I trudged along Tamboritha Road in the early morning sunlight, on my way to retrieve Cameron's backpack. The day had dawned clear and sunny after the rain of the night before. I'm going to have to be careful, I thought, the track will be wet and I don't want to have a fall like Cameron did.
We'd had an early breakfast, and I'd left as soon as I could because the weather forecast was for more rain. I'd been relieved to find that Cameron was feeling a lot better after a good night's sleep; his ankle was much less swollen, and the aches and pains were troubling him less. Nevertheless, before I set out, I made sure that he had enough firewood within reach, and that he could get drinks and snacks without needing to move from the couch. He had a supply of DVDs handy, as well as the remote controls for the TV and the DVD player. I was satisfied that he would be fine on his own until I returned.
I figured I would take a couple of hours to get to the spot where Cameron had hidden his pack. It was only about three kilometres, but it involved a hard climb up a steep ridge. I anticipated that—with the track wet and overhanging trees dripping water—it would be a messy hike. I thought the trip back would be quicker, but I'd be carrying Cameron's pack downhill, so I knew I would need to be very careful.
I was actually glad to be out of the cabin for a while. It wasn't that I wanted to get away from Cameron; it was that I was more puzzled than ever, and I needed space to think. The time on the track would give me plenty of scope for that. We'd had a lot of laughs the night before, and I'd enjoyed Cameron's company, but the feeling that something was wrong was still smouldering away in the background.
I reached the turn-off and the track immediately began its gradual climb up the valley—at the head of which it would follow a steep and tortuous route up the ridge. Here we go, I thought, as I looked at the trees and the wet grass. I pulled up the hood on my parka, just as a large drop of water fell from a tree and hit my shoulder. The first kilometre was fairly easy hiking. The track meandered up the valley, rising and falling with the land and weaving its way around obstacles. It wasn't as wet as I had expected, so I made good time.
As I walked, I tried to sort things out in my mind. Where did Cameron come from? Why did he suddenly pop up out of nowhere? Why has he had such an impact on me? It was a source of wonder to me that I felt so comfortable with Cameron. As I had told him, I usually took ages to make new friends. What's different about him?
'You think too much...just let it happen!' I could hear Cameron saying. That's all very well, I thought. I can't do that. I have to understand things. I like to know where I've been, and where I'm heading.
I found an old tree stump and sat down to rest for a few minutes before I began the climb up the ridge. I took a few sips from my water bottle and tried once more to think things through. I just couldn't get a handle on whatever was still bugging me. The imprisonment and rapes had been bad, but I'd survived. The physical injuries had healed long ago. I'd lived through my suicide attempt, and—with help from everyone—my mental state had improved immensely. The depression is under control now. I'm not affected by physical pain any longer So, what is this other thing that won't go away? What is it? Why? Why? Why? I just don't understand. I threw my hands up in the air and groaned, my frustration getting the better of me.
'Man, this sucks,' I said aloud. 'I have to figure this out. Whatever it is about The Monster that's still affecting me, I have to beat it.'
I took another sip of water, then sat bolt upright.
'Stuff it,' I decided. 'Too many blasted questions! I'll talk to Cam again when I get back. He might be able to help me make sense of it all. Right now, I need to get his pack before it rains.' Surprising myself with my resolve, I stood and continued the trek.
I had little opportunity for thought after that. The track was steep and rocky, and I had to watch my step every metre of the way. It was a strenuous climb and I had to pause to catch my breath every few minutes. Man, I'm glad I'm not carrying Cam's pack up here! I hate to think what it's going to be like coming back down.
I had hiked the track before, with my family, but we'd been carrying only small, light day packs. When I returned, I would be carrying about 25 kilograms on my back. Cam's gonna owe me for this, I thought, smiling inwardly. I hope he's enjoying lounging around by the fire watching DVDs while I'm out here in the... I stopped and looked around. I was almost at the top; the trees had thinned, the sun was warm, and the sky above me was a beautiful deep blue. Suddenly, I realised that I was enjoying the hike. The exercise was doing me good. I laughed. 'Hmm, I think I might have got the better part of the deal. It's nice out here!'
