I pulled my car in next to my folk's car. Being it was a Friday night and I hadn't called ahead, I wasn't surprised to see Lu's bus gone. I turned off the headlights and then the ignition with deliberate motions, as if delaying a few more seconds would provide some vital edge. I often thought of negotiating with my folks as a form of combat, so I'd take what advantages I could get. With a sigh I climbed out of the car and took the steps to my porch in a single bound, but then paused at the front door.
Sometimes things hit you. You're going along just living life, doing your thing then something happens that changes you. Only, the thing is, you don't always realize all the ways it changes everything around you. After having been away at college I realized that while my house looked familiar and welcoming, it didn't have the intimacy of home anymore. Home now was a crappy apartment with my husband; in fact all that I really needed to call a place home was Sasha; the rest was window dressing.
I paused and took a deep breath before pushing the door open and calling out to my parents.
“Alec? Hi! What a nice surprise!” my mother said as she put the footrest down on her recliner and stood up to greet me. My father, likewise, turned the TV off and stood with a smile on his face. I couldn't help but note the advance of gray in my father's hair and the new wrinkles by my mother's eyes and mouth. They were such good people and I was about to burden them again.
We exchanged greetings and my mom invited me to take a seat in the kitchen while she pulled some coffee cake out and put on a pot of decaf. I sat down with Dad while Mom talked about Lu and what was new with him and things in town. Mom loves her coffee and she has a machine that makes a full pot in under three minutes. She calls it her second favorite appliance in the house and I never teased her about what was first; hey! She's my mom!
She took a seat and my father squared himself. “So, what's the trouble?” he asked.
I laced my hands together on the table and looked at each of them. “I have something really serious to discuss. I kind of have to tell you the whole story, first, because there is a lot to say. I need your support for something, something I think is critically important. So. Um, well, here goes.”
“Okay, all this stuff here can go, too, okay, Alec?”
“Right, Dan. Third day under the heat lamps, toss them out—got it.”
He put a meaty hand on his hip. “Wise ass. Don't let customers hear you say shit like that.”
“I said one thing—one thing, Dan! I get labeled for life!”
“One thing I heard, dickless,” he said, chuckling. “Now get this place finished up. I gotta go in and put the paperwork into the computer,” he said and then paused. “Fuck it, I'll do it in the morning. Got your keys? Lock things up for me?”
“Sure,” I said, dumping the leftover pizza slices into the trash.
“You remember the code?” he asked, a familiar tease from the one time I'd forgotten and locked myself out.
I scrunched my face up. “One if by sea, two if by land?”
“Dickhead,” he muttered. “'Night.”
“'Night, Dan,” I replied, smiling to myself. Dan was okay, really. He wanted things done and, as manager, this was his livelihood—but it wasn't his life. He had a sense of humor but he tried really, really hard to hide it. But I was sure it was there.
The leftover pizza was the last thing to go out the door. Since I'd started this job last October, Sasha and I had had enough pizza to swear off the stuff forever. Being also that we were poor students, we ended up eating it more than we would have liked so we could save our bucks. Oh, sure, we could have gone to the cafeteria, we did have meal passes, of course, but it was so far away and it's so freaking cold in the winter. Pizza, again, or freeze your ass off to get to the cafeteria?
I opened the back door and stepped into the still, cold night, and nudged the door stop into place so I didn't lock myself out. Learned that one the hard way. I was heading for the dumpster when the top popped up and someone climbed out in a hurry and scuttled a few feet away.
“Whoa, whoa!” I said. “Relax. I'm just bringing stuff out, no need to freak.”
The smallish figure turned and ran. Their gait was unsteady, like they had a sore leg or something, and I could have caught them had I wanted to. Instead, figuring they were just hungry, I chose a different tactic.
“I got pizza in the bag! Hungry?”
The steps faltered and slowed to a stop. The head, shrouded in a hood, looked back at me over their shoulder. The lights behind the strip mall I worked in were placed right over the doors that led from the back of each business, so they didn't really cover the whole space. As a consequence I couldn't see the person's face, but I figured I'd hit this one dead on and they were just hungry. I hated that we threw so much food away and the idea of sticking it to corporate by breaking this rule really appealed to me.
I held up the bag. “It's still warm, if you want to come back.”
The figure took tentative, guarded steps. Illuminated only briefly in the light of the other businesses, I couldn't get much of a look except to say he was short—though I was guessing at gender. I started to untie the knot in the bag and glance down inside, looking with the aid of the overhead light.
