Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2010 By Scribe1971 (scribe1971@hotmail.com)

Chapter 24

Shelly

"I hope you both realize that we're going to get you for this," Josh said with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous grin on his face.

"Yeah, I'd watch my back if I were you," Mark chimed in.

"Oh we're real scared," Bryan taunted.

"Josh, you might THINK that you're the master of the gotcha, but I've been pulling stunts since you were in diapers," I teased.

"That sounds like a challenge," Josh replied and pulled me into a headlock.

I tickled his ribs and he quickly let go. "How about some breakfast? We don't have any fresh food, but we can crack out some of those IMPs," I suggested.

"Never mind the combat rations," Bryan said. "We brought along enough bacon and eggs to choke a horse. I might even have enough to fill up these two!"

Mark punched his brother on the shoulder and gave him a look which was supposed to look angry but looked more loving than anything.

"We were planning on driving into Drumheller today to stock up. The prices at the general store are pretty steep," I said.

"Yeah, I figured they would be, so we loaded up. Anyway, Drumheller is actually about a two hour drive from here," Bryan replied.

"I was wondering why you bought so much food for only three days," Mark said with a chuckle. "I don't eat THAT Much."

"Josh does," I deadpanned.

"You're really asking for it, aren't you?" Josh said in mock anger as he launched himself at me and we started play wrestling. Josh was pretty strong for his age, but it didn't take me long to have him pinned. That is, until Mark joined in. Before long, Bryan joined in on the fun too and the four of us were writhing around on the dusty ground. It finally ended with Bryan and I each pinning one of the boys and sitting on them until they surrendered.

I was amazed as I watched Mark. He truly was a different boy. When I had last seen him, he was quiet, reserved and timid. After only a few months with Bryan, he had become far more energetic, assertive and confident. It was a truly amazing transformation; and it served to confirm in my own mind that we had done the right thing in sending him west.

When our impromptu wrestling match broke up, we all headed to the showers. I had already showered, but rolling around with two teenage boys in the dusty soil of the badlands mandated a do-over.

We all showered quickly and attended to our morning rituals. As usual, Josh and I shaved together in front of a single sink. Mark didn't shave, but I wasn't at all surprised to see that he enjoyed sitting and watching his brother do it. Watching Mark and Bryan together felt almost like Josh and me in a mirror.

After heading back to the campsites, Mark and Bryan went and retrieved an enormous quantity of food from their cooler while Josh and I setup and lit the Coleman stove. Bryan and I went to work fixing breakfast while the boys went for an early morning walk around the campground.

"Mark looks fantastic," I said. "He seems like a brand new boy."

"Yeah, it took him a little while to realize that this was real and that he was safe, but once he did, it was like someone had thrown a switch. Josh has changed a lot too. I met him many times over the years and I see that he's really grown up."

"He's a great kid. He's been through a lot, and I just want to protect him and help him become all that he can be."

"You seem to be doing a hell of a job, Tom. There's something about him. I can't place it, but he almost seems magnetic. I look at him and I can't help but smile. I can't help but like him."

"I love him to bits. Mark too. I only knew your brother for a couple of weeks, but somehow he really got to me. I could see what a nice kid he is, and I hated to think about how he was being forced to live. That day at the Y he looked so sad and forlorn. He looked as if he had lost his last friend in the world."

"Mark really loves you too Tom; he pretty much idolizes you. You should have seen him when he got off the plane," Bryan said thoughtfully. "He looked so tiny in the middle of a big crowd of people. I was standing in the middle of the corridor and we spotted each other at the same time. We looked at each other for a second and that was it, he ran to me and jumped up into my arms. He must have clung to me for five minutes and just cried on my shoulder."

"It must have been very emotional," I replied as I dropped the first few strips of bacon into the pan.

"It was. I took him home, got him settled in, and took him out that same day to start buying furnishings for his room. I dropped quite a bundle of some really cool stuff for his room, but he barely spent any time there for the first little while. I'd wake up each morning with him wound tightly around me as if he was afraid I was going to disappear. I don't think he slept in his own bed for more than a couple of hours a night until he'd been here for about two weeks." Bryan was busy frying up a pan full of eggs as he spoke.

"He's been through a lot, and I'm sure it gave him security. Josh frequently bunks with me too. Josh can't get enough physical contact; he lives for it." I said with a smile. The smell of frying bacon and eggs was really beginning to chase away the cobwebs in my mind.

"Mark's the same way. Once he realized that nobody was going to take him away, and that he didn't have to live in fear, he really began to relax and be himself. I've signed him up for little league baseball, we hit the gym together several times a week, and he's making a lot of friends. He really misses you and Josh, but I've never seen him happier."

"We both miss him too. He feels almost like a son to me," I said warmly.

"The two of us live like room mates. I don't really try to be his parent, but I do feel like a dad. I really like it. Mark passed along your theory on dads and fathers and I couldn't agree more," Bryan remarked and gave my shoulder a squeeze. "I can see how well Josh is doing, but how have you been? I was a little worried about how you were dealing with the shooting."

