Castle Roland


by MultiMapper


Chapter 9

Posted: N/A

No Place Like Home

Copyright © 2011 MultiMapper.
All Rights Reserved.

   "Are you ready for another one?" Cameron asked as he presented the second package of hot dogs to Brian.

   "No, thanks. I couldn't eat another bite." Brian said with a quick smile.

   "Jack?" Cameron asked to his other side.

   "I'm good." Jack said with a lazy grin.

   "I guess it's better to have too much than too little." Cameron said as he packed the hot dogs back into his backpack.

   "Just look at that." Jack said distantly as he stared off into the endless valley below them.

   "Yeah. Being here, like this, it's hard to imagine that there's anything wrong in the world." Cameron said wistfully.

   As much as he didn't want to break the delicate mood, Brian reluctantly said, "I'll be right back."

   Cameron turned and looked at him curiously.

   "I just need to go behind a tree." Brian explained casually.

   Cameron nodded, then turned forward again to look at the view.

   As he walked away from the campfire, Brian was once again struck by the sense of contentment that he was feeling.

   Of course, being here, away from his problems could account for some of it. But he felt something else, like an inner peace that had found its way into his soul.

   As Brian found a convenient tree and went about doing his business, he thought about what was causing the feeling.

   Although he couldn't be sure, he got the sense that it came from knowing, without a doubt, that Jack and Cameron cared about him and had promised never to desert him.

   Whatever the source, Brian felt like he had a little flame, flickering inside him, lighting him from within. Be it hope, faith, love or some other emotion that he didn't have a name for, he just knew it was there, and felt it radiating out from him.

   As he walked back toward the campfire, he smiled at the feeling that he could only describe as inner joy. Nothing was causing it, it had no reason for being and yet, there it was.

   "Here you go." Jack said as he held out the box of hand wipes toward Brian.

   "Thanks." Brian said as he pulled one free from the box, then went to his place on the log beside Cameron.

   "I was thinking that, if Jack would agree to it, we could have a little campfire sing-along." Cameron said with a grin.

   "Do you have any idea how hokey that sounds?" Jack asked his father cautiously.

   "Yes. Just as hokey as it sounded to me when your grandfather would suggest it. But it always ended up being fun." Cameron finished frankly.

   Jack seemed to consider for a moment, then finally nodded his agreement.

   "Do I have to do anything?" Brian asked curiously.

   "If you know the song, join in. If not, sit back and enjoy the show." Cameron said with a smile.

   It took a few minutes for Jack to get his guitar out of its case, but finally he was set up and ready to play.

   "Brian. This one's for you." Jack said as he started strumming the guitar.

   Cameron nodded his head with approval when he recognized the melody of the song that Jack had chosen.

   As Brian sat and looked out over the seemingly endless hills and trees flowing into the distance, Jack started to sing.

"Whenever I need to leave it all behind
Or feel the need to get away
I find a quiet place, far from the human race
Out in the country
Before the breathin' air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone and take back somethin' worth rememberin'
Whenever I feel them closing in on me
Or need a bit of room to move
When life becomes too fast, I find relief at last
Out in the country
Before the breathin' air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone and take back somethin' worth rememberin'
Before the breathin' air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone and take back somethin' worth rememberin'
Before the breathin' air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone and take back somethin' worth rememberin'
Before the breathin' air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime...
I stand alone..." source

    In all his life, Brian had never had a song touch him so deeply. Every note, every word resonated within his soul.

   "Good one." Cameron said quietly.

   Brian finally snapped out of the spell he was under and quickly said, "Yeah. That was great! I've never heard that one before. Did you make it up or is it a real song?"

   "It's a real song." Jack chuckled, then added, "I found it when I was listening to some of Dad's old records."

   "His what?" Brian asked curiously.

   Jack rolled his eyes a little as Cameron looked down and shook his head.

   "They're like CDs, but a lot bigger. They used to use them for music in the old, old days." Jack said with a grin.

   "Oh yeah. I remember seeing them in pictures and stuff. Didn't you have to crank them up to make them play?" Brian asked curiously.

   "Some of the older ones, yes. But eventually they made some that would work on electricity." Jack said with a smile at his father.

   Brian nodded that he understood.

   "How about we teach Brian some of the traditional campfire songs, so he can join in?" Cameron asked hopefully.

   "Yeah. I know some of the classics." Jack said with a smile at his father, then started playing.

   Brian settled in to listen when Jack began to sing.

   "Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts, Mutilated monkey meat..."

   After hours of singing and laughing by the campfire, Cameron suddenly asked, "Who's ready for some s'mores?"

   "Some what?" Brian asked curiously.

   There was a moment of silence, and Jack was finally the one to ask, "Are you serious?"

   Brian slowly nodded, then looked from Jack to Cameron with question.

   "Brian, you'd better brace yourself, because this is going to be the greatest thing that's ever happened to you." Jack said dramatically.

   "Even better than..." Brian trailed off, then made a few jerks of a vaguely masturbatory motion.

