It had only been a few hours when I was suddenly awakened by the sound of a rustling tent closure. It took me a moment to reason what was happening and I realized that it was Damien leaving the tent.
“Poop break?” I asked, failing to hold in my laughter as I turned on the battery powered lantern in our tent.
“No jackass! I’m cold, so I’m gonna go sit by the fire.” He replied.
“Damien stop.” I said with subtle seriousness.
“What?” He asked, annoyed.
“Why don’t you trust me?” I asked with sincerity.
Freckles hesitated for a moment, made an audible sound while looking down at me and then turned back to his attempt to leave the tent. I sat up and grabbed him by the arm and as he tried to pull away, my hand brushed across his hand. To my surprise he really was cold. His skin was cold to the touch and I immediately felt terrible about not telling him about his sleeping bag.
However, I was also too afraid to tell him that I knew about it all along, while trying to get him to lay in my sleeping bag with me. What would he think of me then? Guilty or not, it was too late to come clean, so I played along with his belief that he forgot it.
“Please, just trust me, I’m not going to do anything to you, I swear it.” I begged.
Damien let out a long and exaggerated sigh. He pulled the tent closure back together and zipped it up. He turned and looked at me, not saying a word, but his mind was clearly turning with many thoughts.
I could tell he felt weird about it, he looked nervous and unsure. At the same time, he was cold and tired and I was certain he hadn’t been to sleep yet at all. He continued to stand up in the tent, stepped here and there, not saying a word, trying to make up his mind whether or not he was willing to crawl in.
Unzipping the sleeping bag, I threw it open and shifted myself to the right side of it.
“See, there’s enough room, it’s huge.” I said, trying to convince him that it was going to be okay.
He looked down at the sleeping bag and brought both his hands up to his head and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Okay, fine! But if you so much as touch me, you’ll regret it, understand?” Freckles demanded.
“What was that description you gave of your tattoo? Oh yeah, about how you’re not going to live with fear anymore.” I pointed out.
“Shut up!” Damien scolded me, as he pulled off his hoodie and approached the sleeping bag.
“You’re leaving the jeans on?” I asked courageously.
“I’m not taking off my fucking pants!” He asserted.
“Do you have any idea how hot it’s going to be in this sleeping bag? Our body heat, plus it’s insulated.” I informed him.
Freckles let out another long and exaggerated sigh. He stood up and glared at me.
“Turn the other way.” He mumbled.
“Say what?” I asked.
“Turn around!” He shouted.
“Seriously? What are you a girl? Just a few hours ago you whistled at me when I pulled my pants down!” I reminded him.
“But that was a joke!” He corrected me.
“You’re unbelievable.” I told him.
“Me!?!?” He asked perplexed and continued, “You’re the one trying to get me naked!”
“What!?!?” I blurted out, shocked by his assumption, “I can’t believe you just said that!”
“Well, it seems like it!” He elaborated.
“That hurt, I’m not some gay pervert who just wants to get you naked. I have a heart and feelings, I’m driven by love, not by lust you fucking douche!” I vented.
We fell silent by the awkwardness of our argument. I rolled over in my sleeping bag, facing away from Freckles and covered my face with my arm.
A couple moments passed and I heard him move around in the tent. I figured he was putting his hoodie back on to go out to the fire and so I refused to look at him.
I heard the clicking sound of the button on the battery powered lantern and darkness fell throughout the tent. Under my arm and through the canvas, I could see the flickering and dying light of the campfire outside our tent. I took a deep breath and questioned myself. Was Damien right? Was I just some stupid horny gay guy who was trying to take advantage of him? Did I really love him? Was I wrong about myself and my feelings all these years?
Not only did I feel guilty about his sleeping bag, but then I found myself feeling ashamed. My throat tightened and I could feel my eyes well up. As one tear after another slowly slid down my face in silence, I felt a jolt at the sleeping bag. Freckles was getting in.
Once he was in all the way and settled, I could feel the immediate change in temperature caused by his radiating body heat.
He leaned in behind my head and solemnly whispered, “No more fear.”
My tears stopped and my heart began to beat faster and faster as Damien re-settled himself in the sleeping bag. I felt petrified, worried that my foot, knee or arm would accidentally touch him and he’d retaliate.
I laid there for what felt like an hour, unable to move, paranoid that my racing heartbeat could be heard, if only he would have listened closely enough.
He hadn’t moved for quite some time and I wondered if he had fallen asleep. I lifted my head up and saw that the fire outside had died down even more and the faint light it was casting into the tent was dim and didn’t lend any aid to my attempt to see if Damien was awake. In the darkness, I was still too afraid to move in fear of bumping into him.
Eventually my mind convinced me to just ask aloud if he was awake, so with courage I did, but heard no answer. After a couple minutes of waiting, I still received no response.
