Camp Refuge

Chapter 22 - Camp Refuge

 June 15, 2018 (Friday, 12:40 PM)

"I know it's unusual, Judge Vining," Jeremy spoke into the phone, his talking points in front of him on his desk, "but the last time Elias went into foster care things didn't go well." Jeremy was called by Greg as soon as the officers left the campground. And he contacted the judge shortly after. On Jeremy's request, Judge Vining had Orson and Elias taken straight to her chamber in City Hall - and on her lunch break, no less.

The woman on the other end of the line sighed. "Mr. Adams, while I do concede your point, I'm already jumping into this case with very little lead time, due to your request for a swift ruling. What you're asking now is … well, it's beyond unusual." Her voice dropped into a thoughtful tone. "Though, the officers who brought him in had nothing but wonderful things to say about this campground, and the men who run it. And apparently, the injured man, Orson, that accompanied the boy is some kind of hero in their eyes."

Jeremy could sense her wavering. "Judge Vining, I will make myself personally responsible for his safety and well-being until you can assess him for emancipation. You have worked with me before. You know I wouldn't do this unless I believed it was the best thing for Elias." He went for the kill. "Judge, he has been through so much. Please. Let him stay with us at the campground until his assessment."

A pause on the phone. "I am ready to name you as an appointed agent of the state where it concerns Elias' care. However, I have conditions."

Jeremy smiled. "Name them."

"First, I would need to send someone to assess the space and its suitability for Elias. Second, I would require DAILY check-ins, until the emancipation assessment can occur. This means I would have to speak to the boy myself. Third, that young man is underfed and malnourished. I want him taken in for a health and safety visit every week to a clinic which does not employ you. I want to see that he's gaining weight and that he's healthy." Another pause, then she continued, "I want you to know, I truly believe that you're trying to help this young man. And I'm willing to do this because you are putting yourself on the line here."

"Judge Vining, all of your conditions will be met." He swallowed, and forced his voice to remain level, though it was obvious he was emotional over her decision. "I truly appreciate what you're doing for Elias. Thank you."

"Well, another deciding factor was his mother declined even to show up to attempt and claim him when the station called her." Judge Vining couldn't hide the disgust in her voice. "I'm going to have some information taken from all of the permanent tenants of the campground. And then I'll inform Elias he's free to accompany you or an agent of your choice back there." Her voice softened. "I've seen how the boy interacts with this man, Orson. It's obvious there's a connection between them."

"There is. You're helping more than Elias here, Judge. This is … this is good work that is getting done today, thanks to you," Jeremy said, and meant every word.

"Flattery, when you've already gotten your way, will get you nowhere, Mr. Adams." Her tone had changed to playful. Then she went right back to business. "The obligation of my requirements will begin tomorrow. I'll send someone out to assess the space late this afternoon, or early this evening. And his first health and wellness visit should occur within a week. Are we clear on all points?"

"We are. Thank you again, Judge."

"You're welcome, Mr. Adams. As a matter of professional courtesy, I'll keep you updated on the date and the status of his emancipation proceedings."

Jeremy thanked Judge Vining again and then hung up. He took a deep and calming breath. Then he allowed himself a grin.

"Yes!" He yelled and leaped up from his desk. He laughed, and then picked up his phone.

"Orson? Are you guys together?" Jeremy couldn't keep the grin off his face as he spoke on the phone. "Well, go get your ride. Because you guys are headed home."

___________________________________

June 15, 2018 (Friday, 2:10 PM)

"I think he's gonna love it." Mason looked at the cake and shook his head with a smile. "We're lucky they already had one that'd work."

The men all looked down at a sheet cake Greg had picked up from the grocery store in Crescent City. It was lettered with "Welcome Home," and he had the bakery department add Elias' name to it. There was now chocolate cake and ice cream to be had when the boy arrived.

Greg covered the flimsy clear plastic case of the cake with a towel and left it centered on the patio table. Not long ago Jeremy called to let them know the news - that Orson and Elias were on their way back. Greg hadn't waited for that. He had already gone to the city for the celebratory cake, confident in the outcome. And he'd returned right before Jeremy called.

