'Oh no…' I groaned. 'I must have dozed off. It's freezing!'
I stood and stretched. My muscles felt stiff and sore because I'd fallen asleep on the floor. I looked at the fireplace; the fire had gone out.
'Oh, man, now I'll have to light it again.'
Still drowsy, I went to get kindling from the wood store off the veranda. I opened the door and put one foot on the doormat. Suddenly, I was wide awake.
'Ow!' The doormat rolled over, taking my foot with it, and I almost lost my balance.
What I'd thought was the doormat sat up, and I realised that it was a guy about my age.
'Sorry, man, I needed to rest and get out of the cold,' he said. 'I knocked, but I didn't get any response.'
'Whoa! You must be freezing. You'd better come inside, but it won't be very warm until I get the fire going again. I went to sleep and let it go out.'
'Do you think you could help me up, please? I've hurt my ankle, and it was all I could do to get here. I managed to get up the steps, and just kind of collapsed on the veranda. I don't know whether I've got enough strength left to do anything more.'
I helped him to his feet and then, with one arm behind his shoulders and the other behind his knees, I picked him up and carried him inside to the couch. 'Don't move,' I instructed as I set him down. 'I'll get the fire going first and then we'll have a look at your ankle. I just need to get kindling.'
Working quickly, I rebuilt the fire; there was just enough residual heat to get the small wood smouldering under the bigger logs. Within a few minutes it was burning nicely and the room began to warm up again.
I turned my attention to my visitor. Perhaps I should have felt resentful of his intrusion into my solitude, but he needed help. I couldn't just turn him away, so I put aside my desire to be alone.
Reaching out my hand, I introduced myself. 'I'm Michael Parker. This is my family's holiday cabin.'
'Cameron Macdonald,' he responded, giving my hand a firm shake.
Hmm, good handshake. I smiled inwardly as I recalled my grandfather teaching me that a firm handshake showed you were a man of character. I found myself warming to Cameron.
Soon, he had taken off his left boot and sock, and was examining his ankle. He looked up at me and said, 'I don't think anything's broken, but it's really swollen, and very tender. I can wriggle my toes and move my whole foot without any stabbing pain, so I reckon I only twisted it.'
'Yeah, you'll probably have some bad bruising, though. I think we should put ice around it to get the swelling down, and you should keep your foot up.'
I remembered that we kept a couple of cold packs at the cabin, and breathed a sigh of relief when I looked in the fridge and found them in the freezer compartment. These will be better than ice, I thought.
I made Cameron's foot comfortable on a cushion on the arm of the couch and draped the cold packs around his ankle. He complained a little about the cold, but understood that it would help.
'Thanks for taking me in and helping me, Michael.'
'No problem,' I said. 'How did you do the damage?'
'Yesterday I set up camp and went looking for dry wood to cook tea and make a hot drink. It had rained just enough to make the ground greasy, and I slipped on a really wet spot. I went over the edge, and rolled down a steep slope. I came up against a small bush about a hundred metres down, which was very fortunate, because it was all that stopped me from going over a cliff and straight down for another ten or fifteen metres. I must have hit rocks or something on the way down, because I was hurting all over. It was a real effort to climb back up to the track, and it was starting to get dark. I was nearly at the top when I turned my foot on a rock and fell heavily. When I tried to stand, my ankle hurt something fierce, and it was all I could do to get back up to my tent. I couldn't be bothered trying to find wood in the dark when I couldn't walk properly, so I just ate some dried fruit and energy bars, took a couple of painkillers, and crawled into my sleeping bag.
'This morning I felt like I'd been run over by one of those sheepsfoot road rollers—you know, the ones with the spikey things. Everything hurt, and I could hardly walk. I decided to pack up my stuff and try to get to Licola. Then I spotted your place from up on the ridge. I figured I'd rest here for a while and then keep going. By the time I got here, though, I was stuffed. I was using a stick to help keep the weight off my foot, but it still hurt like blazes. I couldn't have walked any further.'
'You're really lucky, you know? It's ten kilometres to Licola, and there are no houses until you hit the village. I only arrived here today; normally no one would be here at this time of the year.'
The fire was starting to burn down, so I threw in another log to keep it going. I was thinking about what I'd get us for dinner when I had a sudden thought.
'Um, if you started out with your pack, where is it now?'
'Oh yeah, I forgot. I left it up on the ridge. It was a real struggle, trying to walk with that extra weight, but I expected that I'd probably have to camp a night or two before I got to Licola, so I soldiered on with it.'
