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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. 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. 

Tales from the Refuge - 1. Harry

"No, we don't have a problem with gay people," Harry's dad said.

Hurriedly taking out his earbuds, Harry leaned forward, suddenly interested in the conversation between the salt and pepper guy at the window and his dad behind the wheel.

"All right then." The man pointed. "Your cabin is down the lane here, number five, just past the tip of the loop."

"Thank you, sir." His dad shook the guy's hand. "I'm Dan, this is my wife Laura," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "and our son, Harry."

"I'm Clay." The pleasant man dipped his head and smiled at the occupants of the car.

"Nice to meet you," Laura said and looked toward the river. "How's the water this time of year?"

"Great! It's always cold, but it's warm enough for a good dip."

Gay? Why'd he ask about gay people? Harry's eyes shifted back and forth between the adults as they spoke. He suddenly realized Clay's gray eyes rested on him. "Err. What? What?"

Clay cocked his head, still smiling. "Just asked if you liked camping."

Swallowing, Harry laughed nervously. "Uh, I've never really done it."

"Well, if you wanted to try, there are a few tent sites still open, and we've got a couple of loaner tents." Clay patted the top of the car. "Just let us know if you wanna try it. Otherwise, you folks have a great stay in your cabin. Let us know if you need anything, okay?"

"Will do, Clay." Dan put the car into drive. "Thanks again."

Unbuckling his seatbelt, Harry dropped his Switch on the vinyl. Then, gripping the front seats, he pulled himself forward. "Hey." He squirmed, and the car moved, passing various tents, campers enjoying the sun and cabins.

Laura glanced at him. "Yes? What is it, hon?"

"What," he waved a hand back toward the entrance to the campground, "what was that he said about gay people?" Harry strove for a detached tone, though he didn't know how well he'd achieved it.

"Oh, apparently, this is some gay-friendly camp," Dan said from the driver's seat. "He just wanted to make sure we didn't have a problem with gay folks." He pulled over beside a cute cabin with a metal number five screwed beside the door. "Well, it looks like this is it."

"I'm glad to be out of the car!" Laura opened her door and got out. She stretched like a happy cat.

We don't have a problem with gay people? Harry exited the vehicle, then glanced warily around. Two young women walked down the paved loop, laughing. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts, with sensible-looking sandals on their feet, they had colorful towels draped over their shoulders. One had her arm comfortably around the waist of the other.

She noticed his attention. "It's a great day for a swim." She grinned and waved, and then they disappeared down a trail marked River.

"They've got the right idea." Dan cracked his back then made a relieved sound. "Okay, let's unpack so we can get to relaxing and splashing around."

Activity calmed Harry's mind. He helped carry their week's worth of supplies into the cabin. Done with most of that, he dug out the last item in the trunk—his duffel he'd packed with clothes. Slinging it over his back, he straightened.

"Hey." A guy with dirty blonde hair and dark brown eyes walked up. He wore a smile and no shirt, his tanned torso partially covered by a damp towel over a shoulder. "I'm Gus. You guys just get here?"

Harry did his best to keep his eyes up on the young man's face. The way his shorts clung wetly to his hips proved a powerful distraction, but somehow Harry managed. "Yes. I'm Harry."

Gus grinned. "Awesome. We're here almost all week. It's a great spot, and we don't have to worry about people being weird about the whole gay thing."

Wetting his lips, Harry shook his head once. "Uh, I'm … I'm not gay."

"Oh, well, that's cool. I'm gay enough for us both!" Gus laughed. His teeth were the whitest Harry had ever seen.

Harry had to grin along with him. "Heh. Well, that's good."

Both boys hesitated. Harry's pulse thudded in his head, and he struggled to say anything at all. Before he could, Gus looked at something over his shoulder.

"Hello." Laura stepped forward, extending a hand. "I'm Laura."

"Hi. I'm Gus." They shook hands.

He's so confident, like an adult.

His dad joined them, and he too had a turn, introducing himself to Gus.

"My folks are around the curve, cabin six." Gus pointed. "If you guys wanted, you could share our grill for dinner—we're grilling burgers and chicken with some veggies."

"Your folks?" Harry frowned. "You're not with them?"

