Boy From the High Country

by Arthur Kent

Chapter 9


We breezed through the Yellowstone entrance with my national parks annual pass. The first priority was finding a camping spot for the night. Since I was traveling without a set schedule, I did not have a reservation, but sites were still available on a first-come- first-served basis. Just inside the entrance, we stopped to check the board showing the status of each campground. Sites were going fast, and at the east portal we were still nearly fifty miles from the prime viewing areas of the park. I had previously decided to see Yellowstone in two days, one day for each loop of the figure-eight highway that runs through the park, so the campground at Canyon Village seemed to be the best choice. It was nearly an hour away.

As we drove over Sylvan Pass it was difficult to visualize this as part of the rim of an ancient caldera, the sunken center of a great volcano and the site of one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in the history of the earth. The scenery became more interesting as we approached Yellowstone Lake. Kelly squirmed in his seat and swiveled his head like an owl, trying to take in every spectacular view as we drove past the typical tourist attractions on our way to nailing down a camping site. There was nothing like this in Cheyenne. It appeared that Kelly had never left the city, had never been hunting or fishing or hiking. It was a shame that a boy could have grown up surrounded by scenic grandeur, without ever getting a chance to see it close up.

By the time we arrived at Canyon Village, only a dozen sites were left of the nearly three hundred in the area. It was not an attractive campground, there being no trees or landscaping in the sites, but we were there to enjoy the park, not the campground. We drove into the site long enough to register and mark it as occupied, and then were on our way to take the southern loop. We decided to save the attractions closest to the campground until our return, which I soon realized was a mistake. We were on the east side of the park, and the morning sun would give us a much better view of Yellowstone Falls than the afternoon light, which I feared might leave the falls in shadow. Our first stop would be the Norris geyser basin, located just twenty minutes west.

Our first twenty-four hours together had been full of anxiety and stress. The second day, the day spent around Cody, was fun but for the most part Kelly had still been quiet and reserved. Today was also supposed to be strictly for fun, but there was a different Kelly today. He was a bundle of energy, and I did not move nearly fast enough for him. As I review my mental home movies of that day -- I still regret that I had not brought a video recorder -- one recurring image is of Kelly dashing far ahead on a wooden walkway toward one of the geysers, then turning around, calling for me to hurry up, dancing back and forth, sometimes jumping up and down on one foot, then when I finally caught up, taking my hand and pulling me onward. He couldn't wait to see the next geyser, round the next bend in the road, or paw over the cheap trinkets at the next souvenir shop.

At the Fountain Paint Pot, Kelly took one look at the brown, burbling mud and said it reminded him of his stepmother's attempt at making soup. In my mind's eye I suddenly saw Kelly as a character out of Dickens, his bony hands holding out a bowl and plaintively saying, "Please, sir, I want some... more?" But I was pretty sure that in the movie, Oliver Twist was not naked.

He never asked me to buy him anything. Perhaps he had been denied everything for so long that he had come to believe there was no point in wanting anything. But if he could not have things, he could still at least admire them. There was only one item that really caught his eye, and it had nothing in particular to do with Yellowstone. It was the kind of silver-and-jade necklace that seems to be for sale in every flea market and souvenir shop in the country. It was always advertised as an example of 'American Indian craftsmanship', with no indication of where these mysterious Native American jewelers actually lived. When I urged him to try it on, I saw that the silver chain looked stunning against his olive skin. The blue-green stone, hanging just below the cleft between his collar bones, made the color of his eyes even more intense. Kelly's beauty made this piece of junk jewelry look, well, not like a million dollars, but certainly like more than I had to pay for it.

When he realized that the necklace was his, I thought Kelly was going to cry. Instead, he kissed me. He just leaned forward and kissed me, right on the lips, right there in front of God and everybody, there in the Old Faithful souvenir shop. A severe-looking woman with tight curls, looking as if she had stepped out of a Toni Home Permanent magazine ad from the 1950s, was just about to cover the eyes of her two pudgy, sunburned children when Kelly pulled back and in a loud voice said, "Thanks, Dad!" The lady with the out-of-fashion pin curls dropped her hands and actually smiled, in a grim sort of way. "Some children still appreciate their parents," she pointedly said to her own two. Her son rolled his eyes up into his head and murmured, "Spare me!"

