A Life Lived

Chapter 8

By Dabeagle


Shit Show: Spectacle; complete mess. Can be disastrously or entertainingly wrong.

Monday was a shit show.

First it was bringing the kids to school. Bailey started first thing in the morning, because he'd rather go to the car lot with me. He made his case, being obstinate and aggravating. I tried to be patient, but we were arguing in circles. The worst part was I wouldn't have minded taking him with me, but I knew he needed to get more of an education than a used car lot provides, as well as needing to learn to get along with other people.

I mean to a point.

When we went to pick up the other kids, Dan was behind schedule. One of the girls was still in her pajamas, and the other was crying because her hair wasn't in a ponytail. Dan grabbed his shoes and sent his sister to her room to change, while Bailey looked up a video for me so I could braid the girl's hair. Let me tell you, it's like learning to tie a necktie the first time. Lots of stopping, looking, going backward and redoing – and even starting over. Especially after she said that wasn't the right braid. Who knew there were several ways to braid hair?

Eventually we got out the door. Once at the school I had to get past Mrs. Anal Lemon out front, then get the paperwork over to Ms. Hopkins, but before I lost sight of him for a few hours, I put my hand on Bailey's shoulder and told him that I knew he'd have a good day and to give it a chance and to give himself some slack. I have no idea if any of that would work for him, but I felt like shit leaving him there. Hopkins was nice enough. We went over the papers for a few minutes to make sure I'd filled them out correctly and in case there were any questions.

“Oh. Uh. Lunch. I forgot. Can I give you cash for him?” I asked.

“We use an online system. If you like I can walk you to the cafeteria, and you can put funds into his account,” she said. I agreed and followed her down the hallway.

“Schools are so odd to me,” I said. “I feel so out of place. Even more than I did when I belonged in one.”

“In some ways it's a microcosm of our worst inclinations,” she said with a nod. “All those sudden, desperate feelings of wanting to fit in versus any of the thought that goes into why you'd want to fit in with certain groups, and if you should. Smaller groups would really help certain situations, especially with actual classroom instruction.” She smiled at me. “I think Bailey will do well. He's a cute boy that will set some of his peers’ hearts aflame. He dresses well, which puts him in a rare position. It's hard to balance looking cool, being cool and not coming to school in sweats and a stained tee shirt – which most boys would be just fine with, let me tell you.” She chuckled, and I joined her.

After forking over some cash to the cafeteria people, I made a mental note to ask Bailey how the school lunch measured up. Maybe we'd have to make things at home.

Once I arrived at the office I had a guy walk in and serve me for court – the moron was suing me about his transmission. I'd have to get over to that laundromat and get a copy of that video. I got Bailey appointments for the doctor and for the dentist, but the phone for the eye doctor kept disconnecting. I scanned the forms from Elizabeth Rodney so I'd have copies and put them in a manila envelope to mail out to her.

“Jesus Christ, a kid is a lot of work,” I grumbled. I glanced over at Daisy, curled up on the couch and wondered what went on in her dreams. After all the nonsense of the morning – it was now nearly noon – I was thinking about going to the post office and then getting some lunch. It would be a good excuse to treat Daisy to a burger. I went to the couch and sat down, putting a hand on her head.

“Oh. Oh...no.”

I'll never forget the first time it happened, losing a dog. He looked like he was having a seizure of some kind, which he'd been prone to all his life. But then he stiffened his front legs out and clenched his teeth together, and I think his heart just gave out. Another dog died peacefully in the night, although I'd imagined I'd heard his last gasp. One was in pain, and I'd had to put him down, but he'd had a rare response where the anesthetic caused him pain. He cried out while I held him, but they didn't even have to put in the second needle – he'd been that weak. My last dog...I'd woken up and found him on his side. He'd lost bowel control and was on the way out, but he was still there. I just held him and talked to him, reminding him how loved he was until he let go.

It's never easy to lose them. You hope being with them at the end helps in some way, even though it's devastating you to see them go.

Daisy had taken it easy on me. She was a bit cool to the touch, so she'd passed while I'd been on the phone or doing paperwork. She was curled on her blanket on her spot on the couch. A tear welled up, and then my vision went blurry.

