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    Wayne Gray
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Camp Refuge - 18. Healer

June 08 (Friday, 8:00 a.m.)

Two more days passed at the campground and plans continued for Mason's party. Though at the moment, Mason, Greg, and Clay were all around the patio table. Jeremy had gone to work in town and would return that evening, however, Orson was nowhere to be seen.

His absence didn't go unnoticed. "Guys, have you seen Orson?" Clay asked as he stopped by the patio table. "Has he not come out of his cabin today?"

Greg and Mason looked at one another. Greg shrugged. "I've not seen him. He didn't even come out for coffee this morning."

Mason nodded. "Yeah, the French press in the kitchen was still under the counter when I made breakfast this morning. So he didn't use that one, or come over to visit us when we had our coffee here."

Clay looked worriedly over at Orson's cabin. "I'm gonna go check on him."

"Okay." Greg made a face. "Yesterday he seemed miserable and was moving pretty slow. He's probably sore from his fall you told us about. I tried to include him a couple of times in things, but he wasn't biting." Greg smiled up at Clay from his seat. "Let us know if he needs our help with anything."

Clay nodded. "I will." He patted Greg's back and walked over to the cabin. He knocked. "Orson? Hey, did you want some breakfast?"

He heard the metallic ring of a crutch and movement from inside. "No. Thanks anyway." There was no mistaking the despondence in Orson's tone.

"Buddy, let me in. I'm worried about you."

There was a moment of silence, then the lock was undone. Orson opened the door. Clay inhaled a little in surprise.

Orson was shirtless, only wearing a pair of shorts. His trunk was crisscrossed with scrapes and scratches, some of which looked angry and swollen. Orson wordlessly turned and hopped over to the futon.

Clay's face fell as he saw Orson's back. There were three spots where he had thorns still embedded in his skin. They looked infected and swollen, with red welts around them, each seeping fluid.

"Orson… dude." Clay entered and gently gripped Orson's shoulder. "Hold on, right there."

"What is it?" Orson asked. Then he made a knowing noise. "Oh, the scratches. Yeah, they probably look worse than they are." He sighed. "It's why I'm not wearing a shirt. The ones on my back hurt."

"There are blackberry thorns in your back, Orson. That's why they hurt so much." Clay sucked air through his teeth. "Why didn't you say something?"

Orson looked over his shoulder at Clay, his eyes carrying surrender and desolation. "I didn't know about the thorns. It hurts, but I didn't want to bother anybody."

Clay's lips pressed into a thin line. "You're not bothering anybody, but we have to fix this. It's going to get worse if we don't. We need to take you to the clinic."

"No." Orson frowned and shook his head. "I don't want to go to the clinic. It will probably cost a lot of money, and I don't have much I can spare until my disability payouts start."

"We can cover…"

Orson's eyes flared with anger. "No. You guys won't pay for me. I'm not going."

Clay worked his jaw. "Okay. Then you at least have to let us get those thorns out, and doctor up your back." Clay folded his arms over his chest. "If you won't let us take you to the clinic, then that's happening. You don't have a choice."

Orson glared at him a moment, then his shoulders slid down and he sighed. "Okay."

"Good. I'm gonna get Greg, and we'll take care of you. All right?"

Orson sat on the futon and put his face in his hands. Clay looked down at his distraught friend, then sat beside him. "Man, it's okay." Clay patted his shoulder. "It's going to be okay."

Orson looked up, and silent tears streaked down his face. He swiped angrily at them. "I just want to stop being a project. You know? I don't want to need help. I don't want to have to be taken care of." He shook his head. "I appreciate you guys, I really do. But…" He took a shaky breath. "I think maybe I should leave. I hate being a burden on you all."

Clay knelt down in front of Orson. "Okay, you need to stop." His eyes locked onto Orson's. "We knew we'd be in for a little bit of work when we planned to do this for you." He rubbed Orson's leg. "Buddy, we accepted that, right off the bat. Greg and I both did."

The black-haired man looked back at Clay. He didn't look convinced, but he swallowed and slowly nodded. "All right."

Clay patted his knee. "I'm gonna get Greg. We'll be back."

Leaving Orson's cabin, Clay found Greg and Mason at the patio table. Greg noticed Clays' grim expression as he approached and stood up.

