The big pickup arrived at North's at seven. Jon was waiting on the porch of North's house with Annie and North. The 350 stopped thirty feet from the house, and Jon looked to North and Annie before walking to the truck. A tall Latino man was driving, and a man Jon assumed was Jase's dad was in the front passenger seat. North and Annie waved to Jason's father; he responded with an unsmiling, slight nod. Jason was in the rear seat of the tan truck's crew cab.
As Jonathan approached the truck, he looked carefully at Jase's father. He felt that he was looking into Jase's future—not the illness, but the way Jase would look when older. 'Not bad at all,' he thought. The older man looked tired and drawn, though, and for the first time, Jon knew how sick Fred must be. Jase opened the back door of the crew cab, but Jon stopped and introduced himself.
"Mr. Johnson, I'm Jonathan Sumner."
Jon held out his hand and looked at the man squarely. Jon wanted Fred to know he wasn't afraid. Fred looked at Jon for a few heartbeats and then extended his hand. The grip was firm, the hand hardened by years of farm work, but Fred didn't try to crush the boy's hand.
"Pleasure," Fred said. Jon knew that this was only politeness, but kind anyway.
Fred, nodding toward the driver, said to Jon, "This is Martin."
Jon raised his hand, greeting Martin, and Martin returned a nod.
Jon was unaware of their progress toward the cancer center; all he thought about was Jase. He resisted every impulse to hold Jase's hand or touch his cheek. No sense in rubbing things in his father's face. Martin dropped them off at the center. When the older man unfolded his body from the front seat, Jon saw how tall he was, a little taller than Jase, and how handsome he was. Inside, Fred registered with another persistently cheery young woman while Jason and Jon waited.
"Jason, you and Jonathan don't need to hang around once they get me hooked up."
"Papa, I'm not going to leave you alone."
"Look, I'm going to think I need to entertain you if you're just going to sit and look at me. Entertaining you is always exhausting."
Looking at Jon, Jason thought of an errand he wanted to run. He thought of other things he wanted to do, too, but those would have to wait. Jason flushed as if his father were privy to his randy thoughts.
"Okay, once you're settled in, we might leave for a while. Jim will know how to get me if he needs to."
A middle-aged woman in bright flowery scrubs came through a door and called, "Mr. Johnson?"
Fred got up with Jason, Jon trailing behind. The woman took them back to the chemo suite, a large room with hospital gurneys, each surrounded by curtains. She told Fred to undress completely and put on a gown.
Jason turned to leave, saying, "We'll wait outside. Let us know when you're finished."
Before Fred could respond, the nurse said, "Honey, we're going to have to start an IV and give your father some medication before we start the therapy. You boys go back to the waiting room. Someone will get you when we're ready to begin."
Jason knew better than to try to negotiate with this woman. He and Jon went back to the waiting room and discovered why the room was called a waiting room.
Jason held Jon's hand as they waited. "This is going to take most of the day. I want to stay with him when the treatment starts and be here when it ends. I'm taking you to lunch in the middle, though, and we're going on an errand."
"Are you crazy, Jase? We can't leave."
"You heard him say he'll feel like he has to keep us entertained if we stay back there all the time. Mostly, I think he doesn't want me to see him if he has trouble."
"I just don't want you to beat yourself up for leaving. If you're going to do that, we should just stay, even if we stay out here."
"Jon, I want to help Papa, but I'm not going to sink myself doing it. My mama once told me that to help others you have to take care of yourself. Right now, taking care of myself is enjoying being with you."
"So, what's the big errand?"
"If I'm going to drag your beautiful ass up the mountain this weekend, we have to get you some decent hiking boots and the right clothes."
"Really? You don't think my normal wardrobe is acceptable?"
"Jon, I love your look, but you might enjoy the outdoorsman touch."
"Okay, cowboy, but where do I get the new duds?"
"That's a surprise for later."
Jason leaned into Jon pressing their shoulders together and sighed.
In the chemo suite, the nurse was prepping Fred. The head of the gurney was raised so that his upper body was at a forty-five degree angle. The nurse hung a bag of IV fluid on a pole and connected the IV tubing to an IVAC pump that would control the infusion rate. Then she inserted a plastic IV catheter in a vein in Fred's left forearm and connected an extension tube with a Y adaptor.
"One more to go," the nurse said.
She repeated the process on Fred's right arm, except that the tubing went straight from the bag into the catheter in Fred's right forearm. She adjusted the flow from this bag to a slow drip.
