You Are My Refuge: Chapter Thirteen

Apparently, according to Cameron's mom, they had to clean up his Dad's house before he got home from treatment at Santa Palma.

Rachel Bale seemed to operate under the belief that if they scrubbed the house hard enough, and eliminated every speck of dirt, they could erase everything that had happened inside of it in the past year.

She pulled into the driveway, where Kyle's car sat, unused. She put the car in park and cut the engine before turning to face Cameron. He wore a surly look on his face.

"Cam, don't be like that. I know this is your day off, but we have to get this done, okay?"

He gave a noncommittal grunt. It was eight in the morning, of course he didn't want to be here. He couldn't help but to resent the whole maid duty thing. After all, they weren't his empty liquor bottles...he wasn't the one who practically destroyed the house.

When Cameron had complained the night before during dinner, asking her why they had to spend time cleaning the house, his mom hadn't replied right away. She had just sat there, moving her spaghetti around with her fork thoughtfully. After a couple of moments, she finally answered.

"There is no need for Kyle to come home to the carnage of the past few months. A clean house, a clean slate, you know?" She seemed unsure of her reply, but Cameron knew her well enough to see past her carefully blank look to see her concern for Kyle and her hope for him.

He watched her face as she continued, "I still care about your father, Cameron."

She finally made eye contact with him, letting the myriad of emotions color her face. "Just because we divorced doesn't mean that I didn't care for him, or that I don't." she said softly, reaching out to pat his arm. "We were married for fifteen years and even though things were tough, we also had a lot of wonderful times." She looked so sincere, it almost made him want to cry.

"Do you still love him?" he found himself asking.

She gazed at him imploringly. "Of course I love him, Cam. How could I not? He's your father. He is still my partner in the most important endeavor of my life—being your parent."

He gulped back the aching feeling in his throat.

"I love him, I always will, because he gave me you." Her blue eyes, which were identical to his own, were so filled with emotion that again he felt the pressure of unshed tears behind his eyes. He didn't cry very much. And his lack of tears wasn't even some pseudo-macho bullshit, it was more like his only way of protecting himself.

He didn't want anyone to see him that way—helpless, vulnerable, scared. The only time he'd really let himself cry it out was that night at Nikki's. Showing up on her back doorstep—at the end of his rope—was rock bottom. But now, his mom's sincerity was causing him to hold back a different type of tears. He swallowed, blinking furiously.

He wanted to say something important, thank her, spill his guts, tell her how scared he was, anything to express what her honesty and support meant to him. Instead, he just swallowed hard before he nodded.

"Erm, thanks, Mom." He mumbled inarticulately.

And so they were here. At eight in the morning. His mother was still looking at him, expectant, before she pushed open her door and got out. She popped the trunk.

"Go unlock the house, please." Rachel requested, leaning down to speak to Cameron in the car. "And then come help me drag all of this inside." She shut the door.

He grudgingly got out of the car, letting out a huge yawn as he stretched. He trudged up the walkway and unlocked the screen door and the inside door. He pushed open the wooden door to the house, taking a fleeting look inside before returning to the trunk to help his mom.

He carried in two grocery bags filled with cleaning products, taking them inside to the kitchen. When he was last here, with Nikki and her aunt, Ava had attempted to clean up the downstairs some. While she had improved the situation a little, there was still a faint odor of stale alcohol in the living room and kitchen. In addition, the house showed visible signs of lacking a female caretaker. Needless to say, Cameron and Kyle were not homemakers.

As his mother entered the room, he braced himself for her reaction. She made a noise of disapproval in the back of her throat as she surveyed the kitchen and adjacent living room, but kept silent. Cameron emptied the bags and set the cleaning products on the kitchen table and then turned to face his mom.

She was glancing around the room,and he could tell she was mentally catellouging all that neeed to be done.

"I'm going to clean up down here, okay, hon?" She was distracted already, moving to grab a garbage bag. "It sure is musty, why don't you open some windows to let some fresh air in?"

Cameron obeyed, walking over to the window above the sink and forcing it open. His mom was already at work, clearing any visible trash—including empty bottles—into a fresh black garbage bag.

"After you do that, why don't you clean up in your bedroom?" she suggested, somewhat cheerfully. It wasn't the worst idea in the world. He hated being downstairs amidst the evidence of the past few months-blatantly on display for his mom to see. It was like a crime scene, each detail hinting ominously at the events that had occurred there.

