"We promise to be careful and not do anything stupid. We just wanna show Joey around and some of the things we can do later when he's 100 percent. It's peaceful and beautiful up there." I walked over to Joey, sat on the arm of the chair, and placed my hand on his shoulder. "He deserves a break from all this stuff he's had to deal with."
"Wait just a minute, Andy." Dad's voice went from the sweet gentle, "Dad" voice, to one of "Judge" as he spoke. I couldn't help but realize he was still worried. "It's not for me to decide if Joey can go or do anything. The doctor said you're fine and off restrictions, so I don't have a problem with allowing you to camp out Friday night. However, you know when it comes to Roger and Joey, it's totally up to Steve and Alice."
"Joey, do you really think you're ready for a short camp out with Roger and Andy?" Uncle Steve asked, his voice betraying nothing. I glanced from Uncle Steve to Aunt Alice trying to get a feel for what their answer might be, I still couldn't tell.
"Yes Sir, I do. I haven't had any pain at all in the last couple of days." Joey paused, looked at everyone in the room, but focused back on Uncle Steve. "After listening to Andy and Roger, I'm excited about being able to camp out for the first time in my life. To be free to yell, free to take a leak on a tree if I want, to be out in God's mountains and forest without any restraints. Not only do I want to go, I need to go. I need a chance to be me. I want to do what everyone else has been able to do." Joey said passionately. Then his lips trembled. "I want to do the normal stuff any guy does, like going camping with my brother and my boyfriend." Joey looked a little shaken, but determined.
Uncle Steve glanced at Aunt Alice, and she nodded and smiled her approval.
'Way to go Aunt Alice!' I thought.
Uncle Steve turned to dad, "You don't have any concerns, Sam?"
"None, as long as you take them up the Flat Gap side of the mountain and let them take the short route, up the back side AND they take their cell phones with them."
"I'm not sure I can take off from work in time to haul them up there by the time they would want to leave here."
I could sense trouble. "What if I could talk Randy into giving us a ride? He does have his driver's license now." Randy was a junior and a year older than the rest of us.
"Would he take you up the Flat Gap side?" Dad asked.
"I could call him right now and ask. He should be home."
"Why don't you do that? I could pick you boys up Saturday afternoon, after we set a time." Uncle Steve said.
I used the phone in the kitchen, in case I had to do any begging. Randy had been a friend of the family since I was a kid. Mom used to babysit him occasionally, while his parents enjoyed a night on the town, with a dinner and a movie. I always felt Randy was cool, because he never ignored me because I was younger, and he been there for me when mom died. Roger and I helped him put up a basketball goal in his backyard one summer, and every time we went passed his yard when he was out shooting hoops, he would always invite us in for a game, no matter who or how many were already there playing. We still visited Randy's family for a bar-b-que every year during June. He was almost like an older cousin. I figured I could call in a favor, if I paid for his gas. He had a sweet Jeep Cherokee, but it was a gas guzzler. With his jeep, we could ride all the way up past Bad Branch Falls. That would cut our ascent to about thirty minutes.
Randy quickly agreed to help us out, after I promised to invite him for a weekend campout, and offered to pay for his gas. I couldn't blame him for the gas and it was only fair. Besides, Randy only worked a part time job at a local fast food joint and the pay was awful. His mother worked at our school, which is how my mom met them. I knew from listening to Dad and Uncle Steve, these sweet people weren't making a load of money, just enough to keep themselves going and to help Randy through college. Most of his paycheck went into a bank account for college tuition fees. With all the recent mine lay-offs, many in town would soon be served with home foreclosure notices, if they couldn't find more work. I was grateful that my friends and my family were blessed, but Dad, as judge, had to see them when things hit the wall.
I hurried back into the living room. "Randy said he could give us a ride after school on Friday. And yes, he checked with his mom first." I said, smirking, knowing that would have been the next question.
"Alright, you boys can go." Uncle Steve said, and winked.
Roger punched the air with his fist, and Joey and I bumped fists.
JT glared at his father from where he had fallen, in the middle of the small family corn field, after being struck on the side of the head.
"I asked you, boy, why isn't that faggot in the hospital?" Mr. McCray exclaimed. "I didn't raise a pussy, did I?"
JT slowly stood up. "Pa, I did get into a fight with Andy and he did have to go to the hospital. I told you that, Sir."
"How many faggots are there, JT?"