“Ah, shit.” I wiped my eyes and petted her. Her ears had always been so soft. I thought about that now, stroking her ears and wishing I could have her back, that this pain wouldn't visit me again. But my hand kept coming back to her soft ear, stroking it as I silently cried. She'd gone out comfortably, and thankfully I think she went without pain. I wish I'd gotten to say goodbye or give her that last burger, but it was selfish.

“Hey, so I brought – what's wrong?” Annabelle asked, stepping in from the garage.

I wiped my eyes with the back of my hands. “Daisy's g-gone.”

“Oh. Oh no,” she said quietly and came over to us. She hugged me awkwardly and then squatted by Daisy and stroked her fur. “I know this one went to heaven. No way anything else could happen after she took care of you so long.”

I barked out a little laugh. “You're so rotten.”

“I know,” she said, and stood up. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I'm so sorry, Colin. She was a sweet girl.”

I nodded, and a few more tears leaked out. I sat with her for a few minutes, wondering what to do next. I knew, but I couldn't think just yet. Didn't want to think. I just...needed a minute.

In the end I called a local place that did animal cremation and spread the ashes on their property. They did a nice clay imprint of her paw so I could put it on a shelf or something. I don't know. It took a longer time than I'd have thought – she wasn't a large dog. Little chubby, maybe. I cried off and on and thought of all the small things I'd loved about her. I'd cooked a ham once, and she'd sat beside the oven howling about the good smell. She'd hide bones in my closet, but if she thought I'd seen her 'bury' it in my shoes, she'd get a put-upon expression and go grab it to find a new place to hide it. When she wanted water she'd dig at the bottom of her empty bowl.

Some people get offended when you remind them humans are animals too. Smarter than some, collectively, but we got the advantage of opposable thumbs so...not like we earned it. Dogs are not so different from kids. They have the same basic needs of love, food, shelter. They need to be taught and they need your time. They have their own personalities; what one dog likes may not be what another does. They will always greet you with all their love and excitement for the simple fact that you're who you are and they love who you are.

But letting them go...it's a hard bargain for all the years they spend with you. All the messes, the kisses, the walks and cuddles. The car rides, the games, the laughs...and eventually the tears. Always the tears.

I was sitting my my office trying to get the energy up to go pick the kids up from school when I got a call.

“Mr. McKenzie, we have something of a situation,” Ms. Hopkins said.

“Okay. What's going on?”

“Well, I'm not sure how it all came about, but the short version is a lady named Fiona Granger came to the school and said she was Bailey's grandmother and that she was there to pick him up. Now Bailey's file is still being entered in the system, so they didn't know that he was only to be picked up by you or Mrs. Rodney so they called him to the office. He took one look at Mrs. Granger and took off out the side door of the building. We're looking for him now.”

It took a beat. “Are you telling me he's missing?” I stood up. “Are you fucking serious?”

“I'm afraid I am. Does Bailey have a cell phone?”

“What? No! What for?”

“So we could call or track him,” she said, staying annoyingly calm.

“So now it's my fault because he has no phone?”

“No, not at all. I was just asking because they are so common. Please. This is serious, I know, but don't panic.”

I clenched my fist, and my jaw felt as if it might pop out of its socket. “I'm on my way.” I hung up and stalked to the door connecting to the garage. “Annabelle! Bailey's missing from school. That cow Fiona tried to pick him up, and he ran. Who the fuck knows where he'd go?”

She wiped her hands on a rag as she looked at me with concern. “He may come here. I'll keep an eye out and call you if he does. Have to figure, one of the places he knows best, and it's closer to the school than your house.”

Her words were like a shock of reality, jerking my brain out of the white hot rage it had been bathing in and back into action. I nodded. “You're right. I'll call if I hear anything.”

“Colin. He'll be okay. He's smart.”

I shook my head. “He is, but he's also outnumbered. Did Fiona act alone?”

She pursed her lips. “Go.”

I ran out and got in my truck, tearing ass over to the school. As I drove my brain kicked in, and I called Trooper Cooper. He'd barely answered when I cut him off. “His grandmother tried to take him from the school.”