   "Make that the second greatest thing, but it's still pretty awesome." Jack said with a grin.

   "If you'll get him started on the marshmallows, I'll get everything else set out." Cameron said seriously.

   "On it." Jack said as he accepted the bag of marshmallows from his father.

   "What do I have to do?" Brian asked curiously.

   "Well, this is where your toasting skill is really going to be put to the test. What you've got to do is toast marshmallows until they get really soft and gooey, but not so gooey that they fall off the stick and into the fire." Jack said as he handed two marshmallows to Brian.

   "That doesn't sound too hard." Brian said slowly.

   "Well, right when the marshmallows are done, you take the stick over to dad and let him kind of make a sandwich with them using chocolate bars and graham crackers." Jack said seriously, then motioned for Brian to put the marshmallows on his stick.

   "That sounds like it'd be a really big mess." Brian said cautiously.

   "Not if you have someone toasting while the other one is making s'mores. If you try to do it all by yourself it can get out of control, quick." Jack said frankly.

   Brian nodded that he understood and moved his marshmallows close to the fire to toast them.

   "Okay. It looks like you're good to go. Toast them slowly, and when you think they're ready, give dad a yell and take them to him. I'm going to be over here toasting some, too." Jack said as he moved to Cameron's other side to get his own toasting stick.

   "How many do we have to do?" Brian asked curiously.

   "Just keep going until Dad tells you to stop." Jack said frankly.

   "And if we end up with an extra toasted marshmallow or two, I'm sure we'll find some way to deal with it." Cameron said with a grin.

   "I'm sure." Brian said with a smile at Cam.

   "You're getting close, Brian. It's starting to droop." Jack said in warning.

   "You'd better be watching your own, Son." Cameron said with a grin, just as Jack's marshmallows burst into flames.

   "Crap!" Jack exclaimed, then quickly blew out the flaming marshmallows.

   "You see, Brian? That's what happens when you pay attention to someone else's business and ignore your own." Cameron said with a cheeky grin.

   "How's this?" Brian asked as he moved his marshmallows away from the fire and toward Cameron.

   "It looks perfect, Brian." Cameron said with a smile.

   "It looks perfect, Brian." Jack mimicked in a mocking tone, then pulled the burnt marshmallows off the end of his stick and ate them.

   Brian chuckled as Cameron made a sandwich around his marshmallows, then slid the completed masterpiece off the end of his toasting stick.

   "Brian's ahead of you, one to nothing. Are you going to stand for that?" Cameron asked playfully as he handed Brian two more marshmallows.

   "Load me up, Dad. I'll show both of you."

   As Jack had predicted, s'mores turned out to be the second greatest thing that ever happened to Brian.

   All three of them ate and talked and laughed until the sun began it's descent toward the horizon.

   "Brian, would you give me the shovel? I need to get this fire settled before we leave." Cameron said seriously.

   "Sure." Brian said and reached back into his backpack.

   "If we leave right now, we should get back to the cabin just as it's getting dark." Cameron said seriously, as he started digging just inside the stone circle and turning the bed of faintly burning coals so that they would be buried.

   "Brian, help me clean up." Jack said as he started gathering things.

   Although they hadn't made a mess, most of the things that came out of the backpacks had not yet found their way back in.

   "So, Brian, what did you think about sitting around a campfire?" Cameron asked with a smile as he continued to work to be sure that the fire wouldn't start back up after they left.

   "Well, it's more fun than it sounds. I mean, sitting around a fire for a couple hours... it sounds really boring, but it was great." Brian said honestly.

   "How'd you like the s'mores?" Jack asked with a grin.

   Brian took that opportunity to flash Jack one of his 'typical teenager' looks for asking such a silly question.

   "Whoa, Brian! Look at you go!" Jack said with a grin.

   "Yeah. I felt the backlash from that one all the way over here." Cameron chuckled.

   Brian broke into a smile at the praise.

   "I think that's it. Let's go!" Cameron said as he walked to the log and picked up his backpack.

   Brian took the shovel and folded it down before stowing it.

   With one last look at the amazing view, Brian turned and followed Jack and Cameron into the trees.

   As they walked, conversation was mostly light and fairly general. There wasn't any discussion at all of Brian's situation.

   It was just getting dark when they reached the cabin. Cameron walked in first, followed by the boys.

   "If you guys don't mind too much, I'd like to call it an early night, tonight. Jack and I have a lot of driving ahead of us tomorrow." Cameron said as he took off his backpack.

   "Yeah. I don't think I got enough sleep last night. I felt fine this morning, but right now, I'm kinda wiped." Jack said frankly.

   "I think the hiking wore me out. I feel like I could sleep for a week." Brian said as he took off his backpack and started to unpack it.

   "It's quite a walk, but it was worth it, wasn't it?" Cameron asked Brian curiously.

   "I couldn't dream of a place as nice as that. Yeah. It was totally worth it." Brian replied with a grin.

   Cameron smiled in return as he also started to unpack.

   "Is there anything we need to do tonight to get ready for tomorrow?" Jack asked as he looked around.