"I don't know if there are any, pa. No one has caught anyone at school doing anything. I just called Joey a fag because he's shorter than most. Pa, I really don't want to be caught fighting anymore during football season. Coach said I could be good enough to get a scholarship, if I really worked hard at it."
"That's all well and good boy. You could be the first McCray to ever go to college. Play your football, but don't ever let the name of McCray be dishonored. If you do, you will have to deal with me. You got that, boy?" Mr. McCray glared at his son. His fists clenched while he waited for an answer.
"Yes Pa." JT answered quickly. His side burned from the punch his father had delivered before he cold clocked him on the side of the face. He knew if he didn't answer quickly, his father would hit him again.
As soon as his father was out of sight, JT ran as fast as he could for the woods. He dodged the trees left and right, like a deer in fear of its life. The balls of his feet barely touched the ground. No one knew that this was how JT became such a good running back for the football team. Fear was something learned about at an early age. His father and his whole family on his father's side were fighters, crooks, and abusers. Too many times to count, JT would find himself on the run from his father. He also knew no matter how fast, or how quick he could dodge a punch, eventually he had to come home to face his father, because he would need to eat and sleep. Sooner or later he would have to take his punishment.
His heart pounded as he topped the hill that over looked his family's homestead. He fell to his knees and cried out, "Help me God!" He dropped his head and swept his hand across his eyes to wipe away the tears. He looked up into the bright, cloudless, blue, sky and pleaded, "Please, help me."
Joey, Roger, and I met for school and Aunt Alice drove us in. The day had been uneventful, and I was looking forward to spending a little time with Joey. I was surprised when I found Joey and JT deep in conversation just outside the lunchroom.
"Hi Andy. How's it going?" JT called.
"Hey, JT, what's up?"
"Not much, Andy, just asking Joey some personal questions, but I have to head out and see the coach. It was good seeing ya."
"Cool JT, I'm glad everything is better between us." I said. We bumped fists and went our separate ways.
"What was that about?" I asked.
"He was asking about prayer," Joey said. "I explained to him that prayer was just talking to God in a respectful way. He said he was trying to change his life, and he knew he couldn't do it alone. I told him there was no one better to turn to."
"Oh. Okay. I'm glad he feels he can talk to us now. I know you won't steer him in the wrong direction. This is going to be hard on him, but it does look like he's trying."
"It happens that way sometimes, we never know what a person has been thinking or for how long."
My stomach decided on its own to growl, and I blushed. "Let's eat, I'm starving."
Joey laughed. "You're always starving."
That night Roger, Joey, and I made certain we had everything ready for the following day. I called Randy and made sure he was still willing to give us a ride. I told him there should be plenty of room in his jeep, since it was only a one-night camp out, and we weren't taking much with us. We planned to ride home with him, collect our stuff, drive to Bad Branch Falls, walk the rest of the way to High Rock and then on to the spot where we would make camp with time to spare before dark.
While talking to Randy and confirming plans, I couldn't keep from wondering if Joey and I would be able to find some time to be alone. At the same time, I didn't want Roger to feel like a third wheel among us. I needed to talk to Roger about it before they went home.
"Randy is still willing to give us a ride tomorrow. We'll meet him in the parking lot as soon as school lets out." I sat down in my computer chair. "I've been meaning to buy a small refrigerator for my room and I always forget it when I'm anywhere that has one." I looked over at Joey sitting on my bed, and with sad, puppy dog eyes asked, "Joey, would you grab us some drinks from downstairs, as I pull up a satellite map of where we're going?"
He chuckled, "No problem, as long as you promise to never make that face at me again." I stared at him sadly. He pulled a horrific face. "OH NO, not the pouting face." His laughter echoed all the way down the stairs, as he ran from the room.
"Roger, we need to talk, and quickly before he gets back."
Roger regarded me suspiciously, and then said, "Okay, what's up?"
"Well, this isn't easy to say, but the last thing in the world I ever wanna do is hurt you in any way. It's about this weekend. I mean… Well crap," I was so nervous I would make Roger mad at me. "Look, what I'm trying to say is, I just wanted to give you a heads up that while we're camping tomorrow night, I want to, I need, I…"
Roger laughed. "Just say it, Andy."
I blushed, and gazed down at a spot between my feet, took a big breath, and then quickly blurted out, "I would like some alone time with Joey tomorrow night. Do you think we can make that happen?" I straightened up in my chair and confidently looked Roger in the eyes for the first time since I started this conversation. "Joey means a lot to me, and I would like to be able to show him just how much."
"You were worried I would be hurt if you two snuck off for a make out session?"
