Like any time you’re waiting for a special event, the week seemed to take forever. Each day seemed to drag out and I didn’t think the weekend would ever arrive. I was so stoked about spending so much time with Freckles, out in the country, away from other people and the problems in our lives. For some reason, when people are alone out in the wilderness, living in a simple way, sleeping under the stars, sitting beside a fire, they tend to open up and it becomes much easier to bond and relate. I had hoped this would also be true for Damien and I.
Friday, after work, I scrambled through my apartment collecting the gear I needed and had available for the camping trip. Freckles had informed me of the equipment he had that I wouldn’t need to bring. Since he was the one with the coolers, the food and drinks were his responsibility. For some reason, I had the suspicion we’d be living off beer and hot-dogs.
Seeing as Damien told me my car lacked the ability to travel to his mom’s farm, he was supposed to pick me up at my apartment. I had given him directions during the week as it was the first time he had ever been there. In the midst of hunting down my gear, I was also attempting to clean up a bit to make my place presentable. I don’t know why, but I felt the need to impress him or to at least make him think I was disciplined and took care of the things I owned. Little did I know back then, that Freckles was actually a bit of a slob when it came to his living space.
Suddenly my phone beeped, “On my way.” Freckles had announced his coming arrival.
I felt a new rush of exhilaration, this was actually happening, we were about to spend the whole weekend alone, just he and I. No worries, no interruptions, no schedule to keep, just him and me and mother nature. And unless she struck us down with lightening, buried us under a mud slide, drowned us in a flash flood, burned us in a wildfire or had us mauled to death by a black bear, I was convinced it was going to be the greatest weekend of my life.
I heard the unmistakable rumble of Damien’s truck pull up outside my apartment building. My heart leaped inside my chest and the nervousness overtook me, as it did each and every time I anticipated seeing him.
I gathered my gear by the door and started turning off the lights inside my apartment when I heard a knock at the door. Again, my heart fluttered at the sound, as I calmly made my way to the door and opened it.
“Hey man, you ready to go?” Damien greeted me.
He was standing there at my door, his hands in his front pockets. It was a particularly warm October day and Freckles had on his trademark faded sleeveless shirt, broken-in ball cap and worn-out jeans. It was like he had just finished a photo shoot for some Missouri magazine titled Midwest and Cornfed.
“Yeah, you got all your stuff? I asked.
“Yep,” He said while scanning over my gear laying at the door, “You have a pole?”
“Fishing pole?” I asked stupidly.
“Nah man, a stripper pole!” He replied sarcastically.
“Fuck you!” I replied with a half-laugh.
“My mom has a lake on the backside of her farm, so I was thinking we could try to fish. It’s late in the season, but I think it’s warm enough the fish might still be feeding off the surface. Bugs are still out, fish should still be biting.” He said, justifying his question.
“Oh cool, yeah, I have one in my closet, give me a sec, you can come in and wait if you want.” I confirmed and headed back into my bedroom.
Freckles came inside and closed the door. I could hear him walking behind me, the clunk of his roper boots was unmistakable as he followed me into my bedroom.
As I pulled things out of my closet, in search of my fishing rod, Freckles noted, “You have a nice little place.”
“I won’t lie, I had to clean up a bit before you came over, haha, I didn’t want you to think I was a dirt child.” I confessed.
“Are you?” He asked.
“Well, no, but sometimes I leave stuff lay a few days before picking it up and putting it where it belongs.” I admitted.
“Shit, everyone does that, I know I do. Clothes, random stuff, empty cups, all kinds of crap laying around my apartment.” Damien said, reassuring me that I was normal.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I agreed.
“You have some cool stuff.” He said, looking around my bedroom and then asked, “Is that a pillow-top mattress?”
“Yep.” I answered.
Freckles walked over to my bed and put his hand down on it, testing the softness. He then proceeded to sit down as I was stuffing things back into my closet after retrieving my rod and tackle box.
“You probably won’t need lures, I bought worms at the sporting goods store up the road.” Damien said.
“Oh, I didn’t even know they sold live bait there.” I replied.
“Yeah, you just have to ask at the register, they keep them in the back.” He informed me.
With that, Damien laid down on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. I paused, standing there with my fishing rod and tackle box in hand. The guy of my dreams was laying on my bed. It was difficult to not stare and that voice in my head screamed at me like it had done many times before since meeting Freckles. It yelled at me to do anything to get onto that bed with him and hold him there forever.