Kelly hooked his arm into mine and we marched out of the store, both of us grinning insanely, and joined the crowd gathering to watch the no-longer-so-faithful geyser. The eruption began with a series of spurts, each a little higher than the one before, followed by a very satisfying main event. The crowd applauded. Kelly leaned close to my ear and asked, "Is that me?" I looked at him blankly. "When I squirt, is that me?" I'm sure my mouth dropped open in shock. His audacity astonished me. He gave me a wicked grin, then turned back to watch the remainder of the eruption. I tried not to contemplate the image Kelly had suggested. I really did not want to have to make any adjustments to my pants. It was a losing battle.

At Grant Village, I blew up the two-man raft I kept in the auxiliary cargo box at the rear of the camper, and we paddled around Yellowstone Lake for an hour. We stayed close to shore because we did not have life vests. Kelly especially enjoyed splashing me, protesting that he was just learning how to use the little blue plastic oars. He squealed with delight when I returned the favor, and soon we were both drenched.

My skin will burn under a strong reading lamp, so I used plenty of SPF 45 sunscreen. I made Kelly use it too, ignoring his claim that his skin was brown enough that he never burned. Besides, I had too much fun stroking the lotion onto his shirtless torso. In this middle of my ministrations, Kelly suddenly announced, "That's making me horny. Do me again." His shorts were down and off before I could protest, and he lay down in the bottom of the raft, ignoring the water that had collected there. I looked around in a sudden panic, but there was no one in sight on shore. As an old friend of mine used to say, as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. The creamy sunscreen lotion made for a wonderfully slippery situation, and in the end, he was a bit like Old Faithful after all.

Once again, I politely refused his offer of an exchange of gifts. I clung to my illusion of not really being sexually involved. However, the expression 'blue balls' did come to mind.

At Bridge Bay we rented bicycles and rode the nearly three kilometers out to the natural bridge. If the trail had been wide enough, Kelly would have ridden circles around me. Instead he resumed his earlier game of forging on ahead, then waiting impatiently for me to catch up, but this time instead of dancing from foot to foot he bounced up and down, popping wheelies and generally violating most of the rules of the trail. The ride was hard work for an old man, but even Kelly was beginning to huff and puff. I had to explain to him that since we were at nearly eight thousand feet of elevation, he had to breathe a lot more to take in the same amount of oxygen.

At the bridge we continued to try to wear out the delayed shutter on my little quick- load camera. I treasure the album of photos we took in those few days: Kelly and me at a dozen nameless geysers, Kelly and me and two bicycles at the natural bridge, Kelly and me at... well, you get the idea. There are none of Kelly and me in the raft, so the album is G-rated, and I can show it to friends. He and I took turns shooting each other, and the overall impression from the whole album is one of immense happiness. My favorite picture of all was taken at Artist Point, this one snapped by a friendly Japanese tourist whose camera we used to return the favor. Kelly and I are standing with our arms around each other's shoulders, and behind us is the grandeur of Yellowstone Falls. The falls were not in shadow after all, though we decided to take another look the next morning. In the picture we look like a happy father and son.

We were, in the very best sense of the word, happy campers when we pulled into the campground in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon. I grilled the hamburger patties we had bought at the surprisingly well-stocked grocery store at Old Faithful. I had a beer, Kelly a Coke, and he won the burping contest. It had been one of the happiest days of my life, and it was not over yet.

As the sun sank lower and bright daylight turned to mellow evening, I noticed some darker clouds gathering off to the north. Our mood became more somber also. The conversation petered out, and we sat in the comfortable folding nylon camp chairs and just looked at each other, paying no attention to arriving vehicles or to the families all around us still in various stages of preparing and eating their dinners. Their voices seemed to simply fade away. His face was open and untroubled, and he regarded me with a look I could only interpret as hero-worship. Who was I to this boy? Too old to be a buddy, too intimately involved to be a father, I seemed to have entered into a relationship that had no definition. I knew only that I loved him, and that I would give him as much love and attention as I could in whatever time we had together, and that I would give according to his need.

