Rough Country

by Joe Casey

Once again - and not for the last time - I have to wonder exactly what idiocy has led me to guide four fourteen-year-olds on an overnight hike into the wilderness. It started out as a request, one that I couldn't easily ignore, not without a certain amount of guilt on my part. In the end, I agreed to do it, but only after I was promised reimbursement for renting the campsite, buying the food and drink, and the gas it would take to round up four kids from different parts of town and bring them up here.

Yeah, yeah … I can always use the money. Graduate school isn't cheap - but there have to be easier ways to earn it than this.

Like maybe selling an organ or two, for starters. Something simple.

Don't get me wrong; I love being outdoors, have always loved it, even as a child. At first, it was a chance to get out of a house I didn't much want to be in, with my parents at each other's throats when they were around each other, or with my mother's brooding silences when my father was absent, because she knew exactly where - and with whom - he was spending his time.

Later, it became a chance for me to confront my own demons, the ones that whispered into my ear at nights, alone … the ones that took my thoughts and my body to places I could never have imagined … the ones who - with leering smiles on their faces - told me that I was this and not that.

And, oh - how much I wanted to be that! And not this.

Now that I am older, this seems like home to me. It is as much a part of me as … well, my thatchy brown hair and beard, my hazel eyes, the mole on my cheek, my beaky nose, my stringy body, my raspy voice.

It as much a part of me as I seem to be a part of this country. I have walked these hills for much of my life, am as familiar with them as I am with myself. We are part and parcel with each other, these hills and I; they have much more to do with me being what I am than anything my parents ever did for me.

I don't resent them, not really. We are who we are, we are who we make ourselves to be. My mother, I think, will always be bound up with my father, and he with her, only because to unmake that bond between them would force them to unmake themselves.

I could quit this place, this country, could settle myself into the city - this one or some other - and unmake myself, too, and become someone completely different. The temptation is there.

But - for now - here, and me as I am.

The five of us are west of town, high up in the foothills above Boulder, where the flat, scrubby plain of slowly-rising prairie that started a thousand miles east of here abruptly meets the implacable palisade of the Rockies that stop it in its tracks. I can see the grid of the town scratched out of the foothills, can see the orange-red roofs of the university. To the southeast is the hazy gray smear of Denver. To the west are, of course, those mountains, building upon themselves into a rampart of granite and ice, shielding us from the varied and greater temptations of the Far West.

Up here, even in summer, there is a chill in the air, but we are dressed for it, in layers, in long pants and sleeved shirts, in hiking boots and thick socks. Hunter, of all of us, is the only one still in a cap, but that's his thing, now, the thing that he thinks makes him look cool, and edgy … two things that I know, concretely, he is not.

I hope these boys are enjoying this. I really do. I want this to be more than just one more thing that zips through their young lives and goes on, to be forgotten in a week or a month.

We're on a ridge of bare red sandstone, not uncommon in the region, but it's a good place to stop. I let the boys go on ahead of me a few feet, pull out my phone, activate the camera, hold it up in front of me, framing the shot. If this jaunt ends up going tits up, at least I will have some things to post online.

The boys are unaware of what I'm doing: Drew, ginger head bowed down, is marching resolutely forward; Sam's head is turning to a motion to his right … and what is Hunter doing? I capture the start of it, with Hunter pretending - at least I pray to the gods that he is - to push Quentin over the edge of the precipice. Quentin himself is clueless - but no surprise, there - until Hunter actually makes contact with Quentin's backpack … and Quentin stumbles forward a few feet until he falls to his hands and knees, preventing an unplanned meeting with oblivion. My finger, on autopilot, presses the button, capturing the shot.

I stuff the phone back into my pocket. "Hunter! What the fuck are you doing?"

Hunter turns back to me - has he forgotten that I'm part of this? - his eyes wide. "I'm just fooling around, Cole ! I wasn't -"

I rush forward, grab Hunter by his arm, pull him away from the edge, go to Quentin, pull him up. "Are you okay?" I ask, nearly yelling.

Quentin - tears of fear, of anger gathered at the lower edge of his eyes, face red with spluttering anger - glances at Hunter, then back to me. "Yeah." He looks back to Hunter. "Did you just try to push me over the edge, you asshole?" His voice breaks with the emotion of what he just experienced, of what almost happened to him.

I can tell that Hunter is scared; I've seen that look all too often before. He takes a few steps back from Quentin, waves his hands in useless denial. "No, man, I just … I was …"

Quentin takes off his sunglasses, those ridiculously pink sunglasses. Those tears break loose and stream down his cheeks. "Why would you do that?" he sobs. "What did I do?"

In response, Hunter just rolls his eyes. "What did I do?" he mimics, his voice pitched high, like a girl's. "What did I do?" he repeats.

I round on Hunter. " You go sit over there and just shut the fuck up before I kick the shit out of you, Hunter." Something dark flashes across his face, but he obeys. I turn back to Quentin, who's - incredibly - back to peering over the edge.

"That's a long way down," he murmurs, his voice quiet with the understanding that he could have fallen. I look with him; there's a lower bit of rock, another ledge a foot or so below, one that might have stopped Quentin if he hadn't stopped himself … but what if it didn't play out that way? After that lower ledge, there is nothing but air and - a long way down - a mass of tumbled red rock.

I tamp down an irrational urge to laugh. So close … I think. "Quentin, please … go … go sit down over there." Drew and Sam are standing together, now, watching this thing play out. There's a look on their faces, though, that tells me they aren't entirely surprised by any of this. They know a little something about this.