Cameron grinned when he saw me playing an imaginary violin, and threw a cushion at me.
'Then, when I saw this place, I hid the pack and just brought a little food with me. I don't know how far back it is. I was pretty well out of it by the time I got down from the ridge, and I don't have any idea how long I took to get here.'
'Hmm, this spot where you spotted the cabin, was it where the track runs along the edge of a cliff for about thirty metres and then turns sharply and crosses to the other side of the ridge? I think that's the only place where you can see down this way.'
'Yeah, that's it! I stuffed my pack behind some thick bushes near a gnarly old gum tree. The tree has been burnt and there's a hollow at the bottom.'
'Okay, I know the spot, and I think I remember that old tree. It's about three kilometres away by the track—not too far, but it's a bit of a climb. I'll go and get your pack in the morning.'
'Oh, man, I'm going to owe you big time,' Cameron said.
'Oh, don't worry about it. The exercise will do me good. What were you doing up there, anyway? This isn't the best time of year to be hiking in these mountains, let alone solo.'
'Yeah, I know. I was trying to prove something to myself, and I needed some time alone.'
'You and me, both.'
Cameron looked like he expected me to say more. When I didn't add anything, he looked puzzled, but he didn't question me. I was beginning to like the guy.
'I don't know whether I can explain; I'll have to think about it,' I said after a long pause. 'Now, will I get dinner for both of us, or do you want to eat what you brought with you? I'm happy to cook for two.'
'Oh, real food! If you don't mind cooking for me too, that would be great.'
'No problem, chef's premium spaghetti bolognese coming up! And it's on special—half price for today only.'
'Cool! I'll have a double serving.'
When dinner was ready, I helped Cameron to the table. We took a long time over our meal, because we were talking almost non-stop. After we had finished eating, Cameron asked if I would mind helping him have a shower.
'I feel really grotty,' he said. 'I was keeping pretty clean until I fell down that slope and had to drag myself up again…and I feel so sore I'm not sure that I'd be able to wash myself.'
'Well, there's a bath as well as a shower. You might be better to soak in a hot tub for a while, and then I can help if you still want me to.'
'Excellent! You'll probably have to help me into the bath, though.'
'Okay, no worries.' I went into the bathroom and started running the bath water. While waiting for the tub to fill, I found some track pants, a tee shirt and a top for Cameron to wear. When the water was ready, I helped him up and into the bathroom, then left him to get undressed while I went to find a towel for him.
When I returned, Cameron was sitting on the bathroom stool, still dressed, and looking very apologetic. 'I'm sorry, Michael, but you'll have to help me undress, too. It hurts too much to do it myself.'
'Okay.' I reached to help him, but he stopped me.
'Um, there's something that you might want to know, first.'
I looked at him and he blushed.
'Okay,' I shrugged, and tried to start removing his clothes.
'"Okay"? That's it?'
I looked at him again. 'I guess so. It's cool.'
He breathed a sigh of relief, and then grinned. 'Wow!'
'Well, it's no big deal.' I laughed. 'Don't get any ideas, though. I'm straight—and taken.'
'Deal,' he said emphatically, raising his hand for a high five.
We both laughed as I slapped his hand, and I helped him undress. Cameron was right. His muscles were sore and stiff, and too much movement caused him pain. It took a while, but he was finally naked.
'Crikey!' I exclaimed when I saw his body. 'You really did some damage, didn't you?' He seemed to be covered in bruises, and had several cuts and scratches, as well. 'We'd best put some antiseptic on those before you get dressed again.'
I helped him into the bath and lowered him until he was able to lean back and relax, then left him to enjoy his bath in peace while I washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen.
When I looked in on him after I'd finished in the kitchen and stoked the fire, Cameron looked up at me. 'Michael, would you mind washing my back, feet and hair, please? I've done everywhere else, but they were just too difficult.'
I grabbed the soap and started to lather his back gently, being careful to avoid his cuts. 'Are you okay with this?' I asked. 'I'd be really embarrassed if I had to get another guy to wash me.'
Cameron chuckled. 'Don't worry, I am embarrassed…and you're a really good sport for doing this.'
I leaned around so I could see his face properly and was surprised to see him blushing again. 'Ha! You are embarrassed!'
He sighed. 'Yeah, I'm sorry, Michael.'
'Sorry for what?' I asked.
