Boy From the High Country

by Arthur Kent

Chapter 15


I had made it a policy to avoid freeway rest stops because of the number of big rigs always parked in them. But when we left Coeur d'Alene, I had neglected the all- important pit stop. The three glasses of diet Coke I had consumed with lunch were beginning to stretch my bladder to the limit. Kelly was seeming a bit antsy as well. I remembered the saying I had once seen chalked above the urinals in a downtown pub: "You can't buy beer, you can only rent it." I had no choice but to pull into the next rest stop, which fortunately was a large one so that parked passenger cars were separated from trucks and big RVs. We could see the truck parking area as we approached the men's room, and I could tell Kelly was becoming more nervous. When we walked into the restroom, he grabbed my hand and gave a quick, choking gasp. Standing at the urinal was a large man wearing blue jeans, a dirty blue denim shirt with a black grease mark on the sleeve, and baseball-style company hat. He had an enormous beer belly, and an old navy tattoo on his forearm. Whether he was a truck driver or not, he was Kelly's worst nightmare.

Kelly was close to panic, so I quickly guided him away from the urinals, all the way to the far end of the room and into the last stall, the handicap-access toilet. I didn't care what people might think if they saw two pair of legs in one stall. I had to help my boy. His hands were trembling so badly that he could not manage his zipper. I undid his shorts completely, pulled his pants and underwear down to his knees, and helped him to sit down on the commode. Now he could try to pull himself together, and relieve himself, at the same time. He took care of the relief first, then took a few deep shuddering breaths and smiled wanly at me. He had only had to pee, so there were no complications. "Can you manage the pants yourself now?" He nodded and rose tentatively to his feet. He was still trembling, but he managed to get everything tucked away and his shorts properly zipped up. I took care of my own needs, and despite his distress, Kelly stepped to one side a bit in the large stall, apparently to get a better view. Was there nothing that could inhibit his sexual interest? Of course, I reminded myself, he was fourteen. I turned slightly toward him, caught his eye and grinned, and gave myself what one of my college roomies called the trouser snake shake. It was strictly college frat-boy humor, but saying it out loud seemed to help Kelly recover from his earlier fright.

I stepped out of the stall first to make sure the room was empty, thenwe walked together out into the sun. There was a drinking fountain around at the side of the building, so having drained, we decided to refill. As we rounded the corner, we found ourselves directly facing the backs of three tractor-trailer rigs. Suddenly Kelly broke away from me, stumbling across the road and into the dry grass on the other side. He fell to his knees and vomited, his body heaving spasmodically with the force of his revulsion. I looked around to see what might have set him off, and spotted it. On the rear of the first truck was a large bumper sticker that read, "GAS, GRASS, OR ASS. No One Rides For Free."

I quickly moved to Kelly, picked him up bodily and set him back down facing away from the offending truck. Then I ran to the camper, grabbed a small towel and a water bottle, and ran back to Kelly's side. He had backed away from the small pool of vomit, but was still on all fours. His face was ashen, and his trembling was more violent than before. I helped him to sit upright, his buttocks against his heels. I wet the cloth with water from the bottle and wiped away the cold sweat from his brow and his cheeks. I did the same thing across the back of his neck, then removed all traces of the disaster from around his mouth. With my encouragement he rinsed his mouth and spit it out on the ground, then again, and finally he drank deeply from the bottle. "I'm sorry I'm such a baby, Uncle Art," he said. His words nearly broke my heart. I took him in my arms and held him tight, while tears coursed down my cheeks.

"You're not a baby, Kel. You're a man. You just faced your worst fear, and you're still here. You didn't go away into a dream world. You didn't call up Mark or Christopher to take the pain for you. You took it yourself, and it hurt like hell, and you're still here. Sometimes it's really true that if it doesn't kill us, it makes us stronger. I love you, Kelly. You're a man among men. Don't let anybody ever tell you anything different."

Kelly's trembling finally subsided. As I helped him to his feet, I made sure he was still facing away from the truck parking, but in the meantime the offending rig had driven away. Now I had another problem. Kelly needed to rest, but there was no shade. The camper would be too hot if we were parked, not very safe if we were moving. I decided to place my money on careful driving and the vehicle's A/C. We could not get on the road with the camper top popped up, but there was plenty of room for Kelly once the table was made down into a bed. I settled Kelly into the bed, kissed him on the cheek, and closed the door.

An hour later I stopped at another waterfront park, this one in downtown Spokane. There would not be another worthwhile stopping point until we reached Snoqualmie Pass. Kelly had managed to get some rest, and of course he was hungry, so food was the first priority. He still had not been able to get hold of Freddie, but the Watsons had promised he would be home soon after noon. There was a tension in Mrs. Watson's voice -- Joyce, as she asked me to call her -- a tension that I could not place, but that vaguely disturbed me.

