This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. A big thank-you to my editor, Michael, who finds the errors I miss, ensures clarity, and keeps me from straying too far from reality. Any remaining errors are my responsibility.
He'd done it on a whim. The waterfall, a mile up the creek that ran past his home, was accessible by a trail in the state park, but Benji wanted to see if he could get there by wading and rock hopping up the creek itself.
The Fourth of July seemed like a good day for the activity. His best friends, Hunter and Eric, were away on vacation. He lacked interest in fireworks - they were dangerous, in his opinion. Not only could you damage yourself, but the potential for starting a forest fire was way too high. And as to the parade in town - been there, done that.
It turned out to be easy for the agile fourteen-year-old. In far less time than anticipated, he rounded a bend in the creek and the ninety-foot waterfall was directly in front of him. Not much water flowed over at this time of year, but it was still impressive. Now, he set himself another goal - to get to the top of the falls and return via the trail. It would be a longer walk, but he'd had enough rock-hopping for the day.
After assessing the possible routes, Benji walked up a side channel for a short distance and then traversed to his goal. It was challenging rather than dangerous, but he breathed a sigh of relief when he arrived at the top of the falls.
The trail itself was still a hundred feet up the hillside, a climb that was simple compared to what he'd just accomplished. He was ready to start when movement at the top of the waterfall caught his attention.
Thirty feet away, the boy stood near the edge looking down. Too close to the edge, in Benji's opinion. He suddenly feared what the boy might have in mind. Speaking no louder than necessary he called out to the boy.
"Hey, buddy, are you okay?"
Standing on his front porch with tears in his eyes and his suitcase at his side, Peter had considered his options to the best of his thirteen-year-old ability. He knew he had to leave, but he had no idea where to go. To his knowledge, he had no relatives, at least that his father would speak of. He also had no friends - the other boys' parents didn't want them to have anything to do with his kind. His mother was dead, his father an alcoholic, and his father's girlfriend a drama-queen prostitute.
If the bitch hadn't caught him giving a blowjob to the teenage son of the client she'd been servicing, his father never would have known. But she had, and told his father, so now Peter had to find a new place to live. He looked at the wad of bills his father had thrown at him as he shoved him out the door. About fifty dollars - the slut's proceeds from the night before. Drying his eyes, he picked up the money and his suitcase and walked away.
The neighborhood cafe had just opened. Peter went inside and bought a breakfast sandwich and a glass of orange juice to go. Wishing to be alone, he carried his purchase across the street and ate at a picnic table in the small urban park. Now he was able to think a little more clearly.
The summer before, he'd gone camping with the boy next door, his one and only friend, who had moved away soon after. Even though the boy was three years older, they'd developed a bond borne out of mutual isolation - Peter because of his dysfunctional family and sexual orientation, and his friend because of a speech limitation.
Now he thought about that experience. Where was the state park? And what was the name of the town? And the waterfall? It had been the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. Maybe he could go there and think better.
Peter walked a few blocks to the bus depot and bought a ticket.
The driver looked at the boy curiously when he got on the bus, and watched in the mirror as he found a seat and placed his suitcase on his lap. Clearly, the kid wasn't used to traveling. He considered getting the security guard to talk with the boy, but he was already late for departure. Closing the door, he set the bus, and the boy's future, in motion.
Peter watched as the bus took him across the river and out of town to the east. He remembered landmarks - an old barn that had intrigued him, a rural gas station with an unusual shape, the small town just before the park. His ticket would take him to the next town. He wondered if he could get off early, but he was afraid to ask.
To his surprise, the bus pulled off in front of the monolith that gave the park its name. Another passenger disembarked with a pack and a hiking stick, thanking the driver for accommodating him. Peter quickly followed the man out of the bus and looked around. He now remembered where the campground was located. He crossed the highway and walked up the road to the campground, and the trailhead.
His suitcase was becoming a burden. He only wanted to go to the waterfall to plan what to do next. Then he'd come back. He stashed the suitcase behind the restroom and headed up the trail.
The viewing platform was further above the waterfall than Peter had remembered. He wanted to get closer. He left the platform and started down the hillside, tripping over branches and falling more than once. And becoming angry. Angry at his father, at what he was, at the world that had put him in this situation.
