A soft, rapid knock woke Lee. Sleepy and decidedly not a morning person, he got out of his warm, comfortable bed and staggered to the front of the cabin.
He leaned against the door. "Who is it?" The sun filtered through the curtains illuminating the cabin in a muted, diffuse light.
"Hey, it's me."
"Mmph. Okay." Lee unlocked the cabin and opened the door.
Avery immediately tracked down and flushed. "Ah, uh … sorry." He forced his gaze back up, a surprised smile on his face. "Did you wanna get some clothes on?"
Lee's eyes widened. "Oh, shit." He shut the door in Avery's face. "Just a minute!"
Stark naked, Lee hurriedly retreated back to his bedroom. Beet red, he pulled on a pair of sweats and his hoodie. He shot a glare at the door as he bent for his socks.
"I can hear you! I'm not awake enough to remember clothes,” he yelled. “Stop laughing!"
Breakfast that morning was a simple affair of pancakes, bacon, and eggs. Eating his food, Bailey watched Lee and Avery work the kitchen. They seemed more at ease and in their element. Additionally, the morning was notable because the pair handled breakfast completely on their own, though Greg sat nearby.
Easily at hand, Greg had his coffee at his elbow and the inventory sheet in front of him. His empty plate had been pushed aside, and he worked at reconciling the food used versus the money in the donation jar.
Harlan elbowed Bailey, then signed. "Pancakes were good. Crispy and soft."
Bailey nodded. "Yes. They did a good job." He jerked his head toward the kitchen. "Say so."
There was only a split second of annoyance, but Bailey caught it. He smirked at Harlan. "It's the price for talking about them in ASL."
"Fine." Harlan cleared his throat. "Hey. Good breakfast, guys."
A smile split Avery's face and Lee nodded. "Thanks." Lee accepted the praise with only a slight pinkish hue.
Bailey and the rest of the campers took their plates over to the plastic bin designated for soaking. The duo in the kitchen would clean them after everyone finished. Now that Greg had steady help, he had made that a part of the kitchen duties. This meant the campers no longer had to clean their own dishes.
That suited Bailey. After carefully stacking his items, he put an arm around Harlan's waist. Without another word, they headed back to the cabin they shared. They had packing to do for their flight the next day.
Once inside, Harlan checked the weather on his phone. "Looks like we'll need our thick jackets this trip." He made a face. "It's gonna drop down below freezing overnight in Hailey over the next few days." They were due for their monthly journey to see Harlan's boss, Corbin, and would be in Idaho for three days. Though, oddly, their travel plans gave them a full day to get to Hailey.
Harlan sat at his laptop. "We're stopping over in Colorado Springs and staying overnight before flying to Boise."
Bailey knew better, but he still asked. "Why?"
With his hands on the keyboard, Harlan responded verbally. "I'm overdue to check in on someone, and I really shouldn't put it off much longer." He glanced at Bailey. "Don't worry - there's no danger involved." Harlan pursed his lips. "Well, almost none. Anyway, I'd have sent you to Hailey ahead of me if there was."
"Corbin asked this?"
Harlan's grim smile only made Bailey more curious. "No. This concerns someone I knew from … before." He nodded at their closet. "Do you mind starting my bag? I'll help when I'm done here."
Knowing Harlan would say more if he could, Bailey agreed. A year ago, Bailey had promised Harlan that he would trust him. So far he had, and so far Harlan had proven when it came to matters of the heart that he would never cause Bailey to wonder where he stood.
This was not a matter of the heart; this was Family work. Bailey pulled both of their bags from under the bed. Well used and in good condition, he put the luggage on the futon. As Harlan typed away, Bailey found himself curious as to what awaited them in Colorado Springs.
“So, besides horror films, what do you like?” Lee asked a scrubber-wielding Avery as they cleaned dishes. Left alone to clean up after their meal, Lee attempted to make small-talk.
“Camping, candy, cake.” Avery cocked his head. “And ...” He paused as if unsure whether to reveal something.
“What?” Lee leaned into him. “What is it?”
Avery glanced at him, then sighed. “Okay. I really like romances and Soap Operas.”
Doing his best, Lee covered a snort of laughter with a polite cough. “Really?”
“Yeah!” Liberated from his secret, Avery excitedly waved a hand. “Oh! There’s this one, a Canadian one on a houseboat! It’s gay and really sexy. There’s a werewolf and zombies. But I like Electroboy!”
Lee was lost, but seeing Avery excited made him smile. “Well, maybe we can watch it.”
