Ben’s fucking around with the cords in his office, trying to at least get enough of a connection on his laptop to splice together a couple commercials – he knows it’s a lost cause, knows that his laptop is still dead as can be and will stay that way no matter how many random cords he tries to shove into various outlets – when Sammy comes in the door to their office looking highly disturbed, eyebrows folded in and mouth in a tight line.
“Everything alright?” Ben asks from where he’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged, laptop in his lap. He flushes slightly in embarrassment, because Sammy’s a professional and Ben’s not, but Sammy doesn’t really seem to notice that Ben resembles more of a twelve year old right now than a grown man. “What’s the matter?”
He and Sammy have gotten into a steady habit of getting breakfast together at Rose’s after the show, but Sammy had said he had something to get done today, so it was super weird that he was already back when the show had ended twenty minutes ago.
Actually, he and Sammy have been hanging out a lot lately. Not that they didn’t ever do anything together before now – the breakfasts have been around for a couple months now – but with no computers or phones, Ben finds himself more and more often hanging with Sammy outside of work, whether they’re going to Mary Jensen’s to babysit the kids or laying in the summer heat at the King Falls community pool while Ben tries to get a tan and Sammy still wears overlarge hoodies despite the August sun.
It’s nice. Ben hopes that they’re gonna be real friends someday and not just work friends, but he doesn’t exactly have a great track record of real friend-making.
He kind of hopes that Sammy came back because he changed his mind and wants to hang out, but there’s a look in Sammy’s eye like he just saw something he wished he didn’t.
“General Abaline get you turned around?” Ben asks when Sammy doesn’t answer right away but Sammy shakes his head jerkily.
“Ben,” Sammy says slowly, his voice very measured, too measured, like he’s trying to keep himself calm. “There’s a buffalo blocking the way out of the parking lot.”
“Oh,” Ben says, and then laughs when Sammy’s eye twitches. “Are you scared of the buffalo, Big City?”
“I’m not scared,” Sammy says, his usual amount of defensiveness creeping into his voice. “I just. How do you – how do you get around it without startling it?”
“You could just drive in the ditch for a couple hundred yards,” Ben suggests and Sammy’s eyebrows shoot up, vaguely scandalized. Ben laughs again.
“Do you want me to drive you down the mountain?” Ben suggests, getting to his feet and putting his computer back on his desk. It’s a lost cause and he knows it. “I can take you to – whatever you had to do, and I can drop you off at your apartment and pick you up for tomorrow’s show. Or we can like, hang out today.”
Ben tries his best to sound casual and not like he desperately wants to hang out with Sammy. Which he does, but he doesn’t need Sammy to know that. Ben’s already aware he starts melting whenever Sammy compliments him on air, Ben doesn’t need to give him any more ammunition.
“Yeah,” Sammy says almost immediately, which makes Ben beam. “I mean, I can put my shit off until tomorrow, we can just hang out.”
“Cool,” Ben scrambles to grab his bag. “Guess I’ll save you from the big, scary buffalo. Are you prejudiced against all wildlife or just the kinds that can kill you if they want to?”
“Shut up,” Sammy shoves at Ben when Ben gets to the door, but he’s smiling. “And of course it’s just the animals that can kill me. I’ve almost hit like forty deer coming to and from the station and I’ve only been in town for the summer.”
“They’re playing Suicide,” Ben says and Sammy gives him a scandalized look. “You’ve never heard that joke before? God, you really are just way too big city, Big City.”
“Don’t call me that,” Sammy says, but it’s affectionate and with an eye roll. Sammy had very seriously told Ben not to call him Shotgun with a tight look on his face a couple weeks into their working together, and Ben is definitely avoiding that one, even though he has a billion questions about it.
“Aww, is that the buffalo?” Ben asks on their way out the door. He can see a bulky brown shape down the road, just outside the parking lot, sitting in the smack dab middle of Route 72. “He’s not that big, he’s cute! I bet he’s more scared of you than you are of him.”
“Don’t go say hi to it,” Sammy says sharply, and suddenly his hand is on Ben’s shoulder. “I don’t wanna be responsible for your death.”
“Well, I bet I know more about bison than you do,” Ben says, but goes to his car and not in the direction of the beast. Big or small, Ben’s not an idiot. Sammy follows Ben to his car and gets in the passenger’s seat, giving the buffalo a distrustful look through the window. “Have you ever even seen one before today?”
“I have not,” Sammy says, his knuckles white as he clenches his fists together as Ben pulls out of the parking lot. Ben, true to his word for Sammy, starts driving slowly through the ditch, the early morning sun making it much less dangerous than it would’ve been even an hour ago. The buffalo barely recognized their existence. “I didn’t even know there were buffalo in King Falls.”
“They usually don’t get this far up north,” Ben says, giving the buffalo an exaggerated wave as they pass him in the ditch. Sammy just rolls his eyes in Ben’s direction, but his shoulders relax when the buffalo is safely in Ben’s rearview mirror. “There’s this awesome herd down at Custer State Park though, they’re so cool. When I was a kid, our yearly vacation was camping in the park. We’d do the wildlife loop during the day, go hiking, climb the Needles, and then roast marshmallows at night.”
“Sounds nice,” Sammy says, and there’s that affectionate quality to his voice that Ben really likes and always wants directed at him. God, he wants to be Sammy’s friend so badly. “Where’s Custer State Park from here?”
“Like an hour south,” Ben says. “You might’ve driven through the area on your way when you moved here depending on which way you came.”