"It still bothers me somewhat but I'm getting through it. Between Josh, and my relatives, I'm getting a lot better. I haven't had any dreams or flashbacks recently, which is a good thing. How about you? How are you doing? This must have meant some big changes in your life," I said.

Bryan thought about it for a moment and then grinned at me. "Truthfully? I couldn't be happier. It was an adjustment, but now Mark and I are a little family and we're both doing really well. My job takes a lot of my time, but I do what I have to in order to be with Mark as much as I can. I don't get out as much as I used to in terms of dating, but it's a trade-off that I'm willing to make."

Bryan and I enjoyed being able to spend some time getting to know one another. We'd spoken many times over the phone but we'd never met before that morning. It was obvious that we had a lot of common interests and we became fast friends. Before long, the smell of cooking bacon and eggs lured Josh and Mark back to the campsite.

"Enter the ravenous eating machines," Bryan said with a laugh as Josh and Mark followed their noses to the picnic table.

"Remember guys, the plates and cutlery are NOT edible," I teased.

"We have to teach those two a lesson Josh," Mark said with a wink.

"Actually, I was planning on eating the cutlery...." Josh said flatly which caused us all to burst out laughing.

"I can see that your sanity hasn't improved since I last saw you," Mark chuckled as he shook his head at Josh.

I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but in the span of only about fifteen minutes, an entire package of bacon, a carton of large eggs, half a loaf of bread, most of a box of Captain Crunch cereal, half a carton of milk, 2 liters of orange juice and an entire pot of coffee vanished. Most of it ended up in Mark and Josh's stomachs. Bryan and I managed to snag a strip of bacon here and there, but the boys ate the bulk of the food. If I didn't know better, I'd be tempted to think that they wouldn't want much to eat at lunchtime!

"So guys, what do we want to do today?" I asked. Josh and Mark began clearing the breakfast dishes up without even having to be asked.

"Why don't we check out the visitor centre and then hike one of the trails. The brochure said the trail takes us past all kinds of dinosaur bones and things," Josh suggested.

"That would be cool," Mark chimed in.

"Works for me," added Bryan.

"Ok then, let's do it! We'd better bring along some water and some food for lunch. We have a bunch of Canadian Forces ration packs which are pretty good."

"Combat rations?" Bryan asked skeptically.

"Yeah, they're pretty good," Josh replied.

"Ok, I'll take your word for it," Bryan said with a wink.

While the boys cleaned up, Bryan went to get a few things from his Explorer; I went to the Jeep to grab Josh and my backpacks, some bottles of water and some IMPs. I selected four different meal packs containing Hungarian Goulash, Swiss Steak, Sheppard's Pie, and Lasagna. I knew each of those meals were pretty good and nobody would have any problems eating them. While I was there, I picked up the bag from the RCMP museum containing the gifts that we had bought for Mark and Bryan. Bryan was already back at the picnic table when we arrived. I noticed that both he and Mark were wearing white cowboy hats.

"I like your hats guys," I said as I approached.

"I'm glad," Bryan said. "In Calgary, we have a traditional gift which we give to guests who visit our city. You haven't been there yet, but since you will get there eventually, we'll give you your gifts now." Bryan and Mark both had wide grins as they produced two brand new white cowboy hats and handed them to Josh and me.

"This is great! Thanks guys," I said as I hugged Bryan and Mark.

"Yeah this is cool!" Josh added as he too hugged Mark and his brother.

"It's a long time tradition in Calgary to present visitors with white cowboy hats as a sign of hospitality. I also figured that you could use a good hat on the trail!" Bryan said.

"We have something for you guys too," Josh said and I handed him the bag. "We got these at the RCMP museum in Regina."

"I love Regina, it's a beautiful city," Bryan said.

"This one's for Mark," Josh said as he pulled the red pullover out of the bag and handed it to his friend.

"Thanks guys!" Mark said enthusiastically as he accepted the sweater and pulled it over his head. "This will come in handy tonight when it gets cool."

"You're very welcome bud," I said. For about the fifth time that morning, I got a big hug from Mark.

"This one's for Bryan," Josh said as he produced the dark blue vest with the RCMP logo and handed it to Bryan.

"Thanks Josh and thanks Tom. This is really nice. The colour is perfect too," Bryan slipped on the vest and it seemed to fit him like a glove.

"I'm glad those fit, we had to guess at the sizes," I said.

With the exchange of gifts complete, we all put on our hiking boots, grabbed the backpacks containing the food and water, and made our way to the visitor centre. The boys, as energetic as ever, ran ahead and talked together at about a mile a minute while Bryan and I walked along at a more leisurely pace.

"This place is even more amazing than I ever imagined," I said as I looked around and surveyed the badlands in the early morning light. It was still early, but it was already quite warm and the sun was beginning to beat down on us. I was quite thankful for the cowboy hat perched on my head.

