thing—until we get your liver and spleen enlargement down, you need to be very careful. If you take a fall or get hit in the abdomen, your spleen may rupture and you could bleed to death."
After a few minutes of silence Fred said, "Thank you, Dr. Underhill."
"I'd like you to call me Jim. Neither of us is going to be confused about who's the doctor and who's the patient."
"All right. Thank you, Jim."
As Jim reached the door he heard, "Fred."
Jim turned and heard the man tell him, "We're going to be spending some time together. Call me Fred."
'I'll be damned,' Jim thought.
* * * * *
Jason drove the old truck up the drive to North's place, parking near the front of the old house. Before he could get to the door, Jonathan burst out and hugged him tightly.
"I'm so glad you're here," Jon whispered against Jason's ear.
"Hello to you, too, Mr. Needy. Mind you, it feels great to be needed."
Taking Jason's hand, Jon pulled him into the house. As soon as they crossed the threshold, Jason grabbed Jon and kissed him. Annie and North laughing jarred the pair. "Annie, it's like looking in the mirror. Do you remember when we were young and first in love?"
"Oh, Northy, young love is so grand. Sometimes I yearn for those simpler days."
Jonathan, not at all happy with the jibe, released Jason and replied, "That's all well enough for you to say. Your parents are okay with you fucking your brains out 24/7."
Jason grabbed Jon's hand. "They're just fucking with us, Jon. I know it's hard to have a sense of humor about our situation, but … "
Jon sulked. "Sorry, you guys. I know you don't screw nonstop. When you're crawling in the desert, it's hard to watch other people drinking all the time. I'm just jealous."
Annie said, "Jonathan, you've only known him for a few days. That hardly qualifies as a drought."
"Well, woman, I've seen you pining when North's away for school trips or something, so don't get all holier than thou on me."
"Point taken, Jon," Annie replied. "North and I are going to help you through this."
Jason smiled at the other couple. Trying to cut through the tension, he said, "I was thinking you guys might like to go riding."
"Jase, we can't all fit in that old heap of yours. Besides, where would we ride, the metropolitan Goldendale area?"
North became excited and said, "I don't think he means riding in the truck. You don't, right?"
"I don't, right. Jon, I'm talking about riding horses. Remember, you thought I was a cowboy."
"God, Jase, you want to kill me already? We've only slept together once."
"I have an ulterior motive. After you ride, you may need a massage, especially on your ass." Annie and North cracked up as Jon's face turned dark red.
North walked toward the door. "Let's do it now."
Jon laughed. "You've always wanted a stallion between your legs. Right, North?"
"Fuck you, Jon. There might have been hope for you if you hadn't met Jason." He looked quickly to Annie. "And, of course, if I wasn't hopelessly heterosexual."
After knocking on the office door and letting Tom know what they were doing, Jason and Jon climbed in the front of the old pickup, sitting on the bench seat. Annie and North got in the bed. They all knew that neither Tom nor Jim would approve, but what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them. The old truck didn't even have seatbelts in the front.
After the jarring trip to the Johnson's, Jason took them into his house to meet his mother. Pointing to each of them in turn, Jason introduced them. "Mama, this is North and Annie and Jonathan. This is my mother, Violet." He saved Jonathan for last, taking his hand as he introduced him.
Jason's mother looked at each of them as they were named, smiling and nodding. Her biggest smile was for Jonathan. "You, I'll call Jonny."
Jon felt like the woman had reached in, held, and weighed his heart. He moved closer to Jason.
"You are welcome in our home anytime. I can see that you all have a heart connection to Jasey."
Annie smirked when she heard the nickname. This bit of information she could use. Jason's mother looked at her expression and raised her eyebrows as if she knew what Annie was thinking.
After Jason explained what they had in mind, the clan made simple sandwiches, took some sodas, and started out the back door. Before he went out, Jason's mother called to Jonathan. "Jonny, you and I will sit together later."
Jon nodded to her and then followed the others into the yard. They walked a way to one of the barns. The stalls lined one side, and the tack was stored against the other wall.
"I don't suppose any of you know how to saddle a horse."
North, Annie, and Jon shook their heads. Jason put the sandwiches and drinks down. After he bridled and led the horses out of the barn, he reached into a cloth bag and pulled out small apples, handing one each to the other three. He showed them how to feed the horses without getting a finger nipped, and they each gave an apple to their horses.
"Okay. Watch me while I do each of your horses. Don't worry. This lot is very gentle."
As Jon watched Jason saddle their horses, he admired the facility with which Jase worked with them. He was a little frightened of the animal he held, but figured that Jase wouldn't let him get hurt. Jason saddled his own mount last. The horses had remained calm while being saddled as if this was part of a normal routine.
Jason knew these particular animals wouldn't bolt or rebel at having inexperienced riders. He'd reserve more spirited mounts for later. After stuffing his saddlebags with the food and drink, he showed the others how to get up in the saddle, laughing at a couple of aborted attempts by Annie and Jon. North looked like he had been riding for years. Jason knew the other horses would follow his own, so he began to lead at a deliberate pace.
North wanted to gallop right away. Annie was happy with the current speed. Jonathan was hanging on for dear life. They moved across the back of the farm eastward toward Bickleton. No roads intersected their track, and soon they lost sight of the house and outbuildings. The hay was beginning to get tall, but perched atop their horses, they could see a mile ahead. Jason dropped back beside Jon, letting North take the lead. North's horse wanted to stay behind Jason's, and Jason told North to nudge his horse along. Soon, North and Annie were a bit ahead. Jason stopped his horse until Jon's animal pulled up alongside.
"Well, city boy, what do you think?"
Jon looked over at Jason. "This is fucking great. Since I stopped being terrified five minutes ago, I'm really enjoying myself. Thanks for suggesting this."
"I knew I'd get you alone for a few minutes, at least. Ever kiss someone on horseback?"
"No, but the idea is very appealing."
They both leaned toward each other, their lips meeting between the horses. Finally, one of the animals got antsy and moved forward, tearing the kiss apart.
Jon giggled, "Not very cooperative."
He looked at Jason awhile. "Something wrong? You're trying too hard to look happy, Jase."
"You know where Jim works? Well, my father has an appointment there today. He doesn't know that I know it's a cancer center. He says it's nothing, but you don't go to a cancer center for nothing."
Jason looked dejected, and Jon felt his heart ache for his boyfriend. He nudged his horse forward a little and leaned in for another kiss.
"That complicates things even more, doesn't it, Jase?"