"Well… yeah." I blushed again.
"Not a problem bro."
"Thanks, Roger." I walked over to him and pulled him off the bed into a hug.
After Joey and Roger made it home, Joey asked, "Roger, can we talk for a minute in my room before we head to bed?"
"Sure, lead the way." Roger motioned.
Joey sat down on his bed and said. "Come in and close the door."
Roger closed the door behind him. "What's up, Joey?"
"In the short time we've known each other, you've been nothing but nice to me in every way. You've taken me in and treated me like a member of the family."
Roger interrupted him, "Whoa right there Joey. As far as I'm concerned, you ARE a member of the family, if for no other reason than your relationship with Andy, but it's more than that too. I like you, because you're a good person. If I had a choice in what my brother would be like, you're it. Okay?"
"Yeah. I mean that's more than okay." Joey's eyes filled the brightness of unshed tears. "Thanks, Roger, but I wasn't looking for that. I meant would you understand if Andy and I took a walk alone tomorrow night?"
Roger fell onto Joey's bed, laughing so hard he could barely breathe. "OH MY GOD!" he gasped, "I should have…" He gulped in air as he realized he nearly gave away what Andy had asked of him not thirty minutes before. He wasn't about to let his brother know what his best friend had asked of him and embarrass everyone. He smiled for a moment when he realized both Andy and Joey wanted the same thing.
Joey sheepishly grinned at Roger.
Roger finally regained control, and placed an arm around Joey's shoulder. "What are brothers for? Sure Joey, no problem here, bro."
Dad gave us a ride to school the next morning. Today, instead of waiting on the bus to take us home, Randy would be our ride.
"Good morning Roger, Hi Andy," Mary Tillman said, she leaned against Roger's locker and addressed him directly. "Our youth is having a back to school social this Sunday afternoon, and I was wondering if you, Andy, and Joey might be coming?"
Roger glanced at me, I shrugged, before he turned back to her and said, "I'm not sure Mary. We're going camping this weekend."
I noticed Roger's eyes scan her, and I saw his normal smile widen at the completion of a full body scan. I decided to help him out a little and put my arm around his shoulder.
"Roger, we should be back Saturday afternoon or evening." I said. "We'll be there Mary."
Mary's face broke into a huge smile and she placed her hand on Roger's arm. "I really hope I see you there Roger."
Roger smiled like a politician, "I look forward to seeing you there too, Mary."
She turned to walk away, and I hit Roger on the arm. "Way to go stud!" I whispered,
"Thanks Andy, I wasn't sure if you and Joey would want to go."
"Even if we didn't, for you, we would. We're all in this together, you know?"
Roger put his arm over my shoulder and grinned. "Yeah, I do."
We walked to my homeroom, both of us clinging to each other, and when we arrived, Joey approached. Roger couldn't hang about and dashed off for his homeroom.
Joey smiled, "Goof offs."
"Yeah, but you love it, uh?"
I hadn't said anything to Joey, but I wasn't too worried about JT anymore. Nor was I concerned about Kevin. However, Jonas was another story. Although, he was mostly a follower, it wasn't unheard of for him to start stuff on his own. All day long, I kept an eye out for him. I had only seen him once between second and third period on the other end of the hallway from us, and he didn't seem to notice us walking to class. However, at lunch while everyone at our table was engrossed in conversation, he approached from behind me and said, "You're lucky, Collins. If Roger hadn't sucker-punched me, you were in for a world of hurt."
I had decided that there was no way I was going to allow bullies to start their crap with Joey or me. Win, lose, or draw, if someone tried to threaten us physically, there would be no doubt in anyone's mind it wouldn't be without a fight.
I clinched my fist, and glared ferociously at him. As I looked up into his eyes, I know he could see how red my face had quickly become and the look of determination in my eyes, because he took a step back.
"Listen Jonas, and listen well. It was YOU that shoved me head first into the lockers from behind like a coward. Not to mention, it was three of you that had Joey up against the lockers. Three big football players had to hit someone from behind, and turn it into three on one. On top of that, Roger didn't sucker punch you, he freakin tackled you and turned your lights out. And we wouldn't want to forget that when the odds evened up, your buddy Kevin ran like a little girl." I was on a roll now, and I was about to explode. I was in his face now. "So, let me make this as plain as I can. We could have said something to Mrs. Moore or Mr. Horn, but we didn't. The biggest mistake you can make from that information would be to think that's because we're afraid of you." I was tired of assholes thinking they ran this school. I lowered my voice to just above a whisper and told him, "So, let's cut to the chase. Either leave us alone or take a swing."
