It was early. Jeremy just got to work and he still had a half hour before the clinic doors opened to patients. He wanted to get a jump on his day, and he began by emailing a request to take his program members off-site to the campground for a few days.
He'd need to get permission from both his supervisor at the clinic and from the guardians of the four young people he wanted to take camping. He sent the messages and he sipped his coffee.
His cell phone lay on his desk, and it vibrated. He looked and smiled. "Mason."
'Hey. What's your viral load?'
Jeremy's face screwed up at the question. He sat a moment, then he tapped out a response. 'I'm undetectable. Why? And good morning.'
'Good morning,' the response came back quickly. He could see more typing on Mason's end. Then another message, 'What's your med?'
Jeremy stared down at the phone. 'Triumeq. Why are you asking these questions?'
'Just curious. Thanks for the info. Have a good day.' Jeremy frowned and was about to type a reply when another message came, 'Oh. What day are you coming to the campground with your program kids?'
At this, he laughed and shook his head. Mason had obviously already drunk his coffee. He texted back, 'Probably Wednesday.'
'Cool! See you then.'
Jeremy smiled, both affection and bemusement on his face. He didn't have much time before his workday as a case manager began, so he shook off his questions and checked his schedule. He was completely booked, and his first patient was due in only a few minutes.
He gulped down a final swig of coffee. 'Okay. Let's get started.'
It was 8 AM and Greg looked down at his project. The sign was yellow and brown - the same colors used by the park service for their campground signage. But he reversed the colors. 'Camp Refuge' was painted in brown letters on a yellow board. It would be very visible once he hung it on the post installed at the campground entrance. He carefully wiped away a brown spot of paint that had made it out of the lines.
Mason walked by the patio table where Greg worked. He carried a bag and he picked up any old plastic or other trash he could find from years past. There wasn't much left, but he wanted the grounds to look as good as possible. The teenager stopped, looked at the sign and nodded in approval. "Looks good, Greg!" He smiled.
Greg grinned. "Thanks." He put his paintbrush into a small can of water to rinse. "It'll dry fast in this sun. Then I'm going to hang it." His eyes found Mason's, and a thrill went up Greg's spine. "Then this place will be OPEN FOR BUSINESS!" He laughed. He felt mild disbelief, and tremendous joy all at once.
"Yes!" Mason held up his hand and Greg high fived him. "Good job, Greg." The youth looked around. "This place looks great."
"Thanks to you and your dad," Greg clapped Mason on his back. "I never would have finished this so soon if you guys hadn't helped me. So, thanks."
Mason grinned. "You're welcome."
They both looked over the campground, and Greg felt an incredible sense of pride in what they had done. Then he faltered a little. "I wish your dad was here."
Mason's face softened. He took a deep breath and he nodded. "Yeah. Me too." But he quickly smiled. "He'll be here soon though."
Greg's smile returned. "You're right." His eyes did one more pass over the grounds that he could see from their spot at his Airstream. "Anything else we need to do before we open?"
Mason's face looked almost apologetic. "Actually, I kinda need to borrow your truck. I've got an appointment in town in an hour."
Greg looked quizzically at him. "Appointment? What for?"
Mason looked down at his feet. "That's … it's kinda private."
He turned so he faced the teenager and Greg stared at Mason. That desperate request from Clay rang through Greg's mind. 'Promise me. You'll watch him. Please.'
"Mason, I told your dad that I'd make sure you were going to be safe. That you'd be okay," he reached and put his hands on Mason's shoulders. "Are you?" Greg's eyes were intense as he stared into Mason's. "If you tell me you will be then I'm going to take you at your word. But I want to hear you say it."
Mason wasn't sure why, but the fact that Greg trusted him made him want to be upfront and honest, and he answered as best as he could. "I'm trying hard to be. And this is a part of it." He stared back and willed Greg to believe him.
Greg licked his lips, and he slowly nodded. He patted Mason's shoulder. "Okay." Greg reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out his keys. "Drive safe. Speed limit." He shook the keys at Mason. "I mean it."
Mason rolled his eyes. "My dad's a cop, and his boyfriend is an ex-cop. If I got a speeding ticket I'd NEVER hear the end of it!"
Greg laughed. "You're right about that!" He handed over the keys. "When you get back, we'll open 'er up for business."
Mason smiled and nodded. "Okay. I won’t be more than a couple of hours." He turned and walked to Greg's truck and opened the door. He looked over at Greg. "Thanks, Greg." His eyes expressed a huge amount of gratitude, and Greg nodded at the boy.
