Substitute Dad

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

Chapter 25

A Close Call

I awoke surprisingly early the next morning. Josh was still sleeping soundly against my side. We were in pretty much the exact same position that we had fallen asleep in. My left arm was all pins-and-needles because Josh had been lying on it all night long. I gently rubbed his side and kissed him on the temple.

After a few minutes, I carefully slid out of the sleeping bag without waking Josh. Before throwing on some clothes, I took a moment to try to restore circulation to my arm by stretching and flexing it. While I did that, I took a moment to watch Josh as he continued to sleep. I never grew tired of watching him sleep. Seeing his handsome face in such a relaxed state, seeing him so vulnerable and relaxed always warmed my heart and put a smile on my face. I was in absolute awe of him and at complete loss to quantify or explain the incredible bond that we had forged. We couldn't possibly love one another more, had we been biological father and son.

As quietly as I could, I left the tent and zipped it up again behind me. I looked over towards Mark and Bryan's tent and smiled as a sleepy looking Mark emerged from the front flap and smiled at me. With his towel over his left shoulder and his toiletries bag in his right hand, he hopped the hedge and joined me near the picnic table.

"Good morning Tommy," he said warmly.

"Good morning Mark," I replied. "Meeting like this is getting to be a habit!"

Mark grinned back at me. "It's a good habit," he replied. "I wish you guys were here every morning."

"We will be one day," I said as the two of us walked towards the showers.

As the two of us stripped down and climbed into side-by-side shower stalls, I told him about my conversation with Josh the night before.

"That would be so cool!" Mark enthused.

"I know; I can't wait."

"I've got plenty of friends now, but I still miss Josh. He'll always be my best friend. I miss seeing you too. We haven't known each other all that long, but I feel as if I've always known you," Mark said with a touch of sadness in his voice.

"I feel the same way Mark. I like to think that I'm a pretty good judge of character and I saw something in you the first time we met. I knew that Josh wouldn't have just anyone for a best friend, so you might say I was predisposed to liking you, but there was more to it than that."
"I have just about everything I could ever want or need right now and it's because of what you did for me," Mark said sincerely. "I really meant it when I said that I look at you as a dad for me too."

"I know Mark. I do see you as a son and Josh considers you to be his brother." We kept chatting as we finished showering and began to dry off.

"The only thing that I'm missing is a boyfriend. Do you think I'll ever find one?"

"Of that, I have no doubt Mark. You're a very smart, good looking boy with a good heart. If you were a few years older and I was a few years younger, I'd take you off the market in a heartbeat," I replied with a sincere smile on my face.

"Really? You think I'm good looking?"

"Is the pope Catholic? Of course I do. You have the complete package kiddo."

"Thanks," Mark said with a skeptical look on his face.

"I mean it Mark. I know that suffering abuse like you did can hurt your self-esteem, but I really do mean it. What isn't there to like about you?" I reached out and pulled Mark into a firm hug which he returned with gusto.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again. Josh is the luckiest kid alive."

"I consider myself to be just as lucky, Mark."

"How do I go about finding a boyfriend?" Mark asked as he sat on the bench and watched me lather up my face with shaving cream.

"That's a tough one - especially for me. I suffered abuse when I was a kid too. I held it in and it festered. As a result, I've a hard time with romantic relationships. Your brother would be the better person to ask."

"I didn't know that. I'm sorry," Mark said softly.

"It's ok. You didn't know and you have nothing to be sorry for. What I can tell you is to be yourself. Don't wear masks and don't pretend to be someone you're not. You have a wonderful personality and if you simply act naturally, I'm sure that you'll find someone."

"I wish Josh was gay. He'd be a great boyfriend. He said he's straight but he doesn't mind messing around ....." Mark blushed and trailed off.

"Don't worry Mark," I said soothingly. "Josh and I have no secrets and I have no problem with you guys messing around. Josh does seem to be pretty straight, but he's still a thirteen-year-old boy with raging hormones. You both are," I chuckled.

Mark blushed a deeper shade of red. "Josh admitted what we did together?"

"He didn't admit anything. He had nothing to admit and neither do you. He told me about it and I told him it was normal and natural, and that's it."

Mark suddenly looked relieved.

"One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone out there is understanding of such things. From your experiences with your father, you know better than most that there are still bigots out there who think that being gay or bisexual is wrong, sick, or even an illness. I'm not suggesting that you closet yourself or hide who you are, but I am suggesting that you be careful who you come out to. If you come out to the wrong person, it could come back to hurt you. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Yeah, I think so." Mark replied.

"Kids can be cruel. Just be careful and let things happen naturally and you'll find the right person sooner or later."

"Have you found the right person yet?" Mark asked.

"Not yet. To be honest with you, I haven't really been looking. I feel so awkward dealing with romantic relationships that it's hard for me. I suppose I should try to get some help to deal with my abuse and that will help."

"Maybe you just need to find someone that you feel safe with," Mark said. I almost swore that he was trying to drop a hint. "Bryan doesn't have a boyfriend right now either." When he said that I KNEW he was dropping a hint.

"I'm surprised that he doesn't. He's a great guy and he's just as good looking as you are," I replied causing Mark to blush once again. I threw my arm around his shoulders as we walked back to the campsites and he leaned into me.

