Castle Roland


by MultiMapper


Chapter 8

Posted: N/A

The Poison in the Apple

Copyright © 2011 MultiMapper.
All Rights Reserved.

   The sound of movement in the cabin awoke Brian. He contemplated remaining in bed for a while, because he felt like he could still use some more sleep. But, in the end, his curiosity got the better of him.

   As he climbed out of the sleeping bag, he remembered two things. First, that he was naked. Second, that Jack's father had arrived in the early hours of the morning. Taken separately, both were good things. But at the realization, Brian felt a moment of panic since his sleep fogged mind couldn't remember where he had put his sweat pants.

   "Do you drink coffee?" Cameron, dressed in only boxer shorts, asked in a whisper as he folded down his cot.

   Brian's panic subsided as he saw Cameron's casual expression. Brian was naked. Cameron could see him. And it was obviously no big deal.

   "Yeah." Brian answered, then added, "Since about three days ago."

   Cameron nodded and gave him a quick grin at the statement, then put his folded cot beside his backpack.

   Brian looked around and spotted his sweat pants and sweat shirt draped over the crates he was using as a dresser.

   After dressing in the sweats, Brian walked into the kitchen and automatically grabbed two of the empty water jugs. He stopped long enough to pull on his coat and boots, then continued on out the door.

   The air was cold and the grass was crisp with frost.

   On the way to the spring, Brian stopped to relieve himself at a convenient tree.

   After filling the water jugs, he started walking back to the cabin.

   His warm breath puffed out as a hazy cloud in the frigid air.

   The world seemed so fresh, as if the rain had washed it clean and everything was like new.

   Ignoring the weight of the water jugs he was carrying, Brian slowed his pace to take time to appreciate the beauty of his surroundings.

   As Brian walked into the cabin, he saw that Cameron was busily working in the kitchen.

   "Is there anything I can do to help?" Brian asked quietly, so as not to wake Jack.

   "Nope. You just did it. Thanks for getting the water." Cameron said appreciatively, then continued, "But you should get out of those wet clothes before you catch a chill."

   Brian shrugged, then went to his side of the bed to choose some clothes to wear for the day.

   Once he had made his selections, Brian began to skin out of the damp sweats and didn't realize until he was pulling on his underwear that Cameron was watching.

   He met Cameron's gaze and gave him a look of question.

   "You said that you're shy. I'm not seeing it." Cameron said simply.

   Brian felt a smirk come across his face as he said, "I think you're seeing all there is to see."

   Cameron chuckled, then knelt down to check the fire in the stove.

   Once Brian was completely dressed, he walked to Cameron and asked, "Is there anything I can do now? Jack taught me how to make toast."

   "That sounds like him." Cameron said with a grin, then added, "We won't be needing any toast, we'll be having biscuits this morning. But if you want to help, you could mix up some orange juice with that water you just brought."

   "Orange juice?" Brian asked with surprise.

   "Yes. I brought a can of frozen juice. It's in the ice chest. I'm betting you guys have depleted all your vitamin C with that dehydrated food of Jack's." Cameron said with a grin.

   "Well, I don't know anything about the nutrition and stuff, but his food tasted good. I'd rather have food that tastes good than food that's good for me." Brian said in Jack's defense.

   "Let's see if we can manage to have both." Cameron said warmly.

   "What do you want me to mix the juice in?" Brian asked as he looked around.

   "There's a pitcher in the cabinet over there." Cameron said with a gesture.

   Brian nodded, then went to work.

   "Good morning." Jack said with a contented smile as he scuffled into the kitchen, wearing only sweat pants.

   "The coffee's just about ready if you want to get cleaned up for breakfast." Cameron said as he put canned biscuits on a baking sheet.

   "Is there anything I can do to help?" Jack asked as he pulled a sweatshirt on over his head.

   "Too slow. Brian already beat you to it." Cameron said with a glance at Brian, who was washing and slicing some apples.

   "Be right back." Jack said with a grin as he walked to the front door and slipped on his coat and boots.

   When Jack returned, he noticed that Brian was sitting at the table sipping a cup of coffee.

   As he cleaned his hands with a hand wipe, he asked, "How are you this morning, Brian?"

   "I'm good. How about you?" Brian asked casually as he watched Jack pour himself a cup of coffee.

   "Fantastic. I love being up here with Dad." Jack said with a smile at his father.

   Brian turned his attention to Cameron and said, "From what Jack's been telling me about how awesome you are, I can understand why."

   "I'm just a dad. Nothing special." Cameron said humbly.

   "We figured out that Brian's dad sucks. So you probably looked like 'Super Dad' compared to him." Jack said frankly.

   "Jack, that's not a nice thing to say." Cameron gently scolded.

   "It may not be nice, but it's true. My dad sucks." Brian said firmly.

   "I've met your father, Brian." Cameron said as he matched his gaze, then paused to consider. Finally, he continued, "Actually, come to think of it, he was kind of a dick."

   "That's my dad." Brian said with a sigh of resignation.

   "But he did allow us to try and help you. He didn't have to agree to that." Cameron said seriously, then leaned down to check the fire in the stove.

   "I guess so." Brian said noncommittally.

   "The fire's ready. Who wants to help me cook?" Cameron asked with a grin.

   Brian and Jack both immediately stood from their places at the table.

   "Jack, you're on gravy. Brian, steaks. As soon as I have these biscuits baking, I'll start on the eggs." Cameron said seriously.

   "I've never cooked steaks before." Brian said hesitantly.

   "The steaks are seasoned and the skillet's just about at the right temperature, so all you have to do is cook the steaks about three minutes on each side." Cameron said simply.

   "I don't have a watch." Brian said anxiously.

   "Guess. Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on you." Cameron said casually.

   "Okay." Brian said hesitantly, then picked up the plate of raw steaks from the counter.

   "Just a second." Cameron said quickly, then added a spoon of something to the skillet that started to sizzle and slightly smoke. Once it had melted, he said, "Go on."

   Brian quickly placed the steaks into the skillet, then asked, "What was that?"

   "Lard. It needed a dab of fat to cook the meat right." Cameron said frankly, then worked his way in between Brian and Jack. They both scooted over slightly to give him room as he placed another skillet on the stove, behind Brian's.

   "I think we need a bigger stove." Jack chuckled as he waited for his saucepan of water to heat up.