But to find out what he needed, I had to know what he had been through. I started our conversation again, remarking about the clouds that were gathering in the north. "Looks like we might get some rain soon," I said, "but we can stay out here a little longer. Just let me go inside and get us a little ice cream."

The freezer compartment in the small propane refrigerator was just big enough for a couple of packages of frozen vegetables and - more importantly at the moment - a few Eskimo Pies. We made short work of two or them, and as we sat back in satisfaction I steered our conversation back to the events of Kelly's past. At length I was able to ask, "Did those truckers do anything else to you, Kelly?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, a bit suspiciously I thought.

"Last night in the shower, I couldn't help but notice something. Your rear end is bruised. I mean, um, there's bruising around your anus. It's pretty obvious that someone has, well..."

"Fucked me?"

"Yes, Kel, if that's what it was."

"What do you mean, if that's what it was?"

"Well, Kelly, there's playing around, like boys experimenting and exploring each other's bodies. And there's making love, where two people have sex because they want to be as close to each other as two people can get. And there's fucking, which is usually one person just going for the physical pleasure and not caring much about the other person."

"Yeah, I've been fucked all right." He said it tonelessly, as if it made no difference.

"Was it one of the truckers, because--"

"No, I already told you about them."

"Your stepfather, then?"

Kelly snorted, and nearly choked on his Coke. "You mean Reverend Satan-gets-in- your-crotch Foster? Shit! He thinks sex is evil. I wonder how he ever had a kid. He caught me playing with my dick once and he told me I was going to hell and he was going to drive the devil out of me, and I thought he was going to kill me."

"I saw the welts on your back, Kelly. Was it always like that?"

"No, that was just the last day, the day he threw me out. Before that, he would always - - well I remember once he said to me, 'I'm never going to spank you. I don't have to.' And he didn't. He could do a lot worse than that."

"What did he do?"

"He was some kind of commando or ranger or some fucking thing in the Army and he learned about these things, these pressure points."

"You mean, like you use to stop someone from bleeding?"

"No, this is different. There are places on your body where he could press with his thumbs or his fingers and it would hurt like hell. The longer and harder he pressed, the more it hurt."

"Did that happen a lot, Kel?"

"A lot. If I was late getting home from school, or if he saw me talking to a boy who wasn't from our church, or if I forgot to mow the lawn, or if he was just pissed off, he'd take all my clothes off and stand me up against the wall, and he'd press right here," and he pointed to a spot just below his rib cage, "or on my back, and he'd just keep pushing, and the longer he kept his thumbs there the more it would hurt. But the worst place was right behind my balls. He would push his thumb up there hard and at first it would feel almost good, and once I started to get a woody and he said, 'You are evil!' real loud and jabbed me so hard that I doubled over and fell down.

"He had this room that had an exercise bicycle and some bar bells and these wooden rods on the wall he would hang onto and do leg lifts. He got some towels from the kitchen, and he tied my arms and legs to those bars. He stretched me so far that I thought I was going to come apart and he pushed and pushed there behind my balls, and it hurt like a motherfucker. And if I cried, he'd say, 'Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about.' and then he'd push even harder. God, it hurt so bad. And I couldn't tell anybody he was doing it because I couldn't prove anything. I mean, I'd read stories about boys who had these welts and scars all over because of their fathers beating them with belts or something. Sometimes I wished he would just beat me so I could show somebody what he was doing, but I never had a mark on me, not until the last day. Freddie's parents were the only ones who believed me."

"So is that how they got him to let you stay at their house?"

"Yeah, Mr. Watson found this guy on the Internet that teaches this shit and they bought one of his books and a videotape so they could see what he was doing. Then they told my stepdad that if he didn't listen to them, they would show the child services people how he was hurting me without bruising me."

"Why didn't they just call child services right away?"

"They didn't really think child services would believe them. They were just bluffing. But I guess they scared my stepdad, because he let me stay with them. Sometimes I just wanted to kill that motherfucker."

Kelly's vocabulary still went into the gutter every time he talked about his stepfather. The rest of the time, his language was cleaner than what I heard every day in the halls of my school. By this time, I was not setting a very good example myself. "That bastard! Why would he hurt a lovable kid like you?"

"I told you. He wasn't my father, he just got stuck with me when he married my stepmother. He let his own kids get away with murder, but I think he just liked to have somebody to hurt."

