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    Wayne Gray
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Broken - A Camp Refuge Story - 4. Keeper

17 October (Saturday morning)

Wringing his hands, Jeremy grimaced at how clammy they felt. He shook them in the coolness of the early Fall morning, then gathered his resolve.

He knocked. Moments later, Clay opened the door. "Hey, Red." He slipped an arm around Jeremy's shoulders. "Come on in."

"Thanks."

He let Clay lead them into the living room. "Coffee? It's still early enough." The men sat on the sofa in the newly painted room. The tan walls with dark blue trim-work suited Greg and Clay.

Jeremy shook his head. "No, thanks." He wet his lips. "So? Ah, sorry to get right to it, but I can't take not knowing any longer. Do you have an answer?"

Clay shifted to face him. "I do." He patted Jeremy's leg. "Red … Jeremy. Look at me, son."

Dragging his gaze up to meet Clay's, Jeremy couldn't hide the fear behind his eyes.

Clay smiled. "When we first met, and I found out about the HIV, it terrified me. I saw how Mason had to be near you, how you had caught his heart without trying." His hand rested warm and comfortable on Jeremy's knee. "How he went to war against me, all for you."

Jeremy worked his jaw. "I'm sorry about that." He couldn't help but remember that encounter over a year back. "I didn't mean to cause—"

"Hush." Chuckling, Clay shook his head. "That was my fault, and I own it." He cocked his head. "That Mason would get in my face, refuse to back down, it made me have to look at things again. It took him doing that to help me be okay with … well, with you guys and your relationship." Clay straightened. "But now, well, now you're asking for something else."

An icy sensation twisted through Jeremy. "Clay, if you can't say yes, then I understand."

At some point in the conversation, Jeremy had once again looked away from Clay's gray eyes. Clay moved his hand to the back of Jeremy's neck. "Hey. Am I that scary?"

Jeremy shook his head once. "Just say it."

"Okay." Clay drew in a breath. "Yes. You have my permission to marry Mason." Jeremy stared at Clay who responded with a grin. "It's about time."

A surprised laugh escaped Jeremy. "Really?" He tried to hold it inside, but tears began.

"Aww, don't do that. Come here." Clay hugged him. As Jeremy held on, Clay whispered, "You love him. That's all I can ask, that you love him."

Jeremy smiled in Clay's embrace. "I really do."

⟽⟾

18 October (Early Sunday morning)

"Don't forget who you belong to."

Lee jerked at the voice. "Eddie?" He looked wildly around the apartment. Dirty clothes lay in piles on the floor, and he nearly stumbled over them as he backed toward the door.

How'd I get here? Oh, god. Eddie's mad. I hear it. Lee wet his lips. "Eddie, I was trying to get back." He reached into a pocket and withdrew a thick roll of money, waving it before him as if it were a talisman. "Look!" Rubbing his other hand along the wall, Lee kept backing down the hallway. "It's all your—!"

His voice caught as he backed into someone at the door. From behind him, Eddie's hand gripped his neck like a vise, while the other squeezed Lee's crotch. He was paralyzed as Eddie breathed in his ear.

"You'll never be nothing but a used-up, skinny faggot."

Lee woke. At first, he lay perfectly still, listening to his heart thudding in his ears. The darkness of the tent and the gentle patter of rain on the material of his shelter reinforced that he had been dreaming. Though it still felt as if someone choked him. He realized with a start he was lying on his hand, his fingers wrapped around his own throat.

Pushing himself up to a sitting position, Lee rubbed his neck, dispelling the chill bumps on his skin. He took lungfuls of air slowly, forcing his racing heart to calm.

It had felt so real. Lee shook his head, angry with himself. "It's just the apartment and Eddie." He frowned. "Why … why do the apartment and Eddie feel like a nightmare?"

While he considered, he got up and found his sandals. He unzipped the tent and headed to the restroom, lit up in the darkness.

By the time he'd returned and crawled back into his still-warm sleeping bag, he'd not found any answers.

⟽⟾

20 October (Tuesday)

The next couple of days passed so slowly to Lee. He stood again at the stove in the camp kitchen. "Tuesday?" He repeated what Greg had just said. "It's only Tuesday?"

"Yes." Greg had one eye on the frying pan as Lee sauteed onion, carrot, and celery. "What day did you think it was?"

"I don't know." Frowning at the cooking vegetables, he stirred with a stabbing motion of the wooden spoon. "At least Thursday."