   "No. I think this is just right." Cameron said as he put one arm around each of them.

   "Should I turn them yet?" Brian asked as he watched his steaks cooking.

   "Another minute, I think." Cameron said, then stepped away from the stove long enough to scrape up some butter onto his spatula at the counter.

   When the butter hit the hot skillet, it began to sizzle.

   Cameron walked back to the counter and picked up a carton of eggs.

   Brian watched in amazement as Cameron cracked the eggs into the skillet one handed.

   "Brian likes his yolks broken." Jack said quietly.

   "I can do that." Cameron said with a grin.

   Brian turned his attention to his skillet and decided that it was time to turn his steaks.

   Using a fork, he turned them over without any difficulty.

   "Would you get us some plates to serve from when the steaks and eggs are done?" Cameron asked as he tended the frying eggs.

   Brian nodded, then walked to the shelf where the plates were stored and took two down.

   When he returned to the stove, he saw that Jack was adding a pouch of dry country gravy mix to a saucepan of water.

   "Thanks, Brian." Cameron said gratefully as he accepted a plate from him.

   Brian smiled, then looked at the steaks, trying to decide if they were ready to be taken out of the skillet.

   "The gravy's done." Jack said as he took his saucepan off the stove.

   "Would you go ahead and take out the biscuits? They should be about ready." Cameron asked as he started taking the fried eggs out of the skillet.

   Brian decided that it had been about three minutes since he had turned the steaks and started transferring them to the plate.

   "Brian, take these to the table and I'll get the skillets off the stove." Cameron said as he handed Brian his plate.

   As soon as Brian had the steaks and eggs placed in the middle of the table, Cameron approached with more plates and silverware.

   Brian looked over to the kitchen area to see Jack moving biscuits from the baking sheet to a large wooden bowl lined with a towel.

   "Glasses." Cameron said absently as he walked back toward the kitchen.

   Brian looked at the table and realized that there was something more he could do. He went to the stove and picked up the coffee pot, then walked to each place around the table and topped off everyone's coffee.

   "Is that it? Is everyone ready to eat?" Cameron asked as he looked around.

   Jack took that opportunity to flash his dad one of his 'typical teenager' looks.

   Brian studied the expression carefully, knowing that sooner or later he would be able to make good use of it.

   "Just eat." Cameron said with fond aggravation.

   Brian took his seat and waited to see if they were going to do anything more before eating.

   Cameron reached across the table and snagged a steak with his fork.

   At the same time, Jack was taking biscuits from the bowl and splitting them open.

   Brian picked up the plate of eggs and found two that had been cooked with broken yolks and moved them to his plate.

   After that, he grabbed a steak, two biscuits and some of the apples that he had sliced earlier.

   As soon as he was finished filling his plate, Jack passed the gravy to him. Brian followed Jack's example and covered his split open biscuits.

   "What have you guys been doing up here the past few days?" Cameron asked casually as he started to eat.

   "We've scouted the area for fallen trees and gone up to the hot springs. With the rain, there wasn't a chance to do much else." Jack said frankly.

   "Were you two about to go stir crazy?" Cameron asked with a grin.

   "I suppose that might depend on your definition of crazy. We did some story telling and singing. Anyone watching us might have thought we were nuts, but we had a pretty good time, didn't we, Brian?" Jack asked with a smile.

   "Yeah. I never would have thought that doing something like that could be so much fun." Brian said timidly.

   Â "That reminds me, Jack, I brought your guitar. I left it in the truck so it wouldn't get wet." Cameron said seriously.

   "Thanks, Dad. I'm glad you brought it." Jack said happily.

   "What do you guys have planned for today?" Cameron asked casually.

   Brian looked to Jack with question.

   "I was going to show Brian some exercises that he can do when he gets home to help him with strength and coordination." Jack said simply.

   "Would you mind very much if we put that off for a while and did something that we can't do at home?" Cameron asked hopefully.

   "No problem. You could even show them to Brian during his gym class if you wanted to." Jack said simply, then curiously asked, "What did you have in mind?"

   "Have you taken Brian to the ridge yet?" Cameron asked with a smile.

   "No. We didn't have a chance." Jack said, apparently surprised by the suggestion.

   "This looks like it's going to be a perfect day for it. In fact, we could hike up, build a fire and have lunch and then spend the afternoon up there." Cameron said thoughtfully.

   "If we're going to do that, I'd really like to have my guitar." Jack said slowly.

   "Then you can hike down to the truck while we hike up to the ridge. By the time you join us, we should have the fire going and be about ready for lunch." Cameron said with a smile.

   "Yeah. That sounds good." Jack happily agreed.

   "And that would also give Brian and me a chance to talk." Cameron said as he turned his attention to Brian.

   For a moment, Brian looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.

    "It's nothing to worry about." Cameron said with a chuckle at the expression, then continued, "I'm sure you and Jack have talked about a lot of different things since you've been up here. Now that he's done the groundwork, I can follow behind him and maybe fill in some blanks or give you a different point of view about things."

    Brian thought about the words for a moment, then reluctantly nodded.

    "Just remember to take it easy on him, Dad. From the sound of it, he's pretty much grown up without a father, so you might come off as intimidating if you don't watch it." Jack said seriously.

    "No." Brian said as he turned his attention to Jack. "He doesn't need to take it easy on me. The only way I'm going to stop being a doormat is if I learn to speak up for myself."

    "That's right." Jack said with a proud smile at Brian.

    Cameron looked Brian in the eyes, then nodded his agreement.

    "What have you got there, Brian?" Cameron asked curiously as he noticed that Brian was packing a smaller backpack.

    "Just the shovel, toilet paper and the first aid kit, so far." Brian said as he glanced up from his work.

    Cameron nodded his approval, then asked, "Would you have enough room in there to carry some firewood?"

    "Sure. I guess so." Brian said cautiously.

    "I'd just like to have some dry kindling to start the campfire when we get there. Once the fire is going strong, we can use the wood we find up on the ridge." Cameron said frankly.

    Brian nodded, then took the tool belt with the hatchet and hand saw off the nail on the wall.

    Cameron smiled broadly at the action. He was amazed at how well Brian had adapted to life at the cabin in such a short time.

   Once both their backpacks were packed, they left the cabin and walked directly into the woods.