Assuming he must have been fast asleep, I began, “I could never be brave enough to say these things if I knew you were awake, so you’ll only get to hear them in your sleep. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I made you do and I’m sorry for the bad things I said to you. I wish you knew how much I’ve grown to appreciate your friendship. It’s not just some dreamy guy from Subway that I care about anymore, it’s you Damien, I care deeply about you. There is not a day that goes by that you don’t grace my thoughts. This camping trip meant the world to me and when I realized how much this place means to you, I felt honored you brought me here to experience it with you.”
Damien still laid silent and motionless, so I continued, “Of all the people I’ve met in my life, no one has ever made me feel this way. I have to admit that I’ve hoped since the first day I saw you years ago that you might actually be interested in guys and even though you told me you were straight numerous times, I still wanted to believe there were moments that maybe you weren’t so straight. Stupid and naive of me, I guess, but what does a man have if he is without hope?”
I turned and looked over in Freckles’s direction and he was still without sound or movement, so I continued my confession, “In the beginning, my biggest fear had been that you will reject me and cast me out of your life. But, I’ve learned since then that actually my biggest fear is that you will never be loved the way I wholeheartedly believe you deserve to be.”
With those words I closed my eyes and went to sleep, feeling better that I had confessed them to Freckles… even though he wasn’t awake to hear them.
Morning came quickly and I slowly awoke to the sound of birds chirping outside the tent. I wiped away the matter from my eyes as I sat up in the tent. Damien was no where to be seen and the closure to the tent was hanging wide open. Through which the sun gleamed in, warming and drying out the air inside.
I stretched and popped my back as I crawled out of the sleeping bag and dug through my backpack to get myself ready for the day.
I put on my shoes and stumbled out of the tent, I leaned around the side and spat out my toothpaste after brushing, swished with some water to rinse and splashed some on my face to wash away the grime and considered myself presentable. I looked around for Damien and I still didn’t see him. I assumed he must have gone for a walk before I woke up, probably feeling the same way I did. Perhaps embarrassed by what happened the night before and unsure how to continue from there.
“You look rough as hell!” Damien announced on approach from behind me.
“I do?” I turned and asked, somewhat self-conscious.
“You have really bad bed-head!” He explained, laughing.
I reached up with my hands and felt my hair protruding in all directions, the only time I regretted having hair long enough that it touched my eyebrows. As I kept trying to pat my hair down and comb it with my fingers, Freckles continued to laugh as he walked away towards his truck.
He came back with a ball cap in his hand, “Here put this on, it will at least push your hair down so you don’t look like an escapee from the psyche ward.”
I took the hat from him, slapped it against my leg like I used to do, back when I wore a hat every day, and slid it down over my hair. Some habits don’t go away, even if the thing that caused the habit does.
“You may want to adjust it.” Damien remarked, noticing that it was too tight with all my hair under it.
I pulled it back off and as I adjusted it in the back, he walked up to me laughing. He reached up with his hands and tried flattening some of my hair down. Roughly, as though he was petting a dog, he drug his fingers through my hair, trying to comb it forward.
My hair was cut short on the back and sides, but long on top. It tapered in length and got longer the closer it was to my forehead and the tips came down to an inch above my eyebrows. Damien switched up his method and used both his fingers and palms in the front and slid them down over my forehead as he tried to tame my wild hair.
Humorously, I wondered to myself if that was how it felt to be a dog or cat being groomed. I couldn’t deny it, I liked it. Feeling his hands being pressed against my head and face, it made me feel calm and comfortable. No one had ever done that to me before and I didn’t want it to stop.
“You know, if I had a tale I’d be wagging it right now, or if I could purr, you’d be able to hear it!” I said aloud to Damien, with childish laughter.
He stopped messing with my hair and pushed me away with a smile, “Fix the rest yourself, dork.”
I slid the hat back on my head and it fit snug, but not tight. It was a faded red hat with the Dodge Ram emblem in the front. It was broken-in and floppy, it must have been a favorite of his to wear at some point. I was honored to have inherited it from him.
I wondered why he was being so nice to me, after the bickering that went on the night before. I summed it up to us both just having been tired and that once he got some sleep he had felt differently about the events that took place. Perhaps he had woken up early to have some time alone. To give himself the opportunity to think things over and it made him feel better about it all.
Whatever the case, I was grateful that he was no longer angry with me. Our weekend adventure continued unhindered by negative emotions.
“Hey you wanna go fishing?” Damien asked with enthusiasm.
I laughed, “Yes, of course, but first I’m starving man.”
“Oh, well, I brought a couple bags of fruit-and-nut trail mix, some bananas and apples and a box of protein bars, or if you want we can use your tripod fire thing with the cast iron pan and fry bacon and eggs?” He said going over the options.