He studied me for a few seconds, and then reached out his hand. "You're alright, Collins. The last few years you were always so quiet, most of us thought you were a pussy, but you ain't. I'm sorry for the other day."
I looked down at his offered hand, thought about it for a second, and remembered the lesson I had learned from Joey on forgiveness. "Okay, Jonas. Clean slate." I said, as I shook his hand.
When I returned to my seat, I noticed everyone, all, but Joey and Roger, had their mouth hanging open in shock.
"What? Can't a guy make a new friend?"
I leaned over to Joey, placed my hand on his thigh under the table, and whispered, "I learned the forgiveness from you."
He smiled, and squeezed my hand.
School finally let out at 3:30, and by 4:10, we were on our way to High Rock after we picked up our stuff at my house. With Randy at the wheel of his jeep, we were chatting about the plans for tomorrow.
"Once we wake up and eat breakfast, we can hang out for a little while at High Rock before packing up. Then, I wanna walk down to Crawford's Lake and skinning dip for a while. After that, maybe we can stop by Bad Branch Falls on the way to meet Uncle Steve." I had been thinking about everything all day and thought I had a good plan.
"Good ideas, Andy." Roger said, and then added, "Hey, on the way to Crawford's Lake, we can go by the cave just northeast of High Rock and look for arrowheads. Who knows, maybe one or two of us will get lucky." He finished, with a wink.
I knew exactly what he was implying, and when I looked at Joey, who was sitting beside me in the back seat, he was blushing scarlet red, with his head down, so Randy wouldn't notice. I knew what Roger and I had talked about, but I was wondering why Joey was blushing.
I don't know what Randy thought about what Roger had said, because he never added anything to the discussion until we were on the other side of the mountain and pulled off Highway 119 onto Flat Gap Road.
"Guys, I can take you about half way up this side of the mountain in the jeep. Actually, I could probably make it almost to Dairy Gap, if I was gonna stay with you, but since I need to get back, halfway will have to do." Randy said, with a sigh.
"Hey man, don't worry about it. Halfway is good." I assured him. "Besides, the next time, you can come with." I told him as I laid my hand on his shoulder. "We'll just have to plan in advance, so no one is left out."
"Cool." Randy smiled.
Besides being like family, Randy really was cool, not to mention kinda hot. I mean, think about it, how many people would drive three other boys, a year younger than him and not kin to him, twenty miles, part of it off road, and not get to stay for the fun? I guess I sorta felt a little guilty, because Randy really was more than the jack-off image I used to use in the mornings. Then again, not many gay boys could blame me, since he was at least six foot tall, he also had those killer eyes like mine, slim, but buff body, with a six-pack from all the running he did. He and Roger were a lot alike in the physical department.
I figured with Roger at point and Randy at the shooting guard positions this year, our high school team had a chance to make the State Sweet 16 Championship Tournament. However, without a good man at center that could block shots and rebound, I didn't think we had the team to win state, but we could win our region.
"Alight guys, this is as far as I go." Randy said, as it turned off his jeep and looked around at us.
Randy had taken the top off his jeep before we left the school parking lot, so after Roger had gotten out of the jeep, Joey and I started handing things out to him from the back floorboard. Then Joey and I jumped out and took the rest of the gear out from behind the backseat, while Roger started getting the things we had handed him, organized.
"I'd love to stay and go with you dudes, but I have to be heading back. Y'all have fun and don't do anything I wouldn't do, ya hear?" Randy said, as he patted me on the back, with a grin from ear to ear.
"Thanks, Randy. We really appreciate the ride, and I promise to I won't forget it." I told him.
"No sweat, Andy. That's what friends are for." He said, then started his jeep and headed back off the mountain.
As the sound of the jeep faded, Roger and I helped Joey slide his backpack over his shoulders. It appeared that the week and a half of recovery time from his last beating his father had given him had been enough time to heal, because as soon as we had it on him, he tightened the straps and jumped up and down a little to help the pack settle good on his back without any show of discomfort. That sight made me smile as I threw my backpack on and tightened the straps. Once Roger was all set, I picked up one of the six-pack coolers and Roger picked up the other one.
"Wow! It's so quiet." Joey said, with wonder in his voice. "Look at those huge boulders down by that creek bed." Joey pointed off down the hill, "How in the world did they get there?"
"Mother nature, my lad, mother nature." Roger joked, in a bad English accent.