Ben knows his voice is a little too prodding, but he does genuinely want to know which direction Sammy came from at the very least. Surely that can’t be too much information for his mysterious cohost to give him.
Sammy hesitates, half a second, then says “I came in on I-90, so I didn’t really see much of the sights or anything. Sounds like a cool place, though.”
“It’s awesome,” Ben says, enthusiasm seeping into his voice both at getting Sammy to share a detail about himself no matter how minute and also because he loves where he’s from. “If you think King Falls is touristy, we’ve got nothing on them. With Mount Rushmore right there, too? Summers are jam-packed. Once the tourist season dies down, you should definitely go check it out, though.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” Sammy says, sounding non-committal, and oh no, Ben’s about to do something stupid.
“We should go together,” Ben says, hating how quickly he gloms onto people, and he can’t even make eye contact with Sammy, keeping his eyes steadfastly on the road. “You know, so I can show you the best places. We could do a weekend trip, or. Or something. When the weather’s cooler. And we’re not doing the show. You know?”
Ben can’t look at Sammy, but that affectionate tone in Sammy’s voice gets him to relax. “That’d be really fun, Ben. I probably need a tour guide or I’ll get lost in the hills.”
“Okay, cool,” Ben says, trying not to grin too wide. “Let’s – let’s plan on it, then. Sometime in September or something. Whatever works best for – for you.”
“We have literally the same schedule, so I think we’ll figure something out,” Sammy laughs, and Ben looks over at him, and Sammy’s grinning at him, and Ben finally relaxes.
“It’ll be fun, I promise,” Ben says, mainly to himself, but he feels warm and happy. Ben likes Sammy so much – so much – but he can’t always tell how Sammy feels about him. He wants to impress Sammy, sure, but it’s more than that, he wants to be Sammy’s friend, his best friend.
Ben loves King Falls, but he’s never fit in very well, and he feels like maybe with Sammy Stevens is a place he could fit much better if Sammy let him.
Sammy gets to Ben’s bright and early the second weekend in September, having run home after the show to pack a bag for the weekend that he’d meant to do beforehand but had been running late as always so didn’t have time for.
By the time he gets to Ben’s, he sees the ten poles filling up the backseat of Ben’s car and winces exaggeratedly through the window, where Ben beams at him from the driver’s seat.
“Camping?” Sammy groans, getting in Ben’s passenger seat, falling dramatically into it so Ben knows exactly how Sammy feels about the idea of sleeping outdoors. “Really?”
“You’ve gotta have the full experience,” Ben says, sounding too delighted, chugging coffee from his thermos. He’s practically vibrating he looks so excited.
Oddly, Sammy’s kind of excited, too. Not about camping – fuck camping – but about spending a full weekend with Ben outside of work. He can’t really tell if he and Ben are work friends or real friends and he thinks that if this trip goes well, they’ll surpass real friends territory into best friends territory very quickly.
Sammy hadn’t realized how badly he wanted to be Ben’s best friend until very recently, but now that he’s thinking about it, he can’t get the idea out of his head. Ben makes Sammy feel happy, an emotion he never thought he’d come anywhere close to ever again, even if it’s just for a couple minutes every night. He’s just so young and exuberant and enthusiastic and he can always drag Sammy into his world.
Sammy likes getting to leave his world and enter Ben’s. Ben’s world is a much better place to live in.
“Are we sharing a tent?” Sammy regards the messy backseat skeptically, seeing not very many poles. “And more importantly, do you snore?”
“I only have the one tent, but I have two sleeping bags,” Ben says by way of explanation. “And you can tell me tomorrow, dude.”
Sammy searches for his old fear that stems from an entire lifetime of not being around other guys in any sort of compromising position, and it’s definitely still there, but it’s not nearly as strong as Sammy remembers it being.
“This won’t shock you,” Sammy says, trying to shove any remnants of shame down, “but I’ve never been camping before.”
“You’re right, I’m distinctly unsurprised,” Ben says as he pulls out of his apartment complex and onto the main road running through the heart of King Falls. “You are the most urban person in the world. How the hell’d you end up here?”
Sammy doesn’t answer, taking a swig of Ben’s coffee instead so Ben can cajole him about stealing his caffeine. He wants to have fun this weekend. He doesn’t want to think about – everything else in his life outside of Ben.
“Can you seriously not parallel park?”
“I didn’t think it would be this busy!” Ben tries to justify himself as he makes a loop of the main street once more, seeking out any kind of space that looks habitable for his car that wouldn’t require some truly acrobatic parking skills. “Hill City’s tiny! And yeah, it’s a zoo on the Fourth of July, but this is September! It shouldn’t be this packed.”
“There’s a quilting showcase,” Sammy says, pointing at a sign on one of the storefronts with an insufferably smug expression on his face. “You can’t park because of all of the quilting ladies. This is too good.”
“Shut up!” Ben would shove Sammy’s shoulder, but he’s kind of white-knuckling it right now because of the fucking quilting show traffic. He can’t believe he’s being this embarrassed within the first two hours of the trip. “Look, the school has a parking lot, I’ll just park there.”
Sammy lets Ben make his way around the street again so he can pull into the school’s parking lot, but the second he pulls into the lot, Sammy says “Alright, out of the car. I’m showing you how to parallel park since you’re apparently fourteen years old.”
“I just have the driving skills of a fourteen year old,” Ben corrects, then realizes that’s not much better, but he unbuckles himself from the driver’s seat and pointedly slams the door, half-glaring up at Sammy as they pass each other at the car’s bumper, Sammy taking a second to push Ben against the car, but Ben just shoves him right back.