One Big Mac with fries later, Kelly was ready to make the call to Seattle. I decided to take a walk so that he could be completely free in talking with his best friend. I wanted to stay within earshot in case he called for me, so I didn't go far. I expected them to be on the phone for at least half an hour, but it couldn't have been more than five minutes before I heard Kelly's voice calling, "Dad!" What happened to 'Uncle Art'? I turned quickly and saw that Kelly had turned pale beneath his naturally brown skin tone. He was visibly trembling. I hurried to his side. "Kelly, what is it? What's wrong?"

There were tears in his eyes, and his breathing was shallow. "They know," he said.

"Who knows? What?"

"They know. About me and Freddie. Shit, Dad, they know."

God, how many shocks could this kid take in one day? I pulled his body to mine in a tight hug. To hell with what people around might think. My boy was in pain, and I had to hold him. At first, I could think of nothing to say as he began to cry, burying his face against my chest and sobbing almost uncontrollably. He seemed very young and vulnerable now, and I comforted him as one might comfort a child. "Hush now, Kelly, it will be all right. I'm here for you. I'll never leave you. It will be all right, I know it will, somehow it will be all right. Dry your tears now, everything will be all right."

Strange how those words come unbidden to our lips. Everything will be all right. In times of crisis we need to believe that, because that faith helps us give strength to those who need us. Even though moments later we may have no idea what might happen, we believe it at the time. In my mind's eye I saw the framed calligraphy, copied from a medieval manuscript, which hung on my wall at home:

And all shal be wel, And all shal be wel, And all maner of thynge shal be wel.

I glared defiantly back at the few people who cast curious glances our way, and at last his shuddering sobs came to an end. With my arm around his shoulders I shepherded him back to the truck and helped him clamber in.

"Did you just hang up on Freddie?" I asked.

Listlessly, he replied, "No. He told me, and then he just said he'd have to call me back and hung up." He sat limply, dejected and defeated, as I started the rig and eased us back onto the highway.

I had to break the oppressive silence somehow. "Well, look at it this way," I finally said. "The cat is out of the bag. You don't have to worry about being discovered."

"They'll never want me now," he said. "Where am I going to go?"

"Kelly, we don't know that. We don't know how they are going to react. I want them to see you face to face. They love you, Kelly, I can tell that from the way Mrs. Watson talks to you on the phone. Love can overcome a lot of obstacles."

I glanced across at him, and was shaken by what I saw. The light I had seen in his eyes these past few days had gone out. His deep blue eyes seemed pale somehow. His face was slack, his gaze was vacant. If ever I had seen someone in the valley of death's shadow, it was Kelly. He was sure his life was over, and there was little I could do at this point to help him. It would be better to wait until he wearied of rehearsing in his mind all the terrible things that might happen. Eventually he would reach that still point where all hope seemed pointless. Then perhaps I might be able to reach him.

When I stopped at a park in Moses Lake, Kelly had fallen into a restless sleep. I decided the time had come to make the phone call I had been dreading. I found a shaded parking spot and left all the windows open so I could get out and pace while I talked.

"Joyce, this is Art Kent," I said when she picked up at the other end. "Kelly is pretty shaken up after taking with Freddie. I wanted to hear it directly from you. Please tell me what happened."

"Did you know that Kelly and Freddie had been... I mean that they..."

"Let me help you with this, Joyce. Did I know that the boys had discovered some things about their bodies together? Yes. Kelly told me that, along with a lot of other things about himself. I had hoped to talk with you about these things after we got to Seattle, but it's out in the open now. How did you find out?"

"We knew something was terribly wrong when we left Wyoming. Freddie was completely distraught over leaving. He begged us not to leave, and he cried almost the whole way here. He's thirteen years old, and I haven't seen him cry since he was about ten. We knew he would miss Kelly, but we had no idea how much. We thought it would be good for him to stay overnight with one of the neighbor boys he met. He came home last night, and we told him you had called, and he was so happy. He just blurted out, 'Oh, Mom, I love Kelly so much.' And then he looked so shocked that we knew there was more, and we finally got him to tell us the truth. He was too upset this morning to even talk on the phone the first time Kelly called. And I guess you know the rest."

I had expected anger, hysteria, perhaps complete rejection. But Joyce sounded remarkably calm and restrained, in spite of her evident distress. I plucked up enough courage to ask, "What do you think about all this, Joyce?"

"We just don't know what to think. It's all too new."

"We'll be staying overnight at a campground in North Bend. Would you still be willing to see Kelly and talk to him?"

She scarcely hesitated. "Of course we want to see him. Do you want to come here?"

"Actually, I think it would be better if you met us, if you don't mind. There will be things the boys can do together in the campground while we talk as adults. There's an outdoor pool here, so have Freddie bring a swimsuit. Maybe after church, around noon? I can give you directions."

She wrote down the driving directions as I read them from the Thousand Trails handbook. At this point I decided to bet all my chips on one desperate gamble. "Could I speak to Bill for a few minutes, please?"