“Let's see: Cheese, Cheese and, hey! More Cheese...got a slice of Pepperoni—no, two! And a cannoli or stomboli...some sort of boli. You like any of that?” I asked as he tentatively stepped into my circle of light.
The jacket was filthy and torn with white stuffing showing. A thin hood was pulled up over his head and his face was dirty. The clothes were misshapen enough that I couldn't guess at gender for sure, but one thing was clear—this person was hungry. Their eyes kept going from me to the bag.
“What do I have to do?” His words were punctuated by a dry cough.
It was like a punch in the gut. I couldn't remember a recent memory where I felt worse about humanity than that simple question.
“You gotta eat, that's what. You want to wash your hands?”
The figure didn't move. I pulled some item out that wasn't pizza—I never could remember what to call those things—and held it out to him. He didn't even flinch toward me, but he wet his lips and swallowed.
“Okay. I'm going to toss it to you, okay? Are you ready to catch it?”
He tensed for some reason I couldn't guess. I tossed the food underhand and he fumbled with it and then dropped it.
“Oh, I got more, hang on,” I said and looked down into the bag. I heard the sound of chewing and looked up to see, to my dismay, him eating the dirty food.
“Dude! I have clean food here, don't eat that!”
“I was digging in a dumpster, you think this bothers me, moron?” came the reply with a snort for punctuation. Sounded young, was my thought, and I felt a pang of sorrow.
“You could get sick, eating like that,” I said, trying to sound reasonable.
“Cleanest food I've had all week. Maybe more—what day is it?”
“Um, Tuesday. I think,” I replied and paused to think. “Yeah, Tuesday.”
“Got more?” the voice questioned, though the tone was challenging.
“Sure. But, mind if you wash your hands? Favor to me?”
“I don't owe you any fucking favors,” came the reply, again broken up by a cough.
“True, but see you do me a favor then I owe you one, capisce? Besides, I gave you some food already. Humor me, huh? Wash your hands before you eat more?”
One shuffling step forward, the figure stopped and demanded, “Why the fuck do you care?”
“Why the fuck do you care that I care?” I retorted.
“I don't! It's just fucking weird. Are you up to something weird?”
“Dude, I'm always up to something weird,” I replied with a smile and a roll of my eyes.
“Like doing a kid? Is that your idea of weird?” he said and backed off a step.
“Fuck, no!” I stated with horror. “I'm just seeing someone that looks like they could use a hand, that's all. You don't want the food, shuffle your ass off to the next dumpster,” I said with a shrug. I didn't really want the kid to go, but at the same time they were challenging me and I had a feeling that, should I fold, I'd lose any respect I may be building.
After a full minute of no movement, I heard a muttered. “Fine. Fucking hell.” I turned and headed in the backdoor. As soon as whoever this was stepped in I was breaking a rule that could—would, if they found out—get me fired. Oh well. I pulled a couple things from the bag and tossed them in the microwave. Leaning against the counter I watched as the figure approached and looked carefully at the room. Entering slowly I took in the large, doe like eyes that tried to look everywhere at once. He had a small nose and an angry slash of a mouth, lips compressed as he checked around him for safety's sake. When he relaxed his mouth, the lips were full but chapped; he topped out no more than four foot seven, and that was being kind.
A sour smell slowly wafted to me, one that spoke of many long days, weeks maybe, being unwashed and not having a change of clothes.
“Bathroom is over there,” I said, pointing to the door behind the office. With a glance at me he walked over and closed the door behind him, and then the lock clicked into place.
I didn't really blame him, lots of folks lock the bathroom door, especially in public. But I did feel bad that we were the only ones here and he still did that. It told me loud and clear he didn’t trust me. That made me wonder about his life, what events had shaped him to this point, and nothing I could think of was good. The timer dinged and I took the hot food from the microwave and set it on the large prep table.
“First course, hot and ready.” I remembered the door I'd left open to the cold winter air and walked over and pulled it shut.
“The fuck?” he snarled. I glanced over to see, at my best guess, a young boy with the hood pushed back to reveal a shaggy, uneven mop of long, filthy hair but a clean face and hands.
“It's winter out. You close doors to keep the heat in,” I explained, much as I would to a slow person. Or Jamie, if he's handy.
He looked around quickly, probably scanning for a way out. That clicked for me and I realized, or remembered, he was feeling threatened. Maybe trapped. I moved slowly to the other side of the prep table and sat down.