Then he was at the creek. He sat down on a rock, listening to the music of the flowing water, breathing the fresh air, watching the dragonflies as they chased smaller insects. Now, he felt better. He could stay here forever. Maybe he should stay here forever. He walked to the edge of the cliff. His eyes followed the waterfall to the pool so far below. Why should he go back? There was nothing to go back to. He heard a voice behind him.
"Hey, buddy, are you okay?"
When had anyone ever called him buddy, or asked if he was okay? No one had cared at all since his friend moved away. And yet the older boy watching him had asked the question. The boy spoke again.
"What's your name, buddy?"
"I'm Benji. Come on over here and sit on this rock with me, Peter. You must like this waterfall as much as I do. Tell me about how you found it."
They had something in common. Benji liked the waterfall too. Peter turned away from the precipice and sat down by Benji, who reiterated his question.
"How did you find the waterfall?"
"I saw it last year when I was camping with a friend. But just from the platform above. I wanted to get closer to it."
"Is your friend here with you?"
"No, I'm by myself this time."
"How did you get here?"
"On the bus."
Benji struggled to make sense of this. He decided to take another approach.
"It looks like you got yourself scratched up getting down here. Is that how you got the black eye?"
Peter paused for a few moments. How much should he tell Benji? He seemed like a really nice guy. Peter took a deep breath, and a leap of faith.
"My dad hit me. When he kicked me out."
Benji took a leap of logic.
"I'm gay too, Peter."
Together, they worked their way up the hill to the platform. It was easy for Benji, but Peter needed help, and the backwoods boy provided it. As they walked down the trail together, Peter opened up. By the time they arrived at the trailhead, Benji knew more about Peter than most people. And he knew what he had to do. Peter pointed to the restroom.
"I left my suitcase over there."
Benji was no longer asking questions - he was making decisions for both of them. And Peter trusted Benji and the decisions.
"Let's get it and walk down to the ranger station. I'll call Mom from there. She'll pick us up."
Benji knew the park ranger, who quickly assessed the situation and let him use the phone in her office. Benji closed the door and called his mom. The conversation took about two minutes, and when it ended, his mom knew the essentials.
Benji's mom arrived quickly. The introductions were brief. Benji sat in the back seat with the suitcase because he knew his mom would want to have a welcoming conversation with Peter.
Arriving at home, they went inside where Benji introduced Peter to his dad. The four of them sat down to lunch where the conversation, though centered on Peter, dealt with the less-traumatic aspects of his life. When they were finished, Peter was provided with towels. While Peter took a shower, Benji took his suitcase downstairs to their basement bedroom. Returning, he sat down with his parents at the kitchen table to talk. At first, his dad listened while Benji and his mom had a conversation.
"Good job, Benji."
"We'll have to notify child protective services."
"They're closed today."
"They have an emergency number."
"We don't have to use it."
His mom paused, and his dad stepped in.
"Your mom and I know Margaret, the social worker for the county. We have to notify her, and she'll have to come talk with Peter. But if he wants to stay here while it's sorted out, she'll make that happen."
Benji had tears in his eyes. "I wanna help him myself."
His mom put her hand over his.
"We know. And we'll do everything we can to give you that opportunity. First, we need to talk with Peter and find out what he wants."
Peter returned from his shower dressed in clean clothes and looking much more relaxed. Benji's dad invited him to join them.
"I'm sure you understand we have to let the right people know you're here."
Peter looked down. "I can't go home."
"We understand. Maybe you have relatives who would be happy to have you live with them."
"What if I don't have any relatives? Where would I live?"
"Where would you want to live, Peter?"
There was no hesitation. "Here, with Benji."
"That's what we want too. Now, I need to call our county social worker. We know her very well, and she's a very good person. She'll do what's best for you."
The call was made. Margaret would be there in an hour. His dad made a suggestion.
"Benji, why don't you take Peter for a short hike. Show him the creek and the big rock where you like to hang out, and whatever else you think of. Just be back here in time to meet with Margaret."