   "How are you doing, Brian?" Cameron asked quietly.

   After a moment to consider, Brian answered, "Right here, right now, I'm really okay."

   "But you're worried about what's going to happen when you go back." Cameron said, completing the thought.

   "Yeah. Jack says that it won't be the same when I go back because I'm not the same. I guess I'm just having trouble knowing what to expect." Brian said quietly.

   "I think that's perfectly reasonable in your situation." Cameron said honestly, then added, "Just remember, that if things get too bad, you can always come to me. You don't have to face it all by yourself."

   Brian glanced at Cameron curiously for a moment as they walked, then he said, "I think that was one of my problems."

   "What's that, son?" Cameron asked with interest.

   "As bad as things ever got, I never even once thought about talking to anyone about it. I was trying to handle it all on my own..." Brian trailed off in wonder.

   "Those days are gone forever. No matter how things turn out, Jack and I will be there for you." Cameron said frankly.

   "But what if..." Brian started to say, but seemed to think better of it.

   "What if, what?" Cameron prompted.

   "What if I can't handle it? What if I go back and I'm the same goofy dork that I was before?" Brian asked anxiously.

   "Jack and I will be there for you. No. Matter. What." Cameron said firmly.

   "Thanks, Coach... I mean, Cam." Brian stammered.

   "I can imagine with all that rain, that you two probably had a lot of time to talk. How did that go? Was Jack able to answer all your questions?" Cameron asked curiously.

   Brian thought for a moment, then said, "Yeah. At least, I can't think of anything that I need to talk about."

   They walked in silence for a few minutes. Both of them seemed to be more focused on their own thoughts than their surroundings.

   Finally, Brian quietly said, "Jack and I have been talking about Dillon quite a bit."

   "I'm really glad to hear that. It's hard for us to talk to each other about him. I guess the feelings are still too strong." Cameron said frankly.

   "Yeah. I could see that with Jack." Brian said quietly, then added, "But I think he felt better after we talked."

   Cameron nodded his understanding.

   "You're doing all this. I mean, helping me and stuff, because of him, aren't you?" Brian asked curiously.

   Cameron walked in silence and considered carefully before answering, "The best way I can answer that is to say that, if Dillon hadn't ever come to live with us, then I might not have been as sensitive to your situation."

   "I'm sorry that he died." Brian said quietly.

   Cameron nodded as they continued to walk, then hesitantly asked, "Does Jack blame me?"

   Brian turned and looked at Cameron with question.

   "...For Dillon's death." Cameron elaborated.

   "We didn't talk about that, but from what he did say, no, I don't think he blames you at all." Brian said thoughtfully.

   Cameron nodded, but didn't seem to be assured by the answer.

   As they walked in silence, Brian was regretting bringing up the subject of Dillon. They hadn't exactly been chatting like old friends before, but now Brian didn't have any idea of what to say that wouldn't make matters worse.

   "Jack wasn't there when it happened." Cameron said absently and it took a moment for Brian to realize what he was talking about.

   "I thought Dillon was in his room like he usually was. He liked to stay to himself. It wasn't until I went out to get something out of the garage that I found him..." Cameron trailed off as a tear slid down his cheek.

   Brian felt his own eyes welling with tears at the sight of Cameron's pain.

   "He hanged himself." Cameron choked out.

   Brian couldn't hold himself back anymore. He pulled Cameron into a firm hug to do what little he could to try and ease his suffering.

   "I can't imagine losing someone you love, like that." Brian whispered as he held Cam tightly.

   "It's funny, when I got married, and Jack was born, I thought I had the perfect life. I never even imagined that anything bad could happen. I thought I had everything I could ever want." Cam said distantly. He pulled out a blue bandana handkerchief and blew his nose, then shifted Brian to his side so they could continue walking.

   "What happened to make it all fall apart?"

   "Sylvia, my ex wife. I suppose, now that I think about it, she was just going through the motions, playing the part of the dutiful wife. And I was stupid or blind enough not to notice how often she was 'visiting with friends' or how she rushed away to take the three dozen phone calls she'd get each night. It turns out that for the last two years of our marriage, she was having an affair... probably more than one."

   "I don't understand how anyone could do that." Brian said quietly.

   "Me either. I can understand one of those 'in the heat of the moment' things, but what she did was intentional, planned out and long term."

   "So when you found out, you left her?"

   "It wasn't quite that simple. The way that I found out that she was having an affair is that she turned up pregnant. Our sex life had pretty much dried up by then. She was always pissed off about something, or not in the mood. Suffice it to say that there was NO WAY her baby could possibly have been mine." Cameron said bitterly.

   "So you left?"

   "No. I wanted to find a way to hold everything together, for Jack. I thought it would be best for him to have two parents, you know, a real family. I managed to hold on until after Dillon was born. But somehow in Sylvia's mind, her fucking some other guy and getting pregnant with his kid was my fault. She made it her mission to make my life a living hell. And, let me tell you, that she did very well. I put up with it for as long as I could, but then I could see the effect it was having on Jack, and I wouldn't stand for that. So that's when I left."

   "You really hate her, don't you?" Brian asked cautiously, recognizing the tone in Cameron's voice.

   "Yes, I'm ashamed to say that I do. More than words can say." Cameron admitted quietly.

   "You know, holding on to the hate is keeping it alive and isn't doing anyone any good. It's poisoning Jack. Maybe you could find a way to forgive your ex wife for sleeping around." Brian said cautiously.

   "That's not why I hate her. I understand human weakness. I mean, yeah, I was betrayed by her and that hurt me, but, in time, I would have forgiven her for it. I probably wouldn't have stayed married to her, but I would have been able to let it go, eventually."

   "Then why do you hate her so much?"

   "Just after Dillon came to live with us, he told me that once, when he was fighting with his mother, he told her that he wanted to come live with me. That's when she told him that I wasn't his father. She told him that he was nothing to me, no blood relation, and that that's why, when we divorced, that I didn't take him with me, too. Since he was someone else's kid, I didn't want him, so she got stuck with him."

   "That's horrible!" Brian gasped.

   "There was no good reason for her to have done that. Her only motivation could have been to hurt him as deeply as she possibly could. Dillon had built up defensive walls a mile high, but she found the chink in his armor." Cameron said darkly, then firmly added, "I will NEVER be able to forgive her for that."