"No problem, Mason."
Mason got into the rig and started it up. Greg watched as he pulled out of the campground.
"God, Mason. Please don't make a liar out of me." He exhaled a big breath and he picked up his nearly dry sign. Then he walked over to the post at the entrance of the campground.
Clay sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair and stared at James Wilson. The man headed up the HR department for the Huntsville Police, and he currently paged through some paperwork Clay had signed. He was a younger guy. Mid-30s, tall, lean, and it was impossible to miss that he was a handsome man. He had the odd combination of very dark black hair and blue eyes. The women in the department all doted on him and vied for his attention. And Clay understood why.
Clay let himself examine James. He could see the man was good looking. Yet …
'I'm not attracted to him at all.' Clay frowned to himself. 'Weird.' By societal measures, James would blow most men out of the water in terms of looks, including Greg.
But it was also the same with women. He was attracted to Kathy. Though he found other women beautiful they had no real sway over him. Not like Kathy did. It seemed if he didn't know someone very well then there was no possibility of attraction.
James finally glanced up, "Looks like everything's in order, Officer Jameson." He smiled slightly, "You're sure about this? You're missing out on about 13% of your pay by retiring early. Instead of 50% at 30 years, you'll get 37% at 22."
"I'm sure." Clay nodded.
James examined him. "Well, as HR it's my job to retain good folks, and you're one of our best. So I want to know if there's anything we can do to change your mind."
Clay smiled. "Nope. I know the penalty for early retirement. And there's nothing you can do to keep me on longer."
James sighed and nodded. "I thought as much. We lose pairs of officers more often than we lose singles." He looked carefully at Clay, "I'm making an assumption here, but it's because Officer Hanson retired, right? His retirement has pushed you to do the same?"
Clay already prepared for this question. "Yeah. It's nothing against my new partner, but I don't want to start over with someone else."
James nodded in understanding. "This is unfortunately very common." He sighed again, then he took on the appearance of a man who had accepted the inevitable. "Well, it was good having you on the force, Officer Jameson," he stuck out his hand. Clay reached and shook it. "We'll have you processed out in a couple of weeks. 01 June will be your last day unless you have an objection."
Clay grinned. "I don't have an objection," he stood up. "Thanks for your help." Clay turned to go.
"Officer Hanson," Clay looked over his shoulder at James. The handsome man smiled at him. "If you change your mind, you just let me know."
Clay only nodded, then he walked out of the office.
His new partner, a young man named Orson Warner sat at an empty desk, waiting for Clay. He had black hair, and though he was only 25 years old, he already had streaks of silver in it. His brown eyes looked up at Clay as he exited Human Resources.
"You tell HR you'd rather jump off a cliff than stay partners with me?" Warner cracked a joke, and Clay smirked.
"Yep." Clay snapped his fingers as if he forgot something. "Oh yeah. James wants to see you. Something about 'running off our best cop'?"
Warner rolled his eyes and stood up. "Whatever," but in spite of himself, he smiled at Clay. "Ready to get started?" Clay liked that Orson was still eager, could take a joke, and was willing to learn. As new partners went he wasn't the worst he could have gotten.
"Yep. Let's get moving."
The two officers walked out to the parking bay and entered their cruiser. They had their usual patrol route, and Clay hoped for a quiet day. Though you could never be sure what each moment would bring.
He made Orson drive. Clay wanted him to know these neighborhoods inside and out, and he steadily drilled knowledge gained from years of observation into the young man. Orson was an apt student, and as time went on Clay found it less necessary to correct or guide him.
Today they were requested to go be a "presence" at a certain corner. There was a tip that some gang activity there may result in outright conflict, and often the mere sight of a police car would discourage such things from ever occurring.
Clay carefully observed from inside the car as a small group of men walked past and cast glances at their patrol vehicle. One of the men got on his phone and began what was obviously a heated conversation. Soon they rounded a corner and were out of sight.
"So, what are your plans?" Orson had his eyes on the rearview mirror, to make sure they kept the whole street under observation. "You're retiring, but I assume you'll pick up another job? Gonna do security somewhere?"
Clay glanced over at the younger man. "Well … I'm moving out of the state." He went back to watching the street in front of them. "Got a job offer from my old partner. Gonna help him out in California." It wasn't a lie exactly, though it still grated on Clay to avoid the entire truth.
Orson looked over at him, mild surprise on his face. "Really? That's where you just were, right? You took your son out there?"
Clay nodded. "Yeah. Greg owns a campground now, and he needs help running it," he shrugged. "A lot lower key than this. Perfect for a guy looking to wind down after this kind of work."