His hands were clasped behind his head, his boots still touching the floor, he was stretched out enough that his shirt had lifted up slightly and I could see about an inch or more of his lower abdomen and his apparent happy trail of hair. I could feel my face blush with embarrassment and my heart pumped adrenaline throughout my body. I had to fight the feelings and thoughts I began to have. I reached out with my leg and kicked his left boot.
“Dude, let’s go!” I demanded, knowing that I had to get out of that situation, fearing I would lose control of myself and rational thought.
“This is going to be great!” Freckles announced as he rushed for the door, collecting some of my things.
It was obvious he was looking forward to it too. Though I was sure his excitement was not caused by the same feelings as mine. I wondered if he understood my perception of our camping trip? Did he even care that I saw it as an opportunity for us to become closer, a method of male bonding? What was his motivation, was he just wanting to get away from his life and his problems? Was I just a means to an end, a source of attention? Did he realize that he was the only thing I cared about?
We packed my stuff in the bed of his truck and headed out for his family farm in Terryville. I had actually never been to that city before, nor did I know it was surrounded by farmland and wilderness. Freckles said that the houses near his mom’s farm were spaced out and the area had a very rural, country feel to it, fields scattered here and there, separate from what existed in the city limit.
It was to be a weekend of exploration and adventure for us both. The soundtrack of which was most certainly going to be graced with songs from his favorite country singers. Lucky me.
We had to travel some two hours to even get to Terryville and once there Damien said we had to travel to the other side of the city and out into the countryside. While passing through the city, Freckles pointed out the hospital where Megan worked. I kept it to myself, but I was rather dismayed that he found it necessary to bring her up and show me where she worked, I turned to look out the window and rolled my eyes at his distraction.
The road leading to his mom’s land turned off from the main highway. It was a gravel road that seemed to wind up and down and left and right. On either side were patches of fields and forest that seemed to go on as far into the horizon as I could see.
At one particular place along the road we passed a very old cemetery, around which was an old and rusty iron fence. I noticed that some of the tombstones were worn down and honestly just looked like rocks sticking up from the Earth. I wondered to myself how old they were, how long ago those people buried there had lived and farmed in that area. I looked over at Freckles and wondered why he didn’t stay there and farm the land like his grandfather he had told me about.
As we continued to drive, Damien took a right onto an old dirt road leading down a big hill and into a valley. I began to see just why he said my car would never make it where we were going.
I rolled the window down as we slowly descended into the land below. It was getting closer to dark and I could feel cool Autumn air hitting me in the face. There was an undeniable smell of farmland, with notes of hay and livestock. It was different than what I had grown accustomed to while living in town, it made me feel settled, calm, like I was home.
Again, I turned to look at Damien and he had turned to look back at me. We locked eyes and all I could really do was smile and it was enough, as he smiled back at me. It was so peaceful there, like some kind of sanctuary where time slowed down and life was simple and good.
At the bottom of the road was an old farm house, a barn and two sheds. To the left of the house was an open field and perhaps a hundred or more cattle spread out all across it. To the right the road split and Damien said that the road continued on to the right towards the neighbors property and eventually came to a dead end.
The other part of the road continued further up into the hillside, carving into a tree line and disappearing. Freckles said that’s where we were headed.
“Does anyone still live in that farmhouse?” I asked as we drove by it.
“Nah, man, my mom and baby bro moved into the city after Pa-pa died. We let the neighbors rent the land for crops and grazing. She was only living there after he had his first heart attack. She just couldn’t handle it on her own and Evan is not exactly the farm-hand type.” Freckles told me.
“You were close to your grandpa?” I asked sincerely.
Damien took a moment before answering me, taking a deep breath as though to hang on to words he didn’t want to say, “Yeah, he was the closest thing I had to a dad. When Pa-pa was still in good health, mom brought us all out here every weekend. All the best memories of my childhood happened here, with him.”
Freckles adjusted in his seat, cleared his throat and turned his head to face out the window. I could tell by the way his voice cracked that being there brought back memories with powerful emotions. Seeing it again both comforted him and brought him pain.
It became apparent to me that this trip was immensely important to him and the fact that he actually brought me along suddenly meant the world to me.