"Wait 'til you see the Rockies," Bryan remarked. "I fell in love with Alberta the instant I arrived here. It's a place of amazing contrasts. Between the prairies, the badlands, the mountains, and the oil fields of the north, it's got pretty much everything. It's pretty cheap to live here too. We don't pay sales tax aside from the GST."

"I could get used to that!"

"Have you ever considered moving here? Josh mentioned that you're a computer programmer and programmers are very much in demand out here. You could get some really big bucks. Look at me, I've only been out of school for about a year and I'm already pulling in $75k and I own my own house."

"The more I think about it, the more temped I am. The only thing is Josh. I'd never leave him, not for any amount of money. I think it would destroy both of us. I think once he's old enough, moving out here might be a real possibility."

"Tom, I could get you a job at my company in a heartbeat. HR is constantly traveling the country and even parts of the US looking to poach IT people from other companies. We just can't get enough to keep up with the demand. I fully understand about Josh. I'd be quite disappointed in you if you were willing to leave him like that. Just keep the offer in mind for the future."

What Bryan was saying sounded awfully attractive, but I knew that nothing would ever make me leave Josh. I would have moved to Calgary in a heartbeat, but not without Josh. Once Josh turned 16, he could legally move out on his own if he chose to, which would make it possible for the two of us to move to Calgary together. I decided to discuss the idea with Josh later that night when we had some time alone.

We arrived at the visitor centre just as it opened for the day. Out front, there were a couple of large dinosaur statues that were painted in realistic colours. Josh and Mark climbed on them as if they were riding them like horses.

Not being a paleontologist, I wasn't entirely sure what species of dinosaur they were, but they were greenish coloured, and sported a number of large horns on and around their heads. The boys must have somehow used the horns as a ladder and climbed up.

I snapped off a bunch of digital pictures and handed Bryan the camcorder as we approached.

"Looks like you boys found a couple of horny dinosaurs!" I called out causing Bryan to laugh out loud. The boys looked at each other with confused expressions before they realized what I'd said.

"Let's get him!" Josh retorted as he started to scramble down off the back of the large dinosaur.

What happened next was one of those things that could have ended badly, but instead turned out funny. As Josh threw his leg over the dinosaur's head and prepared to jump down he lost his footing. Fortunately, rather than falling to the concrete sidewalk below, the waistband of his shorts snagged one of the smaller horns on the dinosaur's head. In a blink of an eye, Josh was hanging upside down from the statue with half of his rear end hanging out. To make matters worse, while the rest of his body was nicely tanned, his buttocks were almost shockingly white in contrast.

"GET ME DOWN!" Josh hollered as he hung there, helpless to escape from his predicament.

Bryan, Mark, and I couldn't help ourselves and we burst out laughing. All three of us were just about in tears and our sides were splitting from laughing so hard. The more Josh squawked and hollered, the harder we laughed.

"THIS ISN'T FUNNY!" Josh shouted. "GET ME DOWN!"

I finally regained my composure when I noticed that Josh really didn't find the situation all that funny and he was really getting angry.

"Hang on there bud, I'll get you down," I said soothingly as I handed Mark the camera and went to help Josh.

"I'm not going anywhere," Josh replied smartly.

I grabbed him around the torso and lifted him up just far enough for me to unhook his shorts. After unhooking him, his weight shifted and threw me off balance causing us both to fall to the ground. I was still laughing but Josh as having none of it.

"THAT WASN'T FUNNY," Josh shouted angrily at all three of us. "I could have been hurt," he continued as he stood up, pulled up his shorts, and brushed the dirt off himself. I got a sense of just how angry he really was when he didn't even try to help me up.

"Josh, I'm sorry that I laughed, if you could have just seen it, you'd understand," I said evenly.

"He can see it, I got it all on tape," Bryan chimed in.

"GREAT! Now you idiots can all have a good laugh over it later," Josh said as he stormed into the building leaving the rest of us speechless.

I'd never seen Josh get that angry before, so I decided to give him some space. I was honestly sorry that I'd laughed at him, but I thought he was over reacting. He hadn't been physically hurt, but his pride had taken a bit of a bruising. I decided that the best course of action was to let him cool down, and talk to him about it later on.

The three of us, all genuinely sorry for offending Josh, made our way into the visitor centre. Josh had already gone to look at the exhibits and was nowhere to be seen. Bryan paid for all three of us and then we went through the gates.

The visitor centre was actually fairly small, but they managed to pack a lot into it. To the left of the main entrance there's a small theatre, and beyond that was a single large room filled with displays of various dinosaur skeletons, fossils, and other relics of the prehistoric past. There weren't many other people there that early in the morning, but I still couldn't spot Josh and I was a little concerned. I debated calling his cell phone but decided against it.

We made our way through the various exhibits and snapped all sorts of photos along the way. One display which really caught our attention was a display of pictures of more than 100 species of dinosaur whose remains had been unearthed in the Badlands. Among them was a unique species, only found in Alberta. The large carnivorous reptile which bore a strong resemblance to the tyrannosaurus rex is known as the 'Albertosaurus'.