"What's wrong?" Greg asked.

Clay blew out a breath. "Orson needs some help. His back is all torn up from his fall. We're gonna have to take out some thorns."

Mason's face mirrored how they all felt. "What? He fell two days ago!"

Clay nodded. "I know. They look like they're getting infected. We've gotta get those things out of him." He grimaced. "I tried to get him to go to the clinic, but he refused."

Greg thought for a moment, then looked at the Airstream. "I've got a great first aid kit. Figured I'd need it for various hurts and scrapes campers get. I'll grab that." He turned to Mason. "Can you heat some water and leave a big pot on simmer? We'll probably need it to clean him up."

Mason nodded. The teen loped across the campground to the kitchen and they heard the sound of pots rattling about.

Though Greg and Clay both had training as first responders, Greg had taken their medical training farther. He had toyed with the idea of becoming a paramedic in addition to a cop, and he had a smattering of other medical training under his belt.

Clay smiled at Greg. "Thanks, Greg. Sorry for the trouble."

Greg was confused. "Why are you apologizing? Let's take care of our friend."

Clay grinned at him. "Sounds good."

A couple of minutes later, Clay and Greg entered Orson's cabin. The black-haired man was still on the futon where Clay had left him.

Greg took a look at his back as they walked in. "Hey, Orson." He winced at the raised red marks. Each was over an inch across. In the center, there was the black butt-end of a thorn that had been ripped out of the blackberry vine as he had fallen. Around that yellow-white pus gathered in a ring. A fragile layer of skin grew over the top and was stretched tight by the pressure beneath. They all looked extremely uncomfortable.

"Hey." Orson leaned over with his elbows on his knees. He stared at the floor, not bothering to look up.

Greg bit his lip as he thought. "Clay, I'll be right back. I'm going to grab my old cot in the Airstream." He assessed the injuries on Orson's back. "This is probably going to be messy. I want to do this outside. Easier cleanup and the sunlight will help me see what I'm doing."

He left the room and Orson sighed while reaching for his crutches. He stood and Clay followed him outside.

Greg carried the cot over to the pavement in front of Orson's cabin and set it up. Orson looked down at it, his face impassive.

"All right. We need you to lie down on your belly, Orson." Greg took his crutches and Clay helped Orson lie down. The black-haired man turned his head to the side and shifted a little to get comfortable.

Mason appeared with a steaming metal pail of water. "This water is almost too hot to handle," he said as he sat it down beside the cot. "But I figured you could put cold in it if you needed."

Greg clapped him on the back. "No, this is good. Thanks, Mason." He took a washcloth and dropped it into the pail, then knelt beside the cot. He put a gentle hand on Orson's back. "I'm going to use hot water to clean things up. It should feel good, and help dilate these injuries. Hopefully, it'll make it easier for me to get the thorns."

Orson nodded. Greg took a pair of tweezers out of the kit and rubbed them with an alcohol pad. Then, once they were dry, he set them aside on a little sterile pad he had set up beside the cot. "Okay. Are you ready?"

Orson nodded again and his hands tightened on the sides of the cot.

Greg reached into the hot water and got the steaming rag. He whistled a little at the temperature and held the cloth up for a bit to let it cool slightly. Then he gently lay it on the first thorn. Orson inhaled and closed his eyes. "You okay?" Clay asked watching Orson's face. The man wet his lips and nodded.

Greg waited until the rag had cooled, then lifted it and made a surprised sound. "Well, that was ready to come out." The heat had caused the vesicle over the thorn to pop, and the offending briar slid out under its own pressure. He plucked it off Orson's skin with the tweezers. The injury oozed a little blood and quite a bit of pus. Greg cleaned it up with sterile gauze as it came out.

Orson made a relieved noise. "That feels better. It felt so tight before. It's a lot better now."

Greg smiled. "Good, but we're not done yet." He took the rag and dropped it back into the hot water. "Okay, two more to go."

Ten minutes later, Greg gently washed Orson's entire back. All the thorns were out, and the wounds had been drained. Clay had watched and assisted as needed, while Mason stood nearby during the whole process and alternatively watched, then turned his head away when there was "stuff", as he called it, coming out of Orson.