Orson grunted. "Huh," his eyes tracked someone in the rear-view mirror as they scurried across the street then out of sight. The young man sighed. "Sorry to see you go. You're a good trainer. Not all are as patient as you are."
Clay smiled. "Thanks. But you're gonna be fine."
Orson nodded. It was quiet in the car for a time, then he took a breath. "Is it because your kid is gay? Is that why you're moving?"
It was common knowledge that Mason was gay. The police department had to get involved a few times for fights Mason got into, thanks to his sexuality. Though, none of the guys in the department even acknowledged it. It was almost as if it were taboo, and they thought Clay wouldn't want to discuss it.
Clay looked at Orson, surprised he would even say anything about it. "Well … that's part of it. For sure. Alabama isn't exactly a good place for a young gay man, just starting out. Especially if he's not willing to keep it to himself." Clay allowed a smile, "and Mason refuses to keep it to himself."
Orson swallowed, his Adam's Apple bobbed up and down and he nodded. He almost looked nervous, and Clay's eyes narrowed in thought at the expression. "You okay, Warner?"
The young man took a breath. "Yeah," he thought about his response, "kinda." He glanced at Clay, definitely nervous. "I think your son is pretty lucky, that you'd do this for him."
Clay began to get the impression that Orson needed to unload something. "Warner, man. If you need to say something, you can," he shook his head. "It won't go any further than me."
His hands opened and closed on the steering wheel and he looked forward at the street ahead of them. "I … I guess it's nothing," he shrugged, then laughed quietly. "Actually, that's exactly what it is."
Clay frowned. "What do you mean?" He looked over his shoulder at the street behind them, to keep the entire area under observation since Orson now was focused on the way ahead.
The young officer licked his lips. "It's just that I guess I envy anybody who knows what they want." He suddenly began to sweat in the air-conditioned car. "Wow. I've never really talked about this."
Clay could sense the presence of a potentially raw subject, and he spoke as kindly as he could, "Well, you can talk about it now if you want," he smiled reassuringly at Orson. "There's nothing to be afraid of with me."
Officer Warner nodded and went back to observing the street through his mirrors. "I know it's weird, but … ah ... " he shook his head, "fuck this makes me feel so strange … saying it out loud." Clay didn't respond. He only waited. Orson exhaled, glanced once more at Clay then continued, "I'm not attracted to women. Or men." He sort of slumped in the seat, as if saying it aloud took the wind out of him. "I'm not attracted to anybody."
Clay processed this, and he proceeded carefully, "Well, that's okay."
Orson looked at him and licked his lips. "Really?" He took a relieved breath. "I'm glad you think so," he nodded, "because I have a lot of respect for you."
The big man smiled at that. "Thanks, Warner." He put a brotherly hand on the younger man's shoulder. "You're already a good cop, and you're gonna be a great one," he squeezed gently. "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Mason when he came out to me - don't let anybody use this to define you."
Officer Warner looked at Clay and shook his head. He gave a little laugh. "How'd you get to be so fucking cool?"
Clay laughed. "Well in addition to having a gay son, you're not the only one to have to think about his … ah … preference." Clay smiled. "I began to feel a really powerful attraction for my old partner, Greg. Started about a year after Kathy passed." Clay blew out a breath. "It … ah … it confused the fuck out of me." The big man looked out the window. "By this point, I knew Greg was gay. And after I accepted how I felt I started watching him when we changed. I wanted to see if he was interested in me."
Orson only stared at him while he spoke. Clay checked the street again, then he continued, "Greg didn't seem interested in me at all." He worked his jaw. "And, that hurt almost as much as Kathy dying - that the only other person I felt something toward didn't feel it for me."
Orson finally found his voice. "What … what did you do?"
Clay took a breath. "Well, nothing. For years. I just thought about it and wondered. But once Greg retired and moved away, I knew I was about to lose him. Forever." He looked down and rubbed his big hands together. "So I went to him. And I made a play." He smiled. "It worked out."
The young policeman stared at Clay. "W … wow." Orson shook his head as if trying to make himself believe it.
Clay smirked. "And I have done a little reading on sexuality, thanks to my own struggle with the feelings toward Greg." His eyes swept the street and noted another group of men on the other side. They too noticed the patrol car, and they quickly rounded a corner to get out of sight. "I think you're probably asexual."
Orson nodded. "Yeah. I've done some reading myself. It seems to fit."