Both Josh and Bryan were still sleeping when we returned to the site, so Mark and I decided to start breakfast. The problem was that we were low on food. Given the choice of driving into a nearby town for fresh food or once again resorting to IMPs, we elected to go to town.

"I'm going to let Josh know what's going on, Mark. You should do the same with Bryan," I said as I headed to the tent. I didn't really want to wake Josh, but I didn't want to have him wake up and find me gone either.

I sat myself down on the edge of our combined air mattresses and sleeping bags and gently shook Josh's shoulder. "Hey bud, wake up," I said softly. Josh began to stir slightly, but remained deep in sleep.
"Wake up bud, I need to talk to you for a second," I said a little louder and shook his shoulder a little harder.

Josh rolled onto his back and opened his eyes a crack. "Morning Dad," he groaned in a sleepy voice.

"Good morning Josh, you don't have to get up right away, I just wanted to let you know that Mark and I are going to drive into town to get some food for breakfast. I didn't want to have you wake up and not know where I was."

"Ok," he replied groggily. "Thanks for telling me."

"No problem son." I ran my hand over his forehead and then kissed him lightly on the nose. "Go back to sleep for a while."

Josh wrapped his arms around me and gave me a brief, but nonetheless loving hug before promptly dropping back off to sleep. I chuckled to myself and then left him to resume his slumber. Mark was waiting for me outside.

"Ready to go bud?" I asked.

"Yeppers!" Mark replied.

We climbed into the Jeep and fired up Bitchin-Betty to locate the nearest grocery store. There were a few small towns around but given the early hour, Brooks seemed to be our best bet. According to the GPS, Brooks had a mall with a Safeway store which would have everything we needed.

The drive to Brooks would take about 40 minutes in ideal driving conditions. Fortunately, ideal conditions were exactly what we had. It was a Monday morning, but rush-hour gridlock was unheard of in that part of the country and we couldn't ask for a more beautiful western-Canadian morning. With the trusty GPS guiding our ever turn, we had every confidence in our ability to successfully navigate our way to and from the grocery store. The drive also gave Mark and me a chance to resume the conversation that we started earlier.

"What do you think of Bryan?" Mark asked with a bit of a glint in his eyes.

"I almost feel as if I've known him all my life. We talked quite a bit before we actually met and we seem to get along great." Bryan and I had only really known each other for a couple of days but we'd really clicked.

"Do you like him?" Mark asked.

"Of course I like him, why wouldn't I like him?"

"No silly, do you LIKE him?" Mark repeated in an exasperated tone.

"Oh, you mean like him in the romantic sense?"

Mark gave me one of those teenage "duh" looks. "Yeah, that's exactly what I mean."

"We've really only just met, but I'd have to say that yes, I do LIKE him that way...." I grinned at Mark.

"That's good - I think he likes you too. What are you going to do about it?"

I was amazed at how forward and determined Mark was. I suspected that Josh somehow had his hand in on this too. The truth was that I felt comfortable enough with Bryan that a romantic relationship was a real possibility. It had been a long time since I'd been with anyone other than my own hand and I saw a real possibility here. I half wondered if Josh was going to subject Bryan to a similar inquisition when they both awoke and found themselves with an hour or so alone together.

"I guess I'll let nature take its course Mark," I replied sincerely. "How would you feel about it if Bryan and I became involved romantically?"

Mark gave me another "duh" look before answering. "How do you think I'd feel about it? I love you both and I want to see you both happy. Do you really think I'd be trying to set you up if I didn't want you together?!?!?"

I had to laugh. His logic was infallible on that point. "What about Josh?"

"What about him?" Mark asked.

"How do you think he'd feel about it?"

"Tom, Josh loves you and he wants nothing more than to see you happy. We talked about this and Josh basically said that he'd be happy to see you together with Bryan. He knows that you would never let it come between the two of you," Mark said firmly.

"Nothing could ever come between us. He and I are joined at the hip."

We arrived at Safeway and did our shopping. We loaded up on eggs, back bacon, English muffins, milk, cereal and Orange juice for breakfast and we picked up some fresh sausages to grill up for lunch. For dinner, we bought a whole mess of thick, juicy pork chops to grill over the camp fire. We also replenished our supply of Coke and Molson Canadian beer.

"I could get used to buying beer in grocery stores," I quipped to Mark as we headed to the checkout.

"That's right - they only sell it in Beer Stores in Ontario! That sucks. One more reason to move to Alberta."

"It's like I told Josh, I'd move here in a heartbeat if I could take him with me. I can't do that until he's at least 16 so we have to wait a while. We both decided to move here as soon as he turns 16."

"That'll be so cool," Mark enthused.

I paid for our purchases and we headed back to the campground. Our conversation was lighter than it had been on the trip out. We talked about movies, the places that we were going to visit, and the things that Josh and I had seen and done so far. It occurred to me that we had forgotten to tell Mark about the ceremony at camp Tonawonka, and we had to give him his plaque.

"Damn! I totally forgot about something. Remind me about the plaque while we're having breakfast," I told Mark.

"The plaque?" Mark asked with a raised eyebrow.