"But what about the other foster kids who lived with you. Did he hurt them, too?"

"Yeah, all the time."

"But foster kids usually aren't there permanently. Couldn't they report him after they left?"

Kelly seemed troubled, almost as if he'd been caught at something, but I couldn't imagine what it might be. "I guess they were just too scared," he said.

I didn't want to push Kelly too hard at this point, so I hefted myself out of my chair and stretched out the stiffness in my knees and back. It was time to take a break. I walked to him and held out my hands. He took them in his own, and I helped pull him to his feet. I put my arms around him and held him in a tight hug. "Remember what I said, Kel. I'll never turn away from you, no matter what has happened to you." Then I broke the hug and said, "Let's fold up these chairs and put them away in case it starts to rain." When that was done I sad, "Now, showers." I started toward the camper. Then I stopped and turned back to him. "Separate showers." He stuck his tongue out at me.

With our teeth brushed and the dust of the road washed away, we wandered back toward our site, walking hand in hand. A fresh breeze had sprung up, and we could hear a distant roll of thunder. Looking up, we could see that storm clouds were now darkening the sky above us. We were only halfway to the camper when the first raindrops fell, and we had barely shut the door behind us when a steady rain began. We were tired but not yet sleepy, and we still had work to do. I opened a caffeine-free Coke for each of us and got down to business. "Kelly, who was it that caused all that bruising in your butt?"

He hesitated and bit his lip, a now-familiar sign of nervousness. I smiled at him, took his hands in mine, and waited silently for him to reply. Finally he decided to risk the truth. "It was Jason. My stepbrother. I still remember the first time. I was about nine, and he was thirteen, and he was just starting to get big down there. One day my stepdad had just given me one of his special treatments and he pushed me down into the basement. I was still naked. Then Jason came down right after that and I was still lying on the floor, crying. He stood over me he said, "You are a pussy, and I'm going to give you what a pussy deserves," and he started taking off his pants. I thought he was going to hit me with his belt, and I ran into my bedroom, but it didn't have a lock and he came in after me. He was naked and he had this big hard on and he had hair on it and everything and he grabbed my arm and he twisted it behind my back and he pushed me down on my bed so my knees were still on the floor, and he stuffed his grungy underwear into my mouth so I couldn't scream. And he said, 'You're a pussy, and pussies get fucked,' and then he just pushed his thing into my butt. He didn't even spit on it or anything and it hurt worse than anything my stepdad ever did. And it just kept on hurting and his body was banging against me and knocking me against the bed, and he was grunting, and then he just stiffened up and he said, 'Oh, fuck, yes!' and he sort of fell on top of me. I didn't really understand what was happening. I just knew his dick was in my butt and it felt like he'd pushed a burning torch up there. And then he pulled out and it didn't hurt quite so much anymore, and he said, 'If you tell my dad about this, I'll tell him that you are demon possessed and you made me do it,' and I believed him. And then he put on this accent, and he said, 'I'll be back,' like that guy in the movie."

He fell silent, and I decided to give him a prompt. "And then it didn't stop."

"No. After that it was practically every day. Every night after dinner I had to stay in my bedroom naked, because if Jason came down and found me with my clothes on, he said he would tell his dad I had said a dirty word and I would be punished."

"Did he carry through on his threat?"

"Only once. After that I stayed naked."

"And what about the other foster boys? What happened to them?"

I could not account for the anxiety that now showed in Kelly's eyes. Obviously, there was still something he did not want to tell me. He began to sputter. "They... I... and then one day...."

There was silence, and Kelly looked at me as if I were supposed to understand something now. Then the penny dropped. I sat up with a sharp intake of breath. "Your stepfather caught him."

"Yeah. He came home early on Monday and walked in and Jason was fucking me in the ass. And Jason started to cry and told him he couldn't help himself because I was demon possessed. My stepdad started screaming at me to get my pants on because my stepsisters were upstairs, and he wasn't going to expose their innocent eyes to my nakedness. I was trying to pull up my pants, but he pulled out his belt and started whipping me across the back. He was calling me a faggot and a pervert and a son of the devil and he just kept on whipping me. Then he picked me up by my belt and threw me out the door. Then he threw out my backpack and it hit me, and it really hurt, and then he shouted at me, 'If you don't disappear in the next two minutes, I will kill you.' I already told you the rest."