Mason and the guys turned as the police cruiser returned. Their guys rode in the backseat, and Elias wore a huge grin when he saw all of them.

The car stopped, and Officer Wells got out. He let Elias out while Anderson fetched Orson's crutches from the trunk.

Soon Orson and Elias walked toward the guys at the patio table. The two officers accompanied them. All looked happy about the way things went.

"Here they are, gents. Delivered back home." Officer Anderson smiled at Elias then he looked over at Officer Wells. "You almost ready to head back? We're gonna be off-shift soon."

"Yeah." Wells turned to look at Greg. "I think I might take you up on camping. I've got nothing going on for the weekend. And the weather is supposed to be nice."

Greg nodded. "Definitely, come on back out and join us. We'll be here."

Mason motioned toward the river. "You've got your pick of spots right now. And the ones near the river trail are the way to go. Nice to sleep to the sound of the water, and you're close for a dip."

Greg reached and put a tentative hand on Elias' back. The young man only looked at him, then smiled. Greg patted him gently. "And … we're celebrating this fellow coming home too. So this will be a good weekend to hang out."

Elias grinned. "The judge said I could stay until my assessment." Mason could tell, he was genuinely happy and relieved. "I'm so glad I don't have to go back to our apartment. My mom doesn't want me anyway."

Mason saw Officer Anderson's face darken. He also noticed the wedding band on the officer's hand. He was pretty sure Anderson had kids of his own, and to hear Elias so sure about his mother's disregard for him seemed to hit the man hard.

Mason motioned at the covered cake. "Well, maybe you should take a look at what we got for you."

The boy's face split into a smile, and he lifted the towel.

"Welcome Home, Elias." Orson gripped his shoulders from behind as Elias looked at the confection. Greg had clued the man in on what they planned with a text, and Orson bent to look at the suddenly quiet boy's face.

Elias turned his green eyes on Orson. "This is for me?"

"Of course." Orson smiled at him, though Mason could tell he was a little unsure of Elias' flat reaction.

"But …" the boy turned back to the cake, "I've never had my own cake before."

They were all quiet a moment. Mason thought about all the birthdays that must have passed with no fanfare or celebration. He was sure similar thoughts ran through all of their minds. Orson knelt beside him on his one knee. "Well, you have one now, Elias. We want you to know that you're special to us."

The young man blinked and licked his lips. Then he turned and put his arms around Orson's neck. Mason felt his eyes water and he fought to keep from crying. He looked around and caught Officer Anderson as he swiped at his eyes. The man saw him, smiled and only shrugged.

"Hey, how about we cut this thing?" Clay stepped up to the table. "Maybe our officer friends would like a piece with some ice cream?"

Elias released Orson and turned. He wiped his eyes, looked at the cake again and laughed. "My own cake." To Mason, the amazed whisper from him was both cute and heartbreaking. Elias looked up at Clay and nodded. "I want to share. Yeah."

The pair of officers decided to stay for a bit longer, and Greg cut them all a slice of cake. They got a scoop of vanilla ice cream to go along with it, and the men sat around the patio table.

Mason looked over at the officers as they ate their cake. "I hope you guys won't get in trouble for sticking around."

Anderson smiled, then swallowed his bite. "Actually, Judge Vining asked me to check the campground and where Elias will stay. So we're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing." He grinned and cut another bite of cake.

Mason laughed. He liked the pair of officers, and they both seemed to be in no hurry to leave the campground.

Greg offered everyone coffee to go with their dessert, and soon there was a full French press on the table too. More of Elias' mugs came out, and Mason reminded himself to take the last batch Elias made into town for firing.

Elias finished his cake, and he stood up with his plate and fork. He also gathered Orson's. "Orson, after I wash our dishes can I go make some more mugs?"

"You certainly may, Elias." Orson looked at him the way a father would look at a son, or maybe, a big brother at a younger one.

Elias walked away, over to the outdoor kitchen with his dishes. Anderson watched him go. "It's pretty obvious that this place is where he needs to be." His eyes met Orson's. "But I still need to do my due diligence. When you're ready, I'd like to take a look at where Elias will sleep. I need to take a few pictures for the Judge."

Orson nodded. He reached for his crutches, and he stood. "I'm ready."