When we arrived back at the campground, Josh and Bryan were both up and about. They were playing catch with a baseball and a couple of gloves. They both smiled and waved as we parked the Jeep.

"Hey Dad," Josh said happily. He trotted over and gave me a big hug. Mark did the same with Bryan. "Did you guys get lots of food? I'm starving!"

"When aren't you starving?" I teased.

"They're a couple of bottomless pits," Bryan remarked as he put his arm around my shoulders. I watched out of the corner of my eye and grinned inwardly as Mark and Josh gave each other a covert thumbs up.

"The only time I've ever filled Josh up was when we went to the Mandarin," I replied with a snicker.

"OH MAN! I forgot about the Mandarin! We don't have those in Calgary. We have Chinese food but not the Mandarin," Mark said dejectedly.

"We'll have to get them to open some by the time we move out here," Josh said flatly.

"Since you guys went and bought breakfast, I'll cook it," Bryan said. "I'd ask Josh to help but he has something he wants to do."

"What do you want to do bud?" I asked Josh.

"I want to burn some of those pictures that we took onto a CD and make a little movie for Shelly to take home with her. Her parents said that they'd pay us a visit before they left and I can give it to her then."

"That sounds like a great idea," I replied. It really was a good idea. I'd actually done quite a bit of work on the prototype of my multimedia authoring program and I decided to let Josh use it to put together his movie. It wasn't complete, but it had the basic features in place and Josh would be able to test it for me. "Do you want to use the eMemories program?"

"That's what you've been working on isn't it?" Josh asked.

"It sure is. It isn't finished, but I've done enough that you can use it to put together your pictures, add some music, and even add some titles and captions."

"Cool," Josh replied as he scurried off to retrieve my laptop from the back of the Jeep.

"I'll help Bryan with breakfast," Mark announced.

I decided to use the time to call Andy and see what was happening with the lawsuit.

Andy answered the camp office phone on the second ring. "So how are things in the wild, wild west Bro?" Andy asked.

"Utterly amazing; wait 'til I show you the photos of this place - you won't believe it."

"I had Jessica pickup the legal docs from Josh's mother. She faxed a copy to me and she took the originals to professor Markinson. I talked to him on the phone and he's more than happy to take the case at no charge to you, and he's going to let me assist, if and when it goes to court," Andy said.

"I'm relieved to hear that. What do you think?"

"It's just what I thought - a load of utter rubbish. It looks like it was put together by an amateur. I'd be surprised if it even survives the pre-trial conference."

That was a load of my shoulders. I knew it was nothing to worry about but hearing that was a relief nonetheless. "Thank God," I replied. "Who is Jessica, by the way?"

"Oh just someone I met at school," Andy replied cryptically. I filed the info away for future reference. "When I see you on the 15th, I'll have some papers for you to sign. Dave, Professor Markinson, is going to file a counterclaim against Josh's grandparents and his aunt, and he's filing a complaint against their lawyer with the Law Society of Upper Canada. If any part of this case makes it to trial, it will be our counterclaim."

Andy and I chit-chatted for a few more minutes. I filled him in on the details of the trip so far and he regaled me with tales of Tonawonka. I was really looking forward to seeing him and the rest of my family on the 15th.

After ending the call to Andy, I called my mom and spoke for a few minutes. James and Anne were away for a few days and the twins were staying with her so I got to speak to them too.

"Uncle Tommy!" Richard said enthusiastically as my mom handed him the phone.

"Hey little buddy, how are things?"

"I miss you. Grandma says we're going to fly on a big plane to see you and Josh in 12 days. I can't wait."

"I can't wait either bud. Are you being good for grandma?" I asked.

Richard giggled. "We're always good," he replied.

"Is Matthew there?" I asked.

"Yep, he's right here," Richard replied.

There was a long pause during which time I expected Richard to hand the phone to his brother. "Richard, are you still there?" I asked after about 30 seconds.

"Yep, I'm still here."

"Can I talk to Matthew now?" I said with a chuckle.

"Ok. Bye Uncle Tommy," Richard said and kissed the mouthpiece on the phone.

"Hi Uncle Tommy," Matthew said as he picked up where his brother left off.

"Hi little buddy. How are you? Looking forward to going to Ottawa?"

"Yeah! I can't wait to go on the air plane," he said happily. "I miss you and I can't wait to see you too," he said in a more subdued tone.

"I know, I miss you too kiddo. I love you and your brother very much."

"We love you too," Matthew said before handing the phone back to my mother.

"How's the trip going?" She asked.

"Even better than I imagined," I replied. We talked for a few more minutes before my battery power began to run down and we had to hang up.

I went to the picnic table and sat down beside Josh. He was staring studiously at the computer screen as he worked. I reached over and gently massaged the back of his neck for him.

"Mmmm, that feels good," he said distantly.

"How's it going?"

"Not bad, I've got a bunch of pictures and I went looking through your MP3 collection to find a sound track. I had a hard time choosing, but I finally settled for 'You'll be in My Heart' by Phil Collins."