   "No wonder he was such a mess." Brian whispered.

   "The thing that kills me is that it's partly true. I had this brilliant idea. I made a deal with Sylvia that we would have a simple 'no-fault' divorce to avoid a long, ugly court battle. I told her that if I could get sole custody of Jack, she'd have Dillon, then we'd split everything else down the middle and she could have the house. If she didn't agree to the plan, I'd bring up her infidelity in court and she'd have to fight me for both boys and every last scrap of the marital assets. So, in a way, I sacrificed Dillon so I could get full custody of Jack." Cameron said regretfully.

   "But what were the chances that you would have ended up with both of them if you hadn't done it that way?" Brian asked curiously.

   "Somewhere between slim and none, considering the attitude of the courts toward fathers, the most I could have realistically hoped for in the divorce was shared custody. And I couldn't do that to Jack. It would have destroyed him. We were so close that I don't think he could have handled it if he were forced to stay with Sylvia and could only visit with me on weekends and holidays."

   "What about Dillon's father? Didn't he want him?" Brian asked cautiously.

   "Dillon's father was a married man with kids of his own. He never acknowledged that Dillon was his, and never once tried to take any responsibility for him."

   "What about the step-dad, Russel?" Brian asked cautiously.

   Cameron gave a snort of derision at the name, then said, "He didn't come along until later. But Russel was probably the exact WORST thing for Dillon at that time in his life. That kid was in a fuck of a lot of pain and doing his best to deal with things. Then this asshole shows up out of nowhere, being all buddy-buddy and brimming over with psycho-babble and false platitudes. I don't blame Dillon for one minute for rebelling against it. The man's so condescending and full of himself that it's all I can do not to punch him in the face every time I see him."

   "I can't stand people like that." Brian said with a nod.

   "So, Dillon felt like he had no one. When he asked me if I was really his father, I couldn't lie to him. I told him the truth as gently as I could. But as soon as I confirmed to Dillon that I wasn't his biological father, he seemed to accept that all of what his mother had told him was true. After that, he never really talked to me again. I tried to tell him that I wanted him and that as far as anyone would ever know, that he was my son, but he wouldn't hear it. From that day on, Dillon acted like I was no one to him."

   "But what about that note? He said that he loved you." Brian asked quietly.

   After a long silence, Cameron finally said, "I don't know. All this time I've believed that Dillon thought of me as just another in a long line of adults who lied to him and conspired to ruin his life. Now, to know that he loved me, even if it was only for the moment when he wrote that letter, it makes me have to go back and reexamine every day that we had together."

   "Jack doesn't know any of this, does he?" Brian asked cautiously, only vaguely aware of the woods around them as they walked.

   "No. I'll probably tell him, someday, but he's still too emotional when it comes to Dillon. Telling him now would only hurt him for no good reason."

   Brian nodded, then quietly said, "The more I hear about Dillon, the more I wish I could have known him."

   "I wish that, too, Brian. I think that you two could have understood each other. Maybe having someone to share his pain... It doesn't matter now, he's dead and we're alive. Wallowing in 'what might have been' won't improve anything for him or anyone else. We really need to concentrate on the here and now, so that we can do everything possible to get you past your problems." Cameron said with a gentle smile toward the boy at his side.

   "Don't worry about me, Cam. No matter what happens to me, no matter how bad it ever gets, I promise that I won't kill myself. I'd never do that to Jack... or to you." Brian said sincerely.

   "Thank you, Brian. I can't even tell you how much that means to me." Cameron said in a whisper, then continued more strongly, "But we're going to try for something a little bit better than that. If all goes well, we're going to try to get you to a point where you're happy."

    "Last week, I couldn't even imagine being happy." Brian said quietly, then turned to look Cameron in the eyes as he said, "Now, I really believe it's possible."

    "Then let's go for it!"

    "We're here." Cameron said with a smile as they finally walked out of the dense trees.

    Brian looked around curiously, then noticed what looked like a circle of stones on the rise just ahead of them.

    "You're not afraid of heights, are you?" Cameron asked as he led the way.

    "I never have been." Brian said casually.

    Cameron smiled at the words, then stopped at a log by the circle of stones and took off his backpack.

    Brian was about to do the same when he looked past Cameron and froze.

    Of course, Brian had heard the term 'breathtaking' before, but he had never actually experienced the sensation.

    Beyond Cameron was the most remarkable sight that Brian had ever encountered.

    The ridge abruptly fell away, revealing a vast endless ocean of lush, green trees and rolling hills spread out an impossible distance beneath them. From their vantage point, Brian could look down on white, puffy clouds intermittently drifting among the low, rolling hills. The diminishing hills in the distance were obscured by a haze that gave the illusion of them rolling on and on, continuing into infinity.

    Brian felt his pulse quicken and unconsciously reaffirmed his footing, feeling a slight sense of vertigo.

   "Wild, huh?" Cameron said with a grin as he watched Brian's expression of awe.

   Brian absently nodded. He had no words to express even a fraction of what he was feeling.

   "We'll be able to sit up here and enjoy this all day. But we have some things we need to get done right now, if we're going to have the fire going before Jack gets here." Cameron said gently.

   Brian stood and stared for a moment longer, then blinked and said, "Um, yeah. What do we need to do?"

   "Drop your pack, then we can start scouting around for some good firewood." Cameron said warmly.

   After another moment of staring, Brian finally responded, "Yeah. Okay."

   The search for firewood went surprisingly well. It seemed as though the storm that had pounded the cabin so mercilessly the night before had barely even touched this higher elevation. The wood was a bit damp, but not 'soaked' and was in plentiful supply.

   Once Brian and Cameron had cut and carried several loads of wood up to the campsite, Cameron finally went about the business of building the fire.

   "Is there anything I can do?" Brian asked as he watched.

   "Nope. You've done it." Cameron said with a smile, then continued, "Once this fire is going strong, all we need to do is sit back and enjoy it."

   "How long do you think it's going to be before Jack gets here?" Brian asked as he looked back at the treeline.

   "Half an hour, maybe. But he'll be coming from that direction." Cameron said as he pointed up the ridge.

   Brian looked where Cam was pointing, then back at him with question.

   "Unless he has a reason to go back to the cabin, it'll be faster and easier for him to hike up to the dirt road, then cut straight across to the ridge.