Joey laughed, but said, "That doesn't tell me anything. They look like they were just dropped from the sky, or some giants had been using them as marbles."
"Remember I told you the other day that these mountains were once the highest in the world?" Roger asked.
"Yeah, I do." Joey said.
"Well, millions of years of rain, snow, ice, and earthquakes have reduced them to what you see today. If you notice, this side of the mountain has a gentler slope to it. The other side is kinda straight up. That's plate tectonics at work, where one plate is pushing into another plate. One will dive under the other, causing the other one to push up, which causes mountains to form. Here the boulders are from what use to be the top on the mountains and just fell down this way. The years of rain and ice have pushed them further down the mountain. I bet they use to be a lot bigger than what they are now."
"You must make straight A's." Joey said, staring at Roger.
I couldn't help but laugh. "Babe, the only A's Professor Banks makes is in gym class, and that's only because he shows up every day. Now, that's not to say he couldn't, he just don't."
Roger stuck his tongue out at us, then turned and started up the mountain, with Joey following behind him and me bringing up the rear.
The rear I had on my mind at the time and the rest of the way up the mountain was Joey's butt that was right in front of my face. With every step Joey took, I watched his butt cheeks kinda rock from side to side like a well-oiled machine. He may not have been as muscled as Roger was, but his butt was perfect, heck, all of him was perfect to me. Only after about two minutes of watching his butt in action and having dirty thoughts because of it, I was beginning to become very uncomfortable making this climb, because I was harder than steel. However, with all the questions Joey asked most of the way up the mountain about the different plants and trees he noticed, it didn't seem to take too long at all to reach our goal – High Rock.
I couldn't believe how out of breath I was when we made it to the top. I had made this climb before, even from the longer and steeper side of the mountain, and I couldn't remember having problems catching my breath before. I looked over at Joey and he was barely breathing hard at all. However, once I got to where I could see High Rock and beyond, I felt totally rejuvenated.
The view can be breathtaking, especially for someone like Joey, who loves nature and looks at it as proof that God existed. I'm not ashamed to admit it's always breathtaking for me, too. It never fails to make me feel like I'm on top of the world, and honestly, being here with Joey, I was on top of the world. In only a couple of weeks, Joey has become the center of my universe, the sun to my world, and the stars to my mid-night sky. With each passing day, more and more of my thoughts turned to him. I often wondered what he was doing, how he was feeling, if he was having fun, and things like if there was anything I could be doing to make his life better.
As he looked out over the vast expanse before him, the smile on his face told me a lot, but the sparkle in his eyes told me more. He clearly loved this place as much as I did.
I moved beside him, wrapped my arm around his waist, and pulled him closer still. He leaned his head into mine, and said, "I love this Andy. It's so... WOW. It's beautiful."
Then he frowned. "What are those bare places in the hillsides? It looks like someone has cut out a part of the hills."
I followed his gaze to some strip-mines. I hadn't thought of his reaction to those. Mining was how ninety percent of the people here made a living, including my own family roots. We didn't give much thought how it looked to an outsider, at least by me, until now.
Somehow, his frown embarrassed me. Not because he was frowning, but because I had never really taken a hard look at what we were doing to our land. I knew I could justify it by arguing it fed family and put roofs over their heads. Now, I wondered why no one ever considered raising revenue by some other means. I guess they did when logging was big here, but that damaged the environment as well. His frown had caused me to do a lot of thinking.
When I looked back at Joey, he was smiling at me, as if he knew what I had been thinking.
"What?" I stared at Joey for a moment.
"I'll give ya a penny for your thoughts." Joey wrapped his arm around my waist as he moved closer.
"Well, I've told you my family made money in the coal business, and you just pointed out the damage caused by mining to me. I had never considered that before, and I was considering it now."
He smiled and kissed me on the cheek.
"What a Kodak moment!" Roger laughed from behind us, as he approached. We had completely forgotten he was even with us.
I knew I was blushing, Joey was too, but I didn't care. I was exactly where I wanted to be, and whispered to Joey, "Ignore him."
"Hey! Come on guys, I'm here too." Roger whined, but I knew he wasn't serious.
As we turned to face Roger, Joey tripped, and the next thing I knew Joey was over the edge.
I was flat on my stomach with pain shooting all across my chest, I held on to Joey with everything I had by his right hand.
"Joey! Hang on. Please don't let go." I cried.
"Joey, are you okay? Can you hear me?"
Still no answer.
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