"Well, Friday will come soon enough; you'll get to see Avery then." Avery had left on Sunday, back to his foster home to spend the weekdays.

"What?" Lee reddened. "That's not …" He glowered at Greg's knowing look. Lee refocused on the vegetables, his stirring renewed. "He's annoying."

"Yes." Just about to say the vegetables needed a bit more oil, Greg arched an eyebrow as Lee snagged the bottle and doused them. "Well, for him being such an annoyance, you hang out with him a lot."

"He hangs out with me." Greg watched with interest as Lee picked up the red pepper flake. Lee shook the container a few times over the vegetables. Now the hot, bubbly mixture had flecks of red sprinkled here and there. He put the bottle down. "There's just no being rid of him. That's why I was asking." Lee nodded. "Yeah, wondering when my peace was going to be over."

"Ah. I see." Greg pointed at the pan. "Those look ready. We should add the ground beef before they get much more heat."

Greg and Lee finished preparing ingredients and assembling the shepherd's pie destined to be that night's dinner. Glancing at his phone, Greg said, "We're ahead of schedule. This doesn't need to go in the oven for another half-hour." He motioned at the campfire ring where Jeremy had just sat on a bench with his guitar and Mason had begun starting a fire in the gathering gloom of late afternoon. A break in the rain meant most campers would gather around the fire before and after dinner. "Why don't you hang out with everyone for a bit until we need to make the salad?"

Already shaking his head, Lee removed Clay’s apron tied around his waist. "No." He hung up the article of clothing on a nail. "I'll go for a walk." He rubbed his knuckles and shifted back and forth on his feet. "I, ah ..." He cleared his throat. "Thanks." He jerked his head at the foil-covered shepherd's pie. "For showin' me stuff." He moved away. "I'll be back to help with salad."

He immediately stepped out of the kitchen, hurriedly walking along the asphalt loop. Soon he had disappeared from sight down the trail leading to the river.

"Hey."

Eyes still locked on where Lee had gone, Greg blinked at Clay's voice. His husband chuckled. "You were spacing out there. You doing all right?"

"Ah, yeah." Greg nodded. "Yeah. Doing fine." Greg looked at the river trail. "Just fine."

⟽⟾

21 October (Wednesday)

Wednesday morning, Jeremy waited in front of Dr. Evan Wade's office. He paced back and forth, checking the time on his phone once more.

"Seven twenty-seven." He wet his lips. "Any minute."

The buzzing of a badge opening the hall door made his head come up, and he stared down the well-lit, carpeted passage.

Humming tunelessly, Dr. Wade appeared from around the corner. He fumbled with his badge, as he tried to juggle his coffee mug, a leather portfolio, and a labcoat under his arm. He caught sight of Jeremy hovering in front of his office.

"Hey, Jeremy. Good morning." The smile reached his eyes. He leaned forward, pressing his badge against the door reader. His office door buzzed.

"Hey, Dr. Wade." Jeremy held the door for his mentor.

"Thanks." The graying man entered and sat his coffee on the desk. "Come on in."

Closing the door, Jeremy stood before the desk while Evan got settled. The thought of sitting down didn't enter his mind as he fidgeted.

"What can I do for you?" Evan sat in his chair, then really looked at Jeremy. His eyebrows knit into a frown. "Jeremy? What's wrong?"

"Doc." Jeremy forced himself to take a deep breath. "I need to ask you something. And … I need to know the truth, okay?"

"Of course." Evan motioned at the other chair. "Sit. There's time before our first patients. Let's talk."

He couldn't make himself sit at the moment. "No, thanks." Jeremy rubbed his hands on the front of his pants. "Doc, do you think I'm selfish? For, for what I'm doing with Mason?" Those words were finally spoken aloud, and Jeremy's voice wavered. "Am I keeping him from more? From being with someone who's not …" His face screwed up as he teared.

Evan was on his feet. "Jeremy. No." Gripping the shorter man's shoulders, Dr. Wade held tight. "No. You, more than anyone I know, you deserve what you have with Mason." Evan's eyes glittered and he smiled. "You have HIV, but that doesn't make you damaged, or less than. It's a trial. And we all have those." Evan straightened. "Look at me."

Raising his eyes, Jeremy blinked and tears ran down his face.

"Good. Now, tell me; what brought this on?" Evan's gaze searched Jeremy. "Did someone say something?"