   "No. We aren't going to be leaving too early, so we'll have plenty of time to have a good breakfast and pack things up in the morning." Cameron said as he carried a few things to the ice chest by the wall.

   Jack nodded as he sat on the edge of the bed and started to strum his guitar.

   As far as Brian could tell, Jack wasn't playing any particular tune. But he didn't mind that at all. The music was beautiful to his ears and he enjoyed it as much as he had ever enjoyed any of his music at home.

   "Dad, do you want the cot or the bed tonight?" Jack asked casually as he continued to play.

   "The bed, if you wouldn't mind. I slept well enough last night, but I'm really used to a softer mattress." Cameron said frankly.

   "Okay. You know that I can sleep anywhere." Jack said absently.

   Cameron chuckled, then said to Brian, "You could prop that boy up in a corner and he'd sleep comfortably through the whole night."

   "It's a gift." Jack sighed dramatically, then broke into a smile.

   "Brian, do you want to see how to set up the cot?" Cameron asked with a grin at his son.

   "Yeah. Sure." Brian said as he put the empty backpack aside.

   "First, you unfold it like this..."

   Once the cot was set up, Jack moved his sleeping bag over and began to undress.

   Brian thought it was a little early for bed, but decided to go along with it.

   "What did you bring for breakfast in the morning?" Jack asked his father casually.

   "You'll just have to wait until morning to find out." Cameron said with a grin as he started to lay out his sleeping bag.

   Brian glanced over to see if Jack were going to undress completely.

   As Jack pulled down his pants, he glanced over at Brian and gave him an encouraging smile.

   Although Brian felt a little bit hesitant, he had already proven to Jack and Cameron that he could be naked in front of them, so he continued on until, he too, was completely undressed.

   Once he had his clothes more or less folded and put out of the way, he climbed into his sleeping bag.

   "You know, when I suggested that Jack bring you up here, I never thought that you'd be so comfortable with it." Cameron said casually as he started to undress.

   "I wasn't at first, Jack can tell you that. But he kept after me until I finally realized that it's no big deal." Brian said as he relaxed back in warmth and comfort.

   "The first night, I thought he was going to have a heart attack or a stroke." Jack chuckled from the cot.

   As Cameron finished undressing, Brian noticed once again how hairy his body was. It wasn't unattractive or excessive, but it was still something of a curiosity to Brian.

   "Is something wrong?" Cameron asked as he followed Brian's gaze.

   "No. I've just never seen anyone so hairy before." Brian said honestly.

   Cameron chuckled, then said, "That's just something that happens as you get older."

   "So, it's not just puberty, huh?" Brian asked curiously.

   "No, Son. You keep changing your whole life." Cameron said as he walked to the oil lamp and adjusted the wick down before blowing it out.

   Brian felt the bed shift as Cameron climbed into the sleeping bag beside his.

   "Thanks for doing all this for me, Cam." Brian said quietly.

   "I would have done more if I could, but I had to work. It's Jack that did most of it." Cameron said frankly.

   "Yeah. But still. Thanks." Brian said quietly. He wanted to say more, but felt like he didn't have adequate words to express what he was feeling.

   Before he could give it anymore thought, he fell into a deep and restful sleep.

   The smell of coffee caused Brian to wake up with a smile on his face.

   "Well, it's about time! I thought we were going to have to drag you out of bed." Jack said playfully.

   Brian sat up and noticed that both Jack and Cameron were fully dressed and that the cot had already been folded down.

   "Hey! I let you sleep in yesterday. It was my turn." Brian said with a smile as he got out of bed.

   "The coffee's almost ready, if you want some."

   Brian raised his arms over his head and gave a long, bone cracking stretch before answering, "Yeah. That sounds great."

   "Put some clothes on, nudist." Jack said with a playful grin.

   "Yeah. Yeah. You spend all this time getting me to where I'm not scared to be naked in front of you, then you bitch and complain when I don't jump right into my clothes first thing in the morning." Brian grumbled as he dressed.

   Cameron laughed at the comment and could tell that Jack didn't have an answer for that.

   "I've got to visit the lava-tree." Brian said as he walked to the door and slipped into his boots.

   Jack smiled and nodded as he watched Brian slip on his coat, then walk outside.

   For the first time since arriving at the cabin, Brian didn't participate in making breakfast.

   Jack and Cameron had most of it on the table by the time he got back inside.

   After cleaning his hands, Brian settled into his place at the table and took a sip of his coffee.

   "There's not a lot to pack up, so I guess we'd better make our plans now so we can just pack and go." Cameron said frankly.

   "I figured that with all the rain that we'll probably have to take the long way down." Jack said thoughtfully.

   "Yes. Even though we might be able to make it out, there's no need for us to take the chance of getting bogged down in the mud." Cameron said seriously.

   "So, I guess the only thing that's left to be decided is who will Brian be riding with." Jack said simply.

   "Well, if you two wouldn't mind, I thought that Brian could ride with me until we stop for lunch. Then he could ride with you the rest of the way back into town." Cameron said as he looked at both boys for their reactions.