"I've got a tent next to their cabin." Gus shrugged. "I like my privacy, and it's warm out with no rain forecast. It's sorta perfect weather for it, so why not?"

"Huh. Yeah."

"Maybe we'll stop by, introduce ourselves and bring over some stuff to grill." Dan smiled. "Thanks for the invite, Gus."

"Sure." He took a step away. "I'm gonna go change. If you want me to take you down to the river, or hang out, let me know, Harry."

"Yeah. Yeah, okay."

With a brilliant, departing smile, Gus turned and walked away.

"He seems nice," Laura said. "Maybe you won't be as bored as you thought out here, Harry."

"Maybe." He hefted his clothes. "I'm gonna put my stuff away."

"Okay, son." Dan watched his boy disappear into the cabin then shared a knowing look with Laura.

↜↝

"Nice to meet you, Dan. I'm James." The willowy, tall man shook Dan's hand. "Gus said you folks might be by."

"It was nice of him to make an effort to talk with us." Laura smiled and approached a short, stout woman setting up a chair. "I'm Laura."

"Francine. Great to meet you, Laura." She motioned at their campsite. "We've only got our three chairs, but if you have some, bring them over and join us."

"We do." Dan began the walk to their cabin. "I'll get 'em; thanks for sharing your site with us."

"Of course."

"And you must be Harry." James smiled warmly and held out a hand.

"Yeah. Hi." Harry shook hands with the man. He knew my name. Did Gus talk about me? And where is he? Harry looked toward the gray and blue tent staked next to the cabin.

Francine noticed. "Oh, Gus is down by the river. I think he's helping one of the hosts dig some clay for the pottery class he's doing tomorrow."

"Oh. Okay, that sounds, uh, that sounds good."

"Pottery? Really?" Laura shook her head. "Wow. What a great place."

"It's wonderful." James sighed. "It's a fantastic environment for our boys. They can just be who they're meant to be, with no trouble from anybody else."

Harry's shoulders tensed. "I'm not gay."

James blinked. "Oh, okay." He turned eyes that felt far too aware on Harry. "Our son is gay, and we're here to support him. The reason we're here is it's important to us that he's around people who don't make him feel bad for being who he is."

Though James had gently spoken the words, Harry almost felt slapped. "He told me. I'm okay with it." He unconsciously hugged himself, his hands rubbing his arms.

Laura rested a hand on his shoulder. "Good. People can just be themselves here, and that's nice, right Harry?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it's nice." He rubbed sweaty palms on his shorts. "Mom, I'm gonna go down to the river."

"Okay, son. Be careful."

"I will."

Harry left them, forcing himself to walk instead of sprinting away.

↜↝

Francine smiled to herself as Harry walked quickly away. The expression on Laura's face was one she knew, and she sat forward in her chair. "He'll figure it out." Francine tried to be reassuring. "This is a good place for that, and he'll figure it out."

Laura's worry hadn't disappeared, but she nodded her thanks. "Yeah. Thank you. We keep waiting for him to tell us, but we don't know what's holding him back."

Dan returned with the chairs and had caught enough of the conversation. "We have been hinting around for months that it'd be fine, but it just makes things awkward, and he changes the topic, or," he put down the chairs and waved a hand toward the river where Harry had disappeared, "he just runs off."

Laura opened a couple of drinks and handed one to Dan. Francine watched them. She's trying to keep him level. He's worried, and I understand why—poor thing.

"It has to be hard." James opened a beer, handed one to his wife, then sat in his chair beside her. "Gus is a strong kid, and he came out to us a couple of years ago like he expected a fight." He shook his head, incredulous. "With us! We're the most socially liberal people in Redding!"

"It's Redding." Francine patted his hand. "So that's a pretty low bar, hon."

They all chuckled. After they'd taken a sip and relaxed back in their chairs, Dan sighed. "Well, Gus seems pretty well-adjusted." He held up his drink. "Cheers to a job well done."

"Thank you!" Francine and James grinned and joined the toast.

Wiping her mouth, Francine nodded sagely. "Harry is going to be okay." She looked conspiratorially at her husband, then back at Dan and Laura. "I know he will."