   Although Brian didn't know enough about the terrain to fully understand, he easily accepted Cameron's explanation.

   "While we've got a few minutes alone, how would you like to talk about your 'situation'?" Cameron asked cautiously.

   Brian reluctantly nodded, then quietly said, "Being up here. I actually forgot about that for a while."

   "Good. That's one of the reasons we thought that this would be a good thing for you." Cameron said frankly.

   Brian looked at him curiously.

   "I'm not speaking about you specifically, but in general, people sometimes get caught up in a vicious cycle where the same stimulus evokes the same emotional response, over and over again. I think, in many cases, just taking a step back can be the best thing to break out of that endless loop so a person can look at their situation objectively." Cameron said contemplatively.

   Brian considered the words as he slowly nodded.

   He hadn't always been bullied and picked on. Until this school year began, he had just been 'one of the guys'.

   The teasing and harassment had caused him to react in a way that, as Jack had pointed out, invited more of the same.

   "Plus," Cameron said, drawing Brian's attention back to him, "You just looked like you needed a break."

   Brian weakly smiled at the words and quietly said, "Yeah. I really did."

   "What do you think you're going to do when you get back?" Cameron asked seriously.

   "Well, I guess the first thing is, try not to act afraid, like a scared little mouse all the time. Jack says that when I act like that, it's like I'm inviting people to treat me badly."

   Cameron slowly nodded, then said, "Don't accept too much responsibility for their treatment of you. What Jack said is true to a point, but their behavior was wrong. No matter how you behaved or reacted, some things are never acceptable."

   Brian thought about the words and realized that Cameron was right.

   "I suppose, at your age, it's easy to look at everything going on around you and see only how it relates to you personally. As you get older, you'll see that quite a bit of that is just your own mind playing tricks on you. The world is going to keep on going and things are going to keep on happening, with or without you."

   "So jerks are going to act like jerks whether I'm there or not." Brian said speculatively.

   "Right." Cameron said with a grin, then continued, "Understanding that, you'll know that you don't need to take their attacks on you quite so personally."

   "Because if they weren't attacking me, they'd probably be doing the same thing to someone else." Brian said quietly, continuing the thought.

   "Yes. They're a bunch of bratty kids whose parents should be ashamed of what they've allowed to happen." Cameron said frankly.

   "Their parents?" Brian asked slowly.

   "Yes. I know the parents have all kinds of excuses about the schools and about peer pressure and garbage like that, but the fact of the matter is that kids learn from their parents. I've had to talk to more than a few parents over the years about discipline problems, and usually before they've even opened their mouths, I can see where the kid gets it."

   Brian chuckled at Cameron's expression.

   "Just a piece of advice, Brian." Cameron added seriously.

   Brian nodded and waited expectantly.

   "If you ever get called into a parent teacher conference concerning your kid's behavior, dress for the occasion and, for God's sake, don't show up drunk." Cameron said with a pained expression.

   Brian laughed aloud at the words and nodded his agreement.

   "Forgive me if I offend you, but I can't think of any better way to ask this." Cameron said in prelude, then at Brian's nod, he continued, "Since I've met your dad, I can tell that you didn't pick up his personality. So I'm guessing that your mom is a mousy little doormat."

   Brian gave an unconcerned shrug, then said, "Pretty much."

   "So, you've imprinted on her and when you're faced with a bully, you're using the only set of coping skills that you've ever had the opportunity to witness." Cameron said frankly.

   Brian's eyes went wide, as what Cameron said made perfect sense to him.

   "I'm sure your mom is a perfectly lovely person, but I think we need to break you away from her example and find a better way for you to deal with bullies."

   "I'm open to any suggestions." Brian said simply.

   "Face it." Cameron said as he looked Brian in the eyes. "Don't back down. Don't slink away. Stand up for yourself and speak your mind. You don't have to be long winded or dramatic about it. Just state the facts, plain and simple."

   "Jack said that attitude and honesty would probably make the bullies stop." Brian said thoughtfully.

   Cameron chuckled, then said, "Yeah. Jack is a zen grand master when it comes to attitude. But he's probably right. Being frank and honest is the most important part, but some attitude would probably help to drive it home."

   Brian nodded slowly.

   "Come here." Cameron said gently.

   Brian looked at him curiously.

   Cameron held out an arm in invitation.

   Brian moved to Cameron's side and was pulled into a firm, one-armed hug.

   "You looked like you needed that." Cameron said warmly.

   "Yeah. Thanks." Brian said as he enjoyed the feeling of being held.

   "I'm guessing that since your dad's such a flaming asshole, that he thinks you're 'too old' for hugs, or some shit like that." Cameron said derisively.

   "I guess. Maybe he hugged me when I was little, but honestly, I don't really remember. But I know that there's no way he'd do it now." Brian said quietly.

   "Hugs are a symbol of the bonds that we share with people. The physical contact reinforces our connection with them. I hug my mom and dad every time I see them, and you've seen me with Jack." Cameron said honestly.

   Brian thought for a moment, then quietly said, "But in my family, we don't ever hug. And when you talk about the bonds that we share... if we have them at all, they're probably not very strong."

   "What would you say if I said that when we get back, you could come to live with me and Jack? You'd never have to lay eyes on either of your parents ever again?" Cameron asked cautiously.

   "I'd say, 'Okay'." Brian said simply.

   "You wouldn't feel any hesitance about leaving them, about not seeing them or hearing from them?" Cameron asked curiously.

   "No. I really don't think I would." Brian said honestly, then explained, "I think the only thing that keeps me there is a lack of other options. If there was a way that I could really move in with you and Jack, without it being a big problem for anyone, I'd do it, in a heartbeat."

   "How do you think your parents would feel if you did that?" Cameron asked quietly.

   Brian chuckled at the question, then said, "Them? Feel? I'm sorry, but as far as I can tell, they don't feel anything at all, ever."

   "What about your mom?" Cameron asked carefully.

   "Oh, she'd freak out for a few minutes, but it'd all be for show. Most of what she does seems like that, like it's fake and she's only doing it because she's expected to." Brian said thoughtfully, then added more seriously, "But she goes along with anything my dad says. So if my dad accepted it, she would, too."

   Cameron sadly nodded, then said, "I think, that to become a fulfilled person, that you need to have bonds with other people. Everyone needs that support sometimes."