With a shake of his head, Jeremy bit his lip. "No. No." Trembling fingers withdrew a silver band inset with three stones: moonstone, alexandrite, and a tiny pearl. Jeremy stared down at the band. "I had it made." He cradled the little treasure in reverent hands. "Mason's birthstones."

Dr. Wade blinked. "You … marriage?"

"Maybe." Jeremy's hand closed tight over the ring. "Clay, Mason's dad, he said yes." Jeremy laughed, tears continuing to fall. "He said yes, that I had his permission." He shook his head. "Why would he say yes? To me?"

Surprising Jeremy, Dr. Wade crushed him in a hug. They stood together that way for a while, gently rocking back and forth as Evan clung fiercely to him.

"Because he knows you make his son happy," Evan whispered. "And that's all a dad ever wants for his boy."

After Jeremy's father had died from alcohol poisoning, Dr. Wade had taken him in. He had barely been eighteen, and though legally an adult, he hadn’t been ready for life on his own. Evan had stepped up into Jeremy's life when he had been at his lowest. He'd given Jeremy a job, a place to live, and sent him to college. He had become everything a father should be.

Overwhelmed, Jeremy squeezed Evan.

"Mason's lucky to have you, Jeremy. You ask that boy to marry you." Dr. Wade patted the younger man's back. "You hear me?"

When Jeremy nodded, Evan smiled.

⟽⟾

22 October (Thursday)

"So, how's it going, Greg?" Joseph leaned over the kitchen counter, his voice low as he spoke. "I mean, with Lee. He's been here a few days now, so I wanted to check-in."

He need not have worried about being overheard. Thursday had brought with it more rain. With the steady drum of water on the metal roof, even his intended audience almost didn't hear him.

Greg glanced at the picnic table. Lee sat under the Eazy-Up, removing the strings from a big bowl of green beans. Lee frowned at Greg, suspicion obvious on his face as Joseph huddled with him. "Oh, you know," Greg chuckled, "things are interesting. I mean, he's doing the things I ask, and by now he has managed to earn a fair chunk of money. But every bit of it goes into his stash in the Airstream." Greg shook his head. "I think he's going to go right back to his pimp as soon as he leaves here. He refuses to spend a dime on anything, even meals, so I make him help me and feed him."

Joseph looked over his shoulder which only deepened Lee's frown. "That's right! We're talking about you!"

"I don't care," Lee grumbled. He glared down at the beans and continued removing strings.

"Hrmph." Joseph turned back to Greg with a smirk. "I think he does care." His expression softened. "Which, frankly, is surprising."

"Still. It won't do any good if he goes right back to the guy he was with before."

"Eddie." Joseph looked down at the countertop as memory played behind his eyes. "Eddie is his name. He found Lee when he was sixteen, just tossed out of his house. Promised him a place to be. Promised him he'd be taken care of." Joseph shook his head. "That's what I know, at least. Just what Lee has given up in bits and pieces over the times I've collared him." Joseph sighed. "It didn't work out nearly as well as it should have. Eddie just uses him."

Greg flinched. "I didn't know all that. Well, so long as he behaves he doesn't have to go back." Hunting about for a big pot under the counter, he straightened, the cookware in hand. "I hope I'm wrong, but I still think he'll leave as soon as he can."

"Maybe." Joseph considered. "I'm not sure though. Not anymore." He eyed Greg. "You're really okay if he stays? I mean, if he gets to the point where he's paying his way and isn't stirring up trouble, you're okay with him staying?"

Something made Greg hesitate, and Joseph caught it. "Greg, if you're not comfortable—"

"No, it's fine." Greg nodded. "Sure. If he wants and is willing to pay his way, then he can stay."

"Hmm. Okay." Joseph swiveled suddenly to catch Lee watching them. He laughed when Lee jumped, a dozen feet away at the picnic table. "For a guy who doesn't care, you're sure paying a lot of attention to us over here."

Clenching his jaw, Lee got up and sat at the end of the table in a camp chair, his back to Joseph and Greg.

That elicited a chuckle from both men. "Poor guy." Greg leaned against the kitchen counter, watching Lee's back as he worked on those beans. "He really doesn't have many social skills."

"No." Joseph faced back around, his jaw shifting. "So, I have to tell you something. And sorta wanted to ask a favor too."

"Sure. What's up?"

Drawing in a long breath, Joseph grinned. "I never thought I'd say this, but we're getting married." Greg's eyes widened in surprise and Joseph laughed at the smile that appeared on his face. "Yeah. I asked him. He said yes!"