“If you need to hit that door, you go ahead; it's not locked. Check it if you want. I'll sit right here,” I said calmly.
He looked at me with suspicion and kept one eye on me as he shuffled to the door and pushed it open. Satisfied he could get out, he moved warily back to me and picked up the food and ate ravenously.
“Slow down, boss. There's a whole bag full; it's all yours.”
He looked at me for a moment and then went back to eating, all the while shaking his head slightly.
“Another slice? Or you want one of those 'boli' things?”
“A drink?” he asked in a demanding tone.
“Sure. Cola? Water? Lemonade? Raspberry Iced Tea?”
“Coke,” he said, his voice less demanding.
“Coming up. That bag has the food, you can warm it up if you want.”
I turned my back on him to fill the cup and was surprised to hear the rear door open. I turned to see him heading out the door, garbage bag over his shoulder.
“Hey!” I called out and took the cup to the back door. He was shuffling down the service road and I called out. “Hey! Here's your drink!” I set the cup down on the ground. He had paused, looking back over his shoulder.
“I work again Thursday night. If you're coming back, I'll save you a fresh cheese pizza.”
I watched him as he watched me, perhaps wondering why. He coughed, the sound echoing off the brick wall. I decided to answer the unasked question.
“I like to help. That's all.” With that, I closed the door and went back to my clean-up, knowing there was little I could do. I couldn't help thinking of the kid, though, and why he was on the street. Why he wasn't home with a family, even one living out of a car. Who gives up on their kids like that? Just before I left I opened the back door to find the cup gone. I smiled.
By the time I got home Sash was dozing and I didn't do much more than kiss him lightly and go to bed myself. He commented in the morning that I'd gotten in late, but we didn't really get into it because we were both heading out to morning classes.
Wednesday is a busy day for us. We have a full slate of classes to start with, and if that weren't enough we were taking a M.A.P.P. class in the evening. That stands for Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting, but most people just know it as a foster parenting class. Sash and I weren't planning on being foster parents, but the idea had come from a professor of mine who had spent a few hours talking about the balance between the county, any potential agency, the birth parent and the foster parent. That led into the rights and responsibilities of foster parents and the training that they get—and the mention that taking a MAPP class would net us ten points on our average.
Ten points, one for each week of the class. Sasha went because I begged him and he hates to say no while I'm begging. Actually he was sort of interested because my folks had fostered Lu before the adoption and we'd both heard about Asher and how the Ellis's had fostered him before adoption and we both wanted to know more about how all that worked.
The class had its ups and downs, but the thing I hated most was 'modeling' which was standing up in front of everyone and taking on a role. Lame.
After the class we went back to our apartment and had a snack on the couch. Sasha was making some vague sexual claims about the benefits of pineapple and it was becoming a staple snack for us. So, while we were stretched out on our old couch, I told him about my encounter the previous night.
“Wow, that poor kid. He was kind of snarky though, huh?”
“Yeah. It makes sense, though. He's on the street, people are probably trying to take advantage of him. He's not very tall or wide so I don't know how strong he is. I figure he's suspicious of everyone,” I replied.
“I think you must be right; that makes total sense,” Sash said. “What are you going to do? Are you required to report him or something? I mean, it's cold out, it's dangerous for him.”
I tapped my fingers on my leg. “I've been thinking about that. Until I become a social worker, I'm not a 'mandated reporter' so I have no legal obligation to report him. But,” I said and took a deep breath, “morally, I have to do something. The problem is, I think if I tell him I'm going to call social services he might just disappear. If I trap him or something then I'd lose any chance to gain his trust and really help him.”
“What do you mean? If he gets into the system, then he gets help. Right?”
“Well,” I said, tilting my hand from side to side. “Maybe yes, maybe no. I was talking to one of my professors, just kind of telling him about Lu's situation, and he was pretty honest with me, I think. He talked about the difficulties of kids getting adopted past a certain age and how much harder it would have been for Lu, given his age at the time. Kid's Lu's age have done a lot of developing, have reached the point where they are pushing adults away instead of welcoming them; all kinds of things.”
“So what happens to kids like Lu, then, if he hadn't had you?”
“Lots of things. Foster homes, maybe. Group homes if they can't find a foster placement. Failing that they have facilities, but those are meant for kids with real social/emotional problems. But that's not the only part of the system stacked against kids, older like Lu was or not.” I turned my gaze to Sasha and said, “The worker turnover rate is crazy. A kid has a hard time finding someone to depend on in the system when they get a new worker every so often—could be months, maybe a year.