A short time later, I reached the summit. The track levelled out, and within ten minutes I was forcing my way through the undergrowth around the big tree that Cameron had mentioned. I found his pack and hauled it out onto the track. He had covered it with a sheet of plastic, so I shook the raindrops off that, folded it, and stowed it under the straps holding the top of the pack closed; if it rained, I was going to need it. I hung my water bottle on the side of the pack, and I was ready to go.
'Whoa!' I said as I straightened up and looked around. The sky to the southwest was full of black, threatening clouds, and a stiff breeze had blown up. I hastened with care. I wanted to get back to the safety and shelter of the cabin as quickly as I could, but the conditions and the steep descent demanded that I concentrate to avoid slipping or tripping. One injured person was enough to worry about, and Cameron wasn't fit enough to care for me if I ended up hurt. At first, the weight of the backpack slowed me and I had to learn to balance it properly, but after a while I got used to it and was able to speed up. I stumbled once, right beside a vertical drop off the edge of the track, giving myself a bad scare. Fortunately, I fell against the bank rather than over the edge. Later, on a steep section almost back at the head of the valley, I tripped on a tree root exposed by erosion. A handy tree stopped me from tumbling down the track face-first.
With a sigh of relief, I emerged into the valley and faced the easier two kilometres to home and shelter. The wind had grown stronger, and it was making quite a roar in the treetops. I could hear thunder in the distance. It had become very overcast as the cloud cover increased, but I was hopeful that the rain would hold off until after I reached the cabin. It didn't.
I was still about fifteen minutes away when the first scattered drops fell. I hurriedly grabbed Cameron's plastic sheet and draped it over the pack and myself, just in the nick of time. Huge, heavy drops of rain felt like they were stabbing me, and beat a deafening tattoo on the plastic. The wind picked up as I emerged from the valley's shelter, and the thunder was closer and louder. By the time I walked out onto the road, the rain was pouring down, and I had to lean into the wind to make any headway.
I grinned when I saw Cameron waiting outside the cabin door in a pool of light from the lamp on the veranda.
'Beautiful day!' I called out, with a lilt in my voice, as I emerged from behind the trees lining the road.
His face relaxed and he broke into a smile. 'Oh, man, thank goodness you're okay. I was getting worried.'
I'd barely reached the top of the steps when he grabbed me in a bear hug, wet plastic and all. We stepped back and looked at each other. Cameron looked like he was about to cry, and I must have looked like a drowned rat; the wind had made sure that the plastic didn't keep much of the rain off. I just hoped Cameron's stuff inside the pack wasn't soaked, too.
'Hey, Cam, it's all right. I'm back safely...and I've got your pack. It might be a bit wet, though.'
'Stuff the pack! I'm just relieved you're safe.' He hugged me again.
'Whoa, take a chill pill, Cam!' I couldn't help laughing. He was a guy who had taken on a solo five-day hike in the mountains, and there he was, falling to bits over me getting caught in a storm. My laughter was probably due more to nervous energy than finding Cameron's distress funny. I was a bit on edge, too...a few times in the past half hour I had wondered which was going to happen first—a tree falling on me or the wind blowing me back the way I'd come. 'Can I take this pack off now? I need to get out of these wet clothes.'
Cameron let me go and stepped back to look at me. He had tears in his eyes. 'Sorry, Michael. The storm came up so suddenly, and it was so violent I got really worried about you. I had visions of you lying under a tree up the track somewhere—especially since you seemed to be taking a long time.'
'Well, with the steep track and the weight of the pack, I had to be careful, so I took it fairly slowly. I don't know how you managed it with your crook ankle. The rain started when I was nearly out to the road, and then the wind was so strong it nearly blew me backwards. The last k was really slow going.' I paused to take a breath. 'But, hey, it's nice to know you missed me,' I added with a grin, and bopped him on the shoulder. 'What's for lunch? I'm starving!'
Cameron chuckled and I saw the tension drain out of him. He put his arm over my shoulders and I helped him inside.
'Ah, that's better,' I sighed as the door closed on the storm and I slipped the backpack off. 'I've had it. I reckon I could sleep for two days straight.'
The cabin was cosy and Cameron had the lights on. I couldn't believe it was so dark outside. It was just after midday, but it felt like evening.