Sammy’s laughing as he gets into the driver’s seat, and makes a big show of moving the seat backward. Whatever.
“You’re tall, I get it,” Ben snipes at him and Sammy grins, wide and carefree. It’s different from at the station, though Ben can’t really say why. Maybe because they’re not being performative and entertaining in a radio station; they’re here just to have fun and hang out together. Like friends. Real friends. Best friends. God, Ben wants Sammy to be his best friend.
Sammy pulls around the school parking lot and heads back down the main street for the fourth time that day. Ben hopes Sammy fails at parking on the first time too – he’s blaming the shoddy parking jobs of old quilting ladies for this, that’s for sure.
“What’s the restaurant you want again?” Sammy asks, and Ben points to the large wooden building that takes up the first street corner.
“Alpine Inn,” Ben says, and Sammy hums in assent. He drives for another half a block before finding a parking space, and slowly pulls the car into it. Ben glares at him as he backs the car into the position and pulls forward once more.
Sammy gives Ben a shining grin as he pulls the key out of the ignition.
“It’s slightly crooked,” Ben tells him with some faux-snobbery and Sammy rolls his eyes. “But hey, if you wanna keep driving, you can do the Wildlife Loop after this. Lots of buffalo on the road.”
Sammy’s grin becomes a glare, but there’s no malice behind it. “Screw you, Ben.”
“Backatcha, Big City,” Ben says, stopping his own glare to laugh, and Sammy joins in. He gets out of the front seat, taking his keys from Sammy as he gets onto the sidewalk and heads in the direction of the restaurant.
“If anyone asks, I’ll just say I was teaching my kid brother how to parallel park before he goes in to get his learner’s permit,” Sammy, apparently, is still on this train and Ben wishes he could be snarky back, but the idea of being Sammy’s kid brother kind of has him melting a bit. He’d never had an older brother who taught him how to parallel park.
“I don’t look that young,” Ben says with pink cheeks. “Like, I at least look like I’m in college, right?”
Sammy gives him a long, smug look that Ben hates. “Eighteen at the very most.”
“Yeah, well, you only look old because of that beard,” Ben says, and makes a grab for Sammy’s face that Sammy ducks away from. “Two weeks ago when you were clean-shaved, you could’ve passed for a recent college grad. Now you look like an old man.”
“I make an attempt to grow it out every fall,” Sammy says, “that I always give up on within the month because it’s too itchy. I’ll return to slight stubble soon, if only to make you feel better about your perpetual teenage-hood.”
“Whatever,” Ben mumbles under his breath, trying not to smile as they head into the restaurant. It’s busy inside, but it’s literally always busy here regardless of if its tourist season or not. He heads up to the hostess and says “Reservation for two under Arnold?”
“Ooh, a reservation,” Sammy says from behind him with a mocking tone, but Ben can hear the smile. “I didn’t think reservations were even a thing in small town South Dakota.”
“They barely are,” Ben says without turning around. “But this place is worth it.”
“Glad you think so,” the hostess says to him cheerily. “We’ve got your table right this way.”
Ben falls into step behind her, bypassing a busy room of old church biddies who were probably gossiping about quilting squares before getting to their table and handing them menus.
“The locals say it’s haunted here,” Ben says to Sammy. “But they don’t know what a haunting is. The supernatural of King Falls doesn’t come this far south, it’s just a tourist trap. But people who can afford it will stay in the inn overnight and wait for creepiness to happen.”
“Well, it’s definitely an old place,” Sammy says, eyes on the glass chandiliers above them and the curling wallpaper that looks as if it’s a century old. “And very fancy, too.”
“I never, ever got to go out to eat as a kid, unless it was to like, Jack in the Box,” Ben explains, slightly uncomfortable divulging this information but it’s only Sammy. “But once a year, my mom would let me order whatever I wanted here, no matter how extravagant.”
“It seems nice,” Sammy says, reaching to flip through the menu. “Very German. I’m half-German, so I guess I fit right in.”
“Well, I’m Jewish, so we make quite a pair,” Ben jokes and Sammy goes red. “Did I not tell you that before?”
“I should’ve assumed, I saw the Star of David at your apartment,” Sammy says with an embarrassed shake of his head. “Sorry.”
“Literally nothing to apologize for, I was in the one who took it there,” Ben says with a wave of his hand, enjoying the fact that he’s not the one embarrassed for a change. “You didn’t even ask what else I was, which is nearly everyone’s immediate response, especially if my mom is around since we don’t exactly….look alike.”
“Well, that’s rude as hell,” Sammy says, his mouth becoming a hard line.
“You get used to it,” Ben says with a shrug. “I don’t look like my mom, I didn’t look like the other kids in my class…”
“What about your dad?” Sammy asks, his voice a little tentative probably because though Ben can’t shut up about most things, Ben knows perfectly well he’s never mentioned his dad around Sammy.
“I’ve only met him a few times,” Ben decides to be as vague as possible. “I don’t really look like him either. But I look more like him than I do anyone else.”
Things are awkward and quiet and Ben hates himself for bringing the mood down but then Sammy clears his throat and says “Obviously, I can’t relate too much, because – well, I’m very white. Obviously. But…if you ever wanna….talk…I’m here.”
“Thanks,” Ben says, and Sammy’s smiling at him, a little nervous but with a kind of affection, and it makes Ben much less embarrassed. “Sorry for the TMI, dude.”
“Its fine,” Sammy says, very genuine, and he’s interrupted from whatever he’s about to say next when the waitress comes for their drink orders.