Dan laughed and shook his head. "Well, I'm glad you're sure. But can you tell us how you know that?"

"I got this, hon." James leaned forward, elbows on his knees and beer dangling from his hand. "We know because of something so plain to us." He smiled. "You love him. You love him, no matter what. And that's all he needs to know—that your love isn't conditional." James sat back and motioned at their surroundings. "That you would bring him here. It shows him more than you could ever say."

Quiet for a few heartbeats, Dan cleared his throat. "I just want him to be okay." His voice wavered, and Laura reached for his hand. He squeezed. "I don't care who Harry brings home; I just want him to know he can. And that we'll—" He wiped his face. "That we'll love whoever he chooses right along with him."

Francine's smile remained, and unshed tears glittered in her eyes. "And that. That is why we know he will be okay."

↜↝

Gus hefted the chunk of orangy-yellow clay into the plastic bucket.

"Oh, that's a great one!" Elias grinned. He glanced at the smear of clay on Gus' front. "Maybe you should have stuck with your other shirt."

Looking down at himself, Gus shrugged. "Eh. I didn't bring any clothes that can't get dirty."

Gus liked Elias. Talented, driven, and cute, he ticked many boxes Gus looked for in a guy. Too bad you are taken. Gus smiled easily at the potter.

They continued with their work. Gus had offered to help gather the raw clay if it meant he could attend Elias' workshop on pottery for free. Elias had jumped at that, so for the last few days, Gus had helped for an hour each day. Though Gus just liked being around Elias and hadn't much interest in pottery. He sighed when Elias pulled up the end of his shirt to wipe his face, exposing his flat belly. I guess I like torturing myself. He smirked at his thoughts.

"Hello?"

Speaking of torture—the cute straight boy. Ugh. Gus forced a smile when Harry picked his way carefully around the trees growing from the bank. They were digging clay from a deposit downstream from the main "beach" used by the campers. To get there, they had to walk the narrow band of sand beside the river, and it wasn't exactly easy.

"Hey, Harry." Gus waved.

Harry flashed a smile, and a spear of longing shot through Gus.

"Hey." He stepped over a smooth rock and nodded at Elias. "Hi. I'm Harry."

"Elias." He waved a clay-covered hand. "Sorry, clay."

"Haha. It's okay."

He's nervous. "Harry, soon as I help Elias get this up the trail, you wanna hang out?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure." Harry shrugged, attempting to look disengaged.

Elias's gaze shifted between the pair. He reached down for the bucket. "I've got it. You guys go ahead, and I'll see you at the workshop tomorrow, Gus?"

"Really? Okay, thanks. Yeah, see you then, Elias."

Gus led the way back toward the campground beach. They soon stood on the edge of the sandy stretch of riverbank. Gus looked down at himself. "Okay. I guess I need another change."

"Yeah." Harry ran a finger down his clay-smeared t-shirt. "You're filthy."

Things shifted at Harry's touch, even though all of it was well above Gus' waist. Gus quickly turned to head up the trail. "Yeah. I'll go change; then we can walk around."

Harry followed him. They squeezed by another camper on his way to the water. They stood close to one another on the narrow trail to allow the man to pass, their shoulders together as they shimmied by the fellow.

Urgh. Damn it. Stop. Swim trunks were a bad idea! Gus secretly readjusted things. With his tent nearby, he walked straight for it. "I'll be out in a minute." Luckily, though the voices of his and Harry's parents carried from the front of the cabin, they couldn't quite see him and Harry unless they got up and peeked around the corner.

"Okay."

Gus entered his tent with a relieved sigh. Inside, he quickly changed into a pair of cargo shorts and a t-shirt. Okay. Better. Even if I get a woody, it won't be so obvious. Satisfied, he crawled out.

Harry stood next to the tent, his arms crossed, shoulders tense. He looked at no particular point somewhere in the woods bordering the campground.

Gus got to his feet and zipped his tent. "Okay. Ready." Hesitating a moment, he decided to go for it. He put a hand on Harry's back. "Wanna take a walk?"

Harry gulped. He nodded. "Sure."

Gus let his hand slide away. "Okay. Come on; I'll show you the kitchen and then Elias's studio. Those are my favorite things here."