'Whoa! It's cold out there,' I said as I carried in an armful of firewood after lunch. I backed against the door to close it against the wind that was still howling outside. I stoked the fire and flopped down beside Cameron. He'd found that it was easier to see the TV—and more comfortable—to sit normally on the couch with his foot resting on a pillow on the coffee table, and that made room for both of us. 'What did you watch while I was gone?'
'I started with The Big Steal.'
'Oh, yeah, that's a funny one. I haven't watched it for a while, though. I didn't know it was here. Mum must have slipped it in when I wasn't looking...probably hoping it would cheer me up. She knows I love it.'
'I hadn't even heard of it, but I nearly laughed myself sick—literally, because my bruises were hurting so much. Then I decided to watch The Party—and that only made it worse!'
'Oh, yeah, that's a good one, too. I really like it because a lot of the humour is in what you see, not what you hear.
We had a good laugh...Cameron reliving the pleasure he'd felt as he watched the movies that morning; me remembering times when I'd enjoyed them with my mates. Then my mind started to wander, and I marvelled again at the effect Cameron had on me, and how it seemed to be impossible to feel down with him around. That reminded me of the questions I had tossed around during my hike. They still seemed unanswerable. Will Cam be able to help me? What is it about this guy? I feel so comfortable with him...like I've known him for years. And I have a feeling that he will be able to help.
'Cam, I was thinking as I was walking this morning...' I began.
He rolled his eyes. 'You think too much. It's not good for your health.'
'Heh! Why did I just know you would say that?' I laughed.
'Uh, because you know I'm right?'
It was my turn to roll my eyes. 'Well, I had all these questions, and I couldn't find answers to them...' I started.
'And you're asking me?'
'Well, you seem to have helped already...' I began. 'And...you're always right,' I added, with a grin.
He threw me a disbelieving look, but waited for me to continue.
I sat there, silently contemplating the questions I had been trying to answer that morning. I had a gut feeling that Cameron would be able to help me, but I didn't have a clue where to start. Suddenly, I blurted out, 'Do you know anything about depression?' I wondered how Cam would respond; he seemed so carefree that I doubted he would be able to answer that question.
I sat still, watching him. I could see him weighing options in his mind. It seemed to take an age, and I began to think he couldn't help after all. When he finally replied, I was completely taken aback.
'Michael, can I tell you a story?'
'Uh, sure, go for it,' I said.
He paused, thinking again. 'I might ramble a bit, because I've never told this to anyone.'
He took a deep breath and began talking.
'When I was twelve, my dad died. He had a heart attack at work.
'At that time we lived in Montrose, a suburb of Melbourne. I was one of a group of friends who were really close. I'd known most of them since primary school, and one even longer.
'We were a bit of a motley crew. A couple of the guys, Dominic and Chris, were brainy. They were amazing when it came to maths and science, although they weren't much good at practical things and thought sport was for the birds. Dean and Trent were the opposite. They were way into sport and not interested in much else. They struggled a bit with academic stuff, but the rest of us helped them out. The other two, Jesse and I, were all-rounders. We did well at school, but we were also good at practical stuff and liked a bit of sport as well. We all had other friends, but the six of us always hung out together. It seems weird that we were so different and yet such great friends—but that's how it was.
'Jesse and Dominic, in particular, helped me a lot after Dad's death. It took me a long time to get over it, because Dad and I were really close, and I missed him terribly. In a way, I was angry with him for leaving me. Dom and Jesse were great. They were there when I needed someone, but they gave me space to be alone when I needed it. In the months after Dad died, the three of us bonded really well and I came to depend on them. The other guys were there, too, but it was those two who helped me the most.
'By the time we were thirteen, we were getting interested in sex and we talked a lot about the girls at school. After a while, I began to believe I was different from the other guys. I didn't really enjoy all the talk about girls, and I didn't get all worked up about them like the other guys did. I was worried, thinking there was something wrong with me.
'Then, one day, Chris sent me a link to a website where he'd found some "really hot girls."' I grinned as Cameron made punctuation marks in the air when he quoted Chris. 'When I went there, it was like a light turning on. Chris's hot girls were with really hot guys, and I found myself looking at them rather than at the girls. The more I looked, the more excited I became.