"Mr. Johnson, I'm going to give you a couple of pills to take. One is an antihistamine and the other is plain old Tylenol. We'll let them work for thirty minutes and then start the Campath. Dr. Underhill is going to come in for a few minutes before we start the treatment. You're very fortunate, by the way, to have him taking care of you. He's one of the best in the country."
Fred took the pills. His world seemed diminished to this small, curtained cell. He wondered whether the treatment would be as bad as the disease. He had decided that if the side effects were terrible he would stop and let the disease take its course. He lived now on the brink between fear of death and fear of life.
"Mr. Johnson, I'm going to bring your boys back now," the nurse said.
Fred started to correct her. Jonathan wasn't his boy. He stopped himself because he knew that Jonathan meant as much to Jason as Vi did to him. That thought unsettled him, but Jason deserved a companion to help him deal with this mess. For the past two days Fred had done a lot of praying, not so much praying for himself as asking for help for Jason.
The boys followed the nurse back to the little cloth-walled room and sat in the two available chairs, side by side. Fred thought that they looked so young. How could they know what love meant or what kind of life they could have?
"Papa, was getting stuck bad?"
"No, son, just a little pinch. I took a couple of pills. They're going to start once the pills take effect. Jason and you too, Jonathan, I don't know what to expect, but if you're asked to leave, promise me you will."
"Yes, sir," two voices answered as one.
"Where are you taking Jonathan for lunch, Jason?"
"I don't know yet. We're going on a shopping expedition."
"That's right. You told me you were going up on old Klickitat this weekend. You take him to Stone's. Tell them to put everything on my tab."
Jon, thoroughly surprised, said, "You don't have to do that, sir."
"Of course I don't, young man. But, I'm going to."
Jon knew he had been had. He smiled at Fred. "Yes, sir."
They heard Jim's voice as he checked with the nurse. The curtain was pulled away, and Jim came in. "Fred, you ready for the ride?"
"Let's get it done."
"Jason, Jon, how are you both?"
The boys nodded without saying anything. The nurse hung a smaller IV bag with clear liquid on the pole. The tubing of the smaller bag went into a second slot in the infusion pump. Each line from the pump now went into one side of the Y adaptor.
Jim said, "The blood tests from yesterday confirmed the presence of the protein that this medicine targets on the cancer-cell membranes. That's very good news. I wish I could tell you what kind of reactions you're going to have. We talked before about the common ones—fever, nausea, chills, and the like. I'll be in the building if you have a serious or unusual reaction. I'm going to send you home with some pills to take to prevent two common infections in patients taking this treatment."
Jason paled as he realized for the first time how sick his father might become just because of the treatment. Jim saw his reaction.
"Jason, we're going to take good care of your father. If you can't tolerate seeing him feeling like crap, then you need to leave now. That goes for you, too, Jon. We start at a low dose and will increase the dose over the first week. The good news is that the reactions tend to get less severe over the first week."
Jason thought a moment and answered for himself and Jon, "We'll stay."
Jim nodded to the nurse who set the flow rate on the IVAC and pressed one of its buttons. The machine began beeping at long intervals.
Jason thought that it might be like an execution by lethal injection—whatever was going to happen to his father would happen quickly. But nothing obvious happened. Fred had no reaction at all. Jim checked the settings on the infusion pump.
"I'll leave you to it. Remember, we're running this in over two hours, so whatever reaction will occur should take half an hour or so to start. I'll check in later."
The nurse opened the curtain surrounding the gurney a little so that the aisle in the center of the room was visible. She handed Fred the emergency call button.
"If you feel sick or need me, press the button." She turned to Jason and Jon. "If he can't do it, you press the button."
Picking up a couple of plastic kidney-shaped bowls, she told Jason and Jon, "If he gets sick and I don't make it here in time, catch what comes up in here. If you fill one up, switch to the other."
* * * * *
North and Annie went inside for breakfast after seeing Jon and Jason off. Tom's keyboard sounded quietly from the office. At the table, eating cereal, Annie decided to wind North up a bit.
"So, you got a little jealous of Jason's friends yesterday?"
"I did not! I got pissed because they were rude. They were looking at you as if they were at a diner and you were on the menu. If you'd seriously consider doing anything with those Neanderthals, we need to re-evaluate the relationship."
"Touchy, touchy, touchy. Alas, I'm thoroughly smitten, and by you alone. By the way, how dare you even suggest that I'd be interested in them?"