I didn’t know what to say next without pushing his emotions too far, he made it clear the loss of his grandpa still brought him pain. I reached across the truck and gently punched him on the shoulder, “I’m really glad you decided to bring me out here, this place is beautiful.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Damien teased my curiosity and sense of wonder at what he meant exactly.
We made our way up the opposing hillside and into the tree line. The trees were tall and old, they stretched up high above us and crossed over the dirt road, enclosing us in a tunnel of tree branches.
They blocked out what waning light was left in the sky and Freckles flipped his headlights on high. The darkness of the woods was eerie and the cool night air reached inside the cab, seeping through my jacket. I slowly and inconspicuously slid myself away from the truck door and towards Freckles, hoping he wouldn’t notice my momentary lapse of bravery at the creepy woods outside my window.
The closer we got to the top of the hill, the more spaced out the trees became. Eventually each tree was yards from the next and green grass suddenly covered the ground between them.
“It’s kinda hard to see right now, but just down there is the lake I was telling you about.” Damien said while pointing out through the windshield and ahead of us.
Damien’s truck lights beamed down through the darkness, but it was still hard to make out much of anything but the trees that were scattered all across the backside of the hill.
He drove a little ways down, but stopped halfway, “We’re here!” He announced with excitement.
“Awesome!” I responded.
“I was hoping to get here before dark, but oh well what can you do?” Damien admitted.
“Yeah, it’s all right.” I countered, as I stared out my window after Freckles turned off his headlights, my eyes not yet fully adjusted to the lack of light.
Once he had turned off his rumbling engine, I could hear the unforgettable sounds of a woodland lake. The crickets were chirping, the bull frogs were croaking and I could hear the rustling of the drying leaves in the treetops above us.
Damien had picked out a spot where he thought we should set up the tent and I helped him unpack our belongings from his truck bed. He grabbed a couple lanterns and hung them in the lower hanging tree limbs nearby. I handed him one of the flashlights and we proceeded to set up a tent in the early night, a truly challenging task.
In time we eventually got the tent set up and conveniently there were a couple short logs and a fire pit encircled with rocks nearby from when his little brother Evan and his friends had camped there earlier in the summer. A camping event filled with a lot weed, no doubt. From the way Damien talked, Evan knew how to have a good and chill time. Or at least by his standards anyway.
“Where did we put the coolers at, I need some water?” Damien asked.
“Over there I think, towards the truck.” I said pointing.
“I need to take my meds.” He told me, walking towards the truck.
“Do you need to take those with food?” I asked, genuinely concerned.
“Yeah maybe I should?” Freckles said, almost asking me for reassurance. He continued, “I brought hot-dogs! We can roast wieners!!!” He exclaimed with child-like enthusiasm.
“Haha, sounds good, we’ll have to start the fire though first.” I replied, pointing at the dead fire pit.
Damien proclaimed that he had it all under control and that he’d have the fire going soon enough. He instructed me to go fetch the hot dog buns out of the back of his truck, in the tool box behind his back glass.
I made my way up into the bed of his truck with my flashlight in hand, stepping over the numerous objects still back there. I pried open the lid and shined the light down inside the tool box. On the right side I saw a grocery bag with hot dog buns and a box of graham crackers and a bag of marshmallows.
“You thought about making s’mores!?!?” I shouted excitedly, holding up the bag.
“Hell yeah! Can’t go camping without the essentials!” He shouted back.
I turned back towards the tool box and shown the light down inside of it one last time to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Up against the wall on the other side I saw a rolled up sleeping bag. I made a mental note to remind Damien later on that he had left it in there.
I dropped the hot-dog buns on the cooler lid as I passed them by and continued on until I returned to Damien’s side at the fire pit. I took a seat on one of the logs as it didn’t appear that Damien was going to get the fire started just too quickly, at least not as fast as his ego would have liked.
Saying nothing, I sat silently observing his technique, slightly humored by his efforts. He’d light a match and hold it down into the pit next to what looked like a few squares of toilet paper, only to have it not take. It made me hope that we had packed enough of it if he was going to be using it for kindling, I certainly didn’t plan on wiping with tree leaves.
It wasn’t much longer and Damien had succeeded in igniting the toilet paper and then a bundle of leaves and twigs he had gathered earlier. He set a few larger branches he had broken into short pieces on top of the fledgling flame and coaxed it into a much larger fire.