Greg squeezed a small amount of antibacterial ointment on each injury and covered them with 2x2 gauze pads. He secured them in place with sturdy silk tape. "Okay, we'll have to change these daily until you heal up. Though I don't think it'll take long, maybe a couple of days - now that the thorns are out, it should go fast."

Orson sat up on the cot and nodded. "Okay, thanks." He made a face. "Sorry for the trouble."

Greg sighed. "Orson, man, I don't need an apology. I need you to promise me something."

Clay watched as Greg's posture and tone changed. It was subtle, but he could tell that Greg had moved into his "I need you to understand this" mode. He had seen it many times over their years as police partners, and now he could recognize it instantly.

Orson seemed to hear the change in Greg's voice too. He looked up at Greg's eyes, his own unsure. "Uh, okay."

"We're all brothers - you, me, and Clay. What happened to you could have happened to any of us. So this is our duty. When we agreed to have you out here, we made a commitment. We committed to helping you. But there was an implicit agreement that you would let us help you." Greg knelt in front of him. "I guess that wasn't clear enough. So let's make it explicit - I need to hear you say it. I need you to tell me you're going to let us help you." Greg shook his head. "We don't want to hold your hand, Orson, but all of us need help now and then." Greg cocked his head in a question. "So, I'm asking, are you going to let us help you?"

Orson looked at Greg. Then his eyes shifted over to Clay and Mason. In every face, he could see the commitment to him. He came back to Greg, and after a moment he nodded. "Yeah. I will. I promise." Orson took a cleansing breath and Clay knew this was something of a turning point for Orson. Perhaps it was only one of many, but it was progress.

Greg patted his shoulder. "Good." He stood up and held out a hand. Orson looked up at him, smiled, and grasped it. Greg hauled him up to his foot. "Now, I'm gonna make some more coffee, because you've not had any. Are you hungry too?"

Orson nodded. "Yeah, but I can handle my breakfast." He grinned. "You tend to overcook eggs. Thanks anyway."

Greg's mouth dropped. "Bastard! You can make your coffee too!"

Mason howled with laughter, while Orson and Clay grinned.

June 11 (Monday, 12:01 AM)

Jeremy's first realization as he woke was the sensation of fabric sliding off of his body. Mason gently pulled his briefs down, and the teenager sidled back up against him.

"What are you doing?" Jeremy smiled over his shoulder at his big spoon. He was still tired and sleepy. "What time is it?"

"It's just after midnight," Mason said in his ear. "And I'm now an adult." That last part, he spoke in a low growl.

Jeremy's eyes widened. He had been at the campground all weekend, and though they had kissed and snuggled plenty, Mason had insisted neither of them get off. "I want us to save it," he said when Jeremy had asked him if he wanted to play around.

Mason pressed himself against Jeremy from behind, his arm tight across the redhead's chest. Mason was hard, and he slowly rubbed his erection up and down across Jeremy's opening.

The sensation was maddening. Jeremy's mouth opened as he breathed heavily. "Are… are you sure about this? You really want to? With me?"

In response, Mason reached for their lube. He squirted some in the palm of his hand and rubbed it against Jeremy's rear. Mason toyed with him a little, and Jeremy inhaled as one finger slipped inside him. "I want to." Mason breathed in his ear. The finger rotated a little and worked at stretching Jeremy a bit. Then another joined it. "And I want it with you."

Now Jeremy wanted it too. He wet his lips. "You'll have to go slow and easy. I've not done this in a long time."

"I will. I'm not going to hurt you." Mason's fingers left Jeremy's body and he lubed himself too. Mason positioned himself. Jeremy felt Mason's breath against the back of his neck. "I'm never going to hurt you," he whispered. A slight pressure began and then let up. Pressure, then none. Again and again, Mason's hips moved back and forth.

Jeremy loved the pressure and sensation. He didn't even notice as Mason slowly increased the force he used. Using far more patience than Jeremy knew he possessed, Mason steadily worked until he slipped inside.

"Ahhh." Jeremy breathed rapidly. "Oh, God."

He allowed Jeremy to adjust, then Mason resumed. He took his time and thrust by thrust he slowly disappeared into Jeremy's body.

"Fuck. Oh, Mason." Jeremy felt Mason's pelvis against his rump. He rolled his head around on the pillow, almost incoherent with sensation and lust. Mason's hand found Jeremy's leaking dick, fist moving up and down while his cock rhythmically slid in and out of the redhead.