We spent more the better part of an hour touring the exhibits, but still hadn't encountered Josh. As we made our way to the theatre to catch the next showing of the movie presentation, I decided to call Josh's cell phone if he wasn't there.

We entered the theatre and there he was. Aside from Josh, who was looking somewhat forlorn sitting alone in the back row of the seats, there was a family of four. One of them was a young girl who appeared to be about seven or eight years old wearing a colourful bandanna tied around her head.

I motioned for Bryan and Mark to take seats while I went to the back and sat down next to Josh. At first neither of us said anything.

"Joshy, I know you're angry that we laughed at you, but none of us meant anything by it," I said softly. "I'm sorry for laughing; I didn't realize that it was making you feel bad." I put my arm around his shoulders.

Josh remained silent for a moment and then looked at me. It was pretty dark in the theatre, but I could see the look of distress on his face. "I know. I'm such an idiot. I didn't mean to call you guys idiots and to take off like this. Do you still love me?"

I was flabbergasted. "Joshy, what kind of question is that? Of course I still love you. Nothing is every going to change that. I was worried sick about you and I wanted to run after you, but I thought you needed your space."

"I love you too, but I feel bad for getting angry at you," Josh sniffed as he leaned into me and put his head on my shoulder.

"Joshy, no matter how much people love each other, it doesn't mean that they won't get angry with each other from time to time. I might get upset with you sometimes and you might get ticked off at me. That doesn't mean that we don't love each other, or that we love each other any less."

"I just don't understand why I got so angry," Josh said softly.

"There's probably several reasons. You're right, you could have been hurt and it was inconsiderate of us to laugh. Your pride was certainly affected - that was a pretty embarrassing thing. Finally, hormones probably played a role."

"Hormones? Aren't those thing things that make me horny sometimes?"

"Yeah, they do that too, but they also do other things. Mood swings are common in people your age. When you're going through puberty, your emotions tend to be stronger than at other times in your life."

"Thanks Dad," Josh said and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.

"Thanks for what, son?" I asked.

"Thanks for understanding. I don't know what I'd do without you. Can I see the pictures?" Josh asked with a grin.

I turned on the digital camera and scrolled through to the sequence of pictures where Josh got hung up on the dinosaur and then handed him the camera.

I watched in amazement as his face cracked into a massive grin as he flipped through the photos. "Damn, my butt is white!" he said with a laugh.

As he got a laugh at his own expense, I turned on the camcorder and queued up the sequence that Bryan had shot. I handed the camera to Josh who started laughing so hard, that I had to take him out of the theatre.

"I told you it was pretty funny," I said between giggles. Josh kept replaying the whole sequence and laughing louder each time.

As we began to regain our composure, the little girl wearing the bandanna on her head and her mother came out of the theatre and went to the water fountain nearby. Her mother reached into her purse, produced a number of prescription pill bottles, and handed them one-by-one to the little girl, who swallowed each one down with a drink of water from the fountain.

She stood about four feet tall and she was as thin as a rail. She was quite pale, but she had the most striking blue eyes. It was obvious that the little girl was wearing the bandanna because she had no hair. Despite what must have been a terrible illness, she was still a pretty little girl. She glanced over at us and smiled brightly at Josh. Josh smiled back and her and gave her a little wink. I could sense that he knew she was pretty ill.

She and her mother turned and began to head back to the theatre when she suddenly tripped and stumbled on an untied shoelace. She almost went face first onto the hard floor, except Josh sprang forward and caught her in the nick of time.

"Oh dear," the little girl's mother said as she reached for her daughter. "You have to be very careful Shelly, you almost fell." She smiled gratefully at Josh who was helping Shelly regain her footing.

"Are you ok?" Josh asked with concern.

"Yeah, I just tripped on my shoelace. I get dizzy when I bend down to tie them," she said a little sadly. "My name's Shelly. What's yours?" She asked Josh and flashed him a million dollar smile which warmed my heart.

"My name's Josh and this is my Dad, Tommy. We're from Ontario and we're driving across Canada."

"Thanks for helping Shelly, Josh. I'm Debbie Mason, Shelly's mother," the girl's mom said as she offered Josh her hand.

"Pleased to meet you Debbie, I'm glad Josh could be of assistance," I said as we shook hands. I watched Shelly out of the corner of my eye. She seemed to have brightened up somewhat since meeting Josh.

"You guys are doing the grand tour are you?" Debbie asked. "My husband Trevor, our son Eddie, Shelly, and I are here for a little getaway. Shelly has always loved dinosaurs and we wanted to bring her here. We're from Burnaby."

"Mom, let's go back and watch the rest of the movie," Shelly said to her mother.

"Ok dear, let's go."

"I want to sit with Josh," Shelly announced as she took Josh by the hand and began to drag him into the theatre.

I smiled at Josh as he shrugged his shoulders and gave me a sweet little smile while being led back into the theatre by an obviously star-struck little girl.