"I know. I guess I was a little jealous. Did you see how they looked at Jason and Jon before they left?"
"I did. I couldn't tell whether a light bulb went on for either of them, though."
"Trust me, the light went on, or at least partly on."
"With Jon and me back in Portland most of the time after school starts, you're going to have to watch his back. Doing that isn't going to make it easy for you to fit in."
"Well, I'm certainly going to have Jason's back, and the chips will have to fall where they fall. If their cross-country team is in as bad a shape as Jason said, I may be able to give him some cover by running the rest of them into the ground."
"You are an irresistible force, North. Maybe I should be jealous of the football players."
"Let's go upstairs. You can take my mind off them."
* * * * *
Jason and Jon had waited quietly with Fred for half an hour. The nurse had silenced the beeping from the infusion pump once she was satisfied that it was performing properly. The first indication of trouble was the flushing of Fred's skin and the beginning of a sweat. Fred's face took on the look of someone with a bad case of the flu.
Fred pushed the call button and, almost at the same time, started to retch. Jason was paralyzed, watching his father become obviously ill. Jon rushed to grab one of the basins and got it under Fred's chin just before the man started to vomit. What was left in his stomach came up and was caught in the basin Jon was holding. The smell of the vomit almost made Jason throw up, but Jon didn't seem fazed.
The nurse hurried into the area and grabbed the basin from Jon, setting it on the bedside table and picking up the second one. After partly filling the second basin, Fred stopped vomiting, giving the nurse time to take his temperature, which was elevated but not extreme.
"Good," the woman said.
Jason looked at her as if she were a lunatic. "Good?"
"Yes, my dears, this means the treatment has begun working. Things are likely to get a bit worse before they get better."
Looking at Jon, the nurse said, "You did very well."
Then she saw that Jason looked ashamed and tried to comfort him. "This whole business is scary. You'll get used to it and before you know it, you'll be acting like an old hand. I have to get things cleaned up here, so you two go out and wait for a few minutes."
Before leaving, Jason went to his father. Leaning over, he whispered, "Papa, I'm sorry. I'll do better."
Fred grabbed Jason's arm. "You're doing fine. If you beat yourself up about this, I'm not going to be happy. This isn't the way it should work. No sixteen year-old should have to take care of a father like this. Now, run out and let me get cleaned up."
Jon dragged Jason to the waiting room, where he looked for a place with a little privacy. He found an alcove and pulled Jason into it. Jason looked spooked, and as soon as Jon touched him, he began to sob. The thought of crying like this with anyone but his mother or Jon would have been unbearable for Jason.
When he was cried out, Jason thanked Jon for stepping up when his father had become so ill. Jon could sense that Jason thought he had failed in a way that could never be forgiven.
"Jase, I know we haven't known each other long, but I feel as if we are a team. I love having sex with you, but I love you more. When I'm weak, your job is to pick me up. When you stumble, I'll pick you up. You'll never be a failure in my eyes."
Seeing no one around, Jason hugged Jon tightly. But, no matter what Jon said, Jason's sense of failure remained.
"Let's see if he's cleaned up, Jase."
They walked back through the waiting room and into the chemo suite. The nurse, Gina, according to her nametag, spotted them and waved them over to the bedside. Fred was sweating and shivering; his appearance increased Jason's anxiety.
Gina whispered to the boys, "I gave him something to help control the nausea, and he's not so sick to his stomach now. You can talk with him."
Jason stood by the gurney. He wanted to tell his father how sorry he was for letting him down, but the words stuck in his throat. Fred looked over at him.
"This is one hell of a ride, son. I know you're worried, but I'm not so sick to my stomach now. It hasn't gotten any worse in the last twenty minutes. I want you and Jonathan to run your errand. Gina has your cell number, and she'll call if things get worse."
Jason started to protest, but Fred cut him off.
"Look, Jason, we have quite a few more days of this to get through. It'll get easier for you. Right now, I want you to get some air and run your errand. I intend for you to take Jonathan up to the glacier this weekend. Summer won't last forever, and I don't want it to slip by while you're sitting in here."
"Thank you, Papa. You promise to have them call if you have a problem?"