Soon the officers had the information they needed. They were both satisfied with the campground, and Elias' accommodations. Officer Wells promised to return in a few hours and camp over the weekend, and the two men left.

Greg and Clay took the rest of their dishes to the sink. Mason watched while Orson slowly made his way over to the Clay cabin and he disappeared inside.

The teenager waited for a little, and then he followed Orson. Mason quietly poked his head into the cabin.

"... really okay?" Mason caught the tail end of whatever Orson asked Elias. The boy had his head down on Orson's shoulder, his eyes closed. The potter's wheel spun behind them, a misshapen clump of clay slightly off-center wobbled as it did. His hands hung limp, down and covered in clay. It looked like the boy tried to keep his mess to himself, as Orson held him against his chest.

"I'm okay." Elias moved his face, so it pressed against Orson's neck. From his voice, Mason could tell the young man was crying recently. "I don't know why everyone is so nice to me." The boy swallowed. "I keep wondering when you're going to send me away. That's what I was thinking about when you came in."

"Oh, Elias." Orson's voice was rough, and he held onto the blonde boy. "I'm never going to send you away. And after your emancipation is done, you'll have the right to be wherever you want to be, and be with whomever you want."

Elias shook his head and cried. "I just want to be here, and make pottery … and be with you."

"I want that too." Orson took a breath. "I'm going to be here for you, for as long as you need me to be."

Mason carefully stepped back away from the open door. He turned, took a few steps, and he entered his cabin.

He smiled, and with a laugh at himself, he wiped away his tears.

__________________________________

June 15, 2018 (Friday, 6:25 PM)

Officer Joseph Wells showed up just as he promised. The man was in a pair of cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. He put up a nice, roomy tent pretty quickly at what Mason referred to as "The River Site." It was the tent site closest to the river, and one of the better ones.

But what surprised Greg were the other two cars that slowly entered the grounds around a ½ hour after Joseph. The officers had indeed spread the word at the station. And now they had Joseph, and two other sets of new folks at the campground. Greg went around and introduced himself to all of them after they picked their sites. One, a couple with no children chose tent camping, and the other car with a couple of kids and a young married pair picked one of the cabins.

One of the kids had just learned to ride a bike, and she zoomed around the paved loop on a tiny little bicycle. There were suddenly unfamiliar voices in the space, and people starting fires in their firepits, and Mason explaining the kitchen, and Jeremy saying hello to the folks in the department he sometimes worked with. It began to feel like an actual campground.

Greg ambled around the loop, and he visually checked everyone. He just wanted to be sure everything worked, and there were no issues. As he made the trip, Clay joined him near the river trail and Joseph's tent.

Clay put his arm around Greg as they walked. "It's starting." His face was a mix of sad and happy at once.

Greg knew what he meant. It wasn't just their little hideaway anymore. There was a part of him which mourned that. But there was a larger part which felt only now could they call the project a success. "Yeah." He looked at Clay and smiled. "We can share it. At least for ½ the year."

They both knew there would be the busy and slow times of the year. They had only just entered the busy time, and it was likely they would see more traffic soon.

Ultimately that was a good thing. Greg had done some calculations. And he realized that after he paid Mason and Clay, he was losing money if the campground wasn't at least ½ occupied for ½ the year. Neither knew Greg was paying them. But they can't work for free forever, and every week, Greg moved money from his account to the business account he set up for the campground. And that money was earmarked for their wages.

He figured he could get by for about two years, paying the guys with zero tenants. So every time he had campers, it meant the dream got to go on a little bit longer.

That didn't leave much for him. Greg had already started to cut his expenses here and there as he was able to do so. Orson's constant rental of his cabin helped a great deal - more than Greg wanted to admit. And he was thankful for the man's insistence that he pay his way.

He had told no one. Not even Clay knew how close to the line they rode. Clay, Mason, and Orson, and now Elias all trusted Greg to make it work.

'Now that we have campers maybe it will.' He looked around. But his face must have carried his worry.

"What's wrong?" Clay looked at him. "Everything all right?"

They were now even with the camp kitchen on the paved loop, near Orson's cabin. The little girl on the bicycle zoomed by while her mother watched, and waved at the pair of men. Greg smiled and waved back. Then he tried to decide what he was going to say.