'For making you do this.'
'Hey, no need to be sorry. It's cool.'
'Oh, man, you're a good sport! Thanks, Michael.'
'Cameron, it's okay…look, if I'd been the one needing help, I probably would have been too embarrassed to even ask. So, don't worry about it. Somehow, I feel comfortable with you, which is unusual for me. I'm kind of shy, and it usually takes me a while to get to know people.'
'Well, you're getting to know me really well. You may as well call me Cam, by the way,' he said through his laughter. Suddenly he winced. 'Ohhh, I shouldn't have laughed, that hurt.'
I finished his back and started on his feet. That created a problem for Cameron, because his soles were really ticklish. As I washed them he jerked reflexively which, in turn, caused him pain. It was only for a few moments, though, and then his feet were clean. His hair was kind of long and curly, so it took me quite a while to get it washed, shampooed and rinsed. Finally, we were done. I helped him stand up to get out of the bath, and he sat on the stool while I dried him. His cuts and scratches didn't look so bad when he was cleaned up, but I applied antiseptic, anyway. I helped him to dress and then carried him back to the couch in the living area.
'Cam, I'm going to have a shower. I'll only be a few minutes; but do you need anything first?'
'Nah, I'm right, thanks. Take as long as you like. I'm not going anywhere…I'll still be here when you come back!'
'Very funny!' I said as I put a couple of pieces of wood on the fire. He was still chuckling quietly as I went into the bathroom. Obviously his injuries haven't damaged his sense of humour, I thought, grinning.
When I returned, Cameron was lying on the couch with his eyes closed. I thought he was asleep, so I grabbed a cushion off one of the chairs and got down on the floor in front of the fire. I'd always loved being close to the fire—something that annoyed my family no end, because they reckoned I hogged the heat. As I lay there, watching the flames, I reflected on the day's events. It seemed incredible how much things had changed since that afternoon, when I'd sat in that same spot, all cried out and lost in my turmoil.
I was surprised when Cameron spoke up. 'Hey, whatcha doin'?'
'Just thinking. I thought you were asleep.'
'Nah, just relaxing and waiting for you to come back. Come and sit up here, Michael.'
'Not enough room for both of us,' I said, 'and you need to keep your foot up.'
Cameron sat up and shuffled back so that he was leaning against the arm of the couch. He let his good foot drop to the floor, with his knees spread and his injured leg lying along the couch. He patted the seat between his legs. 'Sit in here,' he commanded, 'and lean back against me. There's plenty of room.'
I got up off the floor, and then hesitated. Is he hitting on me?
'Come on,' he said. 'I have a feeling you could do with a hug, and this is the easiest way to manage it with my crook foot.'
Somewhat reassured, I sat down. I lifted my feet and set them on the arm of the couch, then settled back against Cameron. He closed his arms around me and rested his chin on my shoulder. I sighed. 'Mmm, not bad,' I said, although I still felt a little awkward. 'Are you comfortable?'
'Yep, I'm fine,' he replied.
'Why did you think I needed a hug?'
'Well, I've been thinking, and I've been watching you. You didn't come up here just for a holiday, did you? When I talked about needing time alone, you said, "You and me, both," and then said you didn't know whether you could explain what you meant—and I think you'd been crying before I arrived. There's something bothering you, and I don't think it's just that I turned up out of the blue. You're fine around me, but there's something I can't quite pin down. It's as if you're worried about something that has happened or is about to happen, and you don't know what to do about it…or like there's something you have to do, but you're not sure what it is or how to do it. Am I making sense?'
I nodded. I didn't trust myself to speak. Cameron had hit the nail right on the head.
How did he do that? I wondered.
'Want to tell me about it? I'm a good listener.'
He squeezed me a little more tightly as he leaned his head around and gave me a questioning look. That was all it took. I burst into tears.
Cameron waited patiently for my tears to dry up. He simply sat there holding me, his chin again resting on my shoulder. I had to think hard. Does he really want to hear my story? Does he want to help me or is he just being nosy? Do I want to tell him?
We sat in silence for quite a while, Cameron waiting, me collecting my thoughts. I realised I did want to tell him my story. Somehow I felt comfortable with him, and it just felt right to share it all with him.
'Are you sure you want to hear this?' I asked, finally.
'No, but if it will help you, then yes, I want to hear it. I really am a good listener, and I know from experience that sometimes it helps to get stuff off your chest…and sometimes it's easier to talk to a stranger.'