* * * * *
Stone's Ski and Sport was the best place for outdoor gear in The Dalles. The walk to the store, which was located on Highway 30, would take half an hour. Jason and Jon walked the route mostly in silence. Jason still wanted to apologize, and Jon still wanted to comfort Jason. Both of them settled for silent companionship. The day was clear and pleasant, and Adams squatted on the horizon to the north. Highway 30 divides when it goes through The Dalles, becoming two one-way streets in downtown—Second Street running west and Third Street running east, both paralleling the Columbia River and I-84. They picked up a lunch snack and drink at a coffee shop and continued the journey.
* * * * *
Jeremy, one of the football players the clan had met the other day, was also in The Dalles. From a shop doorway across the street from the boys he watched the couple walking. He had wondered earlier, but now he was sure. Those two were a couple of fucking fags.
* * * * *
As the boys crossed Madison Street, Jonathan wondered why anyone would lay out a city with Streets running both north-south and east-west, and without any Avenues.
"Jase, do you have any idea how lonely I was before I met you?"
"I really can't imagine you ever being lonely. Why would anyone leave you alone if you didn't want to be left alone? You must have guys falling all over you."
Jon stopped their progress. "I want you to hear me clearly, Jase. I have a lot of friends, but you can have friends and still be lonely. Having Annie and North in my life made me want what they have, and I didn't have any friends who could give me that—friendship, love, fearlessness, sex, and commitment. Every day I know you makes me happier that you took a chance on me."
"Jon, I know who has the better part of the bargain between us. If I hadn't met you, I'd still be avoiding who I am."
"So, you see, Jase, we're both valuable and special. Neither of us can do everything alone, but together I think we can manage most problems."
They resumed the walk and soon saw the storefront. Jason led Jon in and said hello to a good-looking - hot, Jon thought - young man.
"Jerry, Jon here needs some boots, Ex-Officio hiking shorts, a couple of wicking T-shirts, wicking socks, a good Polartec fleece, and a day pack with a bladder."
The young man asked Jon, "What're your sizes?"
"Nine shoe, thirty waist, medium shirt and jacket, and I think I have a small bladder."
The clerk shook his head at the remark and disappeared into a back room. Jon whispered to Jason, "Bet you've had a crush on that one."
"I have not!"
"Well, if not, you're a lost cause."
"Okay, Jon. Maybe I have."
In under an hour, Jon was outfitted. He had tried four pairs of boots before settling on some comfortable Vasques. Jon's biggest surprise came when he tried on the shorts. He came out of the dressing room in the shorts and nothing else, much to Jason's delight.
Jon whispered, "They have this mesh thing. You can't wear underwear with them."
"Less to take off you," Jason said, smiling broadly.
Jason helped Jon put their purchases, except the boots, in the new daypack. "Jon, your training starts now. You'll wear the pack on the way back and start breaking the boots in."
On the walk back to the center, the boys talked more about Jason's reaction to his father's sickness. Jon let Jason do most of the talking. Jason emptied his heart, describing his fears that his father was going to die soon, and how he felt that his father was coming around a little bit where Jason's sexuality was concerned. Jason told Jon that he knew his father would never be happy about him being gay but that his father was making an effort. By the time they arrived at the center, Jason was feeling better, grateful to have talked with Jon.
In the waiting room, Jon told Jason that he would keep an eye on the pack and boots if Jason wanted to go into the chemo suite alone.
"No, we can put them on the floor in the chemo room; come back with me."
Gina welcomed them back, telling them that Fred was almost ready to go home. She told them he was still feeling feverish and weak, but his nausea remained under control. When they went to Fred's bedside, he weakly pointed to the pack and nodded.
"I'm all outfitted, Mr. Johnson," Jon said.
Fred's weak voice answered, "Jonathan, if you spend much time around Jason, you'll wear that out in short order."
"I hope I get to, Mr. Johnson."
After another half hour, Gina and Jim came in. Jim did a quick physical exam as Gina checked Fred's vital signs and temperature. Jim asked about nausea and other symptoms.
"Fred, you may not feel like it, but you did really well today. We're going to repeat the same dose tomorrow. If the side effects are better tomorrow, we'll increase the dose the next day. I'm going to send you home with two medications you'll need to take during the rest of the treatment and for two weeks after you finish. One is an antibiotic to prevent a rare form of pneumonia called PCP, and the other is an antiviral to prevent herpes infections. Jason, the instructions on how to take them will be on the labels—your father should take the antibiotic twice every other day and the antiviral twice every day. You can pick them up at the hospital pharmacy on your way out. Any questions?"
Jason said, "Not now."
Fred said, "Yeah, is this going to be worth it?"