"Good choice bud." I stopped massaging his neck and put my arm around his shoulders. I smiled as he leaned into me while he kept working. From what I could see, he was doing a remarkable job. We had shot a lot of photos of him and Shelly together, and he also included a bunch of other photos from earlier on in the trip, as well as photos from before the trip.

I watched Mark and Bryan working together on breakfast and couldn't help but grin. The two of them were just like Josh and me. They were clowning around together and cutting up quite a bit, but still managing to get things done. It was heartwarming to see how close they were. I thought more and more about the earlier conversation with Mark, and I couldn't help but wonder what Josh had said to Bryan.

While Mark and Bryan continued to work on breakfast, I simply sat and watched Josh work. He worked quickly, but he put a lot of care into what he was doing. Watching him, it became quite evident why he was such a good student. He was focused on the task at hand and worked methodically to complete his work. It was a real pleasure just to sit quietly and observe him. The look of studious concentration set on his face made him look a lot older and more grown up than he really was.

Finally, at about the same time that Mark and Bryan began to serve breakfast, Josh dug out a blank CD from my computer bag and burned his movie to disc. "I hope this cheers Shelly up when she feels down," Josh said.

"I'm sure it will bud. You did a great job."

"Breakfast is served," Bryan said as he placed heaping plates of eggs, back bacon, baked beans, and English muffins in front of Josh and me. Mark was right behind him with identical plates for each of them.

I went to the cooler and retrieved the carton of milk and a jug of orange juice that Mark and I had picked up earlier that morning. Both Mark and Josh loved their Captain Crunch cereal, so I retrieved it from the back of the Jeep while I was at it.

We were about half-way through devouring the food when Mark reminded me about the plaque. "Hey Tommy, you said to remind you about the plaque."

"Oh shit! We forgot about that," Josh said.

"I know! I remembered this morning when we were in Brooks. Hang on a second there Mark," I said and excused myself from the table to retrieve his plaque from the Jeep.

"You're going to love this," Josh said to Mark as I returned to the table.

"On the first day of this trip, Josh and I stopped at Camp Tonawonka where we first met and I worked as a counselor. My brother Andy still works there. Andy told the camp staff all about what we did to stop that bank robbery and the camp decided to honour all three of us. Tonawonka has been around for a very long time and they have what is known as the 'Wall of Honour', which holds the names and pictures of former Tonawonka campers and staffers who have done heroic things. They declared Mark to be an honorary camper and added all three of us to the 'Wall of Honour'" I handed Mark his plaque.

"Wow! That was nice of them," Bryan said.

"There's more; tell him about his Indian name," Josh piped in.

"As part of the induction ceremony, the chief of the local First Nations band conferred a traditional Indian name upon each of us. I was given the name Askuwheteau, which means 'He who keeps watch.' Josh was given the name Annawan which means 'Leader of men' and they gave you the name Wematin that means 'Brother'. It's on your plaque with your picture and your proper name. Josh and I have similar plaques and there are duplicates of all three on the Wall of Honour back at Tonawonka."

Mark got real quiet for a moment and stared at his plaque. I could see that his eyes were a bit moist. I was going to put an arm around him but his brother beat me to it.

"Way to go bro," Bryan said as he hugged Mark. "You're a real hero."

"I really didn't do all that much," Mark said softly.

"That's nonsense Mark; what we did, we did together. Who did what isn't important. What's important is that we all acted together as a team."

"That's right. We all played a part," Josh added.

"I'm so proud of you Mark," Bryan said. Mark buried his face in his brother's chest and hugged him fiercely.

"They did a great job in coming up with those names," Bryan said. "They're all incredibly fitting. Tom, you certainly have kept watch over Josh and over Mark. Josh, I believe that you will grow up to be a leader of some sort. Mark, you're certainly my brother, but you're also Josh and Tommy's brother too."

"I finally feel like I belong. I've been so happy to be with you Bryan and I wish all of us could be together all the time."

Bryan and I locked eyes for a moment before I spoke. "I would like nothing more than for that to happen, Mark." I reached out and gently rubbed his back. I felt Josh put his arms around me.

"We're a family Mark, we always will be. In fact, you're stuck with us," Josh said with a chuckle causing us all to break up laughing.

After breakfast, Mark and Josh went off together for a walk around the campground while Bryan and I remained behind to clean up. "I had an interesting conversation with Mark this morning," I said.

Bryan laughed. "I kind of suspected that. It was probably very similar to the conversation that I had with Josh. They two little devils had it all planned. It must have been only five minutes after you guys left that Josh came and woke me up to talk."

"It seems as if the boys are trying to play matchmaker," I said lightly.

"So it seems," Bryan replied. "I've never been a big player on the dating scene, and I've done less dating than usual since Mark has come back into my life."

"Let me tell you, you might think that as a bisexual, I'd had twice as many opportunities for dates," I chuckled and Bryan laughed out loud. "I'm here to tell you that isn't the case! The problem is me. I'm not sure how much Josh told you about my background, but I've never been comfortable in romantic dealings with either sex."

"He told me a bit. He told me that that you'd been abused as a child and had a hard time meeting people. He also told me that you're a great guy and went through a whole sales routine. He also cautioned me that if I ever hurt you, he'd hunt me down and make me miserable. That boy really loves you."