There it was. The whole story at last, or so it seemed. However, I was suspicious of the eerie, icy calm with which he told his harrowing story. Recounting these events should have been emotionally wrenching. He was still holding something back, and I decided that it was taking all his energy to keep everything under control. The wind was beginning to howl around the camper, mirroring the emotional storm going on inside Kelly. I decided to take the risk and push him still farther. "What about the other foster boys, Kel?"

His composure broke then, and he began to cry. Quickly I motioned him to come to me, and he climbed up on my lap like a little boy. But he was no longer so little. Another three or four months and I would no longer be able to hold him like this. As Kelly's tears began, there was a bright flash outside and about ten seconds the sound of thunder. The heavens really opened up and the rain began to hammer against the roof of the camper. Kelly began to whimper. "I hate storms," he said.

"Don't change the subject. It's just a thunderstorm; they happen all the time here. It'll be over soon. What about the other foster boys?"

"It's just that I forget sometimes. They seem so... but they don't... they aren't real, I made them up."

"Why? What are you talking about?"

"When my stepdad was punishing me sometimes the pain would get so bad that the only way I could get away from it was to just let my mind sort of drift away, and I would imagine that there was another boy named Mark who was feeling all the pain. I was someplace else, and there was a beautiful woman who leaned down and kissed me and held me in her arms. It seemed so real. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lie."

For the first time I began to feel real fear for Kelly. I thought I was beginning to understand, but I had to be sure. There was another bolt of lightning, closer this time, and Kelly seemed to want to burrow into me to hide from it. We were too close to the center of his misery, though, and I could not stop now. "Kelly, listen to me. Was Mark the only one?"

"No." It was as if the thunder was Reverend Foster, pushing hard against Kelly's most vulnerable spots. He was whimpering in fear even as he talked, but I could not tell whether it was fear of the storm or fear of his memories. "My stepmom used to just scream at me over every job I did. No matter how hard I tried she would always find something wrong, and sometimes when she was yelling at me, I would just tune her out like a radio, and I'd leave Joel there to listen to the shouting and the bad names."

Another brilliant flash and an almost immediate crash of thunder. The storm was directly overhead now. I was almost shouting over the roar of the thunder. "What about the rape, Kelly? What about the fact that Jason was raping you almost every day? Who took that, Kelly? Who?"

He cried out in terror as thunder cracked like a gunshot above our heads. "That was Christopher. He would kneel down and take it in the butt and I would just go away and be with my dad. I was in heaven with my dad, and Christopher was getting fucked instead of me." The storm was almost physically buffeting Kelly now, and he recoiled from every flash of lightning, from every roll of thunder. I held Kelly more tightly and tried to protect his ears from the thunder while I made a frantic attempt to piece this all together.

An awful possibility suddenly opened before me like a yawning chasm, and then I was sure, without quite knowing how, that I was looking into the dark truth of Kelly's torment. He was skating perilously close to developing a multiple personality disorder. How he had avoided it I could not imagine. He had invented foster brothers to take the pain for him so he could escape into his fantasies. Mark, Joel, Christopher, had taken the pain, taken the abuse, taken the force of Jason's unbridled lust, while Kelly disappeared into some secret place far within himself. Yet somehow he managed always to come out again, to hold on to that thin line between fantasy and reality. Unlike a true multiple, he had moved into these alternate identities only under the pressure of extreme pain or humiliation, and even then that movement, that hiding, was still in part a conscious process. He did not suddenly become first one personality, then another. He was aware of the existence of these substitute boys, and knew them for what they were: phantoms. Away from his abusive home, I was sure he would recover quickly, though he should still spend time with a skilled therapist.

While I was thinking, the thunderstorm continued to intensify. There seemed to be a flash of lightning about every five seconds, and the thunder was almost continuous, and deafeningly loud, as if God himself were a demented drummer and the dome of the sky was the taut skin on which he hammered the lightning bolts. It was more than Kelly could bear. He tore himself violently from my arms and frantically tried to open the camper door. I grabbed him by the arms, tried to slow him down, but he began to scream, "God is going to kill me. I'm evil and God is going to kill me. I've got to get out of here so you don't die too."