"I'm just doing some math." He swallowed and nodded.

That must not have been very comforting, because Clay stopped them both. The big man turned Greg so that he faced Clay. "Greg, what's wrong?"

Inwardly Greg cursed. They knew one another too well, and now that Clay was focused on him, there was no chance he was getting away without explaining the issue. He sighed deeply and looked into Clay's green eyes. "Okay." He nodded, to signal his compliance. "Let's go sit at the patio table. I'll go over it."

They walked over. Greg took a seat, and Clay sat beside him. "You've been pretty quiet off and on the last few days, Greg," Clay said, his eyes concerned. He reached and took Greg's hand on top of the table. "You know you can talk to me, yeah?"

Greg nodded and looked down at their hands. "Yeah." He bit his lip and shook his head slightly. "I just … this, admitting this, makes me feel like a failure." He glanced up at Clay's eyes. 'He deserves to know,' the thought echoed in his mind, and he took another breath. "Okay, so I've got the funds to keep the campground running, how it is now, for two years. After that, we'd have to close it to others."

Clay processed that, his expression one of careful thought. He leaned forward. "First, you're not a failure. Second, let's go over the expenses and see if we can eliminate anything."

Greg chuckled. "Well, I could fire you and Mason. I know you don't realize it, but I am paying you guys. It's all going into an account specifically for your wages. I'm cutting the first checks next Friday, and starting on a two-week schedule after that."

Clay started to say something, thought better of it, then he frowned in concentration. "I was going to say you didn't need to, but I can see, how you'd have to for it to be sustainable. I mean, we can't work for free forever - especially Mason. So … yeah, I get that."

The two men talked about the issue. They didn't come up with anything other than what Greg already knew - they needed ½ occupancy for at least ½ the year to turn a profit.

By this time it was almost dark. The men could hear voices and see the flickering light of fire over near the kitchen, and they knew someone lit the fire pit there.

"Hey. We'll figure this out." The men stood up, and Clay put his arm around Greg's shoulders. "So that you know, I've already got my retirement. And I don't need you to pay me while we're down campers. Focus on Mason. That'll help things go farther." He squeezed Greg's shoulders. "Come on. Let's grab a few ciders and go hang out at the campfire."

That sounded good to Greg. He smiled. "Okay." He leaned close and put his lips at Clay's ear. "Thanks for being you, Clay."

The big man smiled and kissed Greg. Then he rubbed his stubbly face against Greg's. "I don't know any other way to be. So I'm glad you like it." While he held on, he ran his hand down to Greg's rear and squeezed him. "You'd better get that cider." He let a single, meaty finger wander below Greg's waistband, and it slid down the smaller man's crack. "I'm in the mood for some Greg tonight. But first I want to sit around a campfire, and lust after you a bit."

Greg pulled back and looked at him. He laughed and shook his head. "You mean you want to tease me in public." He smirked at Clay. "You're messed up. You know that?"

Clay grinned. "That's what you're paying me for." Then he made a surprised face and snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait! I guess you're getting me for free now."

Greg guffawed and pushed him away. "Bastard!"

___________________________________

The weekend passed with laughter, a few new scrapes on knees, some new bonds between friends, and quite a few splashes in the chilly, crystal clear waters of the Smith River.

And in the evening on Sunday after all of their campers had gone, Judge Vining contacted Jeremy. She had pulled some strings and shifted things around. So now, Elias' assessment for emancipation was scheduled at 9 AM on Monday. Tomorrow.

"I can't be there. But as long as Orson can, I think it'll be okay." Jeremy gave the news to the guys around the patio table.

Elias sat beside Orson and looked nervously around the table. "What if she says no?" He had a worried look on his face. "I don't want to go back to mom. She hasn't even looked for me. She doesn't want me."

Jeremy already knew through his contacts with the police department, and a side discussion with Joseph Wells, that over the weekend Elias' mother was picked up for drug possession. If he weren't emancipated, then he would go into the foster care system. The redhead chose to keep this information to himself. There was no need to worry anybody about something they couldn't change.

"I know you don't want to go back, Elias." He smiled at the boy. "Let's just take it one thing at a time, okay?"