“Okay, get whatever you want, I’m paying,” Ben says and Sammy immediately lets out a slew of protests. “Shut up! I’m making you sleep in the wilderness, I can pay for your lunch. Be sure to save room for dessert, because we’re getting Chocolate Towers.”
“If anyone’s paying for lunch, it’s me,” Sammy tries, a determined look on his face.
“You pay for my breakfast at Rose’s all the time,” Ben argues. “I’ll go to the bathroom and come back and suddenly the check will be taken care of. C’mon, let me get you a nice lunch.”
“We’ll split the check,” Sammy says, his voice not leaving room for argument, but one of Ben’s many talents is convincing people to do as he wants.
“You can pay for admission when we go to the state park,” Ben says, not bothering to tell Sammy that he has a state parks pass on his car and therefore won’t need to pay anything for admission.
“Fine,” Sammy sighs, giving Ben a look that’s torn between annoyed and fond. “Are you practicing for when you take Emily here on a romantic getaway? Am I your Guinea pig?”
“No! Shut up! We’re just friends!” Ben says. “Why, do you think she’d like it here?”
Ben gets teased all the way up until when they order.
“I can’t believe you lied about the admission fee,” Sammy grouches in Ben’s direction as Ben drives them through the winding roads of Needles Highway. Sammy’s glad as hell he’s not driving now. “I’m paying for our stupid fucking campsite tonight even though paying money to pitch a tent in the ground is against my religion.”
“You have a religion?” Ben snickers under his breath as Sammy glares at him.
“Yeah, it’s called Sleeping In Beds, we believe in the sanctity of mattresses and that everyone who sleeps on the ground for fun is going to hell,” Sammy says and Ben flips him off.
“Dare you to say that to Reverend Hawthorne next time he calls in,” Ben says. Sammy snorts in response.
“I’ve been told I’m going to hell enough times without adding blasphemy to the list of reasons why,” Sammy says, not really realizing what he’s saying until Ben shoots him a look.
“Dude, why are people telling you you’re going to hell?” Ben says, and though his voice is mostly joking, Sammy can sense that he’s also asking. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
“I’ve had a long radio career,” Sammy says by way of explanation. “I’ve pissed a few people off in my day.”
“In my day,” Ben rolls his eyes. “Alright, whatever you say, old man.”
“Older than you,” Sammy shoots back.
“Wiser is up for grabs,” Ben grins as Sammy shakes his head exasperatedly. “I’m definitely the better driver.”
“Don’t even,” Sammy warns but Ben starts cracking up. Sammy cuts him off by pointing out the window. “What kind of animal is that?”
“That is an elk,” Ben tells him, smiling proudly at having the knowledge. “Did you think it was just a deer?”
“A weird-looking deer, but yeah,” Sammy says as his eyes follow the antelope across the road ahead of them. “I haven’t exactly spent a lot of time out communing with nature recently so I can’t tell the difference.”
“You think I commune with nature?” Ben says, snorting. “Once when I was thirteen, Ron took me out hunting with him and I shot in the direction of a rabbit. It escaped, and I cried for four days anyway. Imagine what I would have done if I’d actually shot the thing. No, when you’re from the Midwest, you just know these things.”
Sammy shifts in his seat and doesn’t say that he was born in the Midwest even if it had been an urban upbringing, that he could drive for about twelve hours and wind up at his parents’ house – it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s not like he’s lived anywhere nearby or even visited for over ten years, approaching fifteen now, but he can let Ben think he’s a big city coastal type born and raised, because too many questions would come up that Sammy’s just not ready to answer.
If he keeps it all quiet, if it’s all one gigantic hole, Ben will never notice the missing pieces that Jack fits perfectly within.
“Rural Midwest,” Sammy says instead. “I don’t think Chicago natives are going to be able to pick out an elk from a deer or antelope or whatever the fuck else is out here in nature.”
“Speaking of nature, I think your new favorite animal is coming up,” Ben says in a sing-song voice, pointing to where the cars ahead of them have stopped in the road.
“Oh no,” Sammy groans. “Not more buffalo. I can’t take it.”
Ben cranes his neck out the window. “Oh, no! They’re not buffalo – they’re the burros! Dude, get the bread out of the backseat.”
“What?” Sammy asks, but reaches into the backseat to grab the loaf of bread that Ben had grabbed at the grocery store in town before they headed out to the park that he had pointedly not answered questions about.
“Feeding the burros!” Ben says with a bright grin. “It’s a tradition.”
“What are they, donkeys?” Sammy asks as one trots toward the car. They look like they could be at a petting zoo or something and not out in nature like this.
“Burros, man,” Ben says with characteristic exuberance. “You can feed them out the window!”
“What?” Sammy asks, a little scandalized as Ben puts the car in park and grabs the bread bag from Sammy’s hands.
“Feed them,” Ben says as if this is an ordinary thing to say, ripping off a piece of bread and putting it in Sammy’s hands.
Sammy looks from Ben to the creature outside his window nosing at the glass and slowly rolls his window down, which seems to be the right move from the way Ben’s grinning at him.
Carefully, he reaches out his hand that has the bread in it, and the burro hungrily licks it right out of his hands and into its mouth.
“Aww,” Sammy hears Ben say form next to him, and turns in time to see Ben’s phone’s camera flashing in his direction. “I’m putting that on the King Falls AM twitter.”
“What does this have to do with the show?” Sammy asks, making his voice sound exasperated as he tears off another chunk of bread to give to the waiting burro, who gulps it right down.