I sighed. 'It's heavy stuff, Cam.'
'That's okay, I've handled heavy before.'
I sighed again. 'I…I…,' I started, then it all came out in a rush. 'I was kidnapped and imprisoned. Then I was raped…every day for a week.'
I started crying again. 'It was disgusting! I hate him, Cam! He wrecked my life! I just want my life back…' My words dissolved into sobs, and I couldn't say any more. I sat there, trying to calm down. Man, where did that come from? I thought I was over that stuff.
At first Cameron didn't say anything; he just kept holding me. After another period of silence, he gave me another squeeze. 'Keep going,' he whispered. 'There's more, isn't there?'
I nodded. 'I managed to escape, then I was in hospital for nearly two weeks. For the first few days I was sedated, and then they got worried because I wouldn't wake up. My sister, my brother and my two best friends stayed with me all that time. They took shifts so that there was always one of them there. They stayed with me and talked to me until I woke up. My parents were there a lot of the time, too, when they weren't at work.
'Everything seemed okay for months. I didn't have any permanent injuries, and I was fine physically. I had to see a psychologist for a few weeks, but he was satisfied that I was recovering. I was back at school, and doing all the usual things with my friends and family. I went on a school trip and ended up with a girlfriend.
'Then, a few months ago, everything fell to bits.
'During the last week of first term, I had to attend the trial of the guy who raped me. I was dreading it, but with everyone's help and support I got through that. It was pretty scary seeing him again, but when it was over I was relieved that it was finished and no longer something kind of hanging over me that I had to deal with in the future. Plus, it was a relief to know that the guy was in jail where he couldn't hurt any more kids.
'People told me that the trial would help, that seeing the bloke convicted and jailed would bring an end to the whole series of events, and that I'd feel better when it was over. It would give me "closure," everyone said. Man, I got sick of hearing that word! It did help, though.
'Over the Labour Day weekend, Zoë—that's my girlfriend—and I went with her parents to Buchan, to tour the caves. I didn't tell them I'm claustrophobic. I thought I'd be okay, but while we were waiting in the queue for our tickets, I started to get worried. It turned out all right, thanks to Zoë, but that night I had a nightmare about the kidnapping and the rapes. I woke up during the night, screaming. That was the first of many nightmares. The doctors said I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by the trial and the fear I felt at the caves.
'I got really depressed, and barely made it through each day. In the end I just wanted to curl up in a corner and die. I pushed everyone away—my family, Zoë, even my two best friends I've known since primary school.
'Eventually, on the Queen's Birthday holiday weekend, I tried to hang myself. I'd fallen into such a deep depression that I just didn't want to live. We'd just finished exams and I was sure I'd failed everything, because—as with everything else—I just wasn't very interested. Most people seemed to have given up on me by then, and I felt alone and lost. I thought no one cared; no one understood how the rapes had affected me. No one understood my depression, and no one knew how to help me. And, you know, somehow I didn't want help. I wanted to stay depressed. In some perverse way I actually enjoyed it. I shut myself away. I spent a lot of time sleeping. I felt so worthless and useless and hopeless, that I decided no one would miss me if I wasn't around; so I tried to hang myself.
'I ended up in hospital, still alive, and feeling very sore and sorry for myself. At first I was sorry that I hadn't succeeded—I was so useless I couldn't even kill myself properly—but the doctor got me to see that I hadn't chosen suicide, that it had been forced on me because I couldn't cope with the pain I was feeling. He helped me to see that my family and friends did care, and I found that they had all tried to help me. Hey, my best friend and his girlfriend saved me—how much more helpful can you get?
'I came to realise that I'd caused everyone a lot of pain, but they were all still there, and I resolved to never again bottle up my feelings.
'After that, things were pretty well back to normal, but I still had a niggling feeling that there was something wrong. It just wouldn't go away. It seemed to have something to do with the guy who raped me, but I couldn't work it out. I talked my parents and friends into letting me come up here for a week or two, hoping that being alone in the peace and quiet of the bush would help me to think things through.
'And then, the very day I arrive here, you turn up! So much for peace and quiet!'
Cameron started laughing—the first indication I'd had that he was still listening. All through my monologue he'd not said a word, but his arms around me and his chin on my shoulder had given me the confidence to keep going.
Cam's laughter shook his whole body, and that led to him complaining, "Ohhh, don't make me laugh. It hurts too much."