Cameron left her in the kitchen and passed through the living room. He couldn't help but shudder internally at the sight of the couch. How many times had his dad passed out there? Or heaved himself up from the sinking cushions with a groan, then staggered towards him in a drunken stupor?

He realized he was standing still in the middle of the room, paralyzed. He snapped himself out of it and moved to open the windows in the room. He took a deep breath and continued to the staircase.

He ventured upstairs to his bedroom, and was relieved to be in his personal space, his only safe haven. The room had its drawbacks, of course. The lock on the door could easily be picked from the outside, so his locking the door was a symbolic gesture rather than an effective one. The walls were too thin to drown out any unpleasant noises. It was a lot smaller than his room at their old beach house. But, still- it was his.

And his living with his mom made him realize how messy it really was. Rachel made him keep his room at her house relatively neat, but Kyle was never much of a housekeeper.

He glanced around his room. It was weird. He hadn't been there for nearly the whole summer. But his stuff sat there, unused.

His gaze fell to a football poster that hung on his wall-USC. He stared at it for a long moment before approaching it. He remembered purchasing it a couple of years ago, right after his mother had left. Cameron and his dad were at a sporting goods store, his dad was purchasing some items for his new sailing hobby, or rather, his new distraction.

His dad stood at the counter, drumming his fingers as he waited for the salesman to come from the back with whatever sundry item he needed. Cameron wandered around, coming to a stop at the end of an aisle where shiny sports-related posters hung in a portfolio. He began to flip through them, the plastic frames clacking together noisily as he browsed.

The first few were devoted soley to basketball, the Lakers, Michael Jordan, other various teams. Next were swimming posters, surfing, rugby, soccer and hockey. He kept flipping until he came to the football posters. The professional teams gave way to the Big East, the SEC, and then to his neck of the woods-the West coast.

There were two UCLA posters, one the bright yellow and light blue of the logo, and one of the quarterback. He lingered on the logo, contemplating whether or not to buy it. He had an empty spot on his wall in his new room that would be perfect.

"Cameron?" His dad's voice interrupted his thoughts, and he quickly flipped past the poster. His Dad hated UCLA.

It was one of those stupid things that pissed him off lately-his mom was a UCLA fan, and therefore, the team was off-limits. Taboo.

"That's a good looking poster," Kyle commented, nodding at the poster he had arbitrarily flipped to. It was a USC poster, gold and maroon, an enlargement of the team logo.

"Why don't I get it for you, huh, buddy?" His dad offered.

"Nah, don't worry about it." Cameron said with a shrug. "You really don't have to."

Kyle clamped a firm hand on his shoulder, a little too firm. He gave it a squeeze. "I want you to have it, Cameron."

It was stupid shit like that. A freaking poster. His dad wanted him to have it, because he wanted to exercise influence over something as inconsequential as whether or not Cameron liked a sports team.

And truthfully? Cameron let him. He always had. Why? Because his dad...seemed to care. And Cameron wanted to please him. He always had and always would want to please him.

So all the casual jabs about him not playing sports like his cousin or preferring to draw, they hurt. They bothered him. They made him feel like shit.

And so he let his dad do it, again and again. Because he wanted approval. He wanted it so badly, he compromised everything about himself in order to gain it.

Even over a stupid fucking poster. A team he, in truth, couldn't stand.

Cameron reached up, grabbing a corner of the poster, and ripped it down.

He ripped it in half. Then in fourths. Then eighths. He balled it up and threw the remains into the trashcan.

And...he felt better. A little. He was going to reclaim himself, piece by piece.

He went over to his closet and dug out his old bulletin board. It was empty save some ancient magazine clippings from when he was a kid.

After finding a hammer and a couple of nails downstairs, he secured the board to the wall where the poster had been.

And then he set about putting what mattered to him on it: pictures of him and Nikki that he would've been reluctant to display before, ditto pictures with him mom. The final issue of the Literary Magazine he had helped put together last year. A ticket stub from a concert he'd attended. Some various sketches from his notebook. A large UCLA sticker he found in his desk.

His life. His choices.

And finally, in the center, Cameron added an old picture he'd come across while tidying. One of him, his mom, and his dad.

He stepped back and stared at his work. It was time he stood up for himself, and if the therapy worker (always if) his dad should be able to deal with it. Feeling satisfied with the improvement to his room, he began actually cleaning it. Changing out his sheets, throwing away garbage, sweeping the floor.