“Oh, that’d be so fun! Stella has just run away with Lupe's baby!” Avery grinned. He got back to washing. “What about you? What do you like?”
Lee shrugged. “Nothing, really.”
“Come on.” Avery gently bumped Lee.
Hesitating, Lee sighed. “Fine. Pretty much the only thing I like is Oxy. It’s what kept me going … before here.”
“What? Like drugs?”
The lack of judgment in Avery’s voice surprised Lee. “Yeah. OxyContin.” Just saying it aloud brought the craving back. Lee laughed. “But James isn't the camping type, so there's no getting that here.”
Avery thoughtfully washed another plate. “No. I guess not.”
There was no use pining away for OX he’d never get. Lee shook his head. “Anyhow, what time do you have to go?”
Letting his sudsy hands flop to his sides, Avery slumped. “They’re picking me up at eleven. Taking me to the grocery store, then to buy new clothes.” His tone slipped into a whine. “They know all my sizes; I don’t know why they’re making me go.”
“You’re lucky they want to,” Lee said without thinking.
“Why? The state pays Anna and Bill to let me live with them, and has for three years now.” Avery glared down at the dishes. “I try to stay out of their way so they don’t change their minds, like Julie and Edgar, and then Rebecca before them did.” He grabbed a glass and began to vigorously scrub. “Even paying wasn’t enough for them; they still sent me back.”
Lee didn’t understand. "But Anna and Bill haven’t. It's been three years. It seems like they want—" Lee stared. Great, silent tears rolled down Avery’s face. “I’m sorry.” He quickly dried his hands. “I’m sorry.” Lee embraced the blonde.
Avery breathed quietly as Lee held him. Finally, he spoke, though his words were a whisper. “Every time someone gets to know me, they send me away. I stay away, so they get their money, and don’t send me back.”
Patting Avery’s back, Lee didn’t know what to say. All he could do was hold on. So he did.
Anna put a warm hand on Bill's denim-covered leg. "It's going to be fine, hon." The muscles under the material moved as Bill worked the pedals of the old truck. "Try to just take what he's able to give, and maybe things will change."
Frowning, Bill sighed. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong." He shook his head. "He hates being around me, and I don't know how to fix it. The harder I try, the more he pushes away."
"Us." Anna corrected. "He hates being around us. It's not just you."
"Yeah." Bill wrinkled his nose. "He's nearly eighteen, Anna. He's going to leave without ever giving us a chance."
"No. He's not ready to be on his own." Anna watched a hawk fly over the truck as they traveled down the winding road on the way to the campground. "He's still a little boy inside, and he's scared." She patted his leg. "We've got a bit of time yet."
His hands flexing on the steering wheel, Bill considered. "Maybe."
The next few minutes passed in silence until they arrived. Bill turned into the camp. He pulled up to Avery's assigned cabin and put the vehicle in park.
"I'll go get him." Anna opened her door then shut it again. "Nevermind."
Avery left his cabin, his bag over a shoulder. The young man, Lee, accompanied him.
Casting a wary glance at the truck, Avery gave Lee a parting hug.
"Is that the boy you told me about?" Anna watched the pair.
"Well, let's not give him any grief." Anna smiled as Avery opened the back door of the extended cab behind the driver's seat. "Hey, Avery."
"Hi." He tossed his bag onto the seat and climbed inside. He sighed and returned a wave from Lee as they pulled around the loop.
"How's Lee doing?"
Though Bill's voice had been neutral, Avery frowned. "Fine." Avery leaned an elbow against the sill.
"Did you have fun?" Anna smiled.
"Yeah." Avery stared at the scenery as the truck picked up speed.
Bill glanced at Anna. She could almost hear give up in his gaze. She wasn't done trying. "What was your favorite part of the weekend?"
"Just being there." Avery shrugged.
"Well, tell us one thing you like about being there," Anna continued. She nudged him. "Come on. That's not too hard."
Wetting his lips, Avery finally looked at her. "I … just hanging out with Lee."
"Yeah? What'd you guys do?"
The slightest beginning of a smile twitched on his lips. "We watched a movie and cooked stuff for the campground." Avery laughed. "He got scared during the movie."
Bill's hand found Anna's and he silently squeezed as she coaxed Avery into interaction.
She squeezed back. "Did he? Were you watching a scary movie?" Anna tried not to be excited. The conversation was one of the longest they'd ever had.
"Yeah." Avery snickered. "I asked if he liked scary movies, and he said yes." He shook his head. "He doesn't like scary movies. Alien was fun because he was so jumpy."