Debbie smiled at her daughter and gave Josh a look which conveyed how grateful she was that Josh was being so tolerant of her daughter.

"Josh is a pretty amazing boy," she said when they were out of ear-shot. "If you don't mind me saying, you look quite young to have a son that old."

"Josh isn't my biological son," I replied with a smile. "Josh and I go back a couple of years. He had some family troubles and he adopted me as his dad. He's a great kid."

"Shelly sure has a major crush on him," She said sadly.

"I don't mean to pry, but is Shelly ok?" I asked carefully.

Debbie looked at me and thought about it for a moment before continuing. "No Tom, she isn't. When she was four, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. She went through some really brutal treatments and went into remission for about 18 months. It came back about six months ago. The treatment nearly killed her and it did nothing to slow the disease. Her pediatric oncologist has given her about six months."

My heart just sank when I heard that. I didn't know much about neuroblastoma, but I did remember reading that it's one of the cruelest forms of cancer and that it's almost always fatal. To make matters worse, it only strikes young children. Shelly was such a sweet girl and the idea that she was never going to grow up, made me sick to my stomach.

"Oh boy, I don't know what to say. Cancer is such a cruel disease. She seems like such a happy little girl," I said choosing my words carefully.

"She really is a happy little girl. Sometimes she gets a little depressed, but she tries to be strong for the rest of us. She really perked up a lot after she met Josh," she said with a smile. "I wish I had her strength. The medication keeps the pain under control, but that won't last. We brought her here because we know this will be the last chance that she'll ever have to do something like this."

"I really hope that you all have a great time and make a lot of really good memories," I said gently. I wiped a couple of tears from the corners of my eyes as we both walked back into the theatre.

I got questioning looks from Mark and Bryan as I entered the theatre and sat down. "I'll tell you later," I whispered. I smiled to myself when I looked over and saw Josh sitting with Shelly in the second row.

When the movie ended, we all left the theatre. Josh came up behind me and gave me a big hug. "Can we go for that hike now?" he asked. I was glad that the old Josh was back.

"You betcha!" I replied.

"You ok Josh?" Bryan asked as he and Mark approached.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry I called you guys idiots and stormed off," Josh said sheepishly.

"We're sorry we laughed at you," Mark added.

"Dad showed me the video and it was kinda funny," Josh said with a grin.

On the other side of the room Shelly, Debbie, Trevor, and Eddie were getting their things together and preparing to head out the door. Shelly was following Josh's every move although he didn't realize it.

Mark and Josh went back into the exhibits area to take a second look at a display of dinosaur skeletons assembled in life-like poses while Shelly and her family left the building.

"That little girl has eyes for Josh," Bryan said with a chuckle.

"Yeah, she has a big crush on him, that's for sure. Poor little kid."

"What's her story?"

I told Bryan what I knew about Shelly and her condition. I could see that he was as heartbroken as I was.

"God damn it. She's so damned young," Bryan lamented.

"Who is?" Mark asked. He and Josh had returned without either Bryan or I noticing.

"That little girl with the bandana. Her name's Shelly. She seems to have a major crush on Josh," I said.

Josh turned a little red. "She's a nice little kid but too young for me," Josh replied. "She says that she has cancer,"

"That sucks," Mark said.

"What kind of cancer does she have?" Josh asked.

"Her mother said its neuroblastoma. She's had it since she was five."

"She told me she wants me to marry her when she gets better," Josh said with a laugh. "I told her that we're both too young, but maybe when we're older. Did her mother say when she would get better?"

I looked at Josh for a moment before answering. I was pretty certain that he sensed my answer before I spoke. "She isn't going to get better Joshy," I said softly. "She was in remission for a long time but the cancer came back. Her doctor said she has no more than six months to live."

Josh turned pale. "She's just a little girl," he said. "That isn't fair. She has her whole life ahead of her."

"I know Joshy. Sometimes life isn't fair. Her parents are trying to make her last months as enjoyable for her as possible. She loves dinosaurs and she wanted to come here so they brought her all the way from Burnaby in BC."

"It's just wrong for a little girl to get sick and die," Josh said firmly.

"Believe me Josh, I know that," Bryan said as he put his arm around Mark's shoulders. "Our mom died of breast cancer. Watching her waste away at the end was awful. As sad as it is, it's good that Shelly's family is trying to make her feel comfortable and happy as the end nears."

Mark looked down as his feet for a moment with an expression of pain on his handsome face. He leaned his head against his brother's shoulder. Josh did the same with me.

"Terry Fox was right. Somehow cancer has to be beaten," Josh said with finality.

We left the visitor centre and made our way to the trailhead to begin our self-guided badlands hike. There are five trails of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. We selected the longest trail which is about 6 km long. All along the length of the trail, there were signs and plaques highlighting important or historical sights. Every once in a while there was a glass enclosure erected over an actual dinosaur skeleton. These skeletons had been uncovered and left where they were found with the enclosures built over them to protect them from vandalism and the elements. The experience of encountering the remains of prehistoric creatures in the very places where they fell, was far more powerful than seeing their posed remains in a museum. Seeing them in their real environment made it all the more real.