I tightened my grip and yelled above the storm, "God is not going to kill anybody. It's just a storm, Kelly, it's just a storm. God is not out to get you."

Kelly was too far gone to hear anything I said. He twisted away from me and fell to his knees, clasping his hands over his head and crying out, "No! No! Don't kill Art! He hasn't done anything wrong! I'll tell you the worst thing, I'll never do it again, please don't kill him!"

Kelly's screams were matched by the banshee howl of the storm. I had to do something to try to bring him down from his wild hysteria. I picked him up bodily and forced him onto the cushions of the dinette. Before he could recover, I snatched the down comforter from its storage space under the end seat of the dinette and fell onto the cushion with him. Then I grabbed Kelly again and held him in a bear hug. He was so frantic now that only the fact that I outweighed him by nearly a hundred pounds allowed me to prevent him from running out into the storm. With my right hand I reached out and pulled the comforter over our bodies.

"Kelly, if you're going to die, I'm going to die with you. We'll go to God together. Hold on to me, Kelly. Hold on!"

Kelly was having none of it. "You don't understand. I still haven't told you the worst thing." Another crash of thunder, a scream of pain and fear from Kelly, and then more shouting. "Jason. In the basement. When he raped me. The worst thing is, I liked it. He hurt me and I hated him, but he kept doing it, day after day, and one day it started to feel good. I tried not to, but I couldn't help it. It was so awful and so dirty and I liked it and I hate myself and I want to die." And then there were no more words, only an incoherent, keening wail, a sound that frightened me more than the threat of sudden death from the skies. Kelly was stripped of his last defenses, stripped of everything that keeps us sane, stripped even of coherent thought, and there was nothing left but the white noise of inconsolable grief and inexpressible pain and self-loathing.

There was one more brilliant flash, one more prolonged roll of thunder, and then, is if in answer to Kelly's anguished confession, the storm began to abate. My body was wrapped around Kelly as I tried to warm him and comfort him. A minute passed, then two, then three, and still the rain drummed on the roof but at last Kelly, exhausted from his ordeal, sagged limply in my arms. Thunder sounded once more from far away and Kelly tensed, then relaxed again. He was still crying, but softly now. I discovered to my surprise that I was weeping too, tears streaming down my face as my heart went out to this beautiful boy whose short life had been so filled with suffering.

Kelly finally found his voice. He reached up and touched my wet cheek in wonder. "You're crying," he said, as if he could not believe that such a thing could be.

"Yes, my darling Kelly, I'm crying."


How could he not know? Then I realized that he thought only he could feel his pain. "I'm crying for you, Kelly. I'm crying because they hurt you so much. I'm crying because I wasn't there to defend you. I'm crying because I'm so happy to be with you now."

Kelly's eyes, reddened by his weeping, opened a bit wider. He thought this over for a moment, and finally said simply, "Wow!" He seemed amazed that I cared, that anyone could care.

"We need to go to bed," I said.

"In a minute." And for just about that long, he held me tight. "Okay, now we can go," he said at last. And then: "Aren't we already in bed?"

"This dinette bench is OK right now but one of us would fall off in the night. We need to get up and make the bed properly."

It took only a few minutes to re-make the bed, lowering the dinette table to become the support for the cushions that would convert it into a bed. I shut off the light, and we stripped down and slipped under the comforter. Kelly held his naked body tightly against mine, but neither of us showed any sign of arousal. Then he leaned down and kissed me. It was a lingering, passionate kiss, and for the first time I felt his tongue first touch my lips, then try to separate them. I let him in, and I heard him breathe deeply in, then out in a protracted sigh. His head dropped against my shoulder. The kiss seemed to have taken the last of his energy, because within moments his breathing took on the slow, regular cadence of sleep. I closed my eyes and listened to the softly falling rain until I followed him into oblivion.

As psych minor in college, I know just enough psychology to be dangerous. Like a scientist writing science fiction, in this chapter I am venturing into what we might call psych-fi. Art's theory about Kelly and his foster brothers will not be found in the textbooks. However, it is plausible enough to operate in a fictional world, and not so far from generally accepted theories as to be totally impossible.

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