"Sounds like he was trying to impress you," Bill offered.
"Really?" Avery frowned. "Why?"
Anna chose her words carefully. "Avery, it sounds like Lee likes you. When people feel that way, they want the other person to like and be impressed by them."
She watched as Avery considered. "You think he likes me?"
"It sure seems that way." Bill cleared his throat. "Avery, if you want, we'll go by the drugstore and pick some things up for you."
Anna expected the worst as Avery hesitated. The teen stared out the window. "Okay." He squirmed. "You mean condoms?"
"Yes. Lee has a history, and you need to protect yourself."
"It wasn't his fault," Avery growled. "He only did it bec—"
"Avery." Bill's tone brought Avery's eyes to meet his in the rearview. "I'm not blaming him for anything, or you either." Bill refocused on the road. "It just is. It just is, and you need to protect yourself."
Avery fidgeted in his seat.
"You do like him, huh?" Anna smiled. "It's okay if you do."
Avery shrugged, looked at Anna, then smiled in a sheepish expression. "Maybe." He blinked and quickly turned his head.
Barely catching the tear that had escaped from Avery, Anna held back her own. "It really is okay." Releasing Bill she reached back to put a hand gently on Avery's knee. "You can talk to us. We want you to."
As he stared out of the window, more tears came. Avery wiped his face and silently nodded.
After another comforting pat, Anna faced forward. She looked at her husband.
A bemused smile turned his scruffy face into a handsome study of unexpected happiness. He glanced at her. She grinned.
Initially worried about Avery's interest in this Lee fellow, now Anna felt almost thankful. Something had shaken loose thanks to him. Both she and Bill would much rather Avery avoid sex until he was older, but they had both started at sixteen. It was only a matter of time. At least this way, we get to make sure he's safe.
Largely quiet the rest of the way to town, Avery sat up as they pulled into the parking lot of Safeway. "Can we get cake?"
"Cake?" Bill laughed. "Why?"
Avery opened his door. "Why cake?" Avery shook his head as if it were the most ridiculous question ever.
Anna and Bill followed behind the teenager as he led them into the store. She leaned into Bill. "I could get behind some cake," she whispered.
Bill sighed, then surrendered with a laugh.
28 October (Wednesday morning)
In the middle of the week, between first and second period, Avery watched as Vance, a second-year senior, held court near a bank of lockers in the hall. About a half-dozen younger kids laughed and agreed with whatever the dark-haired guy said.
Typically someone he avoided, Avery straightened his spine and walked up, eyes locked on Vance.
"What do you want?" Vance examined him critically. His little crew of sycophants looked Avery up and down, judgment writ on their faces.
Rumors about Vance had made the rounds in school; Avery set out to see if they were true. "James said you could help me." Somehow he held his voice steady. Avery casually slipped a thumb into his pocket, attempting to adopt Vance's posture.
Those dark eyes narrowed slightly. "Did he?" Vance made a shooing motion. "The rest of you, go on. Looks like blondie and me have some talking to do."
Vance slid an arm around Avery's shoulders, steering him down the crowded hall. "Just what was it James said I could help with?"
Avery wet his lips and dropped his voice. "He said you could help me get some OxyContin."
"Yeah. Absolutely." James moved the phone to his other ear. "The kid has no clue what he's got." He chuckled. "Six Ritalin for two Oxy?" He grinned. "I've got truckers who will pay and pay well for 'em." James leaned back in his chair. "Good job, Vance. I don't know where he got my name, but I'm glad he did." He nodded. "Do it. Make the trade."
30 October (Friday, early evening)
"Great work tonight, Lee." Greg patted his back as Lee finished the dishes. "You've got steak down. No do-overs needed."
"Thanks." Learning to accept praise, Lee smiled. Though Greg must have seen behind the expression.
"He'll be here." Greg tried to reassure him. "Anna said they were running a bit late, that's all."
"Oh." Lee nodded. "Okay, good."
"Yeah. So let's make sure he has some dinner."
"I saved a plate for him." Lee gestured at the oven. "Just keeping it warm."
"Well, of course you did." Greg bent to retrieve a plastic bag. Lee looked over his shoulder as it rattled. "So, ah," Greg seemed nervous, "I've got something for you."
Lee dried his hands and faced him. "What is it?"
Hesitating at first, Greg handed the bag to Lee. "It's just something small." He shrugged. "Don't get excited."
Lee took the bag. Gingerly, he reached in and pulled out a thick cotton apron. Holding it up, he let the article of clothing unfold.