   "I already have that with you and Jack. I know that you'll be there if I need you, and if you two ever need me for anything at all, I'll be there for you, too." Brian said seriously.

   "Yes, Brian. I'm glad you understand.." Cameron said warmly, then quietly asked, "But what about your parents?"

   "They had their chance." Brian said frankly.

   There was a long moment of silence before Cameron finally said, "I think I can understand why you feel the way you do, but just try to keep one thing in mind."

   "What's that?" Brian asked curiously.

   "People grow and change. It's not always in a good way, but sometimes it is. In time, they may surprise you. Please don't harden your heart toward them. Leave the possibility open that someday you can have the bond with your family that you should have always had." Cameron said as he held Brian's gaze, imploring him to understand.

   After a moment to consider, Brian quietly responded, "Yeah, I guess. But as far as I'm concerned, the next move is up to them."

   Cameron chuckled, then said, "That's all I'm asking. Hopefully, someday you'll be glad that you didn't give up on them."

   "As long as I have you and Jack, I don't think I'll have any regrets either way." Brian said honestly.

   Cameron renewed his hug around Brian's shoulders as he looked past the fire at the vast sea of trees beyond the ridge.

   "If you could sum it up in just a few words, what have you learned while you've been up here with Jack?" Cameron asked curiously as he looked off into the distance.

   "Be brave. Be honest." Brian said thoughtfully, then smiled and returned Cameron's one armed hug as he said, "Be family."

   "Those are some pretty good lessons. If you're willing to follow through with them, I think that they'll serve you well." Cameron said with a smile.

   "Hey! Did you guys get bored without me?" Jack called out as he approached with his guitar case slung on his back.

   "Somehow, we managed." Cameron called back with a grin at his son.

   Brian realized that he was still being held by Cameron. For a flash of an instant, he had the urge to pull away, to hide from Jack that he was enjoying being held.

   But, before he could take any action, the more sensible part of his mind assured him that not only would Jack think that it was a wonderful development, but also that it didn't matter what Jack or anyone else might think. Being held, expressing caring and showing his emotions weren't things to be hidden.

   "I was thinking that we could do a little bit of serious business and get it out of the way before we kick back and relax." Cameron said, a bit loudly, so Jack could hear him as he approached.

   "Sure. What did you have in mind?" Jack asked curiously.

   "Well, since we're going to have to be leaving tomorrow, I was thinking that now might be a good time for us to discuss what you've discovered about Brian's situation and what you've come up with to deal with it." Cameron said casually as he watched Jack take off his guitar case and backpack.

   "Sounds good." Jack said simply, then as he was taking his seat on the log, at his father's other side, he continued, "Well, I suppose the main problem has been that Brian is growing up, but no one gave him any clue about what was going to happen."

   "So, Brian, when your body started changing, you were afraid and thought that something was wrong?" Cameron asked to Brian at his side.

   "Yes and no." Brian said thoughtfully, then looked up at Cameron as he continued, "I mean, it's not like I woke up one day with a horse cock and freaked out or anything like that. But it was growing bigger and getting hair and just... changing. All I knew is that I was different from everyone else and I didn't want anyone to see."

   "Okay, Brian. You know what? Even if your father had sat you down and told you exactly what was about to happen to you, most likely you would have still reacted the same way. It's a scary time of life and your reaction to it wasn't unusual. Since you're the first in your peer group to develop, there wasn't anyone around you going through the same thing to let you know that it was perfectly normal." Cameron said carefully.

   Jack nodded slowly as he considered his father's words.

   "Okay, but knowing that doesn't really change anything." Brian said quietly.

   "Brian, stand up and whip it out. Right here, right now." Jack said firmly.

   "Jack!" Cameron said in a scolding tone.

   "He needs to know that he can do this." Jack said to his father firmly, then turned to Brian and continued, "Think of this as your final exam. If you can do this, then I have no doubt that you'll be able to manage in the locker room or anyplace else that you need to get naked."

   Brian looked to Cameron to see if he were going to object, but only received an encouraging nod.

   Slowly, Brian stood from Cameron's side and turned to face the father and son.

   With slightly shaking hands, he unzipped his pants, then unbuttoned them.

   Cameron and Jack sat motionless, with equal expressions of encouragement, waiting for him to reveal himself.

   Finally, Brian took hold of his boxer shorts and pulled his shorts and his pants down, nearly to his knees in one move.

   "You did it!" Jack said with a smile.

   Brian felt a slight trembling in his legs, like they wanted to give out. Then, to his horror, he felt his cock starting to rise.

   "You'd better put that thing away before you put someone's eye out." Jack said with a grin.

   Brian quickly reached down and pulled up his pants and underwear in one movement.

   "Okay. So you've just dropped trou right in front of me and the coach here. Remember that." Jack said firmly.

   "That's right, Brian. I can't say that undressing with your classmates will be easy, but I have no doubt at all that you'll be able to manage it." Cameron said with a slight smile and Brian could hear a note of pride in his voice.

   Once Brian had his pants zipped and fastened, he sat on the log at Cameron's side.

   He started slightly when Cameron's arm came around him to give him a casual hug, but he absolutely loved the sensation.

   "I guess the next thing is obvious. The teasing." Jack said in a grim tone.

   "Mr. Hammond called an assembly yesterday morning to outline the school's zero tolerance policy. I can't say that that will stop the teasing, but it should cause the students to think twice before they take it too far. At least they'll know that we're watching and that if they're caught, that there will be consequences." Cameron said thoughtfully.

   "Yeah. I'm sure that's exactly what's going to happen." Jack said with a roll of his eyes.

   Cameron chuckled at his son's blatant sarcasm, then said, "I'm not saying that it will stop the teasing and harassment. But it should keep the situation from escalating. Bullies are going to bully, no matter what. But the people who tag along with them might not be quite so quick to join in, knowing that they could get into serious trouble for it."

   "How serious?" Brian asked curiously.

   "They'll be expelled. There's no second chances, no warnings. They're expelled on the spot. Of course, if there's physical violence involved, we'll also call the police." Cameron said frankly.

   "Wow!" Brian said as his eyes went wide.