“I'm sorry? Mr. McKenzie?”

“Yeah! McKenzie! Bailey's grandmother showed up at the school to try and take him, and he ran from her. Left the building. He's missing.”

“I'll check in to see where his father is, just in case this isn't just the grandmother acting on her own. I also need to get an alert sent to the other parents. I'll see you at the school.”

I hung up and swung into the school lot. I took a deep breath and walked quickly to the school front door and hit the buzzer. The gal with the 'I just sucked a lemon through my ass' face buzzed me in.

“I didn't know,” she said.

I paused. “What didn't you know?”

“That she wasn't allowed to see them. She's their grandmother for Pete's sake. When she got here I just assumed the county people were going to have the kids stay with her, considering the trouble her daughter is in,” she said, not sounding very sorry.

I squared up. “She knew what was being done to those kids and did nothing to stop it. You hear me? Your 'friend' thinks it's okay to abuse kids. You allowed that horrible excuse for a human being close to a kid who has been victimized his entire life.” I leaned forward, placing my hands on the bullet proof glass separating us. “If one hair on his head is out of place-”

The door leading into the school opened. “Mr. McKenzie.” Ms. Hopkins voice was firm. “I don't think that will help matters.”

I stared at the lemon sucker lady. “I might feel better.”

“Doubtful. Why don't I get you up to speed?”

I turned and entered the school to stand beside her. “Has anything changed? Have you found him?”

“No. I-”

“No, no, hang on,” I said, holding up a hand. “You just came out there with a tone about that bitch who endangered Bailey.” I pointed a finger at said person. “Yet she's still guarding the front door? You have the gall to want me calm while you let the fox stand at the door to the hen house?”

She folded her hands and looked the tiniest bit abashed. “My effort to calm you has nothing to do with anyone besides Bailey. At this stage you know him best, so I need you clear headed. Retribution can come once we have him safe. I'm just prioritizing him.”

Now I felt a little stupid, which irritated me. My emotions were all out of whack to start with – this was just too much. The door from the vestibule opened behind us, and Trooper Cooper nodded to me.

“What do we know? Where is Mrs. Granger?”

“She left the property when Bailey ran from her,” Hopkins replied.

Trooper Cooper was making notes on his phone. “Was there any sign of Bailey's parents either in person or on camera?” He looked at me. “We're trying to locate them now. The deputy has been on administrative leave, so all we know right away is that he doesn't have a patrol car.” He looked at Hopkins. “Did Bailey leave the building? It's my understanding that he did.”

“Yes. I was told that once he saw Mrs. Granger, he turned and ran. Interior security cameras show him leaving through a door on the side of the school that leads to the sports fields. We can check to see if Mrs. Granger was the driver or if there was another person with her, at least in the lot.”

The Trooper frowned for a moment and then looked to me. “It seems unlikely that Bailey is with his parents, and I think when we locate them we can confirm. I say this because there is no parking over by the sports fields, and someone would have seen a car driving across them or adults running to retrieve a child.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah. Likely.”

The trooper looked to Hopkins. “Can you show me the door he left from? And have someone check that video?”

She nodded and we fell in behind her. She spoke into a radio as we walked, asking for a camera recording to be checked from that afternoon. She explained the particulars, but none of it registered in my mind; I was too distracted for the small things. The door wasn't far away, probably why Bailey had run through it – it was just the closest thing away from his grandmother. He'd only been in the school a day, so he wouldn't have known where any of the doors outside would go other than away. Reaching the door, we exited and stood outside the building, scanning the area.

“McKenzie, has he interacted with his siblings yet? Do you know their status?”

I shook my head. “The first meeting with a therapist isn't for another two weeks. Doesn't seem like the siblings are close – he hasn't asked about seeing them. The way he describes things, it's...hard to explain how complicated their relationship may be.”

He nodded. “Well, that's useful. We know he isn't running to a sibling and that even if he wanted to, he has no way to find them – unless he has a phone?”

Hopkins shook her head while I told him no. “Should I get him one?”

“Well. There are some advantages, some drawbacks. We should talk about that once we have him safe, of course.” The trooper looked out across the fields. “So if I'm Bailey, running scared, I run out the door and see...what? The high school across the field.”