I take a moment to calm down, then go over, sit on a stump of sandstone across from Hunter. "What were you thinking?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. Nothing, I guess." His voice is low, barely audible.

"You never, ever fool around with crap like that, Hunter. Not up here. You could have …"

"But I didn't. I didn't."

"It doesn't matter. What if you did? What if Quentin hadn't been able to stop himself? It's a thousand feet down, Hunter. He would have been killed."

"I wasn't going to kill him," Hunter mutters. "I just wanted to …"

I wait for him to pick up the trail of that sentence, but he doesn't. I go on. "What? You just wanted to what?"

Hunter glances at Drew and Sam, taking all of this in. I realize, suddenly, that he doesn't want them to hear the rest of what he has to say. He shakes his head.

I turn to Drew and Sam. "Why don't … why don't you guys take Quentin and go sit over there and rest for a bit?" There is a copse of trees at the edge of the sandstone outcrop. When they're gone - and out of earshot, I hope - I turn back to Hunter. "You just wanted to do what?" I repeat.

"Scare him, I guess."

"Well, I think you did pretty good, Hunter. You scared the fuck out of me, I can tell you that." Hunter sniffs and dabs at his eyes; he's starting to cry, which maybe is a good thing. Maybe now he's beginning to understand just what a shitstorm this could have turned out to be. "Why did you want to scare him?"

"Because he's such a fucking baby!" Hunter gives back to me, his voice rising into a wail. "He's such a whiny fa-" And here he stops himself.

And I know what he was about to say. "Go ahead. Say whatever it is you were about to say." Hunter says nothing, instead, ducks his head down into his arms. I hear a sniffle, then another one. "Were you about to call Quentin a faggot?"

A shrug is his only response. I also know why he bit back on the rest of the word. He knows. He knows about me.

I've come to certain terms with what I am, but that doesn't mean I'm shouting it from the rooftops. I'm as out as I can be to some people, mostly close friends and colleagues, people who I think should know, people I want to know. I'm not, however, out to my parents.

I'm not out to Hunter, either.

There's no real reason I should out myself to this fourteen-year-old kid in his ridiculous crocheted cap and his don't-shoot-me-orange backpack, except for one.

Hunter is my brother, and today is his birthday. This weekend is our mother's gift to him.

Nine years separate the two of us; it might as well be twenty or more, a full generation's worth, so little do we seem to have in common. I was the first born, of course, appearing on the scene shortly after my parents got married, back when they were still in love with each other, back when they thought there might be a future to them and their lives together.

Which, in the end, did not turn out to be the case. My mother knew about my father's various weaknesses and vices well before she married him; she, indeed, was the side piece to another woman he was seeing up in Fort Collins. She thought she had what it would take to remake him into a responsible and - more importantly - monogamous partner … and I don't blame her for trying. My father's charms are legion.

My mother, to her credit, thought also that having the tender mercies of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on her side would help, thought that that alone would be enough to bend her husband towards her will. My father - for whom Jesus Christ! was only the mildest epithet in his considerable vocabulary of imprecations - cleaved to her will only long enough to produce me. After that, he decided that it would be as God willed for him, as well … and his God apparently willed a rather loose and licentious kind of life.

For nine years I got to experience my parents' relationship full-bore, with nothing to filter it. At some point, I just … folded in on myself, I think, out of self-protection more than anything. A thing invisible is a thing that escapes notice. Something I am still in the process of undoing.

Nine years into it, my parents established a fragile truce, brought about in no small part by a run-in my father had with the police, one that almost landed him in jail. My mother stepped in at the last moment, convinced them that he was better off with her and that their offspring - me - needed both parents and not just one. She would, she swore, insure that he stay on the right side of the law. The judge agreed, and so here they both were, back to square one.

Which they took to heart, rebooting themselves even to the point of deciding to bring another life into this world: my brother Hunter.

"Did he tell you that?" I asked Hunter.

"Did who tell me what?"

Jesus, Hunter, I think, get with the program. "Quentin. That he was gay."

"No." He sighs. "But he is. I know he is. I mean - just look at him!"

"So what?"

"What do you mean, so what?" he responds.

"So, why do you care? What does it have to do with you?"

"I hate guys like that," he mutters.

"Has Quentin ever done or said anything to you that would make you do that?"

He thinks about it. "No. I don't really even know him. He's Drew's friend, anyway. I didn't even want him to come along."

"So you thought you'd just shove him over the cliff and everything would be okay."

"No, it wasn't - it wasn't that. I just … I wanted him to know that he needed to watch himself."

"Why? So guys like you don't come along and try to hurt him?"

"No! Just … just that he better not try anything with me."

"Was he trying to do that?"

"No. Not really, I guess …"

"You were just trying to nip it in the bud."

"What does that mean?"

"Telling him not to try anything."


"Ever think maybe he's not interested in you?"

Hunter has to think about it. "What?"

"Maybe you're not his type."

"But I'm a guy …"

"Think about it, Hunter. You like girls, right?"

"Yeah …"

"Don't you think that some girls are cuter than others? I mean, there are some girls you think are pretty and some that don't do anything at all for you, right?"

"Yeah, maybe."

"Guys are like that, too. Guys who like guys have … preferences, I guess. What they like and don't like in another guy."

"Is this from personal experience?" A little bit of an attitude in that.


"So, you are …"

"Oh, come on, Hunter. You know that I am. Stop being a dick about it."

"So, you're saying that you know that Quentin is gay."