"Oh, this feels so good," Mason said. The teenager began to pick up his pace. "Oh man. I'm not gonna last long."

Jeremy had lost the ability to form coherent words. He gripped Mason's arm, and his body tightened on the young man's member. Jeremy gasped and cried out as he released. His load was considerable, and it shot onto a towel that had mysteriously been placed on Jeremy's side of the bed. He looked down as semen spurted out of him and onto Mason's hand.

The teen groaned as Jeremy's body locked down on his cock. He convulsed and shoved forward. He held position there, and Jeremy felt Mason's delivery shoot into his body. Mason pumped a few more times, then finished with a shiver.

They lay there, tangled together in both body and spirit. Jeremy felt the moment hit him, and he could no longer deny reality. As Mason nuzzled the back of his neck and planted a soft, sweet kiss there, Jeremy breathed.

"I love you, Mason."

Mason laughed, a joyous and elated sound. "I love you, Jeremy." Mason squeezed tight, and he smiled behind the redhead. "I thought sex was going to be your gift to me… but I was wrong."

Jeremy grinned. The two lay there. Mason eventually slipped out of Jeremy. "I'll be back." Jeremy got up and pulled on a pair of shorts.

Mason grinned in understanding. "Here, I'll walk you to the restroom."

After a quick trip to the facilities, the guys climbed back into bed. Again, Mason spooned Jeremy, and they settled in for the rest of the night.

Soon, they were both asleep.

June 11 (Monday, 1:00 p.m.)

"Oh yes! Yes yes yes!" Avery bounced up and down in the passenger seat in Jeremy's car. His eyes were as round as saucers as they turned into the campground.

Patrick lounged in the back seat along with a bunch of their camping gear. He giggled at Avery and rolled his eyes. But Jeremy knew the boy was just as excited - he only hid it better.

He parked at their regular tent site and Samantha ran up to the car. Samantha and Elias had been dropped off at the clinic in town and then picked up by Greg in the van. Elias hung back but smiled at the car. The quiet boy continued to work at setting up his little tent.

The kids piled out and the three each hugged one another. Elias watched them. Patrick seemed to notice and called out, "Hi, Elias!" He smiled and waved. Elias smiled a little and raised his hand, then turned back to his tent.

Jeremy helped get the kids' equipment out of the car. As he put Avery's cooler on the grass, a pair of arms circled him from behind.

"Hey." Mason held him and rubbed his chin against Jeremy's neck. "I missed you."

Jeremy laughed. "I was only gone for an hour!" He turned, and Mason kissed him. All of the Raven kids stopped and stared. Jeremy looked around while Mason grinned.

"That's right, kids. This one's mine." Mason shook him back and forth a little.

A cheer went up from three of the kids, while Elias only grinned. "It's about time, Mr. Adams!" Patrick said. Then he remembered something. "And happy birthday, Mason!" All of the kids echoed that and Mason laughed.

"Thanks!" Mason smiled at all of them. Then he winked at Jeremy and released him. "I'm gonna go see if Greg needs help to unload the van." He kissed Jeremy once more. "See you in a little, boyfriend."

Jeremy grinned and watched as Mason sped off.

'I can't believe this.' Jeremy shook his head at himself and got back to helping the kids set up their tents. 'I have a boyfriend. Wow.'

Clay shook the metal support of the badminton net and nodded, satisfied that it was sturdy enough to last through the party. There was commotion behind him, and he turned to see Jeremy's car arrive. Chaos ensued as teenagers ran around, young people hugged and exclaimed happy greetings, and camping supplies began to appear from the vehicle.

He watched as Mason hugged Jeremy. As the two young men looked at one another and then kissed, and Clay saw the look on Mason's face as they separated. It suddenly hit him.

'My boy's in love. He's really in love.' He watched as they interacted, then closed his eyes. "Our son is in love, Kathy," he whispered. He let the beauty of it settle in his mind, then he looked once more at the pair and began to stream tears.

This time he let them fall.

Orson put himself right in the middle of the madness. He crutched his way near Mason's cabin where most of the kids had gathered and were in the process of setting up their tents at the nearby sites.