'I was really relieved—I was getting turned on, which meant there wasn't anything wrong with me—but I had a new worry, because it was guys and not girls who were doing it for me. I wondered whether that was normal. Was I weird because I got as excited about guys as my friends did about girls? Where could I go from there? To make things worse, I felt isolated and alone as well as different. Even though I was surrounded by friends, I wasn't game to talk to any of them about it—first, because they were so into girls that I thought they would be disgusted with me and not want me as their friend, and second, because I feared they would think I was attracted to them.
'I stewed over it for months. I got more and more curious about guys, and less and less interested in girls.
'Year 9 started, and we all turned fourteen within a few months of one another. Trent and Dean found their first girlfriends. It was funny; after all the talk about what they would do with girls, they went to water and the girls had them wrapped around their little fingers. The rest of us gave them heaps. But, while they had their girlfriends, and the others were talking about girls, I was becoming obsessed with guys. Eventually, my feelings got too much for me to cope with, and I became afraid I'd do something really stupid. So...I took the bull by the horns, if you'll excuse the tired old phrase, and talked to my mum.'
Cameron paused when I cracked up, and laughed with me. 'I can laugh now,' he said, 'but it was deadly serious at the time. You've got no idea how bad I was feeling inside.'
'I can imagine,' I said. 'And you were pretty brave to talk to your mum.' I shook my head in wonder.
'Yeah,' he answered, 'I was really afraid. We'd always talked about stuff, but I was weirded out by my feelings about guys, and I didn't know how Mum would react. As it turned out, she was really cool about it. We sat down and talked and I just poured everything out. I cried, she cried, we hugged, we laughed, and I felt like a tonne of weight was lifted off my shoulders.
'Mum helped me to see that my feelings for guys might mean several things; one, I might be gay; two, I might be bisexual; three, I might be going through a stage and might find myself attracted to girls later; or...or... oh, what was the last one? Oh, I remember—I might be just curious, wanting to experience different forms of sexuality.
'She assured me that she would still love me in any case, and she insisted that I tell my sister, who was fine after her initial surprise wore off. I was so relieved, because I'd come out to two people and they were both supportive. That made me feel a lot better about myself, and it no longer seemed like I had a terrible, dark secret.
'Mum also suggested that I think about telling my friends. She thought they would be big enough to understand—and that, if they didn't, then they weren't true friends. That last part was hard for me to accept. Because we had all been such good mates for so long, I just couldn't believe that they weren't close and loyal friends. But, then, why was I afraid to tell them? If Mum was right, they would be fine with the possibility that I was gay. If they weren't, then she was still right!
'I never did get that sorted out. A few weeks later, I was at Jesse's place when, without thinking, I made a comment about another guy. Jesse put two and two together and asked me if I was gay.'
Cameron pretended to wipe his brow. 'Man, that put me on the spot. I was afraid to admit to it, but I didn't want to fob him off, either. And I couldn't lie; that's just not me. My hesitation confirmed it for him; I didn't need to say a thing.'
'How did he take it?'
Cameron laughed. 'I couldn't believe it...after all my anguish over telling my friends, all he said was, "Cool!" I said, "Cool?" and he was like, "Yeah, you're the first gay guy I've known. Tell me about it."'
I laughed. 'Cool friend, huh?'
'You can say that again.'
I opened my mouth to speak, but Cam beat me to it. 'Don't even think about it!'
He chuckled before continuing. 'Well, after I got over my surprise, we talked about it for ages. He wanted to know how and when I realised I was gay, and I told him about all the doubts and how I'd been worried that I was weird. He reckoned I'd done a good job of hiding everything, because he'd never noticed there was anything wrong. I told him I thought I had been extra careful to not show anything, because I was so scared that someone would find out that I was different. In fact, I think just the idea of being gay was terrifying enough, without worrying about what others would think or do. I didn't know anything about being gay, and I didn't know any gay guys. I didn't know whether they enjoyed the same things my mates and I did or whether they had the same ambitions, fears, and emotions. I really didn't know anything except that I was attracted to guys.
'When I told Jesse that he was the first person to know—apart from Mum and my sister—that I was probably gay, he gave me his word that he wouldn't tell anyone. As he said, "That's your call." By the time I went home that day, I was sure that Jesse and I had formed an even closer bond. I was so relieved that he wasn't homophobic that I just about floated home.'
'Did you tell the others?'