The school bell rung inside, signaling the end of the school day.

“Oh, shit.” I looked at Hopkins. “I'm supposed to pick up Daniel and his sisters after school. I have no way to get in touch with Dan before he goes to get his sisters from the elementary.”

“Oh, Daniel Ruggierio. He and Bailey are friends,” she said in a neutral tone.

“Is that the last name? I met their mother the other night, but I don't think she told me her name.”

“I think each child has a different last name, if I remember what she said. Her first name is Tiffany. Tiffany Gillette. Let me run and call Daniel to the office, so he and his sisters have a ride home.” She stepped aside and spoke into her radio again. Trooper Cooper looked at me patiently.

“Okay, so Bailey has a friend, but he's in this school, so he wouldn't run there.” He gestured with his chin at the high school. “Does he know anyone over there?”

“Well, I'm not sure he knows what that building is, but...we did have a customer come to the lot to buy for his son that he seemed friendly with. It's hard to say though, because he's generally friendly.”

“Know the kid's name?”

“Casey. Casey Repecki. I just sold him and his dad a little SUV.”

“Hmm. What say we walk over there for a second and have a look? High schoolers got out about an hour ago, but....”

“He might have seen the car, if the kid's driving it to school,” I said.

“We got Daniel. He'll wait for you at the elementary school,” Hopkins said. “I'm going to check the video myself, but they said it looks like Mrs. Granger was alone. She left in a hurry.”

“I'll see about getting a unit sent to her home. Let's check the high school. We'll double back to you once we get done there,” he said to Hopkins. He nodded at me, and we set off across the field.

“Bailey adjusting okay so far? Tough road he has.”

“He's a good kid. Smart,” I said. “I'm sorry. I'm not very talkative. My dog...my dog died this morning. I was kind of dealing with my feelings about that when I got this call, and I'm not as collected as I should be.”

“I understand. How did Bailey do with your dog?”

“Oh they got on really well,” I said. “Since Bailey moved in, Daisy'd been sleeping with him. Watching over him like her own pup.”

“Dogs are amazing,” he said. “How's Bailey otherwise?”

I nodded. “He's good. He's been at the lot with me the last week – he wanted to stay there rather than school, and I think tomorrow will be a real challenge, given this bullshit today.”

He nodded. “No doubt. We'll have to do a few things to increase his feeling of security. I think maybe a phone, so he can reach you at any time, would be helpful, though there are apps and things you'll want to be mindful of. Maybe put some parental restrictions on what he can do with the thing.”

“I shudder to think.”

“Glad to see his bond with you is real, though. He saw you as his only option in a bad situation, but he must be growing to trust you if, as situations comes up, like school, his fear tells him he's safe to stay with you rather than deal with the new environment.”

“I hadn't really thought about it,” I confessed.

“Kids are equal parts simple and complicated, like humanity in general,” he commented. “The deeper we've gotten into this situation...I tell you. In this job you see some strange stuff, some bad stuff and stuff that combines the two. It can keep you up at night. The worst, most despicable parts of humanity come out when they have total control – be it animal, child or even their spouse.”

“I...don't think I want to try and imagine.”

“Trust me, you don't.” He sighed. “Let me put it this way, though. I don't think those parents will ever see those kids again outside of a courtroom. The evidence of...well, I mean it's not bloody murder, but it's more like oppressive neglect, mental abuse and...I don't even know what. Frankly, Bailey seems to be better adjusted than the other three. His older brother seems to have gotten the brunt of the father's focus. The older daughter seems to be...so scared of men she may never be able to relate to them at all. The youngest has some kind of mental delay, I think, and is practically non-verbal. I think in the middle of all their control, the older two taking up their focus, Bailey was kind of getting by the best he could.”

“That's incredibly sad, but it jives a bit with what I've seen. Had a customer come in and start to complain loudly. Bailey raised his voice at the guy, and I figured with what he'd been through, that might be a big point of fear for him. Something he wouldn't dare to do based on the consequences he'd gotten before.” I hesitated. “He's done really well with his behavior, just a few little disagreements that felt more like normal kid stuff to me.”