One blonde boy looked at him and his eyes widened. "Whoa!" He pointed where Orson's missing leg should be. "Is that real?" He waved his hands around. "Like, really gone?"

"Avery!" Jeremy twisted around from assisting a little thin blonde boy in setting up his tent. Jeremy had a stricken look on his face, and he glanced at Orson, his expression apologetic.

Orson laughed and waved away the concern. Then he looked at Avery. "Yep. It's really gone."

"Wow." Avery seemed fascinated and stared at Orson's injured leg. Then he was distracted by a girl carrying the things needed to make smores. "Sam! Are we making smores?!" The boy left his tent half-finished and walked quickly after her.

Orson grinned. 'Oh, this is gonna be fun.'

Greg watched as Clay walked over to the unruly and shifting group of kids. He introduced himself and he soon chatted with all of them. Greg checked his pocket one final time. He could feel the smooth metal and the small bumps caused by the slivers of turquoise in the band. He swallowed nervously and licked his lips.

'He already knows how you feel. Jeez, man, get a grip.' He nodded to himself and smiled again at the happy chaos.

"You gonna work, or you gonna make the birthday boy do it all?" Mason quipped as he walked by, two bottles of soda under one arm and a bag of ice in his hand. He looked over his shoulder at Greg and grinned as he continued to the kitchen.

Greg shook his head. "You're not too big to spank!" He yelled at the teenager. Greg laughed when Mason picked up his pace a little.

He bent and lifted a cooler filled with hamburger patties, hot dogs, and some vegetable skewers. With a smile, he followed Mason over to the kitchen, the cooler in his arms.

It was another hour before the tents were set up and their things put away. But at last, all of the Raven Kids gathered around the picnic table near the kitchen. Greg had already started grilling burgers and hot dogs, and there was a plate of them covered with tin foil to keep the yellow jackets away. Once he got them started, he put Mason in charge of the grill.

"Your dad and I need to go get your gift." He grinned as he handed over the spatula and tongs. Mason's face shifted to a curious expression, but he only nodded and smiled at Greg. Then Clay and Greg left in the van.

The kids all sat on the picnic table benches, with Elias on the end. Orson slowly made his way over and he took the end across from the small, blonde boy. Greg had told Orson that Elias was sixteen, but it was almost impossible for Orson to believe. The young guy was so little! He was barely five feet tall, and if he were over a hundred pounds Orson would have been surprised.

Patrick cocked his head at Orson. "Orson… are you gay?" He looked slyly at Avery. "Someone wants to know."

Avery opened his mouth in surprise. "Patrick!" Samantha cackled with laughter, and even Elias looked amused at their antics. The blonde teenager sputtered. "I was just curious!" He glowered at Patrick.

Jeremy shook his head at them and checked in with Mason at the grill. After Mason assured him he had things in hand, Jeremy headed toward Mason's cabin.

Orson smiled broadly at the kids. "I'm not gay. I'm asexual." All of the kids frowned a little.

Elias surprised him. "What's that?" Orson hadn't heard the boy speak at all until now.

"Well, it means I'm not attracted to anybody at all."

Avery looked disappointed. The other three looked fascinated. Over the next ten minutes, Orson answered all sorts of questions from the kids about his sexuality.

Then they heard the sound of the van as it turned back into the campground. All of the kids got to their feet, eager to see what sort of gift Mason had received.

Mason seemed pretty eager too. He turned and walked out of the kitchen toward the van. Then another vehicle pulled in behind it. Clay drove the little green Nissan truck behind the van, and all of them could see the grin on Clay's face from the kitchen. Mason started running toward them. The little truck had a short bed, four doors, and an extended cab, and though used, it was in great shape.

"No! No way!" He jumped up and down as he got close. And when Clay got out, he leaped into his father's arms. "Dad! Oh my god!"

There was pandemonium as the kids, Greg, Clay, Mason, and then Jeremy when he came out of Mason's cabin, all converged on the truck. Orson smiled as Mason put a hand on the hood. He looked utterly blown away by the gift. Sure, it was a used truck, but Orson could tell the young man was completely overwhelmed by it.

"Good job, partner," Orson said quietly. Orson wished he had the funds to help with the purchase, but Clay and Greg had assured him they could handle the cost.