   "Like 'shared custody', huh?" Jack asked with a smile.

   "Something like that. I just thought that it would be a good chance for Brian to ask any last minute questions of either of us that he might need to." Cameron said frankly.

   "Are you okay with that, Brian?" Jack asked curiously.

   "Yeah. It sounds great." Brian said with a smile.

   As Cameron had predicted, there wasn't much to do to pack things up. Both Cameron and Jack had so much experience with it that they didn't even need to ask each other what needed to be done.

   Brian helped out where he could. He started by packing his clothes into the backpack that he had carried up to the cabin, mostly the way that Jack had packed them.

   Once he was done with that, he helped out by doing things like dumping out the water jugs and gathering the unused rolls of toilet paper, until finally there was nothing left to do.

   As they walked away from the cabin, Brian felt a twinge of sadness.

   He didn't let it overpower him, but he acknowledged within himself that he would miss the cabin and hold the memory of his time there close to him as a very special time in his life.

   The walk down to the trucks was actually very easy, if long. The three didn't talk much along the way. All of them seemed to be feeling a sense of loss at having to leave.

   When they arrived at the trucks, Brian put his backpack into the back of Jack's truck, since he would be riding with Jack when they arrived back in town.

   Then he gave Jack a quick hug before walking back and getting into Cameron's truck.

   There was a little bit of 'off-road' driving, but nothing like when he had ridden with Jack. Cameron took the most direct route to get them onto a dirt road and they stayed with it until it let out onto a gravel one.

   By the time they had reached actual 'paved' roads, Brian had thought of something that he wanted to say.

   "Cam." Brian said quietly, wanting to get his attention without startling him, since they had been riding in silence for so long.

   "Yes?" Cam responded equally quietly.

   "I know that I sort of said this last night, but I wanted to say thank you for... I don't know... noticing that I was having a problem, and then doing something about it." Brian said awkwardly.

   Cameron could hear the sincerity behind Brian's words, and took a moment to formulate a thoughtful response. Finally, he asked, "Do you want to know why I did it?"

   "Yes." Brian said immediately.

   "Because it was the right thing to do." Cameron said honestly, then continued, "Many times, the right thing isn't the popular thing and it's certainly not the easy thing. But you know, deep down inside, that it needs to be done. I saw what you were going through and I knew that helping you was the right thing."

    Brian thought about the words as the miles passed by outside the truck.

    Finally, he broke the silence again, by saying, "In the past three days you've been more of a father to me than my own dad has been in my whole life."

    Cameron reached over and put a hand on Brian's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze, then he said, "I may not be your father, but I am a father. So remember that if you ever need me for anything, inside school or out, I'll be available to you."

    Brian smiled at the words, then quietly responded, "I knew that."

    When the truck pulled to a stop, Brian looked around curiously.

    "Time to gas up. If you need to make a pit stop, now would be a good time." Cameron said as he slowly got out of the truck.

    As Brian walked toward the bathroom, he could see Jack's truck pulling into the gas station.

    Brian waved at him before continuing on, into the bathroom.

    It was a silly thing to get sentimental about a gas station bathroom, but Brian couldn't help but remember how scared he had been when Jack had stopped to get gas on their way up.

    He smiled when he remembered that he had told Jack that he didn't know if he was ready to go because he didn't know where he was going. And Jack had told him to keep on with that attitude.

    As Brian was washing his hands, he looked into the mirror and was surprised by what he saw.

    His hair wasn't nice and neat, the way he usually kept it. In fact, it was kind of oily and looked like it could stand a good washing.

    His face looked... different. Leaner, maybe. Or it might just be that he had gotten some sun. For whatever reason, he looked physically different from the way that he remembered himself.

   The squeaking of the bathroom door caused Brian to look up and he smiled when he saw Jack.

   "Dad sent me in here to see if you fell in." Jack said as he walked past Brian and directly to the urinal.

   Brian laughed and waited for a moment for Jack to finish his business.

   Finally he said, "No. I was just remembering when you brought me here before. It seems like such a long time ago."

   "I know what you mean." Jack said with a smile as he nudged Brian out of the way so he could wash his hands.

   Brian smiled as he waited for Jack to be finished.

   "I think Dad needs for you to go into the store with him." Jack said frankly.

   "What for?" Brian asked curiously.

   "He ordered some food for lunch and they're cooking it now. He probably wants you to wait for the food to be ready so he can get a chance at the toilet." Jack said frankly.

   "Oh. Okay." Brian said as he walked toward the door.

   "I'll see you again when we stop for lunch." Jack said as he waved.

   Brian smiled and waved before hurrying to find Cameron.

   "If we don't stop soon, Jack's just going to have to do without. That food smells wonderful." Brian said as his mouth was watering.

   "Yes. That little gas station has some of the best burgers around. They cook everything to order, right there in front of you, so you know for sure that it's fresh." Cameron said with a smile.

   "I cant believe that with all the great food that I've had while I've been at the cabin that anything could smell as wonderful as these burgers." Brian said seriously.