I smiled broadly. "Yeah, I know he does. I love him more than life itself. I thank God every day that we found each other."

"It seems as if we've found each other too," Bryan said. "Honestly, I feel as if I've known you all my life."
"Same here, but I'm not sure where to go from here," I replied.

"Since we evidently have the boy's blessing, let's just let the chips fall where they may. Maybe we should try an evening on the town when we get to Edmonton."

"I'd like that," I replied. "As long as you're willing to be patient with me, I'd like to take a stab at forming a relationship with you." I proceeded to tell Bryan about my background and the abuse that I had suffered as a child.

"Damn it. That's enough to mess anyone up. You should be proud of the way that you've turned out. I am a patient and understanding guy. I know a little of where you're coming from. In a way, we're all damaged goods, and we all need a little patience and understanding. I have a feeling that we can really make this work; that the four of us can truly become a family."

"Me too," I replied and looked Bryan straight in the eyes. We stared at each other for a moment before Bryan leaned forward and kissed me on the lips and pulled me into a hug. The feeling was electric and I knew in my heart that this was going to work out just fine.

"You two get a room," Josh chided as he and Mark returned to the site.

"Very funny Josh; you'd better watch it or I'll tell them about your adventures in the line at Webers!" I replied with a laugh.

Josh blushed deeply before throwing himself at me and trying to get me into a headlock. I offered only half-hearted resistance and proceeded to administer a tickle assault to his ribs.

"What happened at Webers?" Bryan asked with a bemused look on his face.

"Nothing happened at Webers. Whatever he says is a lie," Josh giggled.

"Nothing really happened. It's just that Josh nearly got ravaged by a horny 12 or 13-year-old girl! He was interviewing her parents with the video camera while we were in the burger lineup at Webers. The girl was behind him undressing him with her eyes. She looked like she wanted to disrobe him and bang him silly right there in the line!"

Mark and Bryan burst out laughing while Josh turned bright red. "You're really gonna get it now Dad," he said as he renewed his assault on me.

We both ended up rolling around on the ground play-wrestling like a couple of maniacs. I noted with some pride that Josh was definitely getting stronger. I decided to let him win this one and before long he had me pinned.

"Ha! I finally managed to beat you!" he crowed as he got up and helped me to my feet. As soon as I was up, he hugged me and whispered in my ear. "Way to go Dad, I'm happy for you."

I smiled at him and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Thanks son."

After Josh and I cleaned ourselves up, the four of us retreated to our tents to tidy up and get things ready for the day. We expected a visit from the Mason family at some time before noon and we planned on hitting the trails again after lunch.

"Hey Josh, you should give your mom a call today, it's been a few days," I said.

"Yeah, not a bad idea; she'll be at work right now so I'll call her office as soon as we're done here."

"Good man," I replied. "Try to find out if she's going to be in Ottawa on the 15th."

"What did Andy have to say about the lawsuit? From what you were saying, it sounds like it's going well."

"It's going really well. His professor is taking the case and he said it should get thrown out at the first court date. He also said that they're filing a counterclaim against your grandparents and your aunt."

"FORMER grandparents and FORMER aunt," Josh stated forcefully.

"Really! Bottom line is that they're cooked."

Josh and I left the tent after zipping up our merged sleeping bags and cleaning up the assortment of dirty clothes that had accumulated. I went to clean up the inside of the Jeep while Josh went to call Susan. I was really hoping that she'd tell him that she was going to be in Ottawa on the 15th. It would be a terrible shame for her to miss it and I knew it would hurt Josh.

I was somewhat amazed at the amount of detritus which had accumulated in the Jeep after only a week on the road. There was everything from pop cans to sandwich and candy bar wrappers. I even found what looked like it was once a piece of lettuce from a burger under Josh's seat! I decided that if the Jeep was going to remain livable, we had better start doing a better job of garbage disposal.

Josh was sitting on the picnic table when I finished with the Jeep.

"Hey bud, want to walk with me to the garbage bin?" I asked.

"Sure," he replied and jumped to his feet. Josh was always energetic but now he had a real snap to his step.

"What's up bud? You seem to be in a really good mood," I remarked as we walked towards the large garbage receptacle a few hundred meters from our campsite.

"I spoke to Mom and she said that she will be there on the 15th!"

"GREAT!" I was truly relieved to hear that. I wasn't looking forward to seeing Josh disappointed on one of the most important days of his life.

"Yeah, but she's bringing Bob," Josh said in a more subdued tone.

"That's alright; at least your mom will be there."

"I know but I wish she was coming alone."

"Do you remember when we talked about Bob the other day?"

"Yeah, I remember. I'll be nice to him, but I still wish he wasn't coming."

"Josh, you're happy that I'm getting along so well with Bryan right?"

"Yeah," Josh replied. "I want you to be happy."

"You want your mom to be happy too, right?"

"I guess," Josh mumbled.

We had arrived at the trash bin. The lid to the bin was held securely closed by a large bungee cord attached to a hook on the base. To open the bin, all you had to do was release the bungee cord and lift the lid. I had the garbage bag in my hand and Josh bent down to unhook the bungee. I saw movement as Josh reached for the hook.