"No, I'm not! I have no idea if Quentin is gay or not. It's none of my business. If he is and wants to talk about it, I'll be more than glad to talk about it. But I won't make him tell me. I won't do anything to him just because I think he might be gay."

At this point, I really hope that Drew, Sam and Quentin can't hear us … but I can't guarantee that. I glance over at them; they're huddled together. It looks like they're talking. But I know our voices are carrying. I sigh. I'll sort it out later.

Or, maybe, I won't. At this point, whatever fun the five of us thought we were having is gone. I don't want to be here, I don't think Hunter does … and I can fairly well assume that Quentin, of all of us, would rather be off this mountain and home, and considerably closer to sea level.

I walk away from Hunter, just leaving him there, and walk over to the other boys. They look up as I approach. "So, guys … I … well, I guess we can go back to camp and start packing everything up. I can have you all home by this afternoon if we hurry."

They look surprised; eyes go wide, mouths shape themselves into O's of confusion and protest. "Why?" I get, three times in unison. "I thought we were going to leave tomorrow!" Drew adds.

"Well, yeah, but …" I gesture helplessly, at Hunter standing by himself, hands in pockets, trying not to look like he's listening to me.

"Do we have to go home?" Sam adds.

Which surprises me. "Do you want to stay?"

Again, three heads nod yes back to me.

"Are you sure?" I turn to Quentin. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I don't want to go home today."

Even though my brother tried to kill you, I say to myself. "Okay. If that's what you want. Let's go."

I turn and walk back to Hunter, can hear the boys getting up off the rocks and following behind me. He turns, watches as we approach, his face neutral, as if he were someone on trial awaiting a verdict. Which, maybe he is.

"The guys want to stay," I announce.

"Okay," Hunter mutters. "Fine. Whatever."

I could pop him. "Do you want to stay? I can call Mom and she can be here in an hour, if you'd rather go home." Something occurs to me. "Of course, then you'd have to explain to her why you're home early. From your own birthday party."

"Do you want me to leave?"

I blow out a sharp breath. "I want you to do whatever you want, Hunter. It's your birthday. We're all here because you wanted us here. If you want to stay, that's fine. If you want to go, that's fine. But … if you stay, I think you have to ask the guys if they want you to stay."

I watch him, watch his face, can see him mulling it over. He knows there will be a certain amount of losing face in all of this. He's definitely going to have to apologize to Quentin … but I'm going to want him to ask Drew and Sam if it's okay if he rejoins the rest of them. I wait.

Finally, he looks down to the ground, drags a toe through the red dust from the sandstone. "I'm sorry," he mutters, his voice barely audible.

"I didn't hear you," I say.

He looks up. "I'm sorry." He looks at Quentin. "I didn't mean to be such a dick about everything. I just … well, anyway …"

"It's okay. I know you weren't really trying to hurt me," Quentin says back to Hunter … and I just want to go hug him. He so wants things to work out.

Hunter turns, starts walking back to camp. "Hunter!" I call out to him.

" What?"

I jink my head towards Drew and Sam, see that he understands. You're not done yet. He comes back to us.

"Guys, I'm … is it okay if we stay tonight?" Not quite what I want him to say to them, but it's close enough.

"Yeah." "Absolutely," from each of them.

"Let's go on back," I throw in. "It's about time for lunch, anyway."

Drew, Sam and Quentin start out in front of us. Hunter and I walk side by side, silently. Abruptly, the three ahead of us stop. Quentin steps out, turns around, faces us. I watch his jaw working as he chews his way through something gnawing at his mind. And, somehow, I know what he's going to say.

"Hey, guys … I just … guys, I just wanted to say something."

I find that my heart is hammering. I feel a sting in my eyes, from memories I'm trying to outrun. I look at this kid standing before us, about to lay everything on the line and see where that leaves him.

"I am," he goes on. He jerks his head towards my brother. "What Hunter said. Well, not that, exactly. I hate that word. But … gay, so … yeah …"

God, I love this kid. He's braver than I am, at this point.

Drew and Sam look at each other, then back at Quentin. "Yeah, we know," Drew says, shrugging.

Quentin's head rocks back. "You do?"

"Yeah," Sam answers.

"Is it … is it okay?" Quentin asks, his voice quavering … and I hate that he has to ask this, has to ask permission to be something he can no more avoid being than Drew can avoid being a redhead.

"Well, sure. I mean, we don't mind," Drew answers.

"Oh," Quentin says. "Okay, then."

Hunter and I end up side by side, some ways back from the rest of the boys. I'm surprised that Hunter isn't with them … but I suspect that the four of the them have a lot more to say to each other that needs to be said away from me. Maybe tonight, around the campfire.

The loudest sound is our footsteps scratching along the dusty trail and the wind whispering through the aspen and pine. Hunter walks with his head downcast; all I can see is the lumpy bulk of his cap.

Then, in a quiet voice, he says, "I'm sorry." His voice is barely audible, just above a whisper.

"You said that, already."

"No. I mean, I know … but I'm apologizing to you."

"Oh? For what?"

"For being such a … dick about you, about you being …" His voice trails off.



"It's okay. I should have told you earlier. I just … well, I never found the right time for it."

"You're never around, any more."

I bark out a laugh. "I think you can figure out why."

Which brings a grudging smile out of him. "Yeah, I know. She's such a … bitch, all the time."

It should shock me that he's talking that way about our mother, but I can't disagree with him. "I know. She always has been, really."

"You have no idea what it's like, at home."

"Uh, I think I do, Hunter. I got a lot of it, too. They've always been that way around each other."