By the time we stopped for lunch, we were all glad to have worn our cowboy hats and to have loaded on the sun screen. The sun was beating down on us and there was little shade. It was a tough hike but all four of us were in excellent physical condition and we were all, at least moderately experienced hikers.

We selected a place right at the base of a rather large hoodoo to prepare and eat our IMPs. The towering hoodoo provided us with shade and gave us something to lean our backs against as we sat. Josh, having experienced IMPs once before, took it upon himself to instruct Mark and Bryan on the nuances of eating combat rations. Both Mark and his brother seemed a little skeptical about eating two-year-old food, but their skepticism vanished pretty quickly when they actually tasted it.

"Hey these are actually pretty good," Mark said. "There's a whole lot of food in one of these."

"When I was in the army, most of us wouldn't eat it all at once. We'd normally eat the main course and the fruit, then stow the rest of the items in our pockets to nibble on later. In combat conditions you don't want to feel overly full and it's nice to be able to have something to snack on when you stop for a rest," I said.

"Dad, tell them the golden rule of hiking that you taught me," Josh said proudly.

"Oh yeah. When I was in recruit training, this tough as nails old sergeant once told us that when you're in the field, you should never stand up when you can sit down. You should never sit down when you can lie down, and you should never just lie down when you can sleep."

"That makes sense to me," Bryan replied.

We were all stretched out with our backs propped up against the hoodoo enjoying the shade. After a while, Josh and Mark got restless and began climbing hoodoos, checking out the cactus, and looking for wildlife. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of a snake or a scorpion.

Bryan and I were chit-chatting and getting to know one another a little better when we heard an excited shout from the boys. "Dad, Bryan, check this out," Josh hollered as he and Mark came running. Josh was holding something in his hand and I hoped that it wasn't a scorpion!

"Look what I dug up," Josh said excitedly as he held out a small pointed object.

I picked up the object and examined it closely. I knew immediately what it was. Josh had uncovered an actual dinosaur tooth. Such finds are pretty common place in the nature preserve areas of the park, which are accessible only by tightly controlled tour groups, but they were rare in the public areas of the park.

"Is it real?" Mark asked.

"I think it is. I think it's a real dinosaur tooth. From the looks of it, I'd bet it came from a meat-eater."

Josh was grinning from ear to ear. "I want to get it made into a necklace," he enthused.

"Let's go see if we can find any more," Mark said and the two boys were off like a shot to look for more teeth.

They didn't find anymore teeth, but they did find a really nice fossil of what appeared to be some sort of prehistoric fish. I was glad, I didn't want to see Mark go home empty handed.

After our lunch and unexpected paleontological expedition, we resumed our hike. By around 4:00 we were nearing the end of the trail and we were all pretty exhausted. It had been a long hike, but we had all thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were all looking forward to getting back to the campsites, taking a shower, and having dinner.

"Hey look, it's the family from this morning," Josh said.

Ahead of us on the trail was the Mason family. They were all standing around looking at one of the enclosed dinosaur skeletons. When Shelly saw Josh, her face seemed to light up. "Josh," she shouted causing everyone to turn around and look at us.

"Hey, it's my girlfriend Shelly," Josh said with a grin and ran to the little girl. He picked her up and swung her around before kissing her cheek setting her down on her feet.

"You must be the famous Josh," Trevor Mason said as he extended his hand and patted Josh on the head.

When the rest of us caught up, I shook hands with Trevor Mason and introduced everyone. Bryan, Trevor, Debbie, and I stood around and chatted while Josh, Mark, Eddie, and Shelly played around and dug for more teeth. Both the Mason kids were in awe of Josh's tooth and Mark's fossil. The four of us watched in amazement as Josh and Mark treated the Mason kids like long lost friends. Josh, bless his heart, didn't complain in the least about the immature romantic efforts of Shelly and took it all in stride.

"That's a hell of a boy you have there Tom," Trevor said to me after watching Josh pickup Shelly and carry her around on his shoulders. "I haven't seen Shelly this happy in a long time. Debbie told me how they met and it appears that Shelly has really fallen for him. He's a good sport for tolerating her like that."

"That's just how Josh is. He's the most unselfish and caring person I've ever met. He knows about Shelly's condition and I think he just wants to do his part to make her happy."

"This might sound strange," Debbie said before continuing. "Josh is a beautiful boy. It's kind of strange to say that about a teenage boy, but I mean it. He's a handsome boy, but it's more than that. His personality and the way he interacts with Shelly and Eddie is just amazing. I can't think of any word to describe him except for beautiful."

I knew exactly what Debbie meant, and I also knew that Josh would be embarrassed if anyone pointed that out to him. He didn't consider what he was doing to be anything special. Josh always treated people the way he wanted to be treated. He would give you the shirt off his back if you asked for it. He saw a sick little girl and decided to try to give her a little happiness.