“I didn’t think I’d have so many options!” I said, “How about we try the tripod, could be interesting?”
Freckles cracked a smile, “If by interesting, you mean a disaster, then sure!”
He coaxed the embers back into a fire as I assembled my tripod and connected the cast iron skillet that connected in the middle by stabilizing rods. We set it up over top the fire and waited for the pan to get hot.
That morning was the first time I got to see the area in full sunlight. We were surrounded by woods on all sides. The trees were thinned out down the hill towards the lake, but they were tall and old. Their branches spread out at the top and shaded the hill. On the ground, grass had grown up between the trees all the way down to the lake.
It seemed strange, like a vineyard of trees. The campsite was leveled off, perhaps by Damien’s grandfather at some point in the past. But everything else around us was sloped, naturally by time and rain water. I looked up at the trees overhead and wondered what kind they were. I wasn’t a tree expert, but I assumed they must have been oak.
Freckles must have seen me staring at the trees, “Huge aren’t they?”
“Yeah they are, what kind of trees are they?” I asked.
“Those are cottonwood.” Damien said pointing at the large trees scattered down the hill.
“They must be old, based on their size.” I commented.
“They’re older than me, but cottonwood grow fast, so it”s hard to say just how old they are. You should come here in early summer, it’s amazing.” He teased my curiosity.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“They release little white balls of seeds, they lift and scatter in the wind. The hill is hollowed out enough that the wind channels down through here. It’s like a flowing river of white seeds. I haven’t seen it in years, maybe next year we can come back and I can show you?” Freckles suggested.
“Sounds awesome.” I said, imagining what he was talking about.
“Pans hot enough by now and I’m hungry.” Damien said motioning for me to follow him back to the fire.
The dampness of the October night had settled onto everything, but the warm morning sun was lifting the moisture back into the clouds above us. I could still hear the birds chirping in the trees overhead, as they swooped and fluttered from tree to tree. There was a slight breeze, enough to make the leaves rustle in the limbs, tugging some of them loose and softly carrying them down the hill.
We laid some bacon into the pan and let them cook and release their grease before cracking a few eggs. As we waited for them to cook, I took a seat on one of the logs. I looked out across the tree lines surrounding us and took a mental note of all the different colors. There were reds and oranges, yellows and even some green from the evergreen trees along the edge of the woods.
I smiled and thought that place to be a haven. Remote and free of urban encroachment, a sanctuary for the nature-lover and a sanctuary for me because in that place was the only human being I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. He just didn’t know it yet.
The smell of cooking bacon filled the subtle breeze that brushed passed us, wafting by my nose it made me even hungrier. Damien sat down on the log next to me and together we waited.
It wasn’t until late morning that we were finally able to walk down to the lake. He was concerned that not much would be biting at that time of the day, but he was still eager to cast his line anyway. As we walked, side by side, down the hill and in between the giant trees, Damien recited to me his many fishing trips with his grandpa. He retold them with a boyish fervor that only someone who cherished those memories could recite them.
“Can I ask when your grandpa passed away?” I asked as gently as I could, wanting to know what happened without tearing open a healing wound.
Freckles looked at me while I asked that question and when the last word exited my mouth he turned away to the lake up ahead. He waited a moment, the wheels in his mind must have been turning, memories flashing through his mind like photos in an album, perhaps photos he didn’t want to see.
“Pa-pa passed away before my second year of college was supposed to start. His passing was part of the reason why I didn’t come back to Vale. I stayed here in Terryville to be closer to my mom, Claire and Evan. We were the only family we all had left.” Damien disclosed to me.
“What about your grandma and your dad’s parents?” I asked.
“Pa-pa’s wife died from breast cancer when I was too young to remember, Claire is the only one of us kids who can remember her. My dad’s parents never came around, I only know what they look like from old photos that my mom has.” He told me.
Damien continued, “Speaking of my dad, you know that asshole didn’t even come around when Pa-pa died? He knew her parents, they had family events together when he and my mom were young and still dating.” Freckles said bitterly.
“He sounds like a real douche bag.” I said in agreement.
“He was. He still lived with us when Evan was still a baby. But by the time Evan was old enough for preschool, he came home less and less. Mom would always tell us he was just working, but we knew something was wrong. They used to fight a lot and he was angry most of the time we saw him.” Damien began to open up about the man he grew to hate.
He continued, “He abandoned us, you know? We needed him and he just… he just fucking abandoned us. I was about twelve when he left one night and the asshole just never came back. That’s the age when a guy needs his dad the most, to show him what kind of man to aspire to be, to help him through his teenage years.”