   "Although I agree with the need for the school to do something, I'm not on board with this solution. It's one-size-fits-all and doesn't allow for extenuating circumstances. It's an abdication of responsibility for the school to put a policy like this in place. No one has to decide anything, so they won't be held to account." Cameron said thoughtfully.

   "Old people sometimes wander off on tangents." Jack said to Brian conspiratorially, then looked at his father and said, "I think we were talking about what Brian should do about teasing and harassment."

   "Right." Cameron said with a grin at his son, then continued, "From what Brian has already told me, you've given him some good advice on that. That being, for him to stand up for himself and be honest."

   "Yeah. I know it won't be easy for him, especially the first time, but I've made sure that he can take a punch if he needs to, so he shouldn't shrink back if he has to face off with someone." Jack said seriously.

   "That sounds right." Cameron said thoughtfully, then turned to Brian and said, "But if it turns to physical violence, I need for you to come to me or go to the office and report it, immediately. Even if you think you can handle it, by reporting it you may be protecting someone smaller and weaker than you are from being seriously hurt, later."

   Brian thought for a moment, then quietly said, "Yeah. If it'll protect someone else, I'll report it."

   Cameron renewed his hug with Brian as he said, "And if at any time during the day you need me for anything at all, just come to the gym and find me. It doesn't even have to be an emergency. If you're just having a hard day and need a hug or someone to listen to you, I'll be there."

   "Thanks, Cam." Brian said slowly as something teased at the back of his mind.

   Jack and Cameron watched and waited for Brian to sort through his thoughts.

   Finally, Brian looked up and said, "You know, I never had that before."

   "What's that, Son?" Cameron asked curiously.

   Slowly, Brian said, "Someone to talk to. Someone who would listen... or even give me a hug. I have a feeling that knowing that you and Jack are there for me is going to make more of a difference than anything else. As bad as everything else got, I think the worst thing was feeling so alone. I mean, yeah, everything else was miserable. But knowing, without a doubt, that no one cared, was the worst part."

   "You never need to feel that again, Brian." Jack said gently as he watched his father hugging Brian to his side.

   "I suppose that leads us to your next challenge. Your family." Cameron said seriously.

   Brian let out a quick laugh that surprised both Cameron and Jack.

   "I believe you about everything else, but I'm pretty sure the family thing is a complete loss. You guys are already more my family than they've ever been." Brian said frankly.

   "I haven't asked before but..." Cameron trailed off, seeming to be searching for the right words.

   Brian waited expectantly, but couldn't begin to guess what Cameron might be about to ask him.

   Finally, Cameron quietly asked, "Do they hurt you?"

   "No. Never." Brian said immediately.

   "What about... sexually? Has anything ever happened like that?" Cameron asked cautiously, and seemed to be forcing the words out of his mouth.

   Brian shook his head, then said, "My parents don't even hug me. Nothing like that has ever happened."

   "I didn't think so, but I thought it was important to ask. It would kill me if I found out later that they had been abusing you and I had never even asked you about it." Cameron said quietly.

   Brian hugged Cameron firmly as he said, "Yeah. Thanks for asking. And I promise, that if something like that were happening, that I'd tell you."

   After a moment of watching his father and Brian sitting together, Jack finally asked, "So, do you have any suggestions about what Brian can do about his parents?"

   "Only what you've already told him. Be brave. Be honest." Cameron said simply.

   Brian pulled away from Cameron slightly to give him an inquiring look.

   "Be honest about what you want and be brave enough to ask for it. The answer might be 'no', but at least they'll know what you want, even if you don't get it." Cameron said honestly.

   "I'll try to keep that in mind, but I don't think that anything I do will change things at home." Brian said quietly.

   "If it turns out to be a problem, then you can talk to me or Jack about it. We'll brainstorm and come up with something else." Cameron said frankly.

   "As long as I've got you guys, I'm not worried about them." Brian said with a smile.

   "You've got us, and you'll always have us." Jack said seriously.

   Cameron smiled at his son's words and nodded his agreement.

   After a long moment of silence, Jack suddenly asked, "Well, if that's settled, can we eat?"

   "Ah, the stomach speaks." Cameron chuckled.

   "I'm a growing boy." Jack said with a mischievous grin at his father.

   Cameron reached behind him into the backpack, then said, "Then you'd better eat."

   Jack caught the bag of marshmallows with a smile. After a moment, he looked from the bag in his hands to the fire and back.

   Cameron was smiling angelically, waiting for Jack to say something about it.

   "Fine! I'll get us some toasting sticks!" Jack said in resignation as he stood, tossing the bag of marshmallows back to his father.

   "I'll help you." Brian said immediately as he stood.

   "Did you bring the tool belt?" Jack asked as he stopped walking.

   "Yeah, it's right there by my backpack." Brian said as he turned to pick it up.

   "You can usually make due with a pocket knife, but having a saw with you makes it a lot easier." Jack explained as he led the way toward the treeline.

   Cameron watched fondly as the two boys, acting nearly like brothers, walked away.

   "Are you okay?" Jack asked quietly when they entered the trees.

   "Yeah. I'm great." Brian said with an honest smile.

   "Do you think we covered everything that you'll need before you go back?" Jack asked cautiously.

   "Yeah. I think so. I'm still scared of going back and facing everything, but I'm pretty sure I can do it." Brian said frankly.

   "That looks like a good toasting stick. Why don't you cut it while I scout around for two more." Jack said as he pointed.

   "Where should I cut?" Brian asked curiously.

   "Make it about three or four feet long. That way you won't have to worry about sitting too close to the fire while you're cooking your food." Jack said as he slowly walked away.

   Brian took the small handsaw off his tool belt, then walked to the branch to begin cutting it.

   While the boys were gone, Cameron inventoried the food he had brought and made sure that he had everything that they would need, close at hand.

   Once that was done, he settled into his place on the fallen log and looked out over the expansive view as he thought about Brian's situation and the advice they had given him.

   He still felt a little bit anxious about Brian returning to school, not being able to predict how Brian or the other kids would react. But in the end, he resigned himself to the fact that there wasn't anything more that they could do.

   When he had seen Brian being relentlessly teased and tormented, he could see that Brian just didn't have the skills needed to handle it. Leaving things as they were would have assured that Brian would end up permanently scarred by the experience.

   Although he couldn't be sure that what he and Jack had done was the right thing, at least it was something. He had taken it upon himself to help this boy who wasn't his son or his responsibility, just because it was the right thing to do.