"JOSH STOP!" I yelled. I felt the familiar sensation of time slowing down as Josh continued to reach for the hook. I dropped the garbage bag and lunged for Josh. I smacked his hand out of the way just as the small triangular head of the snake struck out. I felt a burning sensation as it clamped into my hand and its needle sharp teeth punched through my skin.

Josh, who had fallen on his butt when I lunged at him, was completely bewildered and had no idea what was going on until he looked down and saw the snake clamped onto my hand. He quickly pulled his pocket knife from the pouch on his belt, extended the main blade and plunged it into the snake severing its head a few inches from my hand.

I quickly withdrew my hand and unhooked the snake's teeth from the fleshy part of my right hand while the rest of the snake's body writhed and twitched on the dusty ground.

"DAD! Are you alright?" Josh asked urgently. "BRYAN!!! MARK!!! HELP!!!" Josh yelled loudly towards the campsite.

I looked gingerly at my hand and there were four small puncture wounds from the snake's fangs. "Joshy, get the rest of the snake. We need to find out what kind it is," I said as calmly as I could manage.

"Dad, you need to sit down," he replied firmly and pushed me into a sitting position just as Bryan and Mark came running up to us.

"What's wrong?" Bryan demanded breathlessly.

"I got bitten by a snake," I replied.

"Oh shit. Do you know what kind it was?" Bryan asked urgently. "Where did you get bitten?"

"It's on his hand. It almost got me. Dad pushed me out of the way and it got him instead," Josh said tearfully. "I killed it."

"Where is it now Josh?" Bryan asked evenly.

"The head's down there," I said and pointed to the bloody spot on the ground where the head landed. "The rest's over there by the trash can." By then, the snake's body had stopped its death rattle.

Bryan picked up the head while Mark went for the body. The snake was about three feet long and had black and red markings.

"It doesn't have a rattle," Mark said. I could hear the relief in his voice.

"I think it's an unusually large garter snake. I don't think it's poisonous," Bryan said as he examined the remains of the snake. "That was good thinking to kill it Josh."

A ranger truck pulled up as I was standing up.

"Is everything ok here?" The park ranger asked as he climbed out and approached us. "We heard someone calling for help."

"My Dad got bitten by a snake," Josh said.

"Was it a rattlesnake?" The ranger asked.

"No, we think it's a large garter snake," Bryan replied and held out the remains of the snake to the ranger.

The ranger took the snake from Bryan and examined it. "Yeah, that's a big old garter snake all right. Where was it?"

"It was under the edge of the garbage bin right near the hook for the bungee cord holding down the lid. I saw it just as Josh was reaching to unhook it. I thought it was a rattler so I pushed him out of the way just as it struck. It got me in the hand." I held out my injured hand to the ranger who examined it closely.

"I think your only worry is infection. Do you have first aid supplies?" He asked.

"Yeah, we have a complete kit."

"Clean those wounds up, put some Polysporin on it and keep it covered. You got lucky this time."

"That's good to know," I said with a chuckle. "Thanks for your help."

"Anytime," the ranger replied. He climbed back into his truck and drove away.

The four of us began walking back to our campsite. Josh was clearly relieved. He clung to my side and put his arm around my shoulders. "Does it hurt?" He asked.

"Not really. It stings a bit."

"I'll take care of you when we get back to the site," Josh replied.

"We'd better be careful, you never know, the next time we encounter a snake, it could be a rattler," Bryan said. "I'd hate to have to do a high speed run to the nearest hospital."

We got back to the site and Josh sat me down at the picnic table, and then went to get the first aid kit. While he was doing that, Bryan got out a bottle of anti-bacterial soap, a bottle of water and then proceeded to wash the wounds out. The soap stung a bit, but it had to be done.

"If we're going to be together, you're going to have to start avoiding dangers that can get you killed," Bryan said with a smirk. "I don't think my ticker can take the stress."

"I know. Trouble just seems to find me. I saw the snake just as Josh reached for the bungee cord and I reacted. It could have been a rattler for all I knew; I saw a threat to my son and I reacted."

"You did good. If it had been a poisonous snake, it would have been far more dangerous to him that it would have been to you."

Josh returned with the first aid kit and began digging out the things he needed while Bryan dried my hand. It was a little swollen around the wounds but didn't look that bad.

"Give me your hand Dad," Josh instructed.

I held my hand out to him and he gently applied a liberal amount of Polysporin to the four small puncture wounds and then placed a gauze pad over them. He then wrapped some gauze around my hand to hold everything in place.

"Thanks bud," I said.

"Thank you," Josh replied firmly and looked into my eyes. "That could have been a poisonous snake and you were willing to let it bite you instead of me."

"Of course Joshy; a dad's main job is to protect his son even if it means putting himself in danger."

"I should have looked before I reached down there."

"It's not your fault Josh. I didn't think about it either. I just saw some movement and I instinctively knew what it was. Snakes like to hide in shady places like that when it's hot like it is now. You did a great job of killing it."

"I used the knife you gave me for Christmas," he said with pride.

I held my arms out to him and he immediately accepted my embrace. I held him tightly and rubbed his back

"Thanks Dad," Josh said with his head resting on my shoulder.