The men were quiet and they continued to be watchful and think about what the other had said. Clay found it really sad, that Orson would never experience what he did. "You don't think it'll ever change for you?" He looked over at Officer Warner.
Orson shrugged. "I don't know. Honestly, the worst part is the expectation that I NEED for it to. I'm happy. Or … I would be if people stopped trying to pair me up."
That was a revelation to Clay. "So, you don't feel like something is missing in your life? I mean … this connection others have that you don't?"
"I really don't feel like I'm missing anything. I have social connections," he made a face. "Well, I do until they begin to fixate on my continual bachelorhood," he shrugged. "I know they won't understand, so I let those people sort of fade away."
Clay nodded. He watched Greg do a similar thing with people in his life when he still worked for the PD. "I get it," and he really did. "It's not a huge stretch for me to imagine it. I've only been attracted to two people in my life."
Orson nodded and looked thoughtful. "It sounds to me like you might be demisexual." Clay's expression told Orson that the big man had no idea what that was. "Demisexual is sort of … god, how to describe it? As best as I can understand it, it's sort of like a supplemental sexuality. You tack it on to whatever you already are. Straight, gay, bi, whatever," he explained. "Essentially, you have to have an emotional connection before you feel a lasting attraction to someone. Before you even have a potential to."
"I've never even heard of it," Clay thought about the explanation. As he mulled it over he slowly began to nod. "But … yeah. It fits." He glanced over. "Thanks."
Orson smiled. "Glad I could help. I thought maybe it was my situation, but no. I'm pretty sure I agree with you. I'm asexual."
Clay was curious, but he debated over if he should actually ask. Orson glanced at him. "What?"
The big man made a guilty face. "Well, if you've never been attracted to anybody … have you ever had sex?"
Orson smirked. "Yeah. I've actually taken a swing at women and men both. I thought I couldn't rule out either until I tried." He shrugged. "I did. And I can say that I'm really not attracted to anybody.
More silence in the car. Then Orson began to laugh. Clay looked over at him. The young man grinned at Clay. "It feels good to talk about it." He nodded. "And, if it's okay, I'd like to check out this campground sometime. It'd be great to be someplace where I won't be judged or picked apart for this little slice of who I am."
Clay smiled. "Consider yourself invited."
Orson nodded, and though his expression remained happy, he sighed. "I'm pretty sure I'm not gonna get another partner as cool as you."
"Well, I think we both know the answer to that," with a smirk Clay laughed, and a moment later Orson joined him.
Mason walked into the clinic. He was early, but he still presented himself at the front desk and checked in. He started to go sit down.
"Mason?" He turned and a young lady in scrubs stood at the door that led deeper into the clinic.
"Yeah? That's me."
She smiled. "Hi. I'm Brandie, Dr. Wade's medical assistant. We're running early, so we can take you back now."
Mason followed her and stopped in the hallway. There was a station there with an electronic thermometer, a blood pressure cuff, and a scale. She had him stand on the scale, and he heard a familiar voice.
"Mason?" Jeremy looked at him, obviously surprised to see him there. "What are …" he seemed to catch himself as if he wasn't supposed to ask why Mason was in the clinic. "Ah. It's good to see you." He gave Mason a tight nod, and then he continued on to the waiting room to bring his own client back.
Mason gave him a smile. "See you later this week, Jeremy."
The redhead nodded at him as he opened the door to the waiting room. Mason could tell Jeremy wondered about his presence, but for some reason, he didn't ask why Mason was there.
Brandie finished with his vital signs and weight, and she took him back. Soon he was in a room. After a few questions about his visit and medication history, the medical assistant left him alone.
A few minutes passed and a good-looking, soft-spoken man entered. He looked to be in his early 40s, hair graying at the temple, but no lines on his face yet. He had a gentle smile and stuck out his hand. "Hi, Mason. I'm Dr. Wade."
"Hi," Mason felt nervous, but the manner of the doctor helped. Mason had removed his jacket when he came into the clinic, but it lay on the chair near the exam table where Mason sat. He placed the article of clothing so his rainbow patch would be prominently visible.
Dr. Wade's smooth voice was oddly soothing. "Now, you're 17. Normally medical care requires a legal guardian," his eyes again found Mason's, "but in this case, since it's reproductive health, we can proceed. And this visit will stay confidential between us. Okay?"
Mason nodded and smiled a little. So far everything sounded good.
The doctor smiled reassuringly at him and he looked at the computer screen for a moment, then back to Mason. "So, Brandie tells me you wanted to talk about PrEP." Dr. Wade nodded approval in his eyes. "That's very responsible of you. But before we can do that, we'll need to do a few blood tests. Is that all right?"