Then Orson noticed movement and turned his head. Elias still sat in his spot. He looked calmly at the celebrating crowd and smiled. Then he glanced at Orson. "They're pretty happy."

Orson nodded. "Yeah." He looked a little bemusedly at the boy. He glanced over at the group and then back to Elias. "You don't wanna go celebrate with them?"

Elias sighed. "No. Not really." He looked at the crowd then smiled slightly. "I can be happy from here."

Orson felt a twinge of sadness for the boy, but he didn't have much time to dwell on it. At that moment all of their rowdy crew returned to the kitchen in a wave of joviality and noise.

Clay had his arm around Mason who stared at the keys in his hand. "Your own truck, son. I hope you get a lot of years out of it."

Mason still looked dazed and nodded. "I'm gonna take such good care of it, Dad. Thanks so much."

Clay jerked his chin at Greg. "Well, you need to thank that one too. He put up half for it."

Mason turned and threw his arms around Greg. "Oh my God, thank you!"

Greg laughed and patted Mason. "You're welcome."

Mason pulled back and wiped his face. "Man, I can't even think about how I can repay you."

A strange smile crossed Greg's lips. "Actually," Greg began, "there is something you can do. And we can call it even."

Mason nodded. "Tell me."

Greg reached into his pocket and pulled out a beautiful white gold and turquoise ring. "You can grant permission for me to be a part of your family. I'd like to give this ring to your father." Greg's voice cracked with emotion.

Everyone's breath caught in their throats, and Mason looked at his dad. Clay seemed stunned but elated. Mason turned back to Greg, his eyes filling with unshed tears. "He's yours."

Orson thought everyone had been loud over the truck, but apparently, he hadn't heard anything yet.

The party continued with food, cake, games, and music. There was no real set end to it. But some of the young ones began to tire as it grew later, and soon after ten p.m. they had gone to bed. The older folks stuck around the kitchen firepit and started a nice blaze. It was a night for talking, plans, laughter, and reflection.

All, that is, except for Orson.

He excused himself from the group. Orson built a fire in his own firepit and sat to relax in a camp chair in front of his cabin. The nighttime insects chirped and sang. The wind through the tops of the trees made a peaceful sound as it blew. He stared up at the stars overhead.

He didn't know what time it was, only that it was dark. He looked from the sky to the center of the campground and saw a few silhouettes of people at the central firepit near the kitchen. Good-natured laughter came from that direction, and he smiled.

'It's nice to hear happiness.' He inhaled and raised his beer to his lips.

A small sound on the road in front of his cabin caught his attention. Orson looked and saw the boy, Elias.

"Hey," Orson sat forward and smiled at the skinny teenager.

"Hey," Elias licked his lips and scuffed his feet on the asphalt. He stood nervously in the flickering light of Orson's firepit in front of his cabin.

"You okay?" Orson asked. From their previous interactions, he knew the boy was a nervous little thing, so he kept his voice low and calm.

Elias nodded.

"All right." Orson put his beer in the cup holder on his chair, telegraphed that he was about to stand up, and then he did. He leaned on one crutch while Elias watched him closely. "Did you want to have a seat? If you do there are some at the patio table. You could get another chair."

Another nod.

The boy went to the patio table and borrowed an empty chair. Nobody was there. Either they had gone to bed or they were at the central firepit near the kitchen. He returned and stood there, holding the camp chair awkwardly in front of him. Orson smiled at Elias and motioned with his free hand at the spot beside his chair. "Go ahead."

Elias bit his lip and watched Orson. He walked over quickly and sat the chair down as if Orson were going to grab him as he walked past. He turned and sat as fast he could and eyed Orson.

Orson looked down at him, a little worry and sadness on his face, and then took his own seat.

The two sat in silence for a bit, then Elias spoke in a wavering tone. "Are you really?" His voice was timid, quiet. "Are you really asexual?"

Orson looked over at the boy. Elias stared at the flames, a worried frown on his face.

"I really am. I don't feel attraction for anybody. I never have, and I probably never will." Orson watched Elias as he spoke to the boy.

Elias worked his mouth, and then he looked over at Orson. "You don't... you don't feel anything for me?" His eyes looked almost frightened as he stared at the dark-haired man.