He came back downstairs, lugging his laundry basket, and his mother had completely transformed the house. He glanced around in awe as he passed through first the living room, then the kitchen, where his mom stood in the tiny laundry room off to the side, folding fresh sheets.

"Mom?" His voice was questioning. In the past two hours, he'd just cleaned his small room. Yet, his mother had completely scrubbed the downstairs to the point that it didn't even resemble the house they'd walked into earlier.

"Hey, Cam," she was grinning, "You done upstairs? And are those dirty?"

He nodded, holding out the basket of old sheets mixed in with a few stray towels and t-shirts. "The house looks..." he trailed off.

"Clean?" she prompted. He took the basket from him and set it down on the closed washer.

"Yeah, very clean." He stepped out of the small laundry room and into the kitchen. It was impressive how much work she'd done. The countertops practically sparkled, as did the sink.

"We should be ready to go in twenty or thirty minutes, after this load finished," his mom told him. "What are your plans for the rest of the day? You going to call up Nikki? Maybe spend some time with her?"

"Probably, not exactly sure what she's doing today though." He replied.

"I'll call you when I'm done, okay, Cam?"

"Okay, sure."

Cameron went back upstairs to his room and sprawled out on his neatly made bed. He pulled out his phone and called Nikki. It rang several times before she answered.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Nik." He could always hear the smile in his own voice. Was it as embarrassingly obvious to Nikki? He kind of hoped not. He also kind of hoped it was.

"Cam! Hi. What are you up to?" At least she, too, sounded happy.

"I'm actually at my house, my mom and I came over here earlier to clean up some for when my dad gets home."

"That doesn't sound fun," She said it lightly, but he could hear the ever-present Nikki concern. "You still over there?"

"Yeah," He answered. "We're leaving soon though. What are you doing?"

"I'm actually at AvaG again today. I'm being held to that little commitment we made to Aunt Ava and Susannah. They are cashing in the slave labor by recruiting me to paint."

"Oh, really? They aren't very good slave drivers, though..."

He heard Nikki snort. "Why do you say that?"

"They've forgotten about the other slave. Don't they want to cash in on me?"

"Nah, Cam. You aren't obligated to paint." She said.

"I want to." More accurately, he wanted to spend time with her. Especially before his dad came home. He felt like things were going to be a lot less light-hearted after he came home. And if spending time with her involved painting a couple of rooms, well, they'd done that before. And it had worked out rather nicely.

"Really?" She sounded surprised. "Even after cleaning all morning?"

"It wasn't that intense. I'll get my mom to drop me off when we leave. I'll be there pretty soon."

"Are you sure?" She asked again, uncertain.

"Of course. Be there soon."

"Well...okay. If you're sure. Susannah welcomes slaves."

Cameron laughed. "I bet, see you."


Cameron arrived at AvaG just after they had finished putting up the painting tape along the trim of the middle room. Nikki was there with her aunt and Susannah, as Colby had "something to do," which really meant he didn't want to participate in the painting.

"Slave number two is here," He joked as he walked into the room.

Nikki could feel her face light up-as always-at the sight of him. She hurried over and gave him an enthusiastic hug.

"Thanks so much for coming, Cam." She said sincerely, pulling away. "Now I have a witness. Susannah can't hold me hostage until all the painting is done."

Cameron grinned. "Glad to help."

"We really do appreciate it, Cameron." Ava said warmly. "You didn't have to."

He shrugged. "No problem, I like to paint, believe it or not."

Susannah was pouring a stark white paint, blindingly bright, into a painting tray. The new flooring was covered meticulously with drop cloths. She set the paint can down on the ground and straightened up, standing with her hands on her hips.

"Okay, Cameron, Nikki. Listen up. Remember how you went crazy upstairs at the house?" She raised an eyebrow at them.

Cameron and Nikki exchanged sheepish grins.

"Yeah, I see those looks. Anyway, you cannot, absolutely cannot, do that in here. Or I will have to kill you." Susannah was quite bossy when she wanted to be. "Capice?"

"Ay, ay captain." Nikki said with an army worthy salute.

With that, they got to painting. The bright white was just primer, to cover up the ugly yellow so that the new color-a crisp cream-would go on easily. Ava plugged in a radio and they listened to music as they painted. It was actually kind of fun, even though it was hard work, especially with Cameron there.

