As the machine hissed, I watched his eyes, above the mask, as they played over the vista. A flock of snow geese loitered downriver; I could just make out their pale smear on a mud bar. In May, I had heard their palaver from where we were standing. Not now. Not with the hiss from the inhalator. Yet, I felt easier than I had expected I would. Tim's condition rarely freed him even for the mildest adventure. What if he found this one boring? Those eyes reassured me: He was gratified, maybe even excited.
I got to my feet, launching a small avalanche of acorns. With 10 minutes left in the treatment, I meant to go site the tent. But Tim tugged at my pant leg, and his eyes showed something new. Fear? Anger? Disillusionment? I sat back down until, at my signal, he clicked off the respirator and carelessly yanked off his mask. We could talk again. "What was the matter?" I started. "Were you worried?"
"I feel a lot better now," he said. And then, like every child on earth: "What's there to do?"
"You could get us a little wood." He grinned, scampering up a stone slab and over it. The Boston Bruin emblem on his jacket hovered momentarily behind him, an odd afterimage.
I located some flat ground and probed an anthill. Inactive. Brushing away the sticks and pinecones, I joined tent poles and hitched lines, all the while wondering, What sort of man would pack such an old-fashioned tent? But here it was, an heirloom from my father. Heavy canvas. Hemp guys. Steel pegs. Having driven in the last of these, I felt my brain crowd with sudden, grim fantasies, and I scooted off to find Tim. He was languidly tugging at a dead yellow birch that was fatter than he was. "No," I said, the admonishment more like a sigh. "Just bring me a bunch of these"—I cracked a low pine limb, punk puffing in the breeze. He stood confounded. "All we need is a cook fire," I added, "O.K.?"
"O.K.," he whispered, his look half embarrassed, half pouty.
"Still a couple of things to do," I said over my shoulder.
Working my pot's bail into its holes, I made for a nearby spring. Midges danced in the coolness there; I skimmed some spent ones from the surface of the pond with one hand, dipping the pot with the other. I drank a long swallow. Soot. Tin. Cold. Tastes to keep a fellow wakeful at night, memories bearing down on him. I refilled, went back to the fireplace, then went for another peek at Tim. Bent at the waist, he studied a small layer of sticks. Five, maybe six. Lord, had this little played him out? "You tired?" I asked. He didn't unbend but waved off the question. "Then get cracking," I said, forcing a grin. "Your uncle cooks bad after dark."
I knew what I knew: Tim's drugs let him breathe, but they turn his bones to powder and play hell with his immune system. The drugs may also produce emotional damage in time, or perhaps they already have, according to the doctors, who find his illness so complicated that they coined a new name for it. Yet he seemed like just another 10-year-old, hot for fun, not work, and his idleness irked me. Watching him blunder like a sleepwalker, I finally shouted, "Get moving!" Sure, it was heartless, but would it be worse to hide my feeling? Wasn't it better to treat him like any kid? Oh, sure.
Tim slouched after me with his nosegay of sticks. I had scraped up my own tinder by now—time for the inhalator, in any case. His mother had urged me to shorten the intervals between treatments, but to reduce the doses as well, caution as usual begetting complementary risk. I got the system running and sneaked off to unpack my portable radio. Tim didn't stop me. I felt guilty for having a radio out here to begin with. Some worlds shouldn't mix. Yet earlier, while packing the inhalator, I figured that since we would have electronics on the Lookout anyhow, why not listen to the Red Sox game? The Sox were in Milwaukee, an 8:30 p.m. start. Late enough even for a healthy kid's bedtime.