They spent a little longer out at the table. Then Mason stood up and pulled Jeremy along with him. "We're going to bed, guys. Goodnight." The lanky teenager led Jeremy away to his cabin.

Once inside he turned, and gently put his arms around the redhead. He only held the smaller man, and the embrace drew on.

Jeremy carried a lot of stress inside concerning Elias' situation. And he bottled it up because it was privileged information, and he couldn't share it - even with Orson. So much rode on the determination of the judge.

Mason rubbed his back as he held Jeremy. "I can tell you're worried." He squeezed Jeremy. "I know you can't talk about it. But I'm here. I'm always going to be here."

Mason quietly stood there, patient, understanding, and unhurried. It was so important that Jeremy be able to trust someone the way he could trust Mason. Stress affected him in ways it didn't others - in terms of his viral load, and his health. So this connection they had was incredibly important.

Jeremy nodded. And he held on.

___________________________________

June 18, 2018 (Monday, 9:25 AM)

"Mr. Pennington, please come forward." Judge Vining had already heard the boy's petition. And though Elias was nervous, Orson thought he did as well as he could have possibly done. He prayed it would be enough. The youth stepped up to the desk.

This procedure was a somewhat private one as court proceedings go. There was only the Judge, Orson, Elias and Clay in the room. And it was solely Judge Vining who would determine if Elias' petition would result in his emancipation. She smiled warmly at him across her desk.

"I have heard your petition, and I want to go over what I took away from it." She raised a finger, one in time to the points as she discussed them.

"You have proven you will be able to support yourself financially, through your work with ceramics. You are currently living apart from your parent, and you have made adequate arrangements for future housing. You have said you plan to continue with your schooling." Her expression turned serious, and Orson immediately felt his stress rise. "Now, we get to the points which concern me." She put up her other hand. "One, you must be able to make decisions for yourself. And two, you must display the maturity required to function as an adult member of our society."

The judge smiled sadly. "You barely meet the age requirement of 16 years of age for emancipation. But, I simply don't feel you have the maturity required for it. I don't believe I would do you any favors by setting an unrealistic expectation - that you are ready for emancipation."

Orson felt Clay put his hand on his back as he leaned forward in the chair. He hadn't realized it, but he sat on the very edge of the seat now.

Elias stood quietly before her, and he glanced over his shoulder at Orson. In his eyes, Orson saw the uncertainty and the fear. And in his heart, Orson knew Elias wasn't ready. 'But that doesn't matter. Doesn't she get it? It doesn't matter.'

He pushed himself to his foot with his crutches. "Judge Vining, please," he took a step, and he put his arm around Elias' shoulders, "consider this situation for what it is." He squeezed Elias. "If I could adopt Elias, I would. But I can't. And so, this was the next best thing." He took a breath. "You're right. He's not ready. Not alone. But he has a place with us. He has a place with me. And he will have it until he doesn't need me anymore."

Elias unconsciously put his arm around Orson's waist and helped hold the man up, so he didn't have to lean so much on the crutches. Judge Vining looked at the two of them, and she slowly smiled.

"I need to be clear - Elias will not be granted emancipation." Orson began to object, but she held up a hand. "And, though legal adoption is beyond my purview awarding guardianship is not." She turned her eyes to Elias. "Son, do you want this man to be your guardian? He would be much like a parent and would be legally responsible for you. Is that what you want?"

Elias nodded, and he smiled. "I want that. Orson's good to me." He looked up at the man. "He's my best friend."

She nodded and smiled. "And you, Mr. Warner? Is this what you want? It means you would have almost all of the rights and responsibilities of a parent as it concerns Elias."

"I want that. Yes." Orson answered immediately.

Judge Vining took a satisfied breath. "Good." She signed a couple of documents on her desk. "I'll have some things for you to sign, Mr. Warner." She looked up from her signing, her eyes expressive and her lips in a slight smile. "I'll have certified copies made of all the documents, and then you and your ward may leave."

Orson felt immense relief, and he closed his eyes.

He'd done a lot of crying lately.

But this time it was from a deep and pure joy.


Author's Note:

Please let me know your thoughts on the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

And thank you for reading! 

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