   "Well, I'll just give you a little hint. They taste even better than they smell." Cameron said with a grin.

   After a momentary disbelieving look, Brian finally said, "Step on it, Cam!"

   "Finally!" Brian said as he got out of the truck.

   "Jack, you'd better be glad I was there to defend your food. I swear, Brian was ready to eat all of it." Cameron chuckled to his son.

   "Oh yeah, like I'm not exactly the same way every single time we come back from the cabin." Jack said with a roll of his eyes.

   "Come on. Break out the food!" Brian said desperately.

   Cameron chuckled, then asked, "Jack, do you want to open your tailgate so we can use it as a table?"

   "On it!" Jack said as he rushed away.

   "Brian, help me carry this stuff." Cameron said as he opened the back driver's side door of his truck.

   "Yeah!" Brian said happily.

   When Cameron took the food out of the white paper bag, he revealed that he had bought three burgers and a large sleeve of fries for each of them.

   There were also three large sodas in a cup carrier, which Brian had carried to the back of Jack's truck.

   Brian's first bite of the burger was pure bliss. Cameron was right. Although the smell of the burgers was incredible, the taste was even better.

   "Brian, what do you see out here?" Jack asked as he gestured toward the scenery.

   As Brian looked around, he could see the beauty of the place. It was exquisite. The field before them was filled with beautiful little flowers, seemingly of every color in the rainbow. The trees further off looked like an old growth forest that had never been touched by man.

   "It's beautiful." Brian said in wonder.

   Jack chuckled, then said, "The last time you were here, you said it was nothing."

   Brian puzzled over that for a moment, then looked around curiously.

   When he looked up and down the stretch of road with no other cars on it in either direction, the memory came back to him.

   "This is the same place?" Brian asked with surprise.

   "We always stop here. It's the first place when we leave town that looks like it hasn't already been spoiled by people interfering with it." Jack said seriously.

   "It really is beautiful here. I can't even say why I feel that way, it's just... special." Brian said distantly.

   "It must be if it made you forget your hamburger." Cam said with a grin.

   Brian looked down at his hand and his briefly absent hunger returned with a vengeance.

   Once they were on the road again, Brian was quietly riding beside Jack, enjoying some of his bizarre music.

   They were on the highway and more and more signs of 'civilization' were popping up on the landscape before them.

   "Jack?" Brian finally said.

   "Yes?" Jack responded.

   "I love you." Brian said as he kept his gaze forward.

   "I knew that." Jack said with a grin, then added, "And I love you, too."

   "I know." Brian said quietly.

   There were a thousand different emotions boiling inside Brian, but he didn't know what he was feeling.

   As the miles passed by outside the SUV, all Brian could do was stare ahead and reassure himself that, no matter what happened, he would have Jack and Cam.

   As they drove down the street, Brian felt his dread building at the sight of the familiar houses of his neighborhood.

   "I'll get these clothes back to you as soon as I've washed them." Brian mumbled.

   "They're yours, now. Dad and I don't have any use for them." Jack said frankly.

   Brian slowly nodded that he had heard, then absently muttered, "Thanks."

   "In fact, why don't you keep the backpack, too? That way you'll have it for the next time we go to the cabin." Jack asked casually.

   Brian looked up in surprise, then asked, "The next time? We can go again?"

   Jack smiled, then said, "Count on it. How does Thanksgiving weekend sound? That'll give us plenty of time to enjoy it."

   "Yeah!" Brian said joyfully.

   "Which house is yours?" Jack asked as he pulled onto Brian's block.

   "Right there." Brian said as he pointed.

   "Do you want me to go in with you?" Jack asked cautiously, as he pulled up in front of the house.

   "No, thanks." Brian said quietly, then looked at Jack with tear filled eyes as he said, "I really do love you."

   "I love you too, Brian." Jack said, just as sincerely.

   "I know you do." Brian said with a pained smile, then got out of the SUV and walked to the back to retrieve his backpack.

   Jack hurried to write something down, then handed Brian a piece of paper.

   "If things get too bad, call me. I'll come and get you." Jack said seriously.

   "I think it'll be alright." Brian said quietly, then added, "But I may call you anyway, just because."

   "That'd be fine, too." Jack said with a grin.

   After hefting his backpack onto his back, Brian walked to Jack and hugged him firmly.

   Jack hesitantly returned the hug, then whispered, "Brian, your dad might see."

   "Fuck him." Brian said seriously, and continued the hug a moment longer.

   Jack chuckled, then said, "Yeah. I think you're ready."

   Brian giggled, then released Jack from the hug.

   "Oh baby! Are you alright?" Brian's mother asked as she dashed out the front door.

   "I'm fine, mom." Brian said as he looked at her cautiously. From her expression, he couldn't tell if she was surprised by his different appearance or if she were looking him over for signs of injury.

   "Where did they take you? Did they hurt you? Do you need anything?" she asked in a nearly panicked voice.

   "I'm fine." Brian repeated, then said, "But before I do anything else, I need to do some laundry before it gets too late, so I'll have clean clothes for tomorrow."