Damien became more and more angry the more he talked about his father. His demeanor changed, he became more rigid and even his voice started to sound different. It was clear that he had a very deep seeded hatred for his father, a lot of unresolved issues with him. I didn’t know if I should have changed the subject or just let him continue venting his frustrations and disappointment.
I figured he needed to get it all out, so I went along with his direction of conversation, “Have you heard from him at all since the night he left?”
“Ha!” Damien shouted, “Bro, he’s never once tried to get in touch with me! What kind of man does that to his son?”
“A terrible one.” I said in agreement with him.
Freckles let out a long and loud sigh and then said, “Sorry about that.”
“Sorry? You have nothing to be sorry about.” I reassured him.
“I ruined our walk, bud.” He admitted.
“The hell you did, it’s good to get crap like that off your chest. The fact that you shared those feelings with me, that means something to me. It means you trust me.” I told him.
Damien looked over at me, he didn’t say anything, he just looked into my eyes. We didn’t need to say anything more about it, we knew at that point that I was right. He did trust me, he was letting me in and telling me things that he kept secret inside himself. First about Megan, then about his grandpa and now his emotions about his father. The bond between us was already growing and in that moment we both not only knew it to be true, but we both realized that the other was aware of it as well.
We reached the lake and after baiting our hooks, cast our lines while standing on the lake’s shore. Although I’m not sure if we could really call it a lake, it was certainly larger than any pond I had ever seen before. It was triangular in shape, surrounded by two sloping hills and an embankment only high enough to keep the water from flowing out. Damien said that the lake was there when his grandfather bought the land some sixty years ago.
In one of the corners of the lake, it fed a channel that fed into a nearby creek. He told me that the creek traveled for miles across numerous farms, connecting to other creeks and eventually leading to a river.
Freckles told me he wasn’t sure what kind of fish were still in the lake, he figured his grandpa was the last person to stock it with bass and catfish and that was many years ago when Damien was still a teenager.
We stood there in the Autumn sun, poles in hand, hoping we’d be lucky enough to have some excitement and actually catch something. Watching my bobber gently move in the tiny waves on the lake caused by the slight breeze, was a bit hypnotic. The sun’s reflection on the water made it glisten.
I looked over at Damien, who had walked further down the lake’s shore. I grinned because he was in his element. He had told me that he loved to go fishing. And finally he was back at it. Standing there in his roper boots and jeans, cut-off-sleeveless shirt and his Browning ball cap, Freckles was happy to be back in the place that he could have called his second-home.
“Any bites?” Damien asked, having caught me looking at him.
“Nope!” I said and turned back to my bobber in the water.
The hours passed us by and the noon sun came and went. By the end, we caught five catfish and seven bass, most of the latter were caught by Damien who used my jig lure that I had conveniently brought along in my tackle box. Admittedly, Freckles had caught the most fish.
We released all the ones we caught, we didn’t bring any gear to cut and clean them anyway. We stood by the lake taking in the sights and sounds as the sun began to set along the horizon, fading behind the treeline that encircled us.
“Pa-pa woulda loved to have been here with us.” Damien acknowledged aloud.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your grandpa?” I asked sincerely.
“Well, remember that I told you after his first heart attack that mom and Evan, who was about thirteen or fourteen at the time, moved in with him here on the farm?” Damien asked.
“Yep, I remember you mentioning that.” I responded.
“After that he… uh… he couldn’t really do anything on the farm anymore, but he refused to live anywhere else, so mom took over for him the best she could. That lasted somewhere between six months to a year and then he… um… he had a second heart attack and he didn’t m…”
Freckles stopped talking and fell silent. He turned his head away from me and didn’t finish his sentence. After a few seconds he sniffled loudly and I realized that he was crying, trying to hold it in and not let me see or hear it.
“Aw, dude…” I didn’t finish my sentence either, as I didn’t know what to say to him to make him feel better. I looked at him trying to hold in his grief and it made my heart ache. In the amber glow of the setting sun I could see the shimmer of light hitting the streams of tears falling down his face.
I couldn’t take it anymore and without announcement I just walked over and hugged him. At first he didn’t respond at all, just stood there limp in my arms. I hugged him tighter which caused his crying to become audible and as he wrapped his arms around me he stopped holding back and all his bottled up emotions came flooding out.
“I’m sorry I’m such a fucking pussy.” He mumbled, his voice cracked from the strain.
“There’s nothing to apologize for, a man that acknowledges he has emotions is the pinnacle of what it means to have courage.” I said trying to console him.
We stood there as dusk settled into the distance. Crickets recited there nightly serenade and bullfrogs croaked all along the shore line. Somewhere in the distance I caught the sound of a whippoorwill. Something I had not been fortunate enough to hear for quite some time. And after that night, it would be something I would never forget.
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