“Our new pal Sammy getting to know his new home state a little better in Custer State Park,” Ben narrates as he types out the caption on his phone. “Has he ever seen an animal in person before? We’ll never know. Hashtag big city, hashtag king falls am.”
Sammy doesn’t even have the heart to bicker with Ben the picture as he lets Ben reach past him to feed the burro for himself, even though he knows he probably looks ridiculous in the photo.
They make it through the park with only seeing buffalo from a far distance, which Ben is disappointed and Sammy is delighted about, before driving to their campsite for the night.
“We’ll unpack, pitch a tent, and then head out to the lake,” Ben says enthusiastically as they pull into the tiny, dilapidated parking lot of Horse Thief Campground. “There’s a really nice hiking trail – have you been hiking before?”
“Guess,” Sammy says flatly but not without affection. Ben rolls his eyes.
“Well, it’s the easiest trail in the world, it’s literally a loop around the lake, even you can do it,” Ben says. “And then we’ll make a fire and roast marshmallows.”
“Are you sure?” Sammy says, peering out the car and up at the sky. “It’s gotten pretty grey all of a sudden.”
“It’s supposed to rain a little in the morning, I didn’t think it was gonna rain tonight,” Ben frowns as he parks the car. “D’you think –”
There’s a crack of lightning overhead and the rumbling thunder follows. Ben’s face falls, and Sammy hates that.
“C’mon, let’s get in the building,” Sammy jerks his head in the direction of the campsite, and heads in the front doors.
“Hey there, how you two doin’ tonight?” A woman greets them from the front desk of a little camp store. There are a couple aisles of food and camping supplies, and coolers in the back – it’s more well-supplied than Sammy would’ve guessed.
“Reservation under Arnold,” Sammy says as Ben comes in the screen door, droplets of water on his shoulders. “Did it really just start raining that hard that fast?”
Ben shuddered. “Yes indeed. Ugh, and I really wanted to have a fire, too. That’s out the window now.”
“So is sleeping on the ground,” Sammy informs him before turning back to the front desk lady. “We had a tent site booked for tonight, but now that I’m here, I see you have cabins. Do you have any available?”
“Just for tonight?” The lady hums, clicking on her computer. “We have cabins B and E available – they’re our smaller units. We also have our cottage, though that’s less of a camping experience, it’s just a little house of the road – though it’s the only unit with a bathroom inside of it.”
“We’ll take that one,” Sammy smiles brightly and Ben yanks on Sammy’s sleeve.
“It’s a hundred dollars a night!” Ben says, pointing to the board that lists the prices. “Dude, if you’re insisting on a cabin, at least get one of the cheaper ones, there’s only two of us.”
“This is payback for lunch,” Sammy tells him. “Quite literally, too, as I’m paying you back and making this trip more even. Don’t listen to Ben, we’ll take the cottage for tonight. Put it on my card.”
“You sound like such a pretentious fuckhead when you say put it on my card,” Ben informs him, then notices that there’s a teenage girl sitting next the woman who’s been helping them behind the desk and he flushes. “Whoops. Sorry.”
The girl just grins at him, though the lady who’s been helping them raises a judgmental eyebrow in Ben’s direction, and Sammy decides he can pay Ben back in other ways, too.
“Sorry about my brother,” Sammy tells her and he sees Ben gaping from the corner of his eye. “He’s sixteen and wants to pretend he’s more adult, so the f word is all that comes out of his mouth these days.”
“Oh, my son’s sixteen, he’s just the same way,” the woman says, and Sammy can practically feel Ben fuming from next to him. “Where are you two visiting from?”
“King Falls,” Sammy says because Ben’s too busy glaring at Sammy to answer.
“Oh, I love King Falls, I want to get my son’s senior pictures taken up there next summer, such a pretty area,” the woman says as she clicks away on her computer. She turns to Ben and says “Are you at King Falls High? My son is on the football team, maybe you’ve played each other in the past.”
Sammy can barely keep a straight face as Ben struggles to keep his voice even, half-glaring at Sammy the whole time.
“I don’t play football,” Ben says with a tight grimace. Sammy’s delighted that he’s playing along.
“Do you do one act plays?” The teenage girl asks from behind her boss. “I do regional one acts and you look kinda familiar.”
Ben practically turns purple. “I – no. No, I don’t.”
“Alright, so I transferred the payment from the tent campsite to the cottage, so your total comes to $76.82 for the night,” the woman says from her computer and Sammy turns to glare at Ben again.
“I can’t believe you already paid for the tent site,” Sammy says with a shake of his head in Ben’s direction before turning back to the woman. “Like I said, just put the rest on my card.”
The second they get back on the porch of the camp store, Ben starts hitting Sammy. “Fuck you, man, fuck you.”
“I proved my point!” Sammy giggles, pushing Ben away with ease. “You literally look like a teenager! Also, what was with that girl recognizing you from one act plays? Don’t tell me you are secretly still in high school.”
Ben groans. “Mr. Sheffield asked me to help judge Regional One Acts last year. Most of the kids from other schools thought I was a student. Don’t laugh at me!”
“I’m not laughing,” Sammy says, as he laughs. “I’m chortling. You’re hilarious.”
“Also, if we were really gonna keep up that charade, why did we keep arguing about who’s paying?” Ben asks, rolling his eyes. “Why would your sixteen year old brother have to pay for anything?”
“That’s the point!” Sammy says. “Why shouldn’t I pay for everything?”
He and Ben bicker as they duck out of the rain and into Ben’s car and drive the short distance to get to the cottage for the evening. It’s much nicer than anyplace else they’d seen at the campsite, not only with a bathroom but also blessed air conditioning and a television.