   However, Cameron knew that even when you've done everything right, things still sometimes turn out wrong. So if things ended up not working out as well as he would have liked, he honestly believed that he could endure whatever was to come, holding onto the knowledge that he had given it his best effort.

   "Are you ready to eat?" Jack asked happily as he walked out of the trees with Brian following close behind.

   "Oh yes. As good as our breakfast was, I think I burned it all off on the hike up here." Cameron said with a smile at the boys approaching.

   "Here you go." Brian said as he handed one of the two sticks he was carrying to Cam.

   "Thanks, Brian." Cameron said gratefully.

   "Bust out the hot dogs, Dad! I'm starving over here!" Jack said playfully as he cleaned his hands with a hand wipe.

   "Catch." Cameron said as he pitched the package of hot dogs to his son.

   "Do I need to put my eyepatch on?" Brian asked cautiously.

   "No. I promise, I'll give you fair warning if you're going to need it. Just kick back and relax." Jack said as he slit open the package of hot dogs with his pocket knife.

   "Eyepatch?" Cameron asked as he looked from Brian to his son for an explanation.

   "Oh, yeah. We forgot to mention that. It seems like something's wrong with Brian's eyes that messes with him when he does certain stuff, like catching and throwing." Jack said carefully.

   "Yeah. But Jack figured out that if I close or cover my right eye, that it sort of undoes whatever is messed up." Brian interjected.

   "It sounds like something that you should have an eye doctor look at." Cameron said frankly.

   "Duh! Ya think?" Jack said with a roll of his eyes.

   Cameron flashed a playfully irritated glance at his son, then said to Brian, "There's no point in worrying about it now. From here on out it's all about relaxing. I think you've had enough lessons and emotional revelations for one trip. Now it's time to just enjoy yourself."

   "Is there anything I need to know about this? I've never been camping or anything like that before." Brian asked as he accepted the open package of hot dogs from Jack.

   "Hey, I've already trained you to be a master at toasting things over a fire. This should be no big deal for you." Jack said as he speared two hot dogs on the end of his toasting stick.

   Brian smiled at the words then, after selecting two hot dogs for himself, passed the package to Cameron.

   "If you toast them slowly, they'll get hot all the way through. Just be careful not to burn them." Jack said as he carefully held his hot dogs near the flame of the open campfire.

   "You can burn them if you want." Cameron said simply.

   Brian looked at him with surprise.

   Cameron smiled, then continued, "Some people like a little burned flavor. It makes it taste really cooked instead of a factory made, steam table warmed thing that never has any variation from one time to the next."

   After a moment, Jack said, "Dad's right. If you burn them, just a little bit, then it tastes like 'camping'."

   Brian glanced from one man to the other, then turned his full attention to his toasting hot dogs.

   "Buns?" Jack called out as he pulled his hot dogs away from the fire.

   "Bread. Deal with it." Cameron said as he held up a loaf of bread.

   "We really are roughing it, aren't we." Jack said in a tone of exaggerated suffering.

   "You can just eat the damned things off the stick if it bothers you so much." Cameron said playfully.

   Brian giggled at the exchange, then pulled his hot dogs away from the fire to see if they were done.

   "Did you bring any mustard or ketchup?" Jack asked as he pulled his hot dogs off the stick.

   "Yeah." Cameron said, then pitched a small plastic shopping bag toward Jack.

   Brian looked at the bag curiously, noticing that it didn't appear to have a mustard or ketchup bottle in it.

   Once Jack was finished putting his hot dogs onto pieces of bread, he rummaged in the plastic bag and came back with two packets of mustard.

   Brian grinned when he saw that, thinking how smart that was.

   "Here." Jack said, then passed the loaf of bread to Brian.

   "Thanks." Brian said, then proceeded to take slices of bread out of the bag, one handed.

   As Brian held the bread with one hand and the toasting stick with the other, he tried to figure out how he was going to get the hot dogs off the stick and onto the pieces of bread without something ending up on the ground. Finally, he gave up and asked, "Did we bring any plates?"

   "I didn't think about it." Cameron said apologetically.

   "I did!" Jack said happily, then opened his backpack and started handing out plates.

   "Okay. You earned your lunch today." Cameron said with a grateful smile at his son.

   "Before you start eating, I made sure to bring all the trimmings." Cameron said as he reached behind him, one handed, then came back with a bag of potato chips.

   "What? No salad? I thought you were all worried about our vitamins and stuff." Jack said playfully.

   Cameron rolled his eyes, then reached back into the backpack and came up with an orange.

   Jack laughed, but happily accepted the orange from his father.

   Cameron snagged the plastic bag of condiments and took a few for himself before passing the bag to Brian.

   Just as Brian was fishing some mustard packets out of the bag, Cameron offered him the bag of chips.

   "Thanks." Brian said with a smile, then put a handful on his plate.

   "Mmm..." Jack moaned as he took his first bite of the hot dog.

   "Yep." Cameron said with a smile, then handed an apple to Brian.

   "Thanks." Brian said again, then thought to ask, "Do we have anything to drink?"

   "Yes. I brought a canteen of spring water, but my hands are kind of full right now. Would you mind getting it?" Cameron asked hopefully.

   "Sure." Brian said as he sat his plate aside and stood.

   "You'll need these." Jack said as he pulled some things out of his backpack.

   Brian accepted them from him and looked at them curiously. They appeared to be something like small pill boxes.

   Hesitantly, he opened one up and the round plastic container had a series of concentric rings inside.

   "Turn it upside down." Jack offered between bites of his food.

   Brian did so and was amazed to see that the concentric rings fit snugly against each other to form a collapsible cup.

   "Hey! That's cool." Brian said with a smile.

   "Yeah. I've always thought so." Jack said with a grin.

   Brian quickly got over his wonder and got the collapsible cups set up before pouring glasses of water for all three of them.

   "Thanks, Brian." Jack said as he accepted his water.

   Brian smiled, then handed the next one to Cameron.

   "Thanks." Cameron said gratefully.

   Brian carried his own water back to his place on the fallen log and picked up his plate.

   When he took his first bite of the hot dog, he realized that Jack and Cameron were right. Having the hot dog toasted over the open fire, with a few slightly burned spots tasted like camping.

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