“Well, I'd expect that to get worse as his comfort level increases. If he's able to trust you, then there is a lot of hope for him as he gets older.”

We entered the parking lot, and I said I'd do a lap around to see if I spotted the SUV. He said he was going inside to see if anyone may have seen Bailey and to find out if Casey was still on the campus. The parking lot had a lot of gaps in it, and it took me a few minutes to realize I was in the faculty lot. I headed to the student parking, a bit farther from the school, and started to walk the rows. I was unable to control my mind, bouncing away from my fears for Bailey and my grief for Daisy. Instead I was amazed at the idiocy of parents buying fancy cars for teenagers.

Things you don't earn, you lack respect for. My dad used to like to say that, and as a kid I'd thought it was a cop-out. A nice, pat way to deny me whatever I was asking for. I admit I beat the piss out of my first car, a beater in the truest sense of the word. But it taught me a few things, too. The next car I bought I took much better care of, and I didn't have the worries of a car I'd literally driven through the woods.

Handing a kid the keys to an Audi or BMW – hell, even a new car that wasn't a luxury or sporty brand – was guaranteeing they weren't going to respect it. They wouldn't mind if they hit curbs or didn't change the oil, because it was handed to them. A gift for being old enough to get a license. It's kind of like looks – people didn't earn their genetics, good or bad. Giving them credit for personality traits or anything else because of their appearance was stupid.

But if humans excel at anything it's stupidity.

That was one, small reason I'd gotten Bailey the clothes I had. Sure, he would need to figure out what he was comfortable in, what his style was. Meeting kids as a new kid had its own pitfalls, but if he'd gone in with cheap clothes and ratty sneakers they'd have pegged him irreversibly as one thing. Instead he'd gone in looking like a walking advertisement for well-fitting clothes. He looked put together, which lent him an air of credibility he'd not earned, but you put things in your favor if you can.

“God damn it, Bailey. Where are you?” I muttered.

I finished walking the lot. I didn't see the SUV, but that didn't mean much – the schools probably had parking passes you applied for at the beginning of the year. They probably didn't have room for all vehicles, so if you didn't get one, you couldn't park. That doesn't mean a kid won't do it anyway, or park on the grass – or that there wasn’t enough parking to get a pass a few months into the school year. It's all guesswork. I turned and headed back toward the building. They had a glassed in vestibule much like the middle school, and they buzzed me in.

“I'm looking for Trooper Cooper? He should be here, maybe in the office. We're looking for-”

“Yes, he's in the office now. Go right down the hall and make a right – you can't miss the double doors.”

“Oh, thank you,” I replied. Much more helpful than Ms. Lemon In Ass. I didn't see the trooper in the office, but the secretary took me back to the assistant principal's office where he was. They were looking at a small monitor, skipping through images at high speed.

“McKenzie, we're almost there on the video,” the trooper said.

“Here we go,” said the fellow I assumed to be the vice principal whose office we were in.

The monitor showed the parking lot and a steady flow of students leaving the building. There were some faculty moving faster than students, for which I didn't blame them. We scanned the scene looking for Bailey or Casey or the SUV, but it was tough to zero in on anything with all the movement.

“How about we back up to the time Bailey would have been running? See if he went into the lot?” I asked.

“Good idea,” Trooper Cooper replied. The administrator backed the video up and we watched the empty parking lot. I scanned the cars for the little SUV, but the video wasn't the best.

“I don't see much of any use here,” the trooper said. “VP Watkins, are you familiar with a...Casey Repecki?”

“Sure. Good kid. He's under the radar in terms of getting in trouble and things like that. Teachers like him. He's a decent athlete.” The VP nodded with each item he ticked off his list of things he knew.

“Sports? Is he on a team now?” the Trooper asked.

“Uh, have to check to be honest. It'll take some time,” he said apologetically.

“That's okay. It's a bit of a long shot anyway. Thanks for your help,” I said, resigned.

“If you do get that info, would you send it to me?” Trooper Cooper gave the VP his card and the VP agreed.