"But it's worse, now. Worse than it used to be. Way worse."

"Is Daddy there at all?"

He shakes his head. "Not a lot. Only when he needs money … which is a joke, because she hardly ever has any. Never thinks to give her any, of course." He sighs. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. Not any more."

Something in his tone warns me. "Why is that?"

He glances at me, looks away. "They're finally doing it. Splitting up."

"I thought they pretty much were split up, at this point."

"No. I mean, like, for real. Divorce, and everything."

Which brings me up short. "Are you serious?"

He nods. "Yeah. I saw the papers in the mail, last week. Some lawyers down in Pueblo. I think that's where he's living, now. He called her up the day after they showed up. Says he's going to marry somebody else, that's he's done with her."

I sigh. "Shame it took them so long. They should have done it a long time ago."

"Yeah, I know," he answers. "But, for some reason, she's taking it really bad."

"How bad is bad?"

"Drunk all the time, bad. Not cleaning up the house, bad. Not working, bad. I end up having to do everything. Even pay the bills. Not that there's enough money for that. Mostly I just spend time on the phone trying to convince people not to shut the gas off, or the water, or the electric." He walks on a few steps. "And … other stuff, too."

"What other stuff?" He says nothing, goes on a few steps. I try again. "Hunter! What other stuff?"

All he does is to give me an opaque look that could mean anything.

Half an hour later, we're back at the camp, and we busy ourselves with lunch. It's not much, just sandwiches and chips and dip, cole slaw, beans, some sodas. I really could use a beer or two right now, but I'm trying to make an effort not to drink this weekend. At least not around the boys. Plenty of time for that tomorrow night, when I drop everybody off and get back to my apartment.

Gradually, they slip back into their old habits, laughing and joking. Conversation is about anything and everything, except Quentin's little non-bombshell. I wish that that were the way it always could be, that it should never matter … and, maybe, with these kids, it doesn't. They're so used to a lot of it, even more than I was at their age.

I remember being that age, with all hell breaking loose with my body, with my mind, with my feelings. It was about then that I began to understand the thing I carried inside me. Part of me wants to go over to Quentin, to start talking to him … but if he goes back and tells his parents that Hunter's gay brother started chatting him up over the weekend, and came out to him and asked him about his own nascent sexuality, I have the feeling that I'm going to be talking to an angry parent or two. Or maybe the cops.

While the boys work their way like rabid wolves through the food, I sit back and try to understand what might have motivated Hunter to do what he did. I know he's angry at … well, at everything, maybe. Our mother, our father, the absolute disaster of their marriage and its current unraveling, the drinking, the running around. Maybe he's even angry with me, and I can understand that, too; as soon as I was able, I got out of that house without looking back. I go back only when I need to: a birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Even when I was home, during high school and the first few years of college, we hardly interacted with each other. He had his interests. I had mine.

I know enough to know that people who end up on the receiving end of stress end up turning around and unburdening that upon someone else. I still wonder why it was Quentin, though. Even though Hunter and I aren't particularly close, I still think I know enough about him to know that he's a smarter kid than most, and more sensitive. He's not someone I would peg to be a homophobe. Or someone who would try to push - or even pretend to push - another living being off the edge of a cliff.

After lunch, and while the sun is still high enough in the sky, the boys want to go swimming. One of the reasons I chose this camping spot was precisely because of its location; here, a clear stream of water tumbles over a granite cliff and into a broad pool that's perfect for swimming. Indeed, some other families are already enjoying the pool; it's shallow enough for mothers to dandle their babies in the sun-warmed water, while in other places it's deep enough that more adventurous and skilled swimmers - say, a quartet of fourteen-year-old idiot boys full of piss and vinegar - can dive safely off rocks. Some enterprising soul has even gone to the extent of tying a strong piece of rope around the branch of a tall pine that hugs the edge of the falls.

Actually, a swim sounds good to me, as well. I've got a suit for myself and towels for all of us, and after we wait a bit for lunch to digest, we go change and head out for the water.

Seeing the boys in their swimsuits makes me, again, recall the awkwardness of that age … and the boys are each examples of that, where the undifferentiated bodies of their youth are now in the process of getting slammed by a deluge of hormones designed to do one thing and one thing only: turn them into men, almost like a caterpillar in its chrysalis being remade wholesale into a monarch.

Drew, the ginger haired one, is all peach-pink skin and freckles, and I stand over him while he applies nearly a gallon of sunscreen to his translucent flesh; I don't want to have to explain to his parents why their son came back from a camping weekend looking like a boiled lobster. Sam, a little taller, a little more along the journey, is more muscular … but there's still a roll of baby fat around his middle. Quentin seems, to me, still the most like a boy, soft everywhere, hairless and still a bit pudgy and unformed; I wonder how he can be convinced, at this point in his life, that he is gay, so young does he seem … but I remember how it was with me: it starts in the brain first, with the first understanding that such a thing is possible. After that, the body struggles to catch up.

Hunter, of all the boys, seems the most mature, at least physically. Both he and I have our father's slender, slight build and height, with so little fat on our bones that our musculature stands easily revealed. Already, he has the broad chest and flat belly of an older boy, and stringy muscles on his arms and legs. I'm surprised, honestly, to see him in a t-shirt, a sleeveless one; I remember being that age and already eager to show off what few muscles I had picked up. I wasn't quite sure to whom I was showing these muscles; that revelation would come soon enough.

His choice, though. If he feels awkward about his body, he's welcome to wear a t-shirt; I myself hate how it clings to me when wet.