“This is barely a camping trip, we’re basically in a basically a hotel,” Ben informs him as he dumps his backpack on one of the two twin beds. “I’m taking you on a real camping trip someday.”
“Sounds great,” Sammy yawns, flopping onto the couch that’s in the corner of the cottage. It’s small and feels worn, but it’s furniture. There’s a bunk bed next to the wall, a single mattress on top and a double beneath it, and Sammy already knows he’s not crawling up to the rafters. “The bottom bunk is mine, by the way.”
Ben shoots a dubious look at the bunk bed and sighs. “Fine. I hate the top bunk, but fine. If I fall on you during then night and break my neck, it’s your fault.”
Sammy laughs, hand searching absentmindedly for the remote to the television set. “Do you wanna watch –”
“No,” Ben snatches the remote out of his hands. “We’re not watching TV. We’re – I don’t know, playing cards. Or we’re driving to do an Escape Room or play mini golf or something else that you do on vacation when it’s raining. Got it?”
“Got it,” Sammy agrees easily, laughing at the look on Ben’s face. Ben takes these things very seriously, Sammy already knows, but seeing Ben get unnecessarily angry about tiny things always brings a lot of joy to Sammy’s day.
Ben in general always brings a lot of joy to Sammy’s day, not that Sammy’s gonna tell him that out loud or anything. Instead, he just follows Ben’s lead and heads out of the campsite.
Thankfully, the rain clears up and Ben’s able to go on his hike, even if he bitches the whole time about how they didn’t have to be in the cottage and could’ve been tent camping tonight. Sammy, however, is thrilled, and wastes no time telling Ben so.
Ben tries to get Sammy in a headlock, which fails spectacularly, and is maybe the funniest thing Sammy’s ever seen.
By the time they head back to the campground, dusk is falling around them and the sky no longer is threatening rain, so Ben still wants to have his fire.
“Go into the camp store, they have marshmallows and sticks to roast them on,” Ben says as he pulls into the parking lot. “Oh, and get a six pack too, we’re on vacation, we can have three beers apiece.”
“Maybe you can, Mr. Metabolism,” Sammy shoots Ben a look but Ben just snorts. “And you go in and get it, my legs still hurt from that hike.”
“It’s like you’ve never exercised in your life,” Ben rolls his eyes. “And you call me Mr. Metabolism. But fuck you, dude, I’m sixteen, remember? So unless you want a bunch of awkward questions from the nice manager lady, you get the fucking beer, big bro.”
Sammy groans as Ben grins vindictively. “It’s just as well. You have awful taste in beer anyway and I’d be stuck drinking Miller Lite.”
“Miller Lite’s not that bad –” Ben tries and obviously fails to defend himself, because there’s no defense against liking Miller Lite, and Sammy gets out of the car before he can hear the blasphemous attempt.
Sammy gets Shock Top beer, which is decidedly less despicable than Miller Lite, and only one bag of marshmallows where Ben surely would’ve bought at least two.
Ben, of course, has to instruct Sammy on how to properly roast marshmallows – Sammy’s sure he’s done it before, at least at camp as a kid or something, but definitely not anytime recently, and he has no specific memories of it. That’s kind of nice, that this is him and Ben’s thing now, just something he’s done with Ben.
Ben’s tiny and ridiculous and is therefore well past tipsy after his three beers, though he did drink them rather quickly. Sammy’s just barely buzzed, and has to pull Ben back into the cottage after he puts the fire out for the night after a couple of fruitless attempts.
Sammy stumbles around in the bathroom after depositing Ben on the couch, and by the time he comes back out into the main room Ben’s coordination has improved the point that he’s lying fully clothed in the lower bunk that’s meant to be Sammy’s.
“You better plan on moving,” Sammy tells him, but Ben’s eyes are closed. “The top bunk or the couch, I don’t care which.”
“I think I’d die if I tried to climb that ladder,” Ben mumbles, not opening his eyes. “You sleep up top.”
“No,” Sammy says, crossing his arms, but he relents somewhat quickly. “…Guess I’m on the couch then, lightweight.”
“You can just c’mere,” Ben says, and Sammy feels some kind of way about the way Ben’s hand twitches as if he’s about to reach out in Sammy’s direction. “Won’t bite.”
“I bet you’re a clingy drunk,” Sammy says to Ben so he doesn’t have to feel things, but then Ben actually reaches out and grabs Sammy’s wrist to pull him down. He’s stronger than Sammy expects a drunk guy to be.
“Yeah,” Ben says, and Sammy lets him pull him down next to him. He’s planning on getting up in a minute to go sleep on the couch because the idea of sharing a bed with someone who isn’t Jack makes Sammy’s entire body hurt even if it is just Ben, but it won’t hurt to let Ben drool on his shoulder for just a second. “S’only ‘cause I like you.”
This kind of interaction would’ve caused Sammy a major freak out for most of his life – another guy, a bed, drunkenness, any combination of the above has always terrified him. But Ben can’t be terrifying, Ben’s – Ben. How could Sammy be scared of Ben?
“Funny way of showing it,” Sammy says jokingly, because Ben really has an octopus-like grip on his arm.
“I told you about my dad today,” Ben says as if he can’t quite believe it and Sammy feels something at the wonderment in his voice. “I – I never talk about my dad to – to anyone, I’ve met him four times, he left my mom and me all alone, but I talked about him with you and I’ve known you for like six months. Dude, you’re – you’re like – you’re like my brother, man. I wish you were my brother for real.”