Mason quailed a little. He despised getting his blood drawn, but he nodded. "It's fine," he straightened, his shoulders went back and he looked Dr. Wade in the eye. "Whatever we need to do."
"Good." He put his hands in his lap and looked frankly at Mason. "I saw your patch. Do you identify as gay?"
"Okay. And, are you going to start PrEP as a general prevention measure?" The doctor turned and typed notes into his computer as he asked his questions.
Mason made a face. "What do you mean?"
"Well, a lot of guys take this medication and then go have a lot of fun with a lot of men." The doctor's eyes were not judgmental at all. "And it has a great track record of keeping those men safe." He held up a finger. "From HIV. And only from HIV. So if you're doing this then you'll still need to use condoms."
Mason shook his head. "No. That's not what I want to do." Mason suddenly felt nervous. He had no idea if Jeremy's co-workers knew about his diagnosis. "I … ah … I met a guy I really like. And he's positive." Mason took out the sheet of notes he had made. "He takes Triumeq, he's undetectable, and I know PrEP is Tenofovir, which is different." Mason went through his points he had researched. "The U=U campaign which is accepted … well, almost everywhere, says you can't pass HIV if you're undetectable, but I promised I'd be careful. So I wanted to add another layer. You know … for insurance."
Dr. Wade gaped at Mason. He blinked. "Well … you've really done some homework here." He smiled and made a few more notes on his computer. "Okay. Well, I'm supposed to tell you to always use a condom. But … if you trust this other fellow, and you're both negative for everything else, I'm with the U=U folks." He patted Mason's shoulder. "Go get your blood drawn, son."
Mason left the room and headed to the lab.
It was a small county, and only so many people had the treatment regimen Mason described. Plus, the ladies at the front desk had already noticed the way Mason and a certain redhead stood close, and how they looked at one another. Dr. Wade turned back to his computer and smiled.
"You're a lucky young man, Jeremy."
Greg heard the truck before he saw it. Mason pulled the vehicle into the campground and he parked in Greg's regular spot. Greg stood up from his chair at the patio table. He had just sat only a moment ago to enjoy a cider, and the nearly-full bottle beaded with condensation.
Mason got out of the truck and walked over. The young man held out the keys for Greg. "Thanks for letting me use the truck, Greg."
Greg pocketed the keys. "No problem, Mason," his eyes landed on the crook of Mason's elbow, where a bright red band of material wrapped itself around his arm. Greg hesitated and looked up at the boy's face.
Mason noticed and licked his lips. "So, we gonna open up?"
Greg debated a moment. 'Trust him.' The thought rolled through his mind.
Greg smiled. "Yep." He motioned for Mason to follow him and they walked out to the sign next to the road. Currently, the sign had a cloth covering it. They waited a moment for no cars on the road, then Greg smiled at Mason. "You grab that corner."
Mason did and Greg counted to three. They both pulled off the cloth and revealed the sign in all of it's yellow and brown glory.
"There we are," Greg said, and they both grinned at each other. "Camp Refuge, open for business!"
Clay made it home around 5 PM, Eastern time. He walked into the house and he pulled his phone from his pocket. He turned it on and left it on the table. He'd call Greg soon and see how things were going for him and Mason.
He began to unbutton his shirt and his phone vibrated. He stepped back over next to the table and unlocked it.
There was a selfie of Greg and Mason. The two of them grinned like idiots and stood in front of the Camp Refuge sign Greg had started before Clay had to leave. Below the picture was a text.
'We miss you. Come home soon.'
Clay pulled out a chair and he sat heavily and he laughed at the picture. He stared down and his laugh slowly died away. Then he felt his eyes sting with tears.
"I miss you too. Both of you."
Later that night, after the call to Greg, and a short conversation with Mason Clay was ready for bed. He lay on his pillow and he smiled to himself.
In secret he had hidden away a dirty t-shirt Greg had worn in his luggage. It was grimy and sweaty. And it smelled like the man when he was at his sexiest. Clay had squeezed his pillow into the shirt, and now he lay there, breathing Greg's masculine scent.
He knew Greg would think he was silly, so he'd never find out. He'd never know.
And with a smile Clay dropped off to sleep.
Yeah, I know … lots of education stuff in here. But it's setting up things that will be important later. For anybody interested, here are a few links to some of the stuff depicted in the tale.
Info on PrEP https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/prep/index.html
Thanks for being patient with me!
Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link. Wayne Gray
And thank you for reading!
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