Orson sat back in his chair, "Uh, no. Not like that. No." He smiled gently, "Sorry. Even if I did, you're a bit young, Elias."

A relieved smile flickered on the boy's face, then vanished, and he looked back at the fire. More silent time passed, and he took another breath. He forced the next words out of his mouth. "I know I'm weird. I know it's weird." He smacked his palms on his knees and took a couple more deep breaths. "The last time I was hugged was before… before… it started. And I know it's weird. But I know how long it has been. I've not been hugged in two years, three months, and fourteen days."

Orson looked at the boy as he sat. It was as if Elias had a tremendous amount of energy inside himself, and he almost vibrated with nervousness in the chair. He continued to stare into the fire.

"Elias... do you want a hug?"

The boy gripped his own kneecaps, and he squeezed his lips together tightly, so they were in a thin line. "You promise? Do you promise you don't like me? You don't like me, not like Danny did?" His voice now had a pleading, desperate tone.

Orson felt a hot stab of aggression toward this man, this 'Danny', and he swore to himself he would find out more about him. He nodded. "I promise." He used his crutch and stood up. He watched as the boy almost rocked back and forth in his chair.

Elias looked up at him, his eyes hollow and haunted. Orson had never seen such vulnerability and need in a person before.

Cautiously, slowly, Elias stood. Orson didn't move toward him. Instead, he put his arm out and smiled at the boy.

Elias took two shuffling steps, then gingerly put his arms around Orson's torso, his head turned to the side against Orson's chest.

As gently as he could, Orson closed his arm around Elias.

Elias was silent and still for a long moment, then his skinny frame hitched in a sob.

"It's okay." Orson rubbed his back. "It's okay." Orson wasn't sure what was happening in Elias' head. But he had witnessed the pain associated with abuse. He was now sure Elias had suffered more than his share.

Elias clung to Orson. As he cried, one word replayed over and over in his mind.

'Safe, safe, safe.'

The next morning, Jeremy was up early. He walked from Mason's cabin and headed up the loop toward the kitchen. He wanted to sit on the water's edge and maybe journal a bit before the day got going, but first, he needed coffee. As he turned the corner on the loop, he noticed something odd. In front of Orson's cabin, he saw an unzipped sleeping bag that lay in the dewy grass and then another on top of it to create a little bed of sorts. It looked as if a person lay between the bags. A single socked foot stuck out of the sleeping bag that was on top of the still body.

He frowned and stopped in his tracks, then walked over to the sleeping bag. That's when he noticed the other pair of socked feet tangled up along with the first foot he saw.

Jeremy carefully pulled back the corner of the sleeping bag.

Orson lay in what had to be an uncomfortable position - on his back, while Elias lay halfway on top of and against him. Orson's arms circled the teenager, and both were dressed in soft, comfortable clothes. Elias was completely out, his face on Orson's shoulder, and when the sleeping bag moved, Orson opened his eyes.

He blinked tiredly at Jeremy, and then looked down at Elias. "Wow. I guess I fell asleep after all," he whispered, so as not to wake the boy.

Jeremy gawked at the sight, completely unable to make an intelligent sound.

Orson smiled at Jeremy. "He didn't want to be alone last night, and I didn't want to take an underage young man into my cabin."

Jeremy shook his head and made a motion at Elias. "But... he won't..." His eyes moved around as he tried to reconcile what he saw with what he knew. Finally, he looked into Orson's eyes. "What did you do? He doesn't let anyone touch him."

Orson smiled and looked down at the still sleeping Elias. "I guess... he was ready." He turned his face back up to Jeremy. "I'm honored he picked me for this." Then he made a face and tried in vain to stretch his contorted back. "Though, now my spine is in need of a serious massage." Orson looked back down at Elias and he squeezed the boy as if he were his own. "But… it's worth it."

Jeremy stared a little longer and then shook his head. "I don't know what you did," his eyes welled up as he looked down, "but that young man is a wounded soul." He smiled at Orson. "I'm glad you're here."

"Me too. This is where I'm supposed to be." A smile pulled at his lips. "I had doubts, but I know that now." He grinned at Jeremy. "I'm right where I'm supposed to be."

Those who have been hurt the most tend to understand the pain of others.

I hope you enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Copyright © 2019 Wayne Gray; All Rights Reserved.
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