   "All your laundry is all done. Your room is all clean and I even changed your sheets." She said quickly.

   Brian smiled, then said, "Thanks, mom. But the clothes I want to wear tomorrow are in this backpack."

   "Let me take care of that for you. I know you must have had a long drive... I can't even imagine..." She said in a tearful voice.

   "Mom. I'll take care of it. Really. I'm okay." Brian said, then leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.

   Mrs. Weston froze as she looked at her son with surprise.

   Brian smiled, then walked past her and into the house.

   As Brian walked into the living room, he found what he expected. His father was sitting in his favorite recliner, with the remote control in his hand, and watching the television.

   "You better?" Mr. Weston asked, barely glancing away from the TV.

   Brian looked at his father as if seeing him for the first time.

   This wasn't the larger-than-life self-superior being that Brian imagined when he thought of his father. This was a man. A flawed and very human man.

   Brian had thought that when he finally saw his father that it would be a confrontation of epic proportions. But the man lounging in the recliner, emotionally unavailable and doughy around the middle, didn't inspire any anger in him, only a feeling of disgust.

   "Yeah." Brian said simply, then continued on through the room and into the kitchen.

   "I can get that." Brian's mom said as he unpacked his clothes from the backpack.

   "It's my mess. I'll take care of it." Brian said simply as he made sure that there wasn't anything in any of the pockets.

   "I wouldn't mind." Mrs. Weston insisted.

   Brian turned to his mother and looked her in the eyes before saying, "I'd mind. If I don't start doing things for myself, how am I going to be able to get along when I'm on my own, someday?"

   His mother's eyes filled with tears at the statement.

   Brian very nearly gave in and let her have the 'pleasure' of doing his laundry, but was able to maintain his resolve as he loaded his clothes into the washer.

   After a moment, he turned to his mother and quietly asked, "How much soap do I use?"

   "I'll show you." She said quickly, and rushed to his side.

   Brian decided that it would work. He was determined that he wasn't going to let his mother do everything for him. But he could allow her to help, and to teach him the things he didn't know.

   "Thanks, Mom." Brian said as she handed him a cap full of liquid laundry detergent.

   "Are you hungry? I have roast and potatoes left over from dinner, or I can make you some soup and quesadillas." Mrs. Weston asked as soon as Brian had the washer going.

   "Mom. I can get it." Brian said as he looked her in the eyes, then firmly continued, "I'm sure that you've been working hard all day. Why don't you relax and if I need something, I'll get it myself. I promise that if I need something that I don't know how to do, that I'll ask you."

   Mrs. Weston looked at her son uncertainly, but finally nodded.

   Brian smiled, then gave his mother a kiss on the cheek before saying, "Thanks, mom. I love you."

   "I love you, too." She whispered in return, as a tear slid down her cheek.

   The return home hadn't been nearly as 'explosive' as Brian had anticipated.

   It was his father's reaction that he had been most worried about, and all the worry turned out to be for nothing.

   Brian found a spot by the closet where he could put the, now empty, backpack.

   As Brian stood back and looked around his room, he realized that some changes would have to be made.

   First and foremost, the boy-band posters would have to go. He wasn't a teenage girl, and he had no idea why he had ever thought that they were cool.

   He was going to put that off until later, but all their smiling, 'too cute' faces peering at him made him decide to deal with it immediately.

   Once that was done, he went to his closet and started going through his clothes.

   It didn't take long for him to realize that there was very little that could be salvaged.

   He was about to take them all out and start stuffing them in garbage bags when he had a wicked little thought.

   Looking back at the clothes again, with the new idea in mind, he began to smile.

   Brian walked into the kitchen and found his mother fussing over things, just as he had expected.

   "The next time you go to the store, could you please pick up some black dye for me?" Brian asked hopefully.

   "What do you need to dye?" His mother asked curiously.

   "I need it for some of my old clothes. While I was gone, I figured out that the clothes I've been wearing are kid's clothes. If I want people to take me seriously, I need to start dressing more grown up." Brian said honestly.

   "And you think you're going to look grown up by wearing all black?" His mother asked hesitantly.

   "No. Not all black. But there are some things like the white jeans and that light green shirt that I don't think I'll wear anymore. If we dye them, then I won't need to get a bunch of new clothes all at once." Brian said honestly.

   "I'll get the dye when I do my shopping." Mrs. Weston said simply, then added, "I made a plate of food for you. It should be about ready."

   As she said the words, the timer on the microwave beeped.

   Brian smiled, then said, "Thanks, Mom."

   After finishing a plate of roast and potatoes, Brian walked into the living room to find his father still sitting in front of the television.

   "Would you mind if I go and play golf on Saturday?" Brian asked hopefully.

   "How much does it cost?" His father asked, never taking his gaze off the television.

   "I don't know yet. But I thought I'd make sure it was okay with you before I call the golf course." Brian said honestly.

   "Do you think you're going to have a lot of work to make up from missing school?"

   "I don't know for sure, but if I do, I'm sure it won't take the whole weekend." Brian said frankly.