"Based on what you've told me you want, Fred, I believe so."
Fred dressed and then sat in the wheelchair that Gina brought in. "Thanks, Jim, and you too, Gina. See you tomorrow."
* * * * *
After stopping at the pharmacy, they all waited for Martin, who pulled up in a few minutes. Fred wasn't up to talking on the way back, so the trip was silent. Jason put his hand on the seat beside Jon, and Jon risked covering Jason's hand with his.
After the boys helped Vi get Fred settled in their bed, Vi told them to go downstairs and get a snack while she talked with Fred. After the boys left, she told Fred that Jim had called to let her know how the treatment was going.
"Sounds like you had a bad time."
"Vi, I've never felt worse in my life, but Jim said I did well, so I guess others have it worse."
"Sweet man, you regretting the decision to do this?"
"You can tell I'm not, can't you?"
"Just checking to be sure my instinct isn't wrong, Fred."
"I need to sleep now after I take my pills."
Vi took the large bottles that Jason had given her. Part of Jim's call had been to be sure she knew the medication schedule. She gave Fred the medicine and hoped he could keep it down. She had set the room up with a bucket lined with a plastic bag in case he threw up. Water was on the nightstand.
"You rest now. Jason, Jon, and you have to be up early tomorrow."
She looked down at the man she had built a life with—a man she had never seen weak like this. She teared up and softly told him, "Sweet man, thank you for trying to stick around as long as you can, but if it gets to be too much, you need to let go."
Fred was already dozing as Vi left to go downstairs. She kissed Fred's forehead before she left the room.
Downstairs, Jon and Jason were snacking on cheese and crackers. Vi could tell that the day had been hard on Jasey, but when her heart reached out to Jon, she was surprised to find calm and steel. 'Jasey,' she thought, 'I hope things work out with this one.'
"Jonny, I talked with Tom about you staying here tonight since you're going back to the center early tomorrow. He dropped off a bag that North packed for you. If you want to go back to North's place, I'll take you."
Jon's heart was full as he thought about what Vi was suggesting. "I'd prefer to stay with Jase, thanks."
"I thought you might," the woman said with a smile, "and I'm sure Jasey won't object."
"Just let me know what room I should use."
"Thank you, Jonny, for asking what sleeping arrangements I'd prefer. Jasey is feeling low, and I think he needs some warmth tonight. You bunk in with him; we won't mention this to Fred—yet."
Jason silently thanked his mother. More and more he felt that he could make his life work even if he had only the new friends he had made—only because his mother had insisted he go to meet the new family.
After talking a bit with Vi about the day, the boys padded lightly upstairs to Jason's room. Jason had twin beds in his room. They quietly pushed the beds together to give themselves more bed space.
Jon looked in the bag North had packed. Toiletries, clothing, compact portable speakers for his iPhone, and condoms and lube.
'Good old North,' Jon thought, 'or maybe Annie was responsible for the last items.'
Using them would have to wait for another night. After showering and cleaning up, they shut the door to Jon's room and, naked, held each other—Jon holding Jason for support and Jason holding Jon in thanks.
Even bad days don't tame the penises of young boys. Before they climbed in bed, Jason watched Jon, his hard dick swaying, put his iPhone in the dock to the speakers and put some music on softly. He smiled as Jon walked back to the bed. 'Damn,' he thought, 'he is really nice.'
"What's the music, Jon?"
"A group from Portland, The Decemberists. The album is The Crane Wife."
"I like the singer's voice."
In bed, Jason lay on his back with Jon's leg draped over his hip and Jon's head on his chest. Remembering his desire from the other night, Jon licked Jason's nipples, lightly biting.
"Shit, Jon, that feels good. I'd never have thought of that."
Jason reached for Jon's cock, but Jon slapped the hand away. He stroked Jase gently, moving the foreskin, covering and uncovering the head. The combined attention to his nipples and dick pushed Jason over the edge. He moaned as his juice flew up, landing on the side of Jon's face before diminishing and dropping onto his own belly. Jon kissed Jase's chest one more time before scooping the cum off his face and eating it. Jason pulled Jon's head upward and, using his tongue, finished cleaning Jon's face.
Jason started to attend to Jon's hard-on, but Jon stopped him. "Let's sleep. Sometimes it's nice just to drop off after you come."
Wrapped in sleep, they didn't notice the music stopping or the host of night noises. The next thing the boys heard was Jon's phone sounding the wakeup alarm.