"I love him to bits," I replied with a smile.

"Your brother is quite the little gentleman too," Debbie said to Bryan. "He's great with the little ones. You guys are mirror images of each other." Mark was in the midst of giving Eddie, who appeared to be about ten years old, a piggyback ride.

"He's a fantastic kid and he's been through a lot. Mark and I know all about cancer. We lost our mom to breast cancer a couple of years ago."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Debbie said.

"It's too bad that we have to leave tomorrow," Trevor said. "The kids are really getting along well. For a while there, we were worried that we'd have to go home early because Shelly wasn't doing very well. She's turned around 100% since meeting Josh."

"We're in site 110 and 111; please don't leave without dropping by to say goodbye," I said.

"We'll swing by for sure," Debbie replied.

We gathered the kids and said our goodbyes then headed back to our camp sites. When we arrived back at the site, we all made a beeline to the showers to wash away the dust and sweat that had accumulated on us over the course of the day. After our showers, Josh and Mark announced that they were going to cook dinner that night, and that Bryan and I were to sit down and relax. They brought out two lawn chairs, placed them side-by-side, and pushed us into them. With Bryan and I seated and admonished to stay put, Josh began assembling various implements which they would use to cook dinner while Mark went to Bryan's Explorer and retrieved the cooler.

He lugged the heavy cooler back to the site and placed it on the picnic table. He opened the lid, retrieved two ice-cold bottles of Molson Canadian Ice beer, and handed them to Bryan and me. He then retrieved a couple of cold Cokes for Josh and him.

I was glad to see that Josh didn't appear the least bit worried that we were drinking alcohol. Both boys had bad experiences involving abusive fathers and alcohol, and it was good to see that neither of them was bothered by Bryan and me drinking.

"This really hits the spot, Bryan," I said and we clinked bottles.

"Camping isn't camping without cold beer," Bryan replied.

"Can we have a sip?" Mark asked.

"Sure," I replied. I handed my bottle to Josh and Bryan handed his to Mark. Both little devils proceeded to take deep chugs.

"Ok you little lushes, that's plenty," Bryan said.

Both boys pouted as they handed over the bottles and then went to work on dinner. Before long, the marvelous smell of grilling hamburgers filled the air and made each of our stomachs rumble in anticipation.

The boys did an excellent job of grilling the burgers and lightly toasting the buns. Dinner was wonderful and we all ate our fill. Bryan and I helped ourselves to another beer each, while the boys made a serious dent in the supply of Coke. After we ate, we cleaned up the site and prepared the fire pit for a memorable camp fire that evening.

With our sites prepared for the night, we lathered up on inset repellant and went for a walk through the campground. At the far end of the camping area, we encountered Trevor and Eddie Mason. Debbie and Shelly were inside the tent.

"Hey guys," Trevor said wanly.

"Where's Shelly?" Josh asked.

"She wasn't feeling too well tonight Josh, she's having a lot of pain."

"Would it help if I talked to her?" Josh asked.

Trevor thought about it for a moment. "It just might," he said thoughtfully before leading Josh towards the tent. A few minutes later, Josh emerged from the tent with Shelly and her parents. She looked worse than she had this morning, but I took it as a good sign that she was up and on her feet.

Mark and Josh spent the next few minutes visiting with the kids while the adults talked.

"That boy of yours is utterly amazing," Trevor said. "What he just did for Shelly almost defies belief."

"What did he do?" I asked in a surprised voice.

"First he just held her hand and talked to her. He asked her about dinosaurs and which one was her favorite. She told him that the Albertosaurus is her favorite. He then told her that he had something very special to give her if she would be strong and try to make the pain go away. She nodded her head and he gave her his dinosaur tooth and told her that he thought it was an Albertosaurus tooth." Trevor wiped a tear from his eye before continuing. "She brightened up right away. It was almost miraculous."

I don't think any of us had a dry eye at that point. My heart swelled in my chest. I was so proud of my boy. That had been the most generous and selfless thing that I'd heard in a long time. I had always known that Josh was special, but what he did for that little girl made me realize that I hadn't fully realized how special he was. That tooth was his pride and joy. When he found that tooth, he was just as happy as if he'd won the lottery. It was special to him, but without a second thought, he had given it to a sick little girl to make her feel better. In giving her that tooth, he gave her far more.

Before Shelly got overly tired out, we parted company and returned to our sites. Before we left, both Debbie and Trevor gave Josh a big hug and thanked him profusely for what he had done. The attention embarrassed Josh a bit, but he took it like a man. I was so proud of my son at that moment.

Back at the campsite, we lit the bonfire and began the nightly ritual of roasted hot dogs, toasted marshmallows, and the telling of ghost stories. The four of us had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. Josh and Mark were just as close as they always were, and Bryan and I were becoming very good friends. We both felt as though we had known each other for a long time and were completely comfortable together.

I began to wonder if more than just friendship might be in the cards for the two of us.