"You don't have to thank me son. I did it because I love you and I would do anything to protect you."

"I know that Dad. I love you too."

Not long after the little adventure with the snake, a silver Ford mini van pulled into the campsite. The Mason's had arrived. Trevor rolled down the window as soon as he brought the van to a stop.

"Hi guys. We have a long drive ahead of us so we really can't stay. We just wanted to drop by and say goodbye." Trevor said.

"Thanks for stopping by. Too bad you can't stick around for lunch. We have plenty."

"Thanks for the offer, but we really do have to get going."

Josh went to the sliding door and pulled it open to see Shelly and Eddie. Shelly looked pretty well, but more than just a little sad. Josh took her hand.

"Hi Shelly," he said warmly.

"Hi Josh," Shelly replied sadly.

"I hope you have a safe trip home. I made you something to cheer you up when you feel down. I hope you like it," Josh said as he handed her the CD-ROM that he made. All of our email addresses, phone numbers, and cell phone numbers are on the disk. Email me or call me anytime you want."

Shelly's face broke into a really big grin. She wrapped her arms around Josh, gave him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks Josh. You're so sweet."

"So are you Shelly."

"Am I ever going to see you again?" Shelly asked with a hopeful glint in her eyes.

Josh looked back at me and I gave him a subtle nod of my head.

"Of course you will. My Dad will bring me to see you as soon as we can."

I left Josh to talk with Shelly and Eddie while I spoke to Trevor and Debbie. "I'd be more than happy to bring Josh to Burnaby if Shelly wants or needs a little pick-me-up. She can email him anytime she wants too," I said.

"Thank you Tom. All of you boys have such good hearts. We'll never forget you," Debbie said with tears in her eyes.

I handed Trevor a card with my phone numbers and email address written on it. "If we can do anything, just let us know," I said.

"Thanks Tom," Trevor replied.

Bryan stepped forward and shook hands with Trevor and Debbie while I went back to see the kids. I offered Eddy my hand. "You be a little trooper and look after your sister," I told him.

Eddie smiled wanly and nodded his head. "I will Tom," he said softly.

"You be a big strong girl," I said to Shelly.

She smiled, leaned forward in her seat and kissed me on the cheek.

Mark and Bryan took turns saying goodbye to the kids and we gave Josh one last chance to say goodbye to Shelly. He leaned over to her and whispered something in her ear. I didn't know what he said, but her face lit up and she flashed her pretty little smile at him and nodded her head. Josh kissed her forehead and said goodbye.

We all stood and waved as Trevor pulled the van out of the camping spot and drove away. Josh came to me and put his arm around my shoulders.

"You certainly made her happy; what did you say to her?"

Josh smiled at me. "I told her that if she fought real hard and got better that I would marry her."

I put my arms around him and pulled him close. He rested his head on my chest. "That was really nice Josh. She needs hope right now. Hope is about the only thing in the world which can save her now."

After the Mason's left, we grilled up the fresh sausages for lunch. It had been a short, but emotionally draining visit with the Masons and we all ate quietly, each lost in our own thoughts. After lunch, we hit the trails again, this time following one of the shorter trails. We didn't find any more dinosaur teeth or fossils, but we shot a hell of a lot of good photos and good video footage.

We spent our last night at Dinosaur Provincial Park grilling pork chops for dinner and then relaxing around the campfire. That night, we were in a bit of an unusually somber mood. There were no ghost stories, rather, we all talked. The boys were having a bit of trouble dealing with the idea of a terminally ill child, and both of them were seeking comfort from Bryan and me.

We were all sitting on the picnic table in a cluster. Bryan and I sat together on the table top. Josh was sitting in front of me and leaning his head back on my shoulder. Mark was in a similar position in front of Bryan. I had one arm around Josh and the other around Bryan. Bryan had one arm around Mark and the other around me.

At around 10:00 PM, we decided to turn in for the night. We wanted to get an early start the next morning so that we could visit the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller and then head to Edmonton. We were booked into the Fantasyland Hotel in the West Edmonton Mall and had dinner reservations for 6:00 at a quaint little steakhouse in the giant mall.

"Too bad we didn't have larger tents, we could all stay together tonight," I said to Bryan.

"It's ok. I think the boys need some 'dad' time tonight. Have a good night and sleep tight," Bryan replied. We exchanged hugs and kisses and then retreated to our respective tents with the boys in tow.

Josh and I climbed into our combined sleeping bag and snuggled up together. I got in first and lay on my side. Josh climbed in after me, zipped up the sleeping bag and then rolled over to face me. I wrapped him in my arms and pulled him into my chest. He buried his face into the base of my neck and threw his arm around me.

"Is there any chance that Shelly will get better?" Josh asked.

"The doctors don't think so Joshy, but sometimes hope can overcome impossible odds."

"Isn't that false hope?"

"There's no such thing as false hope, Josh. All hope is valid and all hope is real. I don't think it's likely that Shelly will survive, but there's nothing wrong with hoping for a miracle."

Josh thought for a moment. "Were you scared today with the snake?"

"I was scared; but not for me. I was scared for you. I was scared that you'd be bitten and that you'd be hurt. I was too focused on you to be scared for myself. After I was bitten, I was frightened. I didn't know what to expect."