Ava and Susannah worked on putting primer on the walls in the front room, while they worked on the middle room. It was physically tiring. They worked for almost two hours straight before taking a break. Even though they hadn't had a paint fight like last time, they both found themselves with patches of white staining their clothes and skin. Nikki was covered in sweat, and practically starving. They'd managed to get the first coat of primer on the walls, the tacky yellow finally covered up. Ava and Susannah came into the room, both of them dotted with white and looking tired.

"The room looks great, guys. Thanks so much for helping us out." Ava said as she surveyed the job they'd done.

"Want me to order some pizzas, kids?" Susannah offered. "I know you're hungry."

Nikki looked over at Cameron. "I think we might actually go out, get away from all the paint fumes. They're starting to give me a headache, anyway."

"Me too." He agreed.

"You sure?" Ava asked, "It would be no problem to order in."

"Nah," Nikki declined. "We can just walk over to Luigi's."

Luigi's was a casual pizza place in the same shopping center as AvaG. As usual, it was packed, due to having the best pizza in all of Playa Linda. They had to wait a few minutes for a table, the aroma of the pizza making their stomachs grumble. People were giving them weird looks, as they were both disheveled and covered in paint. Once they were finally seated, Nikki spent the time at lunch relaying to Cameron all that had happened since 4th of July as they shared a pepperoni pizza.

"And so, they went to dinner. Like...dinner dinner. Not hanging out at the Sandbar after hours or Ava fixing them something to eat at midnight. They went out. Ava and Johnny. To dinner." She stressed the word again. "Isn't that amazing? And I didn't even have to set it up or convince her to go."

"Wow," Cameron said appreciatively. The great thing about him was that he understood. He understood what it meant to her to have her aunt and Johnny actually be together. Because she'd admitted to him her guilt over the demise of Simon and Ava. And her desire for her aunt to be happy. "That's great."

"I know." Nikki agreed, wiping her mouth with a napkin.

After lunch at Luigi's, they left and began walking around the shopping center. It being the middle of the day on a Saturday meant it was packed with tourists and locals alike.

"Let's go down to the beach," Cameron suggested. "Get out of the crowd. Maybe work off some of that pizza."

"Okay."

"So, did you get that letter in the mail about registration for school?" Cameron asked as they walked along the water's edge, shoving his hands into his pockets. "It's weird, thinking this summer is already half over."

"It seems like this summer has gone on for ages though. With everything that's been going on."

Cameron nodded. "But school is in just a few weeks. You picked out your classes yet?"

"I'm going to take French, and then for my elective I'm going to take Advanced Creative Writing." She looked over at him. "What about you?"

"Spanish and art."

"You think your dad will be okay with the art class instead of an extra period of gym?"

"Well..." Cameron paused. "If he isn't, then I guess we know the therapy didn't work, huh?"

Nikki nodded. "You're so good at drawing, he'd be crazy to not agree that's where you belong. You should show him the magazine we put together last year, and your sketches in it."

Cameron shrugged. "You think so?" He asked, unsure.

"Of course," she nodded vehemently. "I bet he'd love to see them."

"Maybe I will."

They were silent as they walked. Nikki looked out at the water, watching a surfer rise from his board and expertly glide into the curve of a crashing wave.

"Have you talked to Amber lately?" Cameron asked suddenly, changing the topic to lighter things. "She keeps texting me and asking me for advice about that guy from 4th of July..."

"Justin?" Nikki prompted.

"That's the one."

"I hung out with her yesterday before she went to work. It was fun until she started complaining about how she didn't think he wanted to commit to being her boyfriend."

"I thought she didn't want him to be her boyfriend?" Cameron asked, confused.

"She doesn't." Nikki clarified. "She wants him to want to be her boyfriend. So it bothers her that he is okay with just being how they are now-hanging out, no labels."

"But isn't that what she wants? That makes zero sense."

"It does to Amber."

Cameron shook his head. "Thanks for not being that complicated, Nik." He said it sincerely. "I mean, you confuse me a lot of the time, what with my having a Y chromosome and therefore a smaller brain and all, but...I couldn't handle it if you were Amber. No joke."

Nikki laughed heartily. She reached out and wrapped an arm around his waist as they walked. He, in turn, wrapped one around her. They fell into a comfortable silence as they strolled along the shore, the water lapping at their feet.

"I want to thank you, Nik, seriously." Cameron said all of a sudden.

"For what?" she asked, peering up at him.

"For, you know, this summer, for everything." He paused. "For treating me like I'm me and not feeling sorry for me like I'm some pathetic loser. And for putting up with me, even though I'm a jerk sometimes."