We headed out the front doors and back toward the middle school. “I have to go drop Dan and his sisters off. They're across the street from my house, so I can check at home, in case he ran there. It's a long way, but...it's all I have.”

“At worst I think he's hiding. He'll pop out and make his way to you when he feels safer. I think that's the most likely thing,” he said and paused to answer his phone. “Cooper. Yeah. Okay. She knew they were in care. Pretty sure Mrs. Rodney said she'd been told no contact, much less trying to pick him up. Felony kidnapping should get her back to her senses.” He paused. “Okay, that's good news at the least. I'll update you.”

He looked at me. “Grandma was home. They're going to slap some cuffs on her and give her a hard evening. Parents were home. A search was made, but no sign of anyone else. If anything, they were angry that a kid might be missing.” He paused. “Not worried. Angry.”

“So does angry mean asshole or something more to us?”

“If I were a betting man, I'd say it meant granny knows more than she's said. Angry means something didn't go the way they wanted. Now, proving that would be a tall order, unless granny saves her own skin – so that'll probably be the play.”

I nodded. “I hope they break her.”

Back to the middle school Trooper Cooper said he had to work on his report and review the security video for anything that may be helpful. “Go ahead and take Ms. Gillette's kids home, check your house in case he showed up there, and I'll keep you posted from here.” He paused. “I'll see if the school notified Mrs. Rodney, but you may want to give her an update anyway.”

I nodded and headed for my truck. I called Elizabeth Rodney and left her a message with a synopsis of the situation and a promise to call later. I moved over to the elementary lot, and Dan and his sisters came out from the vestibule where they'd been waiting. They were trailed by a woman I didn't know.

“Hi,” she said in an unfriendly tone. “I'm not sure where you fall in their situation, but pickup was twenty minutes ago. We can't be babysitting-”

“Let me ask you to shut the fuck up right there,” I snapped. “I don't owe you details, but if you really are looking for a reasonable explanation you can call Hopkins over at the middle. Meantime my dog is dead, my kid's missing, and I could give less than a flying fuck what you think.”

“Well. That's simply. That's not.”

“Dan. Get their seat belts on. We have places to be.” I don't think Dan was given to following directions easily on a normal basis. But he did what I told him.

As we pulled away he started to giggle. “I've never heard anyone talk to Mrs. Scanlon like that before!”

“You think I made a bad impression?” I asked, aware it was completely inappropriate to encourage him but not quite having the energy to care. I realized I was damn tired.

“So where's Bailey?”

“Wish I knew. Any ideas?”

He shook his head. “Nah. We were in gym when they called his name over the loudspeaker.”

“How'd things go today? I mean besides all this crap at the end of the day.”

“Good, I guess. We got some homework. We had about half our classes together, which was nice. Lot of these kids around here think they're better than everyone else. He's new, so they all want to suck up, especially since he's got nice clothes.” Dan sounded a little bitter about that.

I nodded. “I hear you. People are judgmental. They see someone in dirty clothes, they wrinkle their nose just because they work with their hands for a living. Besides, not like they buy their own clothes, do they? Their parents might have money; the kids don't.”

“Yeah. Just sucks.”

I hear you, kid. I do.

I dropped them off at their apartment and then went to my house. I glanced at the passenger seat to bring Daisy in but just caught myself, and a wave of sadness and exhaustion swept over me. This was too much for a single day. Today is a prime argument for why there are no actual gods out there. I know, it could be worse, but right now I wasn't seeing any of that. I headed inside and called out.

“Bailey? You in here?”

The house was silent. The wrong kind of silent. It was an emptiness from a lack of life. No dog. No kid. Just me. It was my future. Fuck, I'm bleak today. I called up Cooper and let him know I had no luck at home.

“I have something. Something to follow up on, anyway; nothing to really hang our hat on.” He sighed. “The VP called, said that Casey Repecki kid is on the swim team, and they go over to the YMCA for practice. If we didn't see the kid in the mess of people leaving, cars going in and out – or even if we knew where or if Repecki drove that car to school, then Bailey could have hitched with a familiar face. He could be at the kid's practice.”

I sighed. “Yeah. Seems like grasping at straws, but he has to be somewhere. He has to be okay.”

He has to be.

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