“You’re drunk,” Sammy whispers with evident fondness. “But – but thanks for telling me about your dad, I –”
Sammy swallows hard. He can at least give Ben one piece of the puzzle. “I don’t have a great dad either. He was never really – there for me, even though I did grow up with him. I don’t have a brother but – but you’re probably the closest thing to it.”
Maybe Sammy’s a little drunk too, or at least too drunk to move quite yet, and he lets Ben drool on his shoulder for a little longer than a couple minutes.
Ben’s slightly hungover and has blurry memories of everything that happened after Sammy almost lit himself on fire trying to put their campfire out, but waking up to find Sammy snoring and curled in on himself a foot from Ben is slightly adorable, and if Ben were a worse person, he’d snap a picture.
He thinks about a little too long before shaking Sammy awake to tease him, and Sammy just gives him a bleary and disgruntled look before shuffling to the bathroom.
Ben takes a shower once Sammy’s out of the bathroom which has him feeling wide awake and almost human again, and he’s kind of grateful they’re in the cabin that has an actual bathroom, not that he’s going to tell Sammy that anytime soon.
“Okay!” Ben says, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes as Sammy blinks up at him from where he’s curled on the couch with his phone. “So before we head back to the falls, we have to stop at Mount Rushmore, because you can’t come to the hills and not see it.”
“In these politically trying times?” Sammy says with a smirk, always trying to play devil’s advocate to whatever Ben suggests. “Do we really need to go see the dead white men’s faces?”
“We’ll go to Crazy Horse afterwards as a palette cleanser,” Ben says, pulling his sneakers on and shoving the rest of his stuff in his duffel bag. “But c’mon, you gotta do the most touristy shit on your first visit, and then when you come back you can do the more obscure stuff.”
“Such as?” Sammy asks, seemingly bypassing the fact that Ben accidentally implied that there would be another trip in the future. Oh well, Sammy doesn’t seem off-put by Ben’s unnecessary glomming, and anyway, Ben somehow feels even closer to him today than yesterday. The wonders of sharing a crappy bunk bed while tipsy, apparently.
“Well, there’s the dino museum, and the mammoth site, the caves, climbing Harney Peak…” Ben trails off, grinning at the expression on Sammy’s face. “What, you don’t want to climb? I didn’t suggest rock-climbing the Needles or anything like that. Harney’s just a mountain.”
“Murder me,” Sammy deadpans, but a smile appears a second later. “Alright, next time, then. I guess I can go see dead presidents on rocks.”
“You never saw them when you were a kid or anything?” Ben asks on their way out the door as they finish packing up their bags. “No family vacations out to my neck of the woods?”
Sammy hesitates. “Not that I remember. My family…wasn’t big on the great outdoors.”
“Well, that explains your aversion to nature then,” Ben rolls his eyes, deciding not to push. Sammy’s a bit like a spooked deer when it comes to questions about his life before King Falls, and Ben doesn’t want him to run away today. They have to drive back to the falls together no matter, it’d be best not to push any of his buttons.
“I’m not averted to nature, I just don’t want a buffalo ramming my car!” Sammy argues as Ben starts the ignition on his own car and starts the trek away from the campsite and up towards Rushmore. It’s a short drive, but a pretty curvy one.
“Why would a buffalo ram your car unless you do something to piss it off?” Ben asks. “Now moose, that’s what you need to worry about.”
Sammy’s eyes widen. “Are there seriously moose here?”
“No,” Ben laughs at the look on his face. “But if our next road trip is up to Canada, you’d better watch out.”
Ben has to make a pit stop for coffee because his shower is only going to help him for so long, and Sammy despairs at Ben as he orders a large Americano with an extra shot, no room for cream.
“You’re gonna have a heart attack,” Sammy says long-sufferingly in Ben’s direction, but Ben downs half of the cup in one go to prove a point.
It’s kind of disgusting, but he proves that motherfucking point.
He puts in a shitload of cream after that, and Sammy orders a small latte with an extremely apologetic look at the baristas. Ben’s not offended.
“Ooh, look, they do wine tastings here,” Ben says, pointing to a sign on their way out. “I’ve heard there are some cool fucking wineries in this area, but I’ve never been bougie enough for a wine tour.”
“Well, we’re not doing it today, we have to drive,” Sammy says with an amused look. “And you’re already hungover. Next time, buddy.”
“Yeah,” Ben says, an unwitting grin coming to his mouth. “Yeah, next time. Just like we’re actually going camping next time.”
“Camping on a wine tour,” Sammy rolls his eyes. “Now that’s some whiplash for you.”
Ben fleetingly thinks that if they come do a wine tour, he should invite Emily, and then decidedly doesn’t mention that to Sammy because he would deservedly get ribbed for it.
Instead, he drives the next mile up to Mount Rushmore, and Sammy says “Huh. Well, I guess that’s pretty.”
Which is probably as close as Sammy comes to enthusiasm, but Ben will take it.
“We don’t have to stay long,” Ben says as he pays for his parking pass. “Just long enough to get ice cream and take a picture.”
“Ice cream?” Sammy laughs. “This coffee is literally our breakfast.”
“Yeah, so ice cream is the second course,” Ben logically argues, waiting for Sammy’s affectionate eye roll, which he gets a second later. It’s nice that Sammy’s so predictable.
“You’re the tour guide,” Sammy says, which Ben takes to mean that he can boss Sammy around today and Sammy will just follow him wherever. Which is also nice, because Ben has better ideas.