"Sometimes?" Nikki said playfully, "No need to be modest, really."

He grinned, slowing his stride and stepping away from her into the shallow surf. "This would be the part where I splash a ridiculous amount of water at you."

He looked up at her as he bent towards the water, getting ready to splash her.

"And then, following, the part where I dump you." Nikki stated cheerfully.

"I think it might actually be worth it, not gonna lie." His grin made his blue eyes sparkle but he stepped away from the water and slung his arm back over her shoulders and they continued to walk.

She laughed at his forfeit, "All joking aside, you don't have to thank me. You'd do the same for me. I'm not keeping a tab, you know."

"I know." It was proof of the strength of their relationship and a testament to its nature that there was no levity in his reply. It was an understanding dating back to when they first met-when Nikki was reluctant to divulge the reason behind her move to Playa Linda.

After two weeks of keeping it from him, she finally told Cameron the reason she'd left Kansas. As they had walked home early one evening from summer camp, she told him.

"My parents died, you know." She said softly, struggling to keep her tone strictly matter-of-fact. She was better at that tone now that she'd practiced it so much. "They were both killed in an accident. That's why I moved here."

She'd been looking down at her feet as she said this, concentrating on placing one foot, then the other, on the sand in front of her.

When she finally looked up at him, his face had not twisted into that involuntary but seemingly universal reaction to such a piece of information. The sickening sympathy face, the slackening of the jaw, the furrowing of the eyebrows, the widening of the eyes. Instead of murmuring a soft, obligatory, "I'm sorry for your loss," he met her gaze full-on and said, "I'm sorry for you, Nikki, really."

And ever since then, they'd had an understanding. There was no tab. There was just...being there for each other. As best as they were capable. It was something she'd needed more than anything when she'd left Hogarth.

"So, what happens now, Cam?" She asked him. "How does the whole coming home thing work?"

"Well, the day he leaves Santa Palma we are going to have one last family therapy session with Dr. Neilson as a part of the whole out-processing thing. I think he is going to kind of lay out a plan for getting back to regular life, so to speak."

Nikki nodded. "Are you going to be living with him?"

Cameron paused. "I think so. He still has full custody of me."

"Is that..." Nikki hesitated, "Is that the best idea, do you think? Shouldn't you spend some time at your mom's, give him a chance to adjust and whatnot?"

He shrugged. "That's what my mom was thinking. But Dr. Neilson said it would be better to jump into 'regular life' as soon as possible. Meaning it would be better for him to come home to how things usually are."

Nikki nodded. "I guess that makes sense..." she trailed off. "But it still makes me worried for you. Do you feel ready?"

He paused before speaking. "I'm ready for things to be different. I'm ready for him to be sober."

"Cam," Nikki's voice was soft. "Promise me something?"

"What?"

"You won't go through it again, alone. If it happens again...tell me. Please. I can't stand the thought of you going through that again."

He paused. "I will."

And it was a promise he really, really wanted to keep. He wanted to be able to be open with her, and with his mom, while also being close to his dad. When his dad was drunk all the time, it was impossible. He had to lie and avoid and try to hide what was happening at home. And that hurt his relationships with everyone else. He wanted so much for everything to be normal enough, peaceful enough, at home with his dad that there would be no need for secrets.

No need for lies. He looked down at Nikki, his arm wrapped around her, hers around him, her hair blowing in the wind. God, we wanted more than anything to have it all. Her, his mom, and his dad. He wanted it so much. The question was, though...

Could he have it?


Author's Note:

Hi! Please don't kill me. I know it's been an inexcusably long time for me to update! But, here it is. This chapter is meant to expand upon the inner turmoil Cameron is feeling about his father's upcoming return into his life. He is rightfully uneasy about what that will mean, and I hope you guys will stick around to see what is in store for him in the next few chapters.

As always, thank you for reading (if I have anyone left, it's been so long!) and I really appreciate hearing from you guys. I am going to finish this story, no worries! I've been writing this for so long, and my life has changed so much since I began it, but I love this story and it is something I think about all the time. I have pages and pages of material for the upcoming and final chapters that I cannot wait to share with you.

BIG THANKS TO:

Hkcjphillips, ICPinkFuzzyBunnies, xNanna, hales03, Luzith, LPHybrid28, and TakeMyHandHolfItTight!

I appreciate everyone's time and support more than you know.

Love,

Chris Grace