"That's amazing!" Greg dashed around the counter, squeezing Joseph in his embrace. "My God, that's amazing!"

Joseph patted Greg's back. "I … it's still so unreal to me."

"When?" Pushing away, Greg still held him by the shoulders. "Where?"

"We're working out when." Joseph looked around pointedly. "But you can likely guess where." Those blue eyes danced as they returned to Greg. "And that brings me to my favor."

⟽⟾

23 October (Friday afternoon)

His elbow on the windowsill, Avery stared out at the passing scenery. Everything was wet from the recent rains, and the setting sun produced glimmers on the drops clinging to leaves. Towering redwoods framed the road, casting long shadows over their way. "I could have just taken the bus after school." He kept his head turned, away from the driver of the old pick-up. "I know you're busy."

"I'm not too busy to haul you out here." Bill had one hand loosely on the wheel, the other on the gearshift. He glanced at the blonde. "We don't see much of each other, and I figured we could talk on the way."

Avery frowned. "Talk? What about? Am I in trouble?"

"No." Bill rolled his shoulders. "I … I guess just about whatever. Anna and me, we don't really know what's going on with you. And we want to."

Bill and Anna Mercer had been his foster parents for the last three years, though their house had not been his first foster home. The first two had put Avery back in the system after his ADHD had driven them crazy. The money the state provided to care for fosters hadn’t been worth putting up with him.

So Avery made sure Bill and Anna got plenty of time to themselves. He went away every weekend he could, stayed in his room, and did his best to stay out of their sight.

Avery bit his lip. "What do you wanna know?"

Bill kept his eyes on the road and smiled. "Well, for starters how's school? I mean, besides the grades." He shifted down smoothly as the truck glided around a steep turn. "Nobody's picking on you or anything?"

At this, Avery frowned. "Why, because guys like me are asking for it?"

Bill's Adam's apple moved as he swallowed. "That's not what …" He released a breath. "Just, nevermind."

Awkward silence ruled in the cab of the truck; the only sounds were the road under the tires and various creaks of metal as the vehicle rounded curves.

He doesn't want to know. Avery's breath frosted the glass of the passenger-side window. Nobody does. Avery's leg bounced, the only outward display of his nervous energy.

Finally, they pulled into the campground. Avery sat up. "There he is." Lee was at the kitchen, head down, working away at something.

They stopped at the Airstream. "Who?" Bill put the truck into park.

Avery flinched, realizing he'd spoken aloud. "My friend, Lee." He opened the door. Without another word, he leaped out, shoving the door shut behind him.

⟽⟾

"Hi, Mr. Mercer." Mason smiled at Bill. He glanced at Avery already headed toward the kitchen. "Well, someone's eager to get his camping weekend started."

"Hey, Mason." Opening his door, Bill slung Avery's backpack over his shoulder. "So eager he forgot his bag." He nodded toward Cabin Four. "He in his regular spot?"

"Yeah. Jeremy and the Raven Project have already paid for his stay and meals." Mason fell into step beside Bill. "I'll open it up and give Avery the key."

"Thanks. It's great, what the Raven Project does for the kids."

Mason grinned. "I'll tell Jeremy you said so."

Once the cabin door was unlocked, Bill put the bag on the futon. Digging into his shirt pocket, he pulled out a small rectangular box. It rattled as he unzipped Avery's bag and tucked it inside.

"Is … are those Nerds?" Mason peered curiously over his shoulder.

Bill chuckled and closed the bag. "Yeah." He straightened and followed Mason out to the asphalt loop. "We know Avery likes them." He shivered. "Pure sugar. Not for me."

"Yeah, he seems to enjoy the desserts and sweeter things."

They headed toward the kitchen.

"You missed me! Admit it!” Avery's chiding tone carried across the campground as he harassed the other person in the small structure. Avery laughed. Real delight rang in the sound, and Bill unconsciously smiled.

Don't hear that from him much.

"Avery," Mason stepped up to the counter interrupting the reunion, "here's your cabin key."

"Oh, yeah." Avery took the key. "Thanks."

The skinny guy in the apron standing awkwardly off to the side made Bill frown. Where have I seen him? "I'll see you Sunday, Avery."

"Okay. Yeah, see you then."

Avery turned away, but Bill hesitated. As an afterthought, he stuck out his hand. "Hi. I'm Bill, Avery's foster Dad."