On the front of the tan-colored apron, over the left side, Lee's name had been emblazoned in silver thread. Under that in smaller print was "Camp Cook".
Lee grinned. "Oh, that's so cool."
"You kept wearing ours, and I thought," Greg motioned at the new apron, "I thought you could use your own."
Nodding, Lee removed Clay's "Kiss the Cook" apron and tied his into place. Greg's gaze roamed over him. He nodded. "Yeah. That looks good."
Both men stood quietly for a moment. Greg chuckled. "Anyway, I'll see you la—"
Lee hugged Greg hard. The younger guy squeezed. "Thank you."
Greg nodded. "Yeah. You're welcome." He smiled as the embrace drew on.
"Hey!" Avery stood on the loop, hands on his hips. "Where's my hug?"
With a chuckle, Greg extricated himself from Lee.
"Avery!" Lee smiled over the counter. "I'm glad you're here."
"Yeah. Me too."
"Oh, come on. I've got food for you."
Avery made his way around the kitchen counter and surprised Lee with a hug. "Important stuff first!"
Lee laughed, his head against Avery's neck. "Okay."
Avery sniffed and released him. "What's for dinner?"
"Steak, potato, and there's salad in the fridge." Lee bent to remove Avery's food from the oven.
"Sounds great!" Avery blinked as Lee straightened. "Hey! Where'd you get that apron?"
Lee put the warm plate on the counter. "Greg, he …" Lee looked around, confused. He and Avery hadn't noticed, but Greg had slipped out of the kitchen. He had almost disappeared in the evening, passing the Airstream on his way to his house next door.
Avery joined Lee watching Greg until he had gone from sight. The blonde smiled. "That was nice of Greg."
"Yeah." Lee took a deep breath. "It was."
Pulling up a seat, Avery looked with undisguised anticipation at his meal. "Okay. Food." Avery smiled. "Then, do you wanna watch another movie?"
Lee winced. "S-sure." He nodded. "Yep, sounds good."
"Great!" Avery cut that first bite off his steak and held it up on his fork. "Oh, and I have a present for you too."
Lee cocked his head. "Really?" He gave Avery a fond smile. "What?"
Standing inside Lee's cabin, Avery excitedly took the tiny plastic bag from his pocket. "Look!"
Lee's eyes widened. "Is …" He reached beyond Avery, shutting the door behind him. "Is that OX?"
"OxyContin. Yeah. I got it for you." Avery upended the bag in Lee's hand. Lee stared down at the pair of tablets.
Lee wet his lips. "But … you could get in trouble." Lee frowned. "Greg told me drugs will get us kicked out. I know how much you love it here." He looked back up, confusion on his face. "Why did you do this?"
Flushing red, Avery rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, you wanted it. And Greg won't find out. I thought we could take it together and watch our movie."
Lee blinked. "You want to take it with me?"
"Yeah!" Avery waved a hand. "I take drugs all the time!" Avery's world included a strict regimen of Ritalin which helped him concentrate. "Yeah, I want to."
The two looked at each other, then Lee pulled Avery close. Avery didn't know what to do with his hands as Lee gently kissed him.
Closing his eyes, Avery fell into the moment, his skin prickling with endorphins. Lee pulled back and looked at Avery in wonder. "Okay. I'd like that."
Avery chuckled. "Okay." He nodded, trying to clear the heady feelings from his mind. "I, ah … I brought a soda to wash it down."
Lee and Avery took seats on the futon. Each took a tablet. Lee swallowed his then chased it with grape Fanta. He grinned as Avery copied him. "What a great night."
Avery wiped his mouth. "Yeah." Their eyes locked, and Avery leaned into Lee. Again, the act of kissing Lee sent chills across his skin.
They parted and Lee smiled. "You taste like soda."
"You too." Avery laughed.
Lee licked his lips. Clearing his throat, he nodded at the laptop on the coffee-table. "You wanna start the movie?"
"Sure." Avery got the laptop started, and queued up their film. "This time, we're watching one called The Abyss. It's not as scary as Aliens."
"Oh." Lee risked putting a hand on Avery's leg. "How come? You like horror movies."
"Yeah, but you don't."
Lee smiled and leaned against Avery. "Thanks."
Reaching down, Avery laced fingers with Lee. "Welcome."
The opening scene began, and Avery settled in, happier than he had been in a long time.
Twenty minutes later, Lee lay with his head on Avery's chest, watching the film. The OxyContin had begun to kick in, spreading a mellow warmth through his body. He sighed, content and happy.