Benji found himself excluded from the decision-making process. Margaret arrived and had a private talk with Peter, then a separate conversation with his parents, and finally a conference with all three.
Meanwhile, Benji sat by the creek and thought about all that had happened. He slowly realized there was a hole in his life, one he hadn't known about. He made up his mind that Peter was going to stay, whatever it took.
Finally, he was invited to participate. When he arrived, the five of them sat around the table, and Margaret summarized for all of them.
"Peter, as I've told you, I need to do some research. I'll contact your father, your school, and our office in the city. When I have the information I need, we'll talk again. In the meantime, you can stay here. Benji's parents filled out the paperwork for you to live here permanently if that becomes the best choice. In the meantime, we'll have to wait. Do you understand?"
Peter nodded his head. Margaret turned to Benji.
"Benji, if you don't mind, I'd like to have a conversation with you. From what your parents say, the best place would be by the creek."
Sitting on two rocks next to the creek, Benji and Margaret listened to the soothing music of the flowing water for a few moments. They both smiled as a tiger swallowtail paused momentarily on Benji's knee before quickly moving on.
Margaret looked towards Benji with a respect he wasn't used to getting from adults in official positions.
"Benji, do you understand what you accomplished today?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"I want to be sure you know what you did for Peter. You saved his life by offering him friendship. Then you gave him hope by bringing him home where your parents could offer him more. Your parents and I are very proud of you, Benji. If I could, I'd give you a gold medal."
Benji thought for a few moments before replying, and when he did, he had tears in his eyes.
"Thank you for thinking about an award, but I'd rather have a brother than anything else in the world."
Margaret smiled. "I'm going to include that in my report. And I'll do my best to make your dream come true."
After dinner, Benji and Peter went downstairs. Peter hung his clothes in his half of the closet, and put the rest in his dresser drawer. Fresh towels were hung on his towel bar, and a new toothbrush was placed in his assigned slot in the holder with his name under it. Benji was doing everything he could think of to make sure Peter knew he belonged.
After Peter had climbed into his half of their queen-sized bed, Benji went back upstairs to talk with his parents. His dad smiled at him.
"It's been quite a day."
"Yeah, it has."
"I can't believe someone would discard their son for being gay."
His mom replied. "Neither can I."
Benji thought back to the retreat, and the discussion about telling your parents you're gay. Were they paving the way like Nick's parents had for him? He took a deep breath.
"I'm glad to hear that, since I'm gay too."
His mom put her hand on his. "We've known that for a while, Benji, Probably longer than you have. We knew you'd get around to telling us eventually. All we want is your happiness."
Tears came to his eyes. He should have had more confidence in his mom and dad. Then he realized it wasn't his parents who'd paved the way. Just by being there, Peter had.
During the next two weeks, Peter learned to be a backwoods boy. He went swimming and explored the woods with Benji and their neighbor, Darren. Benji taught him how to find the biggest fish in the creek, how to encourage them to take the hook, and then how to pan-fry them for dinner.
Being the same age, Peter quickly became close friends with Darren and stayed overnight with him frequently. Most importantly, he became a happy boy for the first time in his life. But there still was a cloud hanging overhead - the decision to be made by some insensitive bureaucrat.
Margaret reported that she could find no relatives, and from Benji's perspective, this was a good thing. There were release papers for Peter's father to sign - the only hangup was finding him sober.
Then came the big day. Peter was officially placed in foster care with Benji's family. The legal process to terminate his father's parental rights had begun - the first step leading to adoption. As far as Benji was concerned, the technicalities were irrelevant. Make no mistake about it, he and Peter were now brothers.
Margaret came to the house with a pile of papers and a large rectangular package wrapped in brown paper. More papers were signed by Benji's parents. Then Margaret placed the package in the center of the table.
"When my report went to my supervisor, one thing in particular convinced her that Peter belongs here. Please unwrap it, Benji."
Benji unwrapped the package and smiled.
"Thank you, Margaret."
His dad posed a question.
"Where do you want to hang it?"
"Where my brother and I can see it every day."
In the basement bedroom over the bed that he and Peter shared, Benji hung the router-carved wood sign.
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