I set up the towels on a relatively empty bit of the shore; it's not exactly a beach, but at least it's not dirt that will turn to mud as soon as four dripping boys come over for a soda and a snack later. I don't feel like swimming quite yet, so I stretch out on a towel and take in the sun while paying enough attention to the boys so that they don't do something gauche, like drown.

I watch as they clamber up the rocks to the tree, watch as they dare each other to swing out and drop into the crystal-clear water. From experience, I know that the deeper parts of the pool are colder than the shallower bits.

The boys' voices carry across the narrow confines of the pool, but I don't think anyone truly minds. There is something timeless about the four of them, about how they interact with each other. There is also something atavistic about it, as well; one imagines scenes like this all throughout human history: boys learning how to live in society, how to become men.

I watch as Hunter launches himself out on the rope, letting go only at the last moment, directly over the deepest part of the pool. I watch as he spirals down, down, down to the mercurial plane of the water, watch as he plunges beneath it into the cool, astonishing depths, watch as he surfaces, watch as he dog paddles over to the rocks, watch as he starts his ascent. He has a certain grace, a certain athleticism in his movements; I turned what little I had into running, which carried me as far a scholarship at the university. I still run, when I can find the time.

Hunter's t-shirt is rendered nearly invisible by the water, clinging to him like a sheath of scales on a fish; it is rucked up off of his narrow hips, as well, exposing half of his back. I imagine some kind of strange shadow upon him, look again when I realize that the shadow does not vary as he moves up and into the dappled sunlight coming through the trees. It is part of him, somehow, in a way that does not seem correct.

I understand, then, what I am seeing, just before he, unconsciously, smooths the shirt back down. A kind of electric shock runs through me, knowing that someone has done this to him, knowing that he feels self-conscious enough about that he has to cover it up.

I don't know what to do. I can't go to him now and expose him before his friends, not so soon after the four of them have achieved some kind of tenuous equilibrium. It will have to wait.

But I have to say something.

Soon enough, they're done with the water, at least for now. Water that seems temperate enough at first soon reveals its true nature, and when they finally come back to shore, they're shivering even as they try to deny that they're cold. They scrabble through the cooler for drinks, scrabble through a canvas bag for something to eat, candy or chips or fruit.

The events from earlier in the day seem to be forgotten; the conversation among them is something that even I have a hard time following. They have a shared experience that I do not have, and even though they are on the threshold of manhood, their talk is still that of boys unsullied by the darker temptations which will find them soon enough. Most of it seems to center around Minecraft.

I study Hunter, hope that he does not notice that I'm doing it. I'm trying to find other telltale signs of what I think has happened to him, but I see nothing. What I saw is not new; its mottled colors have faded to sickly yellows and greens and will soon fade away, and I know that I will want to photograph them, and I understand what doing that will mean. I'm going to have to show those photographs to certain people, and then it will be out of my hands. But I can't not do it.

The boys, sunning themselves on rocks scattered around the edge of the pond, seem to ignore me as much as they can, and I wonder what kind of presence I am among them. I am older, of course, but not by much, not as old as their parents, but an authority figure nonetheless. They do as I tell them. They defer to me, the fools.

But then I notice something, some kind of tacit inclusion: a quick glance, a question asked by a raised eyebrow, a smile, a knowing smirk … all of it designed to seek some kind of approval from me, that they are doing it right, saying the right things, acting the right way. I don't dare tell them that I know little more about it than they do.

Dinner tonight is special: steak and baked potatoes, for the most part, plus a bagged salad that I just have to dump in a bowl and dress. As I unwrap the steak and start seasoning it with salt and pepper, I realize that I'm never going to get paid back for any of this … and it's okay. I hope Hunter realizes that this is really my gift to him and not any of our mother's doing - beyond only wishing that it be done by anyone but her - but I won't press the point.

I have to admit to myself that it's nice being here, with these kids, and I hope that Hunter is able to relate to them in a way that he can't relate to me. He and I share much too much of an unfortunate history, but there is a difference between talking to an older brother about it and talking to a friend about it.

I set the boys to wrapping the potatoes in aluminum foil and to making the salad.

I remember that my father never did this with me, and I doubt that he did with Hunter, either. He was in and out of our lives, there only when he needed something from our mother, or from us. I remember trying to please him, to show him that I was growing up into a responsible young man - albeit one with a secret - but it seemed never to matter one way or the other. My mother wanted children; he gave her children, and little else.

And now it seems to be getting worse, with Hunter's news that a divorce is in the works … and the other news about another woman in his life and that he wants to remarry. I smile to think that I will now have a stepmother of sorts; will I ever meet her? Do I even want to? I almost want to go to her, tell her what he is like, that he will probably be as unfaithful to her as he was to our mother. My father's life seems to be spent forever trying to find something that he cannot put a name to, and will thus never succeed in discovering it.

After supper, there is a surprise in the form of a cake, store-bought, but it's good enough for this crowd and I carefully shove fifteen candles into its crystalline surface and light it and we all sing to Hunter and even though he jokes about it and makes goofy faces, I think that he is pleased.

Drew, Sam and Quentin slip off, at one point, to the tent and come back with packages, which they each hand to Hunter, watch as he opens them. They're not much: a gift card from Drew, a nice pair of sunglasses from Sam, a handmade beaded bracelet from Quentin … but Hunter seems touched by the gesture.