"Okay."

They set a slow pace, first walking past the front of the cabin rented by Gus's parents. All four adults perked up from their camp chairs when they appeared on the road. Gus waved. "We're just taking a walk!"

"Okay!" James returned his wave. "We're gonna grill in about a half-hour!"

"Sounds good, Dad!"

They continued. Harry carefully observed the couples they walked past, his shoulders gradually relaxing.

"What are you thinking about?" Gus asked and gently bumped him.

Harry glanced at him, then faced forward again. "Just that it all seems so normal. All these people." He looked again at Gus. "You."

"There's no such thing. 'Normal'." Gus sighed. "We just are. All of us just are."

Frowning, Harry nodded. "Yeah, I guess."

By this time, they'd drawn up even with the kitchen. A man was preparing some meal behind the counter, and Gus waved. "Hi, Greg! What's for dinner?"

"Hey, Gus. Since it's so warm, we have Sante Fe chicken salad."

"Ohhh. We're grilling, but we might pay in for a couple of those to split for a side!"

Greg smiled. "Good idea. It'll be here if you want." He waved. "You guys enjoy the evening; it's turning out to be a beautiful one."

"Thanks, we will."

Harry seemed introspective and unhurried, and Gus let him set their pace. They moved on past more cabins, campers starting evening fires, and kids playing together in the grass between the great redwoods. Universally, the scenes felt relaxing. Yet, a tension emanated from Harry.

"What's it like being gay?"

Gus looked at his companion. Harry kept his eyes locked ahead, his jaw set. Gus took a breath. "Well, what's it like being straight?"

Harry frowned. "If you don't want to answer, that's fine, but don't make fun of me. I was just wondering."

"I'm not." Gus gripped his arm to stop him. "I'm serious."

Harry stared at him, almost accusatory. Then his expression shifted to confusion. "I … I don't know how to answer that."

Gus slowly nodded. "Well, same. I'm gay. It's how I am; it's how I'll be. And it's just a part of who I am."

In response, Harry stared at him. The lost expression on his face made Gus ache. "Hey, come on." He pulled on Harry's hand. "Let's just sit a while."

Harry let Gus lead him off the pavement. He parked them under an ancient tree. Gus settled in and looked down.

Harry still clung to his hand and stared at their intertwined fingers. Harry gently squeezed, then he raised uncertain eyes to Gus's.

A smile flickered on Gus's lips. "I like holding your hand."

After a moment, Harry looked away. "It's not weird?"

"No."

Flushing red, Harry exhaled. "Okay."

They sat quietly, watching the campground. The evening slowly darkened, and Harry reached to trace the fingers of his other hand over Gus's arm.

"That feels nice," Gus spoke in a hushed voice.

Harry nodded. "Good."

Gus closed his eyes, trying to simply enjoy the moment. Yet, the desire for more pushed him, and he shifted position. He slid a hand on the back of Harry's warm neck and drew him in.

There under the protective limbs of a forest giant, Gus gave a tentative yet eager Harry his very first kiss.

↜↝

The week passed so quickly to Laura. She and Dan had hit it off with James and Francine while their sons had become inseparable. She'd watched as Harry abandoned the usual distractions of his phone and video games to spend time with Gus, actively choosing him time after time.

Gus and his family had left the day prior, and Laura had found herself emotionally watching her son. He'd struggled. He hugged Gus next to their packed car, clinging to him far longer than social convention would allow a boy. For his part, Gus openly streamed tears, unashamed of his emotion.

After they'd gone, Harry began taking long walks and quietly spent time by himself at the riverside.

Finished packing, they did a once-over of their rental, then they got into their car, heading back to the coast.

The first hour passed quietly, with the family content to spend the time watching the world go by. Getting to some construction on the rural roadway, they stopped to wait for a light placed to direct one-way traffic.

"Mom? Dad?"

"Yes, son?" Dan glanced in his rearview.

Harry stared out of his window, took a breath, and nodded to himself. "I have something to tell you."

Laura and Dan looked at one another, and she reached to take her husband's hand. He squeezed tight. "Yeah, hon?"

Harry's lips trembled as he struggled, and tears streaked down.

"I … I'm gay."

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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