He threw his hands up shouting, “Wooh, told you I had it!” Suddenly I felt like I was on an episode of Survivor.
I held out my hands to test the warmth of the fire as it grew larger. While Damien went in search of the skewers, I got up to retrieve the hot-dogs from the cooler. The flickering flames of the campfire shaped and shifted shadows across the ground, into the trees and against his truck, it made me realize just how alone he and I were up on the backside of that hill. It had to be miles before we would have come across the nearest neighbor. It was liberating and yet also alarming if there had been an accident.
We spent some time roasting and then eating what ended up being mostly burnt hot-dogs as Freckles told me more about his time on the farm as a kid and the moments he cherished most with his grandpa, who he affectionately still referred to as Pa-pa.
After having my fill, I looked up into the night sky and noticed that it was clear. The tiny little stars twinkled above us and my eyes went in search of the North Star, hoping to find Polaris, the star at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper.
“Hey, which way is North?” I asked Damien.
“Um, over that way, I think.” He pointed.
My line of sight shifted and up above the horizon I spotted what most certainly had to have been Polaris.
“Do you ever look up at the stars and just wonder what else is out there?” I asked Freckles.
“Not as often as when I was a kid, but yeah, the Universe is huge. So many stars and planets, so many mysteries.” He replied, staring up into the sky.
“Did you know that some of those stars twinkling up there are so far away that even though we can see their light, they may not actually be there anymore?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?” He inquired.
“I mean, they might actually have imploded long ago, but because they are so far away, it takes that long for their last emanating light to get to us.” I informed him.
“Hmm, that’s crazy.” He remarked, gazing in wonder at the vastness overhead.
He continued, “How do you know so much about stars?”
“When I was younger, my aunt bought me a book about stars and planets for my birthday because I was interested in them.” I confided.
“Cool, man. That’s really neat. What else can you tell me about them?” Damien asked curiously as he got up off the log he was sitting on and walked over and sat down on the log I was on, just inches from me.
He peered back up at the stars, “You know, Pa-pa used to be able to pick out the Big Dipper.”
I looked over at Freckles and smiled, “Did you know that even though those stars all look white from where we are, if we could get closer to them and not be blinded we’d notice they are actually different colors? And which element they are burning determines what color the star is.”
“No shit?” Damien answered.
“Yep.” I said proudly. It felt good to tell him something he didn’t know that filled him with wonder.
We sat there for a while longer gazing up at the night sky at all the twinkling lights. The way they were scattered all across the sky made me think of Damien’s freckles. It made me smile again and I thought about mentioning it to him, but I decided to keep it to myself.
“Hey you have a watch?” Damien asked.
“No, I actually never wear one, why?” I inquired.
“I was just wondering what time it is, the drive today made me tired.” Damien conceded.
“I agree, I’m exhausted, but we didn’t even get to make s’mores!” I told him.
“Haha,” Damien laughed, “We have all weekend!”
I laughed too and accepted his answer, I even repeated it in my head. We did have all weekend, just him and me. I felt like the more he opened up and talked about his past and his favored memories, the more I learned about him. The things that made Freckles into Damien, into the real person that he was. He was no longer a dreamy mystery, he was flesh and blood, joy and pain.
Getting up off the log, I made my way to the tent where I had thrown my backpack and sleeping bag. I leaned into the tent to grab my toothbrush and toothpaste out of my bag to get ready for bed. I brushed my teeth and splashed some water on my face to get off some of the smoke from the campfire. I slid off my shoes and crawled inside the tent to change.
Damien wasn’t far behind me and began going through his own bag. My tent was intended for two people, so we had enough room to maneuver and store our own personal belongings.
I had intended to change clothes before crawling into my sleeping bag, but I felt nervous about undressing in front of Damien. I guess because I liked him so much, it made me insecure about letting him see me in just my underwear. The thought of undressing actually made my heart start to race.
Looking over at Freckles, I could see that he wasn’t paying any attention to me, so I told myself to just do it cause he didn’t care. I pulled off my shirt first and tossed it over to my backpack and then slid off my socks. I undid my button and zipper on my jeans and started to slide them down.
From the other side of the tent I heard a whistle and with a half-laugh I shouted back, “Dude, shut up!” I tried to laugh it off, but it really did make me feel embarrassed.