After that, there are s'mores - as if the cake wasn't enough sugar - and sitting around the campfire trying to avoid the randomly drifting smoke and going to get jackets against the cooling evening and the kind of talk that seems to go on of its own accord, flitting from topic to topic while the stars wheel over head and I realize, at this moment, that this is one of the best days of my life and I hope that it is for Hunter, as well, and that there will be more and more of them to follow.

One by one, the boys succumb to fatigue, stumble off to the tent and the delights of sleep, leaving, in the end, Hunter and me alone by the dying fire. The orange-red light chases itself like foxfire through the mound of charred wood and ashes. I look at him. He is so much like me at this age that it stirs some kind of emotion comprised of loss and regret … and anger that our lives - his life, especially - have to be this way. He deserves better. "Are you having a good time?" I ask.

He looks back at me. "I am. Thank you for agreeing to this."

"I was glad to do it. I'm glad we could spend time together like this." I smile. "I like your friends."

"Thanks. Yeah, they're good guys. They …" He pauses. "They like you, too."

"Oh. Well, good. I … didn't want them to think that I was a hard-ass, or anything."

He grins. "Well, you are … but that's okay. I warned them beforehand."

I smile … but then I know that it's time to do what need to do. "Hunter, I … I need to talk to you about something."

He senses something in my voice, some kind of faint warning. He smiles, but there's a wariness in his eyes. "Uh-oh …"

"It's personal. I think."

"Um … okay …"

"Earlier today, when we went swimming … you were wearing a t-shirt. I wondered why." He says nothing. I know he's not going to tell me the reason for it. I go on. "At one point, you were climbing up the rocks, back to the top of the waterfall, and -"

"No," he says, shaking his head. "No." His refusal is adamant.

But I persist. "Hunter, I … I saw what I saw. What happened? Where did that bruise come from?"

"Don't worry about it. It's nothing. It happened a long time ago."

"How did it happen? Did somebody do that to you?"

"Would you believe me if I said that wasn't the reason?"

I sigh. "Hunter, I just want to know what happened. It looks serious."

"Cole, don't worry about it. It's fine."

I set my jaw. I think of Quentin's courage in telling his friends about being gay. If he can do this, so can I. "Did he do this to you?" Knowing full well that he knows what I mean when I say he.

"No. It wasn't him. He's never around, anyway."

"Well, then who -" And then I understand. Too well. " She did this to you, didn't she?" He doesn't answer immediately with a denial … telling me that I'm right. "Hunter … what happened?"

He looks at me; anger flashes in his eyes. "What the fuck do you think happened, Cole? It's what always happens, when she gets drunk or fucked up or whatever, which is, like, all the time, now. I hate when she gets that way, hate having to go home to it. I was over at … well, Sam's, actually, and I stayed later than I should have, and I got home late, because I hoped that she was already … I don't know, like, passed out or in bed or something. But she wasn't." I wait; he goes on. "Anyway, we got into a fight about it." He blows out a breath. "I almost made it, actually. I was at the top of the stairs, about to go to my room, when she came out of her bedroom and started screaming at me. And then she -"

"She what?"

He shrugs. "Pushed me down the stairs. Told me to get the fuck out of her house. Told me to -"

"To what?"

"To … get the fuck out of her life." His voice breaks at the end of the sentence.

I'm stunned. I don't know what to say … but part of it comes as no surprise. Right now, my only thought is to go confront my mother and ask her just what the fuck is wrong with her. "Jesus Christ …"

I watch as a tear trickles down his cheek, then another, and another. "Yeah," he mutters. "Jesus fucking Christ …"

What I do know comes to me as if whispered into my ear by some unseen angel. I get up, go over to him, take him in my arms even as he pushes himself away from me … and hold him, tightly, while he sobs, while his body shakes with his anger, with his grief, with his pain. I hold him for a long time, as no one ever held me, when I couldn't take it any more. I hold him even as I marvel at how quietly he cries, as if afraid to make a noise lest someone hear it and confront him. I hold him for a long time, until it subsides, until he comes back to himself.

Presently, he leans away from me. I reach for a paper towel, hand it to him, watch as he works at his eyes with it, at his nose.

The unseen angel whispers in my ear, again, and I understand that angels, if they exist, are not just messengers of joy, or happiness. Sometimes, they tell you exactly what you know you have to do anyway, what you can only do, and are as implacable as if made of stone. I imagine that the angel who told Mary that she was going to give birth to the son of God didn't really care one way or the other how she felt about it.

"This stops now," I murmur.

Hunter looks up. "What?" His voice is thick.

"This stops now," I repeat, more loudly.

Hunter frowns his confusion. "Yeah, I … don't know how …?"

I look at him. "No. I mean, she has to stop doing this. She's sick and she needs help. I'm not going to allow her to take out all her anger on you. She has to stop it."

He shrugs, wipes again at his eyes. "How're you gonna do that, Cole?"

"I don't know, Hunter. I'll have to think about it. But I do know one thing."


"You have to get out of that house.'

He barks out a sarcastic laugh. "And go where, exactly?"

"You're moving in with me."

I watch as his head rears back and his eyes go wide with his disbelief. "What?"

"I mean it. I need to get you out of that house. You can come live with me. In Boulder."

"She'll never let you do it, Cole. You know she won't."

"She may not have much choice. Not when we tell the police or somebody what she did." Again, I remind myself to take pictures of Hunter's back.

"They'll just send me to live with Dad. You know they will."

"He's just as bad. He pretty much abandoned us." I chuckle. "And he does have a certain history. One they won't be able to ignore."