   "If it doesn't cost too much." Mr. Weston finally said.

   "I'll let you know as soon as I find out." Brian said happily.

   "Who will you be going with?" Mr. Weston asked curiously.

   "Coach Reed and his son. The coach is going to teach me how to play." Brian responded automatically, surprised that his father was interested.

   Mr. Weston nodded, then looked toward the television as he asked, "While you were gone, did they... hurt you?"

   Brian was shocked by the question, and had a momentary urge to lash out at his father for daring to ask, when, after all, he was the one who had handed Brian over to a complete stranger.

   "No. I'm fine." Brian said firmly, then added, "Thanks for sending me. It helped."

   Mr. Weston looked at his son, and in that moment, Brian felt his anger and resentment melt away. That one look, that fleeting glance, revealed to Brian that his father was fully aware of all the ways that he had failed him. The anger that Brian had felt was replaced by a fresh wave of disgust. It wasn't his father's failure that disgusted him, it was his father's lack of effort to make things right, that he didn't know if he would ever be able to forgive.

   Brian's father seemed to have his full attention back on the television.

   Knowing that their conversation was officially over, Brian turned and walked into the kitchen.

   Brian checked the washing machine to find that 'someone' had taken his clothes and put them in the dryer.

   "They'll be done in about fifty minutes." Brian's mom said as she walked into the laundry room.

   "Thanks, Mom." Brian said quietly, then thought to say, "While I was gone, we figured out that there might be something wrong with my eyes. I think I need to see an eye doctor."

   "What's wrong, Baby?" His mother asked with concern.

   "I don't know. Maybe nothing. That's why I need to see an eye doctor so we'll know for sure." Brian said frankly.

   "I'll call tomorrow and make an appointment." Brian's mother said gently.

   "Thanks, Mom." Brian said as he pulled his mother into a gentle hug.

   She stood rigidly for a moment, but finally tentatively put her arms around him.

   As Brian looked back into the kitchen, he could see his mother frenetically working, trying to abolish each and every microbe from every exposed surface in the kitchen. He could understand the need to be neat and clean, but her actions struck him as being somewhat obsessive.

    Continuing out of the kitchen, Brian glanced into the living room where his father stared glassy-eyed at the television in a near catatonic state, watching some syndicated sitcom that he'd probably already seen a thousand times.

    As Brian slowly walked toward his bedroom, he thought to himself, 'No wonder I was such a mess!'

    Still shaking his head at the absurdity of his parents' chosen way of life, Brian walked into his room and spotted his school backpack, sitting on the floor beside his desk.

    The first thing he did was take out the cell phone and turn it on so he could check the battery level.

    He loved his phone. Admittedly, he didn't use it to make calls very often, if at all. But he had always loved being able to have his videos, music and games easily accessible on one device. The only drawback was that the thing tended to eat batteries the way a fat girl eats potato chips.

    Once it had played its little start-up song and finally settled on the main menu screen, Brian gave a sigh of resignation and connected it to it's charger.

    Looking around his bedroom, he reflected on what Jack had said about the 'real world'. Everything around him seemed hollow and without any real purpose. The few models that he had built were on display, but what good were they, really? As he thought back, he recalled that each of them had been gifts that he had been given and that he had assembled them because... that's what you do with models.

    He walked to his dresser and picked up a spiral bound notebook. It was filled with doodles and sketches and he smiled at the silliness of some of them.

    A slight tapping drew his attention and he turned to find his mother standing in his bedroom doorway.

    "Do you need anything?" She asked timidly when she saw that he had noticed her.

    "No, Mom. I'm fine." Brian said as he sat his notebook aside.

    "Your father said..." She began to say, then trailed off.

    Brian nodded, prompting her to continue.

    "He told me about the problems you've been having at school. And I just wanted to know..." She trailed off again.

    Brian waited, fairly certain that if he waited long enough, she'd finally spit it out.

    Her gaze fell to the floor, then in a voice so low it could barely be heard, she asked, "Did I cause it?"

    After a moment to see if she were going to elaborate on the question, Brian finally said, "No. I did."

    Brian's mother looked at him with surprise.

    "Most of the problems that I've been having are because I'm growing up." Brian said frankly.

    She stared at him for a moment, and Brian couldn't begin to guess at what was going on in her mind. He honestly couldn't tell if she understood what he was saying or not.

    "Your clothes should be done drying anytime, now." She said quietly, then turned and left the room.

    "Um, yeah. Thanks." Brian said in puzzlement, feeling that he had missed something in their conversation.

    Just as Brian walked up to the dryer, it stopped.

    There was an empty laundry basket sitting on top of the dryer, so he placed it on the floor, then unloaded the warm, sweetly scented clothes into the basket.

    As Brian passed by the living room with his basket of clothes, he glanced in and found his father looking back at him.

    Brian didn't have an actual name for the expression he gave his father, it was more or less instinctive, but he knew that it involved a head tilt, a slight eyeroll and just a hint of a smirk.