Avery's ribs rose and fell, almost lulling him to sleep. But … there was a strange sound.
Lee frowned, then pushed himself up. Avery stared, his gaze glassy. A faint wheeze accompanied every breath, and his lips had an odd blueish tint.
"Hey." Concern burned through some of his buzz. "Hey, you okay?" He shook Avery's shoulder.
The youth blinked slowly. "I … I don't feel right." Avery wet his lips. More wheezing. "Lee, I don't feel right."
"What's wrong?" Panic crept into Lee's voice. Avery responded with a gasp. His eyes fluttered, then closed. "Avery!" Lee shook him and Avery slid down the back of the couch to lay on the seat. "Avery!"
Lee shot to his feet. "Hold on! I'm getting help!"
Running outside, Lee pounded on the first door he came across.
Joseph opened the door. "Lee?"
"Officer Wells!" Lee grabbed his shoulders. "It's Avery! He's in trouble!"
"Where?" Joseph immediately followed Lee out.
Lee took him inside, and Joseph dropped to one knee beside the couch. After one look at Avery, Joseph's voice changed to pure authority. "Lee, tell me what happened."
Hands tightly held to his chest, Lee furiously rubbed his right with his left. "We took oxy." Joseph shot him a look. "I didn't know he'd— "
"Go get Greg, now. Tell him we need an ambulance, and tell him about the oxy." Joseph gently moved Avery from the couch to the floor. Lee stared at Avery, frozen in place. "Lee. Go."
Jarred into motion, Lee ran out into the night, sprinting for all he was worth.
This is a nightmare. Greg positioned the mask over Avery's face. This is a nightmare, and Clay will wake me, any second. "Get back." Lee hovered right at his side. "He's not pushing enough air, and I need to do it for him." Greg leaned down, giving Avery a breath through the mask. He watched as the youth's chest rose and fell, then he gave him another. I'm waking up any second. Come on. Any second.
Clay spoke quickly on the phone to Bill, Avery's foster dad. He hung up. "They're meeting us at the hospital."
"Orson, let the ER know we're going to meet the ambulance." Orson nodded and dialed. Greg stood with Avery limp in his arms. "Let's go."
Mason walked with Jeremy. The young administrator of the Raven project bore a stricken expression. "He's my responsibility. I'm going too."
"That's fine, Red." Clay opened the van for Greg. "Lay him on the bench seat—you can use the mask while kneeling on the floor."
Greg began to respond, when Lee stepped inside the van. His eyes narrowed. "No." He lay Avery on the seat then pointed at Lee. "You have done enough. Get out." Greg positioned the mask once more on Avery's face.
Joseph gripped Lee's shoulders from behind. "Come on."
"He's my friend." Lee's voice rose as Joseph forcibly pulled him out of the van. "Please! He's my—"
The sliding door shut, cutting off Lee's plea.
"Go, Clay." Greg bent and sent another life-giving breath into Avery's lungs.
Moments later, they were on the road, hurtling toward town, as fast as Clay dared in the dark and rain.
In such a small place, word traveled fast. Additionally, Harlan made it a point to ensure he knew everything worth knowing. The van with Avery and those with him had left only a few minutes earlier. Harlen watched Joseph as he spoke to Orson under the shelter of their cabin porch. Joseph's phone rang, and he picked up. After a short conversation, he stuck his head in Lee's cabin.
"Stay here. We'll be back."
Bailey joined Harlan as he watched Orson and Joseph get into Joseph's car.
"Will he be all right? Avery?"
Harlan nodded. "Should be if they get him there in time." He eyed Lee's cabin. The curtains shifted slightly as Lee moved around inside. Rhythmic little movements, back and forth. "Bailey, I'm going to check on Lee."
Bailey grimaced. His expression told Harlan much—that Bailey didn't think Lee was worth the time.
Regardless, Harlan started for the cabin, only to stop as the door opened.
Clutching a garbage bag, Lee pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt against the rain.
Harlan and Bailey watched as Lee slung the bag over his shoulder and left, disappearing into the dark.
Well, here we are.
Weeks of effort, work, and progress undone in a moment. Avery's life is in danger, while Lee runs away from the only place he has ever found peace.
But they are not the only ones hurting ...
Recovery is such a tenuous thing. The combination of perceptions of those around him, assumptions on both his and Greg's part ... they conspire to wreck his life.
This chapter, I'm asking a lot of you. I'm asking you to trust me. Stick around, and let's see if next week we can get a bit of sun after the night.