'I didn't have to. By the time I arrived at school on Monday, it seemed the whole world knew.'
'The—' I exclaimed, cutting myself off before I swore. 'He gave his word!'
'Yeah. I was so angry with Jesse. I thought he'd betrayed me and outed me.
'A few kids called me "fag," "queer," "homo" and other names I'd never even heard before. Some kids seemed to be avoiding me.
'It was a very lonely day. It looked like even my closest friends had deserted me. Trent and Dean told me they weren't going to hang around with a fag. Dominic seemed angry with me and took off whenever I came near. Jesse tried to talk to me, but he gave up after I made it clear that I wasn't interested. I couldn't work him out; he seemed troubled, and every now and then I'd catch him looking at me with a strange expression on his face.'
'What about Chris?' I asked. 'You haven't mentioned how he reacted.'
'Oh, Chris was overseas with his family. They'd gone to Greece to visit his grandparents, so he didn't know anything about all this until later. He was kind of uncomfortable around me when he did find out, and we drifted apart. He was still friendly enough, but our friendship was never the same after that.'
'Ah, sorry to interrupt. Please continue.'
Cameron threw me one of those "I'll deal with you later" looks, shook his head, and took up the story again.
'It was hard on my sister, too. She had accepted me, and it really hurt her to hear the stuff being said at school. She ditched her friends that day and walked home with me, to show her support.'
He chuckled. 'She got really annoyed with a couple of her friends when they said something about her hanging around with a fag, and she told them to "shut up and grow up!" I hadn't changed, and they'd always liked me before, so she couldn't see why they had a problem. I was really proud of her and grateful for her support when so many others seemed to have abandoned me.'
We took a break. Cameron relaxed while I went out to get more wood. It was still raining heavily and the wind was rattling the whole cabin. I rushed to get back in out of the cold. I stoked the fire and got us drinks and munchies before I rejoined Cam and he continued his story.
'I tried to get out of going to school the next day, but Mum wasn't having that, so I resigned myself to going through it all again. It wasn't as bad as I'd feared. I got called names a few times, but mostly the other kids seemed to ignore me. That almost seemed worse than the name-calling, because kids I'd known for years wouldn't talk to me.
'After a couple of days of avoiding me, Dominic came up to me and said, "We need to talk!" It was an order; I didn't have a choice. At lunchtime, he led me to a quiet spot away from the crowds, and we sat down together.
'It was a bit awkward at first, but eventually he started to talk. He wasn't angry with me for being gay; he was upset because I hadn't told him. Because we'd been so close for years—especially after Dad died—he was really hurt that I'd never said anything. He felt I didn't trust him enough to tell him. I'd known Dominic since we were at pre-school, which made him my oldest friend. He was right...I should have known that he would accept me as I was, not as he or anyone else thought I should be.
'I can still remember exactly what he said next: "What it all boils down to is that you're still the same guy I've known and liked for most of my life. The only thing that's changed is that I know something about you now that I didn't know before. That doesn't change who you've been all along."
'I told him how afraid I'd been...' Cameron began marking off the reasons on his fingers. 'Because I felt different from all my friends and didn't really know how to deal with that; because—as far as I knew—none of us had even met anyone who was gay, and therefore I didn't have any way to know how straight people usually reacted when they found out that a guy was gay; and because I didn't know how my own friends would react in that specific situation. Taken together, those things made me want to keep my "gayness" secret.
'Dom accepted my explanation, and then wanted to know what was up between Jesse and me. He told me Jesse was really upset because I wouldn't talk to him, and couldn't work out what he'd done: "He doesn't care about you being gay—and he says he told you that."
'I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I said, "You're kidding? He doesn't know why I'm angry with him?"
'Dom shook his head, and said "No." He sounded really puzzled.
'It was my turn to shake my head. I was getting agitated. Not only had Jesse betrayed me—he didn't even see that he'd done anything wrong. "He outed me!" I practically shouted at Dom.
'"What?" Dom was almost shouting, too. "What are you talking about? Jesse didn't tell anyone."
'That stopped me in my tracks. The whole school had found out somehow, and Jesse was the only person I'd told. "Are you sure he didn't say something to someone?" I asked Dominic.
'Dom was certain. He said Jesse had been as surprised as I was when everyone was talking about me that Monday.