At around midnight, Bryan announced that he was ready for bed and bid us all goodnight. Mark stood up, enfolded his big brother in a warm hug, and kissed him goodnight.

"Don't stay up too late bro," Bryan said as he made his way to his tent.

Mark managed to last through two more of my famous ghost stories before going to join his brother in the tent, leaving Josh and I alone together. As we always did when we camped out, the two of us snuggled up together in front of the campfire as it began to slowly burn down.

"So kiddo, how do you like Alberta so far?"

"I love it. The Badlands rock! I can't wait to see Edmonton and Calgary."

"Could you see yourself living here one day?"

"Living in Alberta? I guess that depends," Josh said carefully.

"Depends on what?" I asked

"It depends on whether or not you were with me. I'd love for us to live here but I'd hate living anywhere that you weren't."

I reached over and gave his knee a loving squeeze. "Same here Josh. Bryan and I were talking earlier today and he said that there are a whole lot of opportunities in Alberta for IT people. He said I could be making a whole lot of money out here."

"You're not thinking of moving here are you?" Josh asked in a frightened tone.

"Not without you I'm not. Joshy, you're going to be 16 in about two and a half years. Once you turn 16, you can decide to move out on your own. How would you feel about moving with me to Alberta once you're old enough to make that decision? I would love to move here right now but I will wait with you in Ontario until you're able to make the move."

Josh turned and wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me tightly. "I'd love to. Let's do it. I'd hate to be away from mom, but I'd hate to be away from you even more."

"It's settled then, we're moving west in about 30 months!"

We both settled down and alternated between watching the fire and admiring the glorious display of stars overhead. It was a calm, cool and comfortable night. It was nice to wind down from the hectic and tiring day of hiking. It was also nice to be alone with Josh. We were both enjoying being with Mark and Bryan but we needed our dad and son time too.

"Dad, why do people have to die?" Josh asked.

"Death is a part of life Joshy. Everyone is born and everyone will eventually die. Nobody lives forever. I guess its just nature's way of renewing humanity and keeping the planet from becoming too over-crowded."

"I can understand why people die when they get old; after they've had a life, but why do kids have to die sometimes? Why is Shelly going to die?"

"I don't know Joshy, I really don't. Remember what I said about purpose? It might be difficult to understand, but there's always a purpose. We might not know the purpose and we might not understand it, but I believe it's there."

"I look at Shelly and see how sick she is and I can't help but picturing Matthew or Richard sick and dying. That would just about kill me. I can't imagine how it must be for Shelly's family."

I shuddered at the thought. The truth be known, I had the same thought when I learned of Shelly's condition. The thought of one of those sweet little boys suffering like that made me physically ill.

"I know son. I had the same thought and it would shred me inside if one of the twins had to go through something like that. It would kill me if you had to suffer something like that."

"You aren't going to die on me are you?" Josh asked with a bit of a crack in his voice.

"No kiddo, I'm not. I had a close call there, but I'm not going anywhere. You and I have our whole lives together to look forward too. One day I will die. So will you and so will everyone else, but it won't be anytime soon."

"How can you be so sure? I doubt that Shelly's parents knew that she'd get sick and die."

"I guess its faith Josh. We can't worry about dying and we shouldn't fear it. We can't change the fact that everyone, even the people we love most, will die one day and worrying about it doesn't help. If we spend our lives worrying about death, we forget to live." I put my arm around Josh and pulled him into my side.

"I think I understand," Josh said.

"All we can do is enjoy life and live like every day is our last. Never hold a grudge, never leave someone we love on bad terms, never go to sleep angry. We never know when our time is up, so we have to be ready for it. Being ready means trying to live your life well, giving and receiving all the love we can, so that we leave our loved ones with good memories."

"That's why Shelly's parents brought her here, isn't it? To make her happy, but also to give themselves some good memories of their time together."

"That's right Josh," I said warmly and hugged him tightly. We sat there and silently watched the dying fire for a few minutes.

"That was an awesome thing you did for Shelly today. I know how much that tooth meant to you."

Josh considered my comment for a moment. "I know, but I think it means more to her. I wanted to give her something to hold onto, something to remind her of this place and something to remind her of me."

"Josh, you are the most incredible person I know."

"Let's go to bed," Josh said. "Can I sleep with you again tonight? I need some comfort."

"Of course bud," I said.

Josh went into the tent to zip our sleeping bags together while I put out the fire and secured the Jeep. By the time I made it to the tent, Josh was already in the sleeping bag.

I undressed and climbed in beside him. Josh rolled onto his side and pressed his back against my chest. I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him close. "Goodnight son, I love you."

"Goodnight Dad, I love you too," Josh replied. It didn't take long for his breathing to become slow and steady as he fell into a deep sleep.

I lay there holding my son in my arms and listened to him breathe. I was truly in awe of him. In many ways, he was mature beyond his years and in other ways, he was still a little boy.

His actions with Shelly were so adult and yet here he was, truly facing the concept of death for the first time; needing the comfort of sleeping snuggled up with me, in order to deal with it.


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