   The surprised look on his father's face gave him satisfaction as he continued on to his room.

   Once all his clothes were neatly folded and put back in the backpack, Brian decided that he needed a nice long shower.

   Although he loved every single minute of the time he had spent at the cabin and wouldn't want to change a single thing, the fact was, he felt grubby and knew that he probably stank.

   When he opened his underwear drawer, he stopped all movement.

   The Y-front cotton briefs were all neatly folded and lined up like little soldiers, ready for inspection. After wearing boxer shorts for just a few days, Brian couldn't imagine stuffing himself into a tight little pair of briefs again.

   Brian shook his head as he closed the drawer, then went to the backpack and retrieved a pair of the freshly washed boxer shorts.

   Next, he opened the bottom drawer of his dresser and took out some pajamas.

   He stared at them for a moment, wondering if there was any way he could get by with just sleeping nude, but finally forced himself to just go ahead and wear them.

   Once he was in the bathroom, Brian felt the long day catching up with him. Undressing seemed to take an unreasonably long time, but he was finally finished and nearly dragged himself into the shower.

   As nice as the hot water felt on his skin, all he wanted to do at that exact moment was forget everything and go to bed.

   Even though he was tired, he took a very thorough shower. Afraid that, if he didn't, he might smell like campfire smoke at school the next day.

   As he soaped his more intimate areas, he considered taking a few minutes to 'relieve his tension' but, in the end, decided that all he really wanted was to go to bed.

    Once Brian was out of the shower and toweled dry, he pulled on his night clothes, completely by habit. It wasn't until he saw himself in the mirror that he stopped to question what he was doing.

    The pajamas that he was wearing weren't 'kiddie' or anything like that. They were covered with broad medium blue and light blue vertical stripes and were certainly worthy of any adult, except... He saw his image in the mirror and all he could think was that he looked like a timid little mouse of a person who felt like he had to hide the shameful thing that was his body, even in his own house... in his own room... in his own bed... in the dark.

    Brian briefly considered taking off the pajamas, but finally decided that it would be too much bother and just walked across the hall to his room and went to bed.

    As Brian climbed between the fresh clean sheets, he had the sense that something wasn't right.

    The bed was comfortable, like it always had been, but something important was missing. In a flash of realization, he knew what it was. In just a few short days, he had become accustomed to sleeping next to Jack. Even though while they were in bed together they didn't touch and barely spoke, just knowing that Jack was there had given Brian a sense of safety and security that allowed him to achieve a good, restful sleep.

    As Brian lay, just on the edge of sleep, he could feel a knot of anxiety within him. He didn't have to wonder about what it was. He knew, without a doubt, that he was feeling nervous about having to go to school the next day. The teasing... the name calling... the locker room... the shower...

    An annoying beeping sound dragged Brian to the edge of consciousness. One quick slap of his hand silenced the unwelcome intrusion to his sleep. As silence fell over his room, Brian fell back into wonderfully comforting dreams of a little cabin in the middle of nowhere.

   "Brian! You need to wake up! Breakfast will be ready in just a few minutes!" Brian's mother said urgently.

   Brian reluctantly cracked open one eye and directed his teenage 'death glare' at his mother, hoping that it would make her disintegrate.

   Unfortunately, all it did was make her look at him uncertainly.

   "Yeah. I'll be right there." Brian said dutifully in a raspy voice, then forced his tired body to sit up in the bed.

   All those days of being allowed to sleep until he felt rested made it extra difficult to get up and go when he felt like he could easily sleep for another hour or so.

   As he stood, Brian felt a pulling sensation and looked downward to find the source.

   He had an erection, and it was twisted in his boxer shorts and pajama bottoms, forcing it to stick out at a weird, unnatural angle. After shifting his clothes around and settling it into a more comfortable position, Brian looked down at his crotch and firmly said, "No! I'm already running late! Stop asking!"

   By the time Brian had done his morning business and dressed for school, the erection was gone and forgotten.

   As he walked into the kitchen, the aroma of coffee caught his attention. That was all the encouragement he needed.

   "That's for your father." Brian's mother said firmly.

   "I'm not going to drink the whole pot." Brian said with an eye roll at his mother.

   Just as he sat down to eat, his father walked into the room, still tucking his shirt in.

   Since Brian was running a little bit late, he quickly buttered his toast and took a bite without thinking.

   As the flavor registered, he suddenly realized one major difference between Jack's cooking and his mom's. He glanced at the bowl of 'butter' to find that it was, in fact, margarine. To make matters worse, it wasn't a particularly good brand of margarine.

   He took a drink of his coffee to try and get the taste out of his mouth. He wasn't at all surprised to find that the coffee wasn't as good as Jack's, but at least it wasn't horrible. It would do.

   "You'd better hurry." Brian's father said between bites of food.

   Brian looked at the clock, then started shoveling food into his mouth as fast as he could manage, so he'd be able to go to school with a full belly.

   He didn't know exactly what was going to happen in the coming day, but he was reasonably certain that he would need a lot of energy in reserve to face whatever it turned out to be.

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