They make their way down the avenue of state flags that leads up to the look-out for the faces, and Ben points up to the South Dakota flag. “I always had to find that one when I was a kid before I could go up to the mountain – and I could never remember where it was, so I’d start panicking and crying when I couldn’t find it and my mom would have to point it out to me.”
He expects a jab from Sammy, something sarcastic and biting said with fondness to soften the blow, but instead Sammy says “Minnesota.”
“Huh?” Ben asks, but his eyes find the Minnesota flag.
“That’s where I was born,” Sammy says, not looking at Ben. “I haven’t lived there since I was a kid, but…”
Ben doesn’t think he’s grinned this wide in so long. Sammy looks uncomfortable and is drinking his latte to avoid looking at Ben, but Ben thinks this is the first thing Sammy’s shared with him, really shared with him, about his life before he and Ben met.
Clearly Sammy knows that too, and Ben has to resist the urge to reach out and hug him.
“Well,” Ben says, clearing his throat, trying not to sound too pleased. “That explains why you’re so passive aggressive. But also! We’re neighbors!”
Ben doesn’t push, doesn’t ask where in Minnesota, doesn’t pester, because Sammy clearly isn’t going to respond to any of that. Instead, he and Sammy head down to the lookout and Ben gets out his phone to snap a picture.
“Would it help your communist heart feel better if we took a picture flipping off the dead presidents?” Ben asks jokingly but Sammy grins again.
“Just don’t send it to Herschel or I’m liable to get murdered in my sleep,” Sammy grins into his coffee cup. “Though if you have any political alignment, it’s clearly anarchist.”
“That’s probably worse than communist in Herschel’s book,” Ben says, positioning his phone for prime selfie material. He should’ve brought his selfie stick – he does own one – but Sammy would probably be too embarrassed to be seen with him. “Say cheese!”
He and Sammy both flip off the camera and Ben checks to make sure the dead presidents are fully in the background before he says that they’re all good to go.
They stop off at Crazy Horse before they head out of town, and Ben vaguely alludes to the Volksmarch up to Crazy Horse’s head in the spring as a possible primetime vacation and Sammy threatens to push him off the mountain if he makes Sammy participate.
Ben’s yawning when they get back to the car and Sammy says “Alright, lightweight, I’m driving home.”
“Do you even know the way?” Ben asks. “And don’t say you’ll use Google Maps, you know it’s useless out here, and especially once we get close to the falls.”
“I think I can figure it out based on the signs,” Sammy rolls his eyes. “I’ll wake you up when General Abaline starts confusing me.”
“Okay,” Ben says, deciding not to argue, curling up in the passenger’s seat instead. “Wake up if there’s any buffalo.”
“Fuck you,” Sammy replies without inflection, and then they bicker about music for maybe two minutes before Ben find himself drifting off.
He thinks maybe this is the best trip he’s ever been on.
Sammy doesn’t have the heart to wake Ben up until he’s outside Ben’s apartment building, and he shakes Ben awake gently from where he’s been snoring against the window, head lolling to one of his shoulders.
“I’ll see you for the show tonight,” Sammy says as they get their stuff from the backseat. Ben gives his camping stuff a disdainful look before just grabbing his duffel bag. Probably doesn’t want to deal with that right now, Sammy doesn’t blame him. “Thanks for…a really great weekend, Ben. I’m glad we did that.”
“Me too,” Ben says, stifling a yawn but grinning, and there’s a second of awkwardness before Ben leans over to hug him. Ben’s so small that he fits under Sammy’s chin, which Sammy will tease him about later. “Thanks for dealing with nature and wildlife and physical activity and the threat of sleeping on the ground.”
“It was fun,” Sammy says, letting go of Ben with slight reluctance, which he isn’t going to examine. “Good to know my new home a little bit better. And – you know – it was fun hanging out outside of work. We should do it more often. Not just breakfast and stuff, but like – hanging out.”
Ben’s face splits into a huge grin like he just can’t help it. Sammy can’t help but smile back.
“Totally, dude,” Ben says, enthusiastic as always, but maybe even more so than usual. “Whenever you want.”
“Alright,” Sammy says, a little unaccustomed to someone really truly wanting him to be a part of their life, but Sammy’s going to take it. Ben’s so bright and shining in Sammy’s life, it’s odd to think that he might be just as important to Ben. “But I’ll see you tonight, dude.”
Ben waves him off as Sammy goes to his car, and Sammy’s almost kind of sad that it’s over. It was great just to be with Ben, to not think about anything else for a full day except to have fun with his friend.
His friend – huh. Maybe even his best friend.
Sammy shakes himself out of his own mental stupor, reminding himself that the misery will set back in as soon as he’s been out of Ben’s presence for ten minutes, and heads back to his apartment. He puts something mindless on the television and scrolls through his phone for most of the afternoon, trying and failing to keep distracting himself from the holes inside of him.
But then he clicks on his Facebook app and sees that he’s been tagged in a photo.
He opens it up and sees that Ben’s changed his profile pic to the two of them flipping off Mount Rushmore. Sammy almost doesn’t recognize himself in the picture – sure, he looks like himself, but he looks happy, even though Sammy hasn’t felt happy in so long.
The photo’s caption says good thing Herschel Baumgardner doesn’t have Facebook! followed by the tagging of Sammy’s account.
Sammy can’t help but grin, and opens a text message to Ben. Herschel may not have Facebook, but Cynthia sure does.
His phone buzzes a second later. We can take her!!!!!!
Sammy laughs quietly to himself, and saves the picture to his own phone.
It’s a good memory to hold on to.