I finished sliding them off and replaced them with a pair of basketball shorts I had packed specifically to sleep in, I then reached back into my bag and pulled out a t-shirt I had cut the sleeves off and pulled it on over my head.
I looked up over at Damien and noticed he had pulled his shirt off. My heart fluttered as that was the first time I had ever seen him without a shirt on.
His chest was either shaved smooth or clipped really short, with his red hair it was hard to tell. He had a tattoo of a phoenix on his rib cage and a dream-catcher on his left pec. He had never mentioned having tattoos other than the deer skull and barbed wire one on his right bicep, which I had noticed the first time we hung out.
The phoenix looked new to me, so bravely I asked, “What’s the story behind the phoenix?”
“I actually just got it done not even a week ago, but it has to do with my addiction.” Freckles replied.
“How so?” I asked.
“To remind me that even after bad experiences good things can happen, that even though there is pain, I will rise up from the mistakes I have made and become a better… stronger person.” Damien informed me.
“Nice man, what made you choose those colors?” I inquired.
Damien looked down at his right rib cage and touched the phoenix with his left hand. After a moment he said, “Red is bold, it’s the color of passion and of blood. It’s to remind me to keep a passion for life, to live my life to the fullest without fear and without regret.”
“And the black?” I asked curiously.
Freckles slid his finger tips across the black on the feathers of the red phoenix and said, “To remember the darkness. The ashes of the mistakes I have made. We cannot wash them away, they stay with us forever.”
I sat silently studying his tattoo and absorbing Damien’s wise words. I wondered if his other tattoos had deep meaning as well, but chose not to ask.
Damien eventually broke the silence and asked me if I had any tattoos and where. I told him about the sun and scorpion on my back, and when I showed him, he laughed at me for getting an astrology tattoo. Looking back now, I would have to agree with him, it was cliche, but I was young and a lot of young people get them for their first tattoo.
We continued to talk about tattoos and future ink ideas, which led to a conversation about favorite bands, which led to concerts, which led to vacation destinations and so on and so forth.
After exhausting our brains we decided to turn in for the night. October in Missouri is notorious for being warm during the day and cold at night. I unzipped my sleeping bag and crawled inside, which reminded me that I had forgotten to tell Damien he left his in his truck’s tool box.
I looked over at him to ask if he was going to go get it, but before I could he announced, “Crap! I forgot my sleeping bag at my apartment!”
“Are you sure?” I asked sarcastically.
“Yeah, I forgot to take it out of my cedar chest.” He assured me.
I hesitated to mention that he had packed it, just to see what he would do or say next. Then I wondered if he said that on purpose, knowing full well that he had it on the back of his truck. Was he testing me, did he tell me to get the hot-dog buns out of his truck just so that I would notice it? Or was that just a coincidence? Perhaps he didn’t know that I saw it in the back of his truck and he just wanted me to think he forgot it?
Or maybe I just put way too much thought into it and he honestly forgot about packing it.
I decided to not mention seeing it, “What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I guess I’ll just put on layers and curl up in the corner over here, haha!” He concluded with a laugh.
Damien proceeded to put his shirt back on and pulled a hoodie from his bag. I looked over at him with astonishment as he pulled it over his head. Did he really have no idea his sleeping bag was just yards away in his truck bed?
“Seriously?” I asked.
“What?” He replied.
“You’re going to sleep in a jacket in the corner?” I asked, still astounded by his behavior.
“I don’t have a choice, I’m not gonna lay out by the fire!” He laughed.
“Dude, seriously, get over here,” I said unzipping my sleeping bag and throwing it open, “You’re small enough to fit.”
“Hell no!!!” Damien immediately responded, half in laughter and half pissed that I made fun of his stature.
“It’ll be fine!” I tried to convince him.
“No!!! I’m not getting in a sleeping bag with another guy, especially not one who’s got the hots for me!” He argued.
“It’s not like I’m going to do anything!” I yelled back, offended by his reasoning.
“Nah man, it’s not happening!” He asserted with conviction as he laid down on the far end of the tent.
“Fine, freeze to death in the corner!” I said, conceding to his stubbornness.
By that point, I had refused to tell him about his sleeping bag, even if he had sincerely forgotten about it, merely out of spite for his accusations.
I zipped my sleeping bag back up, turned so that I wouldn’t be facing him, closed my eyes and settled in for the night. Moments later, I announced, “Good night douche bag.” To which Damien never responded.
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