When I opened the curtain to Kelly's cubicle, I found him standing with his hands crossed in front of his groin. This was a different Kelly than the one who only ten minutes earlier had so boldly dropped his drawers in the camper. He seemed younger somehow, more vulnerable. He was rapidly developing the body of a young man, but somewhere deep inside he was still a child, a child who needed to be touched tenderly, not sexually; a child who only wanted to be wanted.
How old was he when his father died? Eight? When he was eight, his father might still have bathed him from time to time. The stage of strict modesty, the "I'll do it all myself" stage, the dawning of independence and separate identity, might not have come until around age ten, particularly if Kelly were a little more dependent than most because of his mother's death and his stepmother's indifference or hostility. Then his stepparents pushed him away, and deprived him of the opportunity to choose independence.
"Turn around, Kelly, let me soap you up," I said. He seemed to hesitate, and a look of concern crossed his face, a look I could not decipher. Then he slowly turned, and I gave an involuntary gasp. Up to this point I had only seen him from the front. His back was a very different, and very disturbing, story. His butt and thighs were covered in bruises, and his back bore long red welts where he clearly had been struck with something long and thin, a young tree branch perhaps or a narrow belt.
If he had wanted sympathy, he would have told me about the beatings. I decided to say nothing, and began simply to gently bathe him. I used a very light touch on his back, fearing that the welts might still be painful if any pressure were applied. It was easy enough to wrap a soapy washcloth around his arms, then his legs, then reach around to gently scrub his chest and stomach area, careful not to wander too low.
I laid aside the washcloth and picked up the bottle of shampoo. "Close your eyes now, Kelly," I said, "I'm going to wash your hair." He seemed to relax then, almost leaning against me, which I at first thought was going to cause some problems in my nether regions, but I was able to focus first on the shampoo, then the conditioner, then the final rinse, followed by a little face cloth work around just where I had said earlier -- his face and neck and ears.
I gently encouraged him to turn toward me, and I handed him the soapy face cloth. "Okay, Kelly," I said, "you can finish up yourself." He looked quizzically at me, so I pointed to his crotch, and he got the idea. I stepped out of the cubicle and pulled the curtain behind me. As I began to towel off, I breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed to me that I had dodged a bullet.
We both toweled off and donned our skimpy clothing, and then there was one more round of tooth brushing before bed. I took Kelly's hand again as we left the showers, but we immediately discovered that the temperature had dropped while we were in the warm bath house. By the time we reached the camper we were both covered in goose bumps. I immediately turned on the propane furnace, but after several minutes of hearing the fan blowing, there was still no warm air. Then it dawned on me. I was supposed to have the propane tank refilled this afternoon, but meeting Kelly had distracted me.
"You'd better wear those clothes in bed tonight," I said. "We're out of propane, so it's going to get a little chilly in the camper." The bunk above the truck cab was still made up with sheets, and there was a single blanket folded up on the end. My bed at the other end of the camper had a down comforter. I quickly made up the bed for Kelly, and showed him the small shelf that served instead of a ladder to give him a boost up into the bunk.
As I tucked him in, he turned his face toward me, and I saw just the beginning of tears in his eyes. Suddenly he reached out, grabbed me around the neck, pulled my face toward him and kissed me on the cheek. "Good night, Uncle Art," he said, "and thanks."
"G'night, Kelly," I said. "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite." Another nighttime ritual from my own childhood. I switched off the light, snuggled my comforter around me, and quickly drifted off to sleep. It had been an exhausting day. It was not a dreamless sleep, however. In my dream I was being hauled out of a pickup -- not my camper but a big pickup, like an F-150 or something -- by someone who looked like a policeman. "We know what to do with perverts like you," he said, "kidnapping little boys." I could hear a boy whimpering in fear in the cab of the truck.
Slowly I emerged from sleep, just far enough to realize that I was still hearing the whimpering, and it was no longer a sound from my dream but a real sound here in the camper. "Kelly?" I called. "Kelly, are you OK?"
"I'm c-c-cold," I heard from the other end of the camper. "I'm so cold."
"That's because the furnace isn't working," I said, then realized how stupid that sounded under the circumstances. "Can you double up the blanket to get warmer?"
"I already did that, and I'm still cold." Now that I was awake, I could tell that he probably had good reason to be cold. That single blanket was not very heavy and warm; it was really meant for summer nights when my comforter would be too warm. But I didn't have anything else for him. I regretted my decision not to bring along a small electric heater.
"Can I get in with you?" he asked.
What would the authorities think if I was caught sleeping with a 14-year-old boy? On the other hand, how much could I ask a 14-year-old boy to suffer in the cold? "OK, come on down," I finally said.
It was pitch dark, but I heard the rustling of the sheets, and the sound of bare feet hitting the floor, and suddenly I was no longer alone in my bed. Kelly grabbed me tight, and damn, he was cold. His skin was like ice, and he was shivering. Then I realized that I was touching nothing but skin.
"Kelly, you're naked!" I exclaimed.
"So are you," he said.
"Ok, but--" I started.
"I always have to sleep naked," he said. "Jason never lets me wear anything to bed."
"Who is . . . never mind. Let's just go to sleep." And it wasn't that hard, no pun intended. In spite of the awkwardness of the situation, I really was worn out from the emotional turmoil of the day. We would have to sort this out in the morning. Just before sinking into oblivion I thought I heard a small voice say, "I knew you would come for me."
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