That made me laugh. When we were quiet again, I realised with a shock how low I'd felt that afternoon after Mum left. 'Whoa!' I muttered quietly.
I must have spoken louder than I thought, because Cam suddenly got serious. 'Hey, what happened?' he asked.
I sighed. 'I just got a bit of a shock when it hit me that I nearly fell back into depression this afternoon. Thanks, Cam. That laugh felt really good!'
'You're welcome,' he said, and gave me another quick squeeze.
'Thanks for listening.' I wanted to say more, to tell him how much I appreciated his willingness to put up with hearing about my problems. I wanted to tell him that I felt better since he'd turned up at the door. I didn't say any more, though; I figured he probably understood what I was trying to say.
'No problem! That's enough for tonight, though. We need to get some sleep.'
Cameron let me go and I stood up and stretched. I helped him up and into the bathroom. While he was in there, I stoked the fire and put the spark screen around it. By the time I'd done that, Cam was ready for bed.
With his arm across my shoulders, and my arm around his waist, I started to help him to the bedroom.
'Where are you going?'
'Into the bedroom.'
'But I can sleep on the couch,' he protested.
'No, you can't. You need rest, and you won't get it on that couch. Believe me, it's very uncomfortable to sleep on. You're sleeping in the bed.'
'And where will you sleep?'
'On the couch.'
'Oh no, you won't. You need rest, too, and if it's as bad as you say, you won't get it on the couch! You're sleeping in the bed.' He glanced into the room at the bed. 'It looks like there will be enough room for both of us.'
I laughed. 'Okay, if you're sure. I don't mind if you don't.'
I helped Cameron to the bed and pulled back the doona. His bruises were still painful, which meant he didn't have much movement in his arms, so I had to help him undress again.
I left him to settle into bed while I went to the bathroom.
When I returned, Cam's eyes were closed and I thought he'd gone to sleep, so I undressed quickly, slipped into bed, and switched off the bedside light. It had begun to rain, and I lay on my back listening to the sound of the raindrops on the tin roof. It was a soothing sound, one I'd always loved, and as I listened I contemplated again the changes I'd felt in the previous few hours.
What is it about Cameron? I've been struggling with all this stuff for months—not getting anywhere—then this stranger appears and suddenly things don't seem so bad. Why is he having this effect on me?
I was startled when Cameron spoke my name, tentatively, as if he wasn't sure I was there.
'Yeah?' I replied.
He breathed a sigh of relief. 'I thought you'd drifted off into another world. You got into bed, then never moved, and I couldn't even hear you breathing.'
'Sorry, Cam. I was enjoying the sound of the rain on the roof, and then I got thinking about how everything's changed today.'
'Hey, you've done enough thinking for one day.' He paused, then added, 'In fact, I reckon you think too much. Sometimes you need to relax and just let things happen. Go to sleep!'
'Yes, Dad. 'Night, Dad.'
That got my attention. I sat up and looked down at Cameron. Since the only light was the glow from the fire in the other room, I couldn't see much, but I was certain he was giving me an evil grin in the darkness. I knew he was stirring me, but I couldn't resist trying to go one better.
'Honey?' I said, incredulously. 'Honey? I'll give you "Honey".'
I started tickling him, mercilessly, up and down his sides and under his arms. It was mean, because I knew he was still sore, but I didn't feel inclined to let him get away with being such a tease.
He wriggled and squirmed, laughing his head off, but trying to tell me to stop. 'No. Hehe. Ahhh! It hurts! No! Stop! Hehe. Ohhh…'
'Take it back?' I asked, without letting up.
'Yes, all right…I surrender…'
I stopped the tickling, and flopped down on my back.
Cameron lay still, groaning about his bruises. 'Oh, man, that was evil,' he said, finally.
'You started it. I was simply responding to a threatening situation,' I said in my best holier-than-thou voice. Unfortunately, I can't do dignified and aloof well, so I ended up laughing my head off.
'If I wasn't so bruised and sore, you'd be on the floor begging for mercy right now!'
'Yeah, right,' I said, and started laughing again. Cameron was silent, but I could tell that he was trying hard to hold in his laughter. Eventually it escaped—and then all he could do was complain that his bruises were hurting.
'How am I supposed to sleep next to you when you're shaking like jelly in an earthquake?'
That only made him laugh more and I couldn't help joining in. After a while we settled down again, but Cameron was still chuckling quietly as I fell asleep.