The mousy-haired teen shuffled forward. He shook Bill's hand. "Hi. I'm Lee."

Oh, I know who you are now. Bill clenched his jaw and forced himself to release Lee's hand. "You a camper here too, eh?"

Avery hovered near, watching the interaction, anxiety apparent on his face.

"Yeah." Lee nodded.

"Hmm. Well, you two stay out of trouble."

"We are!" Avery stepped up beside Lee, almost defensively. "See you Sunday!"

That's Avery, mister subtle. Bill forced a smile. "Sure. See you then."

Turning with Mason, Bill waited till they'd arrived back at the Airstream. He looked back at the kitchen where Lee and Avery began working together on some dish destined to be dinner. "Do you guys know that young fella is a hustler in town?" Bill scratched his head under the ball-cap he wore. "I've seen him working corners, getting into and out of cars. Not hard to figure out what he does to get by."

Mason sighed. "We know. He's not doing that here. He's here for a second chance." He followed Bill's gaze to watch the pair. Mason seemed to key into Bill's line of thought. "Don't worry. Avery's safe. We won't let anything happen to him."

Bill knew Greg, the owner of the campground, took safety seriously and genuinely cared about the kids. "Okay." Everybody deserves another chance. Just like the one we gave Avery. He relaxed slightly. I'll give Greg a call later. “Well, I'd best get back." Bill nimbly entered his truck. He started the old but well-maintained machine.

Mason stepped back, smiled and waved. Returning the gesture, Bill pulled around the asphalt loop, slowing as he passed the kitchen along the way. Avery and Lee were so caught up in what they were doing, they didn't seem to notice the vehicle at all.

With a sigh, Bill drove past them to the exit. In the growing dark of evening, he turned west toward town and headed home.

⟽⟾

23 October (Friday, Evening)

"Of course, Mr. Mercer." Greg had the phone to his ear as he stepped out of the kitchen. Leaving Avery and Lee to handle serving a dinner of rich, beef stew to the line of waiting campers, he took a few steps and leaned against a nearby redwood. "I've got time to talk."

"Okay. Well, I just wanted to be sure Avery is all right." Bill sighed. "I know, I'm likely worried for nothing, but … well, I've seen that other boy around town. Lee."

Mason had already told Greg about Bill's concerns, and he smiled. "I understand. I do." Greg watched as Lee did his part, portioning out the evening meal right alongside Avery. "I'll make a commitment that I'll personally keep an eye on Avery. I can't watch him every second, but I'll do my best to make sure he has fun, and is safe doing it."

Bill audibly sighed in relief. "Okay. I know you're trying to do right by the kids, and I guess Lee isn't much more than that." He hesitated. "Avery loves it there. It feels almost like torture if I even suggest he stay home a weekend."

The note of jealousy in Bill's tone surprised Greg. "I … well, we just try to give him a good place to be … well, to be himself."

Bill grumbled. "Maybe he'll give us a chance to do that someday." He cleared his throat. "Sorry. Anyway, I'm glad he's got you guys. Let me know if he needs anything."

"Sure. Will do. Goodbye, Mr. Mercer."

"Bill. Please, just call me Bill."

"Bill it is. See you Sunday."

They hung up and Greg gazed at Avery. He and Lee had finished with their line of campers and settled beside one another at the kitchen counter. Their own steaming bowls of stew and a chunk of bread sat before them.

Avery has something precious in his foster parents, and he can't even see it. Greg slipped his phone back into his pocket. He headed to the kitchen and stepped behind the counter. "Nice job getting through the line, guys."

Both boys nodded, their mouths full of stew and bread. Greg helped himself, mouth watering at the savory scent. He covered the pot and found his place next to Clay at the picnic table.

The whole group ate, largely quiet as hunger made food a priority over conversation. About halfway through his bowl, Greg glanced up. Lee leaned over, a subtle smile on his lips, whispering something to Avery.

Avery guffawed and pushed at him.

Maybe it'll work out. Greg eyed the pair. They're allowed to be friends. As Lee snickered and resumed eating, Greg nodded to himself. Like I said to Bill, I'll just keep an eye on them.

Chapter four is posted!
Keeper. The title of this chapter could mean a few things. I'm curious to see what others think of both the chapter, and how the title relates to it.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and rating the work. I look forward to replying back! 🙂
Copyright © 2021 Wayne Gray; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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