If this failed, I would have to start over somehow. Maybe a Cody-type story could come true after all. Maybe if I turned around and drove back to Cheyenne, I could get Reverend Foster to sign over guardianship to me. Maybe I could get a foster agency in Portland to listen to a plea. Maybe I could just invent a new identity for Kelly. If illegal immigrants could get away with it, why not Kelly?

Sure. And maybe pigs would fly.

"Bill, this is Art Kent. Look, you don't know me from Adam, but Kelly has been traveling with me for almost a week and I've learned a lot about his situation. We've got a boy in real crisis here, and I'm going to ask you to take a chance on me. Is there any way we could talk privately for a few minutes? I'd rather not have Joyce hear every reaction you have to what I'm going to say. You can tell her as much about it as you want to after I hang up."

Bill took a moment to promise Joyce he would tell her about our conversation later, and took his cordless phone outside. "Okay, Art, what did you have to say?" He did not seem hostile, but was not exactly warm either.

"Bill, I'm sorry things have to go so quickly. I wish we could have met and talked and planned a strategy first. But I'm going to have to just plunge ahead. Kelly tells me you already know about the way his stepfather treated him."

"You mean the punishments? Kelly told us about the pressure point stuff. We really wanted to be able to help him, but we didn't think the child services people would-"

"It's OK, Bill," I interrupted. "You did help him. You helped him more than you know. He understands why you couldn't do more. But that isn't the whole story. Did you know that Kelly's stepbrother Jason raped him, and has done so repeatedly since he was nine years old?"

There was a stunned silence at the other end of the line. "My God," he whispered at last. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, Bill. I have seen the evidence. That's how much he came to trust me over the past few days. I think any doctor will confirm that he has been sexually abused for a long time."

"Why didn't he tell us? We would have-"

"He couldn't, Bill. Do you have any idea of how hard it is to talk about something like that? He had been punished so much already, what would his stepfather do if he found out? Well, he finally did find out. He caught Jason in the act, and he blamed in all on Kelly. That's why he threw Kelly out. I won't even tell you everything that Kelly went through before I found him." I paused a moment to let that sink in.

"I have one more thing to ask, Bill, and I'm sort of taking Kelly's life in my hands here. You don't even have to answer me. I just want you to think about it. I really don't know you well enough to even dare to ask this, but it's a desperate situation and it calls for desperate measures. Bill, think back to when you were a boy growing up. Did you ever fool around with another boy?"

There was another long silence. "I understand what you're driving at," he said. "Look, this is all a little bit too much for me to take in all at once. But I will think about what you said. We will come up tomorrow to see you."

"Thank you, Bill. After what Kelly told me about you and Joyce, I decided to take the chance. I'm not disappointed. Thank you. I'm looking forward to meeting you tomorrow. Good-bye."

I looked up, directly into Kelly's wide-open eyes. He was staring at me through the open passenger-side window, and his eyes were alive again. "How much did you hear, Kelly?" I asked.

"Are we really going to get to see them tomorrow?"

"Yes, Kelly, they're going to come up to the campground around noon."

"And will I get to see Freddie?"

I gave him a broad smile. "That's affirmative, Kel."

He was out of the truck faster than I thought any human being could move, grabbing me, kissing me on the cheeks and the lips and the eyes, making big smacking sounds. "Oh, God, I love you, Uncle Art! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

I managed to pry him off me long enough to say, "I didn't do that much Kelly. The Watsons obviously care a great deal about you. I don't want you to get your hopes up too high. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. But at least they are willing to talk about it."

My words sobered him a bit, but there was no doubt that he was allowing himself to hope again. For the time being at least, I had my boy back. He grinned at me once more. "I can't believe you asked him if he ever fooled around."

I'm sure I blushed. "You weren't supposed to hear that, Kelly. And don't you ever let on that you did hear it!" He giggled, but said nothing. I reached for his ribs. "I'm going to tickle you until you promise!"

"Okay, okay, I promise!" he said through gales of laughter.

Two hours later we were securely hooked up in our camp site at Thousand Trails. We had steak and baked potatoes at the barbecue pit, and we swam in the outdoor pool. Kelly was irrepressible, chattering incessantly about mountains and music and geysers and elk, and Freddie and Freddie and Freddie. We splashed and dunked each other in the pool, and once he took me by surprise and pulled my swim trunks down to my knees. I had to be a little severe with him about that, and he promised not to do it again, but it did not dampen his enthusiasm.

Later in the camper, we lay in each other's arms and gently kissed as I stroked his soft, smooth skin. There was no spot on his body I was not encouraged to touch, but neither of us initiated anything overtly sexual. We had already had our last night together. This was a bonus, and we simply enjoyed the touch of our bodies together. Facing an uncertain tomorrow, we were strangely content, and so at last we slept.

[Sadly, the TT campground east of Seattle, near North Bend, no longer exists. The land was taken by eminent domain for a project which then was never built. Up until then, it was the best of all the 14 campgrounds in my TT package. I cheated, though. That campground was already gone when Art and Kelly made their trip. I resurrected it for the sake of the story.]

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