Hunter shakes his head. "Doesn't matter. He'll fight you on this."

"Let him fight. I don't think he'll win."

Hunter says nothing; we stare at each other. Then, "You would do this? For me?"

"I would. I should have done it a long time ago. I … didn't realize how bad things were, until you said that Dad was filing for divorce." I smile. "I guess now it's my turn to apologize to you. I … haven't been around much, and I should have been."

"It's okay, Cole. I understand."

"Well, that's no excuse. You're my family. You're practically all there is, at this point. I can't lose you, or I lose everything."

He says nothing for a long moment. Then, quietly, "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"I … well, I need to tell you something."


"I was … well, when I got back home, I was going to …"


"Run away. Just … leave. Go somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but there."

"You could have called me, Hunter. Certainly you know that."

He looks at me, looks away. "Do I? You never come home, you never come to see me, you never seem to want to be around me. How was I supposed to know that it was okay to call you?"

And … I know he's right. In my haste to put my past behind me, I abandoned the one person I should never have abandoned, knowing what our mother is like, knowing what she's capable of doing. I close my eyes, try to imagine Hunter lost to that kind of existence, gone without a trace, washing up in some other city, some other place, just one more abandoned kid trying his best to get through life, always at the mercy of others, people older than him, who couldn't care less about his welfare, or his future.

"I won't let that happen again, Hunter. I promise."

"It's not going to be easy."

"Probably not. But I have to try. We have to try."

In the morning, I awaken early - a habit I have always had - to a bit of fog and a clammy chill to the air. Summer will leave us before too long, and this is the first day that I understand that. Soon, the aspen and the cottonwood will turn golden, the pines will drop their needles in a shower of russet brown onto the floor of the forest, and there will be snow up in the higher elevations, more of it with each passing day.

I lever myself out of the sleeping bag and shove my feet into my sandals, then go outside. There's no sound from the other tent save for someone's light snoring. As quietly as I can, I start a pot of coffee and set up the little camp stove powered by a bottle of propane; the embers from last night's fire are stone cold. I won't actually start cooking until they're up; for now, I am content to let them sleep. They talked long into the night, after I retired; I fell asleep to the gentle rising and falling of their conversation, although I couldn't make out its actual content.

While I wait for the coffee, I wrap my head around the awareness that - after last night - my life might have fundamentally changed. Soon - perhaps even today - I will have to confront my mother and try to make her understand that what she did to Hunter can never happen again. I remember the promise I made to Hunter and there is that to contend with, as well. How can I convince my mother that perhaps she is not the best parent right now for her son? How can I convince my mother that the better place for him to be is with me? That will leave her alone, truly alone, something she has not had to experience for over twenty years; I understand enough about my parents to know that a miserable life together with someone is sometimes preferable to a life lived in solitude. She lost her husband, then she lost me, and now she will lose Hunter.

I wrap my head around another thing, as well: the possibility of becoming a parent to my little brother, to the unending level of responsibility that that will entail. I barely have my own life going at this point - and only in fits and starts, at that, on the best of days - and now I will have to be in charge of his, if this thing plays out that far. Am I ready for that? Do I want to be a parent? Can I?

There's a noise, then, and I watch as a figure slips out of the boys' tent; it's Quentin, an early riser like me, apparently. He tiptoes over to me and sits down in one of the camp chairs.

"Hi," he says.

I smile. "Good morning."

He looks at my coffee. "You got any more mugs?"

"You drink coffee?"

"I do. Well, with a lot of sugar and cream."

I chuckle. "When I was younger, my mother used to tell me that drinking coffee would stunt my growth. Obviously, it didn't." I reach over, hand him a mug and a plastic container with the fixings for coffee, watch as he goes through the ritual. It's almost like watching a smoker light up: the practiced movements, performed almost unconsciously, until the desired result is achieved and the drug is ready for consumption. I tamp down a smile.

When he's done, he sits back in the chair, takes a sip. "That's good," he says. "You make good coffee."

"Thank you, kind sir. Years of practice."

He smiles at that, and we sit contentedly side by side and watch the sun come up. Behind us, the waterfall chatters to itself. We watch as other families begin to stir, stumbling out into the morning to do what we're doing: adjust themselves to the reality of a new day. By habit, everyone is quiet as they work their way into the routine.

Quentin glances at me, looks away. "I, uh … I wanted to … well, say sorry, I guess."

"Oh? For what?"

"For yesterday. For all of … well …"

"You don't have to apologize, Quentin. It wasn't your fault. And …" I sigh. "Hunter … well, he had his reasons. I'm not saying they were the right reasons, but … he has a lot going on, right now. Things that he has to deal with." Things that I now have to deal with, too.

"Yeah, I know. We talked about it." He scrunches his face up, looks at me. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure." I smile. "I guess …"

He smiles back. "So, Hunter said that you're … I mean …" He blushes, swallows, makes himself say it … which is almost always the first part of understanding it and coming to terms with it. "He says that you're gay. Like me."

"Ah, yeah … I am." A-a-and, here it is … the conversation I really don't want to have with a fourteen-year-old boy. Thanks, Hunter. I think evil thoughts at him.

"So, do you … I mean, do you … is there a … do you have, like, a boyfriend?"

"No, I don't. Not right now." Not ever, you lying bastard, I tell myself. But he doesn't need to know that.

"Oh. I just … I wondered what it was like."