"I'd do the same for you."

"I know you would son. When you love someone, you put them before yourself. It's called being selfless."

"It's the opposite of being selfish, right?"

"That's exactly right. Being selfless is a good thing. You were very selfless with Shelly. It shows how grown up and mature you really are Josh."

"It just seemed to be the right thing to do," Josh replied.

"I know Josh. That's what amazes me most. Most kids your age, even most adults, would not have thought that way. It shows me how amazing you truly are. It reminds me of one of the reasons that I love you so much."

Josh contemplated my words for a moment before replying. "You know, I feel different; I mean since the beginning of this trip."

Josh was different. He was really blossoming on this trip and every time I looked at him, I could see more and more of the man that he would become. It was a truly awesome and moving experience to watch this wonderful, smart, kind, and loving boy develop into a fine man, who could and would take on the world. I had no doubt that Josh's destiny was to change the world and I felt privileged to be a witness and an active participant in his formative years.

"You are different Josh. You're growing mentally and physically. You're seeing more of the world around you and becoming aware of the good and the bad that's out there."

"I'm just thankful that you're here with me. I love you Dad. Goodnight."

"I love you too kiddo. Sleep well son."

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn. We wasted little time in breaking camp and heading out of the Badlands. Our stay in that remarkable part of the country was short, but it was enough to leave an undeletable impression on all of us. We had the rest of the country to explore, but we all swore that we would one day return to the Badlands of Alberta.

We drove to Drumheller in convoy. Josh dug out the FRS radios that I'd purchased and gave one to Mark. The radios gave us the ability to easily communicate between our vehicles. Josh and I took the lead since we were the only ones equipped with a GPS unit.

We arrived at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller at around 9:30 in the morning and spent the rest of the day exploring the treasures that it contained. It's a remarkable facility with something for everyone. We ate lunch in the well-appointed cafeteria before taking one last run at the exhibits. By 2:30 we were back on the road and Edmonton lay ahead of us.

Edmonton was to be our next major stop. There was plenty to see and do there, and we planned to spend several days seeing the sights and exploring that wonderful city. Our first and primary Edmonton destination was the West Edmonton Mall. The West Edmonton Mall is the world's largest shopping mall spanning over 5.8 million square feet and featuring over 800 stores, an amusement park, a hockey arena, a water park, hotel, casino, hundreds of restaurants, and several movie theatres. The mall even features a shooting range which we planned on visiting.

We entered the city of Edmonton and made a beeline for the mall. It wasn't hard to find. It's located on a plot of land that covers 24 city blocks stretching from 170th street to 178th street and from 87th Ave to 90th Ave. Including the upper floor, the mall covers more than 48 city blocks.

We approached the mall from the Southeast corner and headed north on 170th street to enter the massive 10,000-car parking lot from the north side that was close to the hotel. Josh had cracked out the video camera and we decided to do a lap of the mall before parking. The trip around the mall took almost 10 minutes to complete. It was utterly enormous.

"I can't believe how big this place is. It's like a city on it's own," Josh crowed.

"I read somewhere that more than 10,000 people work in this mall every day. That makes it larger than many small towns."

We finally pulled into the parking lot and headed for the entrance to the Fantasyland hotel. We found side-by-side parking spots only a short distance from the doors. We were all glad to stretch our legs after the spending more than four hours on the road that day. The boys could barely contain their excitement; they were ready to go exploring right away, but in order to get them to hold off their assault on the mall, we had to remind them that we had dinner reservations at a steakhouse. I insisted on paying for the room and sent Bryan, Mark, and Josh off to get our luggage while I got us checked in.

The hotel features a number of "theme rooms" as well as suites and standard rooms. I had pre-booked us into a regular double room thinking that we'd be spending most of our time away from the room exploring the mall. The room featured two king sized beds and all the standard furnishings such as a colour TV with free movie channel access.

Once we were checked in and had received our key cards, we made our way to our room. Josh and I took the bed nearest the window while Mark and Bryan took the one nearest the door. All four of us dropped our bags and then flopped down on the very comfortable beds.

It was only the lure of mouth watering Alberta steaks which motivated us to take turns in the shower and get dressed up in our suits. The restaurant where we were going to eat wasn't a formal dining room, but it was a nice place and we decided that it was appropriate for us to dress up for the occasion.

Josh, as usual, was almost breathtakingly handsome in his new suit. It was the first time that he'd worn it since he tried it on after it had been altered. I smiled as I watched him effortlessly tie his own tie. He was wearing the same navy blue tie that I had given him to wear at his father's funeral. Mark looked equally handsome in his charcoal gray suit, light blue shirt, and spotted red tie. I looked at him and figured that he'd have no trouble at all securing a boyfriend.

Bryan looked just like an older clone of Mark. He looked utterly amazing in his dark pinstriped suit with a maroon stripped tie and white shirt. I looked at him and had to make a conscious effort not to stare! At first I was worried that I might not measure up, but judging by the way Bryan looked at me, I needn't have worried.

The four of us looked ready to take on the world as we left our room, dressed to the nines and headed off to dinner in the world's largest shopping mall.


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