'I hung my head. I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. I'd made an assumption and hurt one of my best friends. "Man, I've stuffed up big-time," I said.
'"Yep!" He wasn't going to give me any leeway.
'I jumped up. "I've got to find him!"
'"No need to," Dom said, gesturing towards the school. "He's over there. He's been watching us, waiting to see if you would come to your senses."
'I looked, and there was Jesse, leaning against a corner of the building. I started towards him, looking back at Dominic at the same time. He was grinning, and waved Jesse over. We met halfway. Not knowing what else to do, I held out my arms and we hugged. "I'm so sorry," I managed to blurt out, and then burst into tears.
'Man, it was good to have them back. We sat and had a good talk. We seemed to be three, rather than six, but at least I still had my two closest friends. We all went back to class happier than we'd been for days. Later, we even figured out how I'd been outed. Jesse had called me on his mobile phone the day after I'd been at his place, and he'd told me about some gay-support websites he'd found. He'd been sitting at a table in the food court of one of the big shopping centres. A couple of girls from school had come up to him after he'd got off the phone and had chatted with him for a few minutes. As we talked he remembered that they'd wanted to know who he'd been talking to, and we realised that they must have heard his side of the conversation. Those girls were renowned for knowing everyone else's business, so it was obvious who had spread the word.
'From then on, things began to improve. Other friends—though not Trent and Dean—came back, too. Most of them had never really gone away...they just needed time to adjust to the new knowledge they had about me. I was pretty sure most of the kids had never come across a real, live gay guy before and they just didn't know what to do with me. When they realised, like Dom had, that I was still the same person they'd always known, they were okay with my being gay.
'One of those was a guy called Aaron. He was a Christian, and he really struggled with being my friend. He explained that he was torn between two teachings. On one hand, his church taught that homosexuality was wrong. They didn't take it to extremes like some churches did, but they were certain that the Bible was clear on the issue. On the other hand, Aaron's church also taught that he was supposed to love everyone, because that's what Jesus preached—and also what Jesus did.
'He told me he had a lot of trouble trying to reconcile two teachings which seemed to be incompatible. What was he to do—love me or try to change me? In the end, he decided that he would love me, and leave God to worry about changing me. I really appreciated his honesty.
'There was another Christian kid who had a different approach. He told me God hated gays, and started quoting Bible verses and preaching at me. He wasn't consistent, though. One day, he told me I'd made a bad choice when I "decided to follow the homosexual lifestyle." Another day, he reckoned I'd "learned" my "homosexual behaviour." That really got up my nose. For one thing, I didn't believe I'd chosen to be gay or that I'd learned to be gay. For another thing, I didn't have any idea what "homosexual lifestyle" or "homosexual behaviour" meant. As far as I could see, I just was gay, and always had been. I'd had enough trouble accepting that I was probably gay, without worrying about lifestyles and behaviour. I felt bad enough as it was, but every time that kid spoke to me, I ended up feeling as if I wasn't really human. I would have heard him out if he'd been willing to sit down and talk with me, but he either couldn't or wouldn't do that. I tried to get a discussion going, but he seemed to have a closed mind. Whatever I said, he just kept repeating the same arguments.
'In the end, I gave up. I was thankful I had Aaron. His way was much more helpful for me.
'Aaron became the fourth member of our group. There was a girl from Aaron's church who was friendly with him, and she started hanging around with us as well. Then a friend of hers joined us.'
Cameron chuckled. 'We were back to six, and I grew to love those girls and Aaron as I had Trent and Dean, who remained hostile to me. Since we moved in different circles, their attitude wasn't too hard to cope with, but it was a real shame because we'd been close for so long. They just didn't seem able to believe that I hadn't suddenly changed. In the end, I had to accept that it wasn't likely that we would ever be friends again. I felt sorry for Dom and Jesse, though; they were rejected, too, because they chose to hang out with "the fag." Chris was back from Greece by then, but he spent his time with other friends.
'Over time, things got back to normal, and most people accepted me. Jesse and Aaron ended up falling for the two girls, so we had two couples in our group. The six of us did a lot together, and I was really grateful for their support. As far as any of us knew, I was the only gay guy in the whole school, but that changed at the beginning of Year 10.'