Fuck. What can I tell him that will make sense? "It's … you just have to take it one step at a time, Quentin. Like anything, I guess. It will make more and more sense the older you get." Another slight misstatement on my part; I'm twenty-three and I still don't know if it makes sense. "Just … just don't go too fast, okay? Things will happen when they need to happen." Thus spake the sage. Peace be unto you. Go ye into the world and be fierce.

"I … okay. Maybe. Thanks."

Another silence settles between us. I'm glad that he, like me, enjoys the quiet, feels no need to fill the air between us with idle prattle. I look at Quentin out of the corner of my eye, can see hints of the young man he is going, one day, to be, when the baby fat melts away and he gains a few inches in height and fills out with muscle. I can see that, at the end of it all, he's going to turn out to be rather cute, and I hope he understands that, thanks the gods for that particular bit of good luck.

I clear my throat. "Quentin." He turns, looks at me. "I just … well, I just wanted to tell you that I was proud of you, yesterday, for having the courage to tell the rest of us. That's a big step, telling your friends. It's never easy."

He makes a face. "I know."

"Yeah, I understand. Some people never accept it. You just have to roll with it." I hesitate, but I have to know. "Have you told your parents?"

"I … yeah."

"How did that go?"

He seesaws his hand in the air. "Good, I guess. My mom is okay with it. My dad …"

"Give him time."

"Yeah, I know. My mom says he's getting used to it. I mean, we still get along and everything, but I can tell that there's something … different, now."

"It can be that way, sometimes. But you're still the same you you were before you told him. If you know what I mean."

He rolls his eyes. "I think so. Thanks."

I'm not sure what else to say without veering into dangerous territory; luckily, I don't have to. The door to the tent zippers up and over, and Hunter steps out, still in the t-shirt from yesterday, and barefoot. He looks at me … and I breathe a sigh of relief to see a smile play on his lips.

He comes over to us. "Hey."

"Hey, Hunter," Quentin murmurs.

"Good morning," I say, quietly.

He jinks his head back towards the tent. "Everybody's awake."

"Oh, okay. I'll start breakfast, then." I get up, light up the burners on the camp stove, watch as the flames settle into a blue glow tinged with orange, open up the cooler and take out eggs and bacon. Everything still seems cold enough, and I go about the business of cooking. I've made breakfasts like this for myself many times in the past; it's a strange experience to be cooking for others. But it's hard to ruin eggs and bacon.

When I've got eggs cracked and in the mixing bowl and the bacon just starting to crisp, my phone buzzes in my pocket. I almost ignore it - I really don't want to have to talk to my mother this early - but it could be something. I pull the phone out, look at the caller identification.

It's not my mother.

It's Vik.

Vik is Vikram, another member of the engineering department, about my age. He is new to the school, having come to us from somewhere in the east. Why he's calling me on a Sunday morning is beyond me. I let it go to voice mail; I can deal with it later, when I'm not in the middle of feeding a pack of teenaged boys.

But, Vik …

But, Vik …

I turn the bacon over, feeling hot spatters of grease on the back of my hand, but it's done, anyway and I use tongs to put the slices onto a plate with a paper towel draped across it to soak up the grease. I pour most of the grease from the bacon into an empty soda can; I will use what remains to cook the eggs. I beat the eggs into submission and spoon them onto the still-hot griddle, stir them slowly, lest they burn, and I think of Vik.

Vik is there one day at a staff meeting, looking more than a little out of place, some exotic bit of spice tossed into our meat-and-potatoes existence. He's … well he's a lot of things, things that I find myself dwelling on while introductions go on among the staff. Short and slight, slender, boyish … I imagine that I can wrap my hands around his narrow waist and watch my fingertips touch, and the sly devil chuckling in my ear makes me wonder why I'm thinking that. And then the rest of it, the desire to run my hand through the inky blackness of his hair and beard and across the nutmeg-brown skin of his forehead and his smooth cheek. And his voice, his voice … lilting as it speaks a language I know to be English but which sounds, in his mouth, like some language from another more perfect and more beautiful world.

Those feelings persist the more we are around each other … and it seems that we are around each other more than most people would be. I don't know if it's even anything that either of us is conscious of, not exactly, but every time I see him, every time I talk to him, every time I interact with him, whatever this feeling is just gets stronger and harder to ignore.

I tell myself that I'm being foolish, perhaps dangerously so; things like this can just as easily blow up in one's face as find a kind of traction. I understand myself well enough to know that what I want to happen may or may not turn out to be what actually happens.

So, for now, I tread water, going farther and farther out into the main channel, away from the safety of shore. I want only to turn around and see him following me.

My phone buzzes; he's left me a message, and I pray, pray, pray that it's not something about work. The eggs are done; I put them into another bowl and call out to the boys to set the table. I turn off the camp stove, toss the congealed can of grease into a trash can, tell the boys to save me something, anything. Hunter laughs, tells me that I'm going to have to fight them for it, which is probably the best review I will ever receive for my cooking.

My hand shakes as I hold the phone up, trying to divine some kind of truth, wondering if that implacable granite angel will relent and tell me something that I want to hear. I look up into the aspen and the cottonwood and the pine and the cerulean sky overhead, but I hear nothing.

While they eat, I walk away from the camp, go to my voicemail, press a button, listen to the message and it's nothing, it's a trifle, it's everything, it's not work, it's not a call he has to make but one that he wants to make, and he is as tongue-tied as I would be, as I am, as I will be when I call him back and ask him one simple question and pray, pray, pray that the answer to that question will be yes.


This story is part of the 2021 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: A Walk in the Country". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 30 July to 20 AUgust 2021 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2021 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - A walk in the Country

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Rough Country

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