“He also told me that, when it comes to the workers, there are work hours that are required to achieve other degrees of social work—like to be employed at a school system or something like that. So social workers for counties and private agencies tend to stay for a few years to get their required hours and then move on.”
“Well, that brings me to my next point. If this kid, let's say, doesn't trust the system then he would just run again. They have facilities where they basically lock kids up, but he doesn't seem violent or anything. I mean, I barely know him, but he didn't make any threatening moves—just defensive stuff.” I paused and thought for a moment and then added, “If he has experience with the system, and maybe not a good one, he might already know a kid his age has almost no chance at adoption or finding a supportive family. Usually kids that have been in the system as long as he has, if he has been in it for some time—which, guessing from his age, might be the case—have a lot of problems.”
Sasha chewed his pineapple thoughtfully and then spoke. “So, you must have some mad plan in mind, right? Am I going to regret you telling me this?”
I winced. “Um, maybe?”
“Alec...” he shook his head, “You're not a superhero. You can't save every puppy, much as we all want to.”
“I know,” I said, letting my voice drop. “But I have to try to save the ones I can, the ones that want to be saved.”
He covered my hand with his. “So is that your plan for now? To find out if he wants to be saved?”
“Yeah, kind of. I want to try and get him some help, if I can. Plus, he has that cough. That'll only get worse.”
“How far are you planning on taking this, though? Last time you went down this road you got a little brother.”
“Yeah, I have a great track record, don't I?” I said, grinning. “Hey, you want a moody teenager living with us?”
“That's not on my Christmas list, no,” Sasha said and wagged a finger at me. “Alec, I know that look. This isn't a puppy. You were really there for Lu but he was mostly an easy kid. And your parents took the brunt of raising him, not you.”
“So you're saying no?”
“So you're not saying no?”
He lowered his face and looked at me. “I'm saying...one step at a time, I guess.”
Thursday was a lighter day and I usually got in some gaming before Sash made me do grown up things like laundry; I also regularly worked the closing shift on Thursday. I liked this pizza job better than the last one. This one was almost exclusively take out so I didn't have people asking me dumb things that answering would get me fired, like if we have a bathroom.
As I worked, my mind kept drifting back to my encounter from a few nights previous and wondering if the kid was okay and if he'd come back. I'd stopped at the local pharmacy on the way into work and bought a travel sized shampoo bottle and a cheap towel as well as some lip balm. My mind had continued to churn after Sasha had asked what I'd do and I was forming the smallest inkling of a plan. No matter which way I ended up going, though, the first thing would be to earn his trust.
Dan was being industrious and putting his paperwork into the computer before he left so I dawdled a bit and then, when that wasn't working well enough, ripped a bag open and exclaimed loudly about the mess and how I'd need to mop. Dan merely shook his head and called me a dumb ass before finishing up and reminding me to lock up.
Once he was gone I put the cheese pizza in the oven that I had promised my little vagrant and, checking to see if he was there yet and not seeing him, propped open the back door a foot or so and went back to picking up my intentional mess. I hadn't quite bagged it all up again when the back door moved tentatively and a dirty face poked through the opening.
“What are you doing?”
“Cleaning up a mess,” I replied as I scooped another pile of crap up to drop in the bag. “Hungry?”
“Not for that shit,” he said with a snort which was followed by a cough, not quite as dry as the other night, though. Shit, I should have bought some cough syrup.
“You sure? This is low quality, easily replaced shit right here. You could go down to any landfill in town and find a little better,” I told him in my best salesman voice. The boy's lips twitched a bit as if he were tempted to smile.
“You promised me pizza. A whole cheese pizza.”
“I didn't promise, but I did say I would have one for you, that's true,” I replied as I swept the last of the crap together and scooped it off the floor. Knowing he was still very unsure of my intentions I came up with a quick plan to earn a little more trust from him, something I could build on. I wanted to make sure I explained everything to him so that he knew what was coming; no surprises. Looking over at him I said, “So here's the deal. You see that oven over there?”
He followed my gaze and then looked back at me. “Yeah.”
“Okay, first thing is you can go over there and check the top oven. You'll see a cheese pizza that's about four minutes away from being ready. After that,” I continued as I reached into my pocket and produced the travel shampoo. “You're going to go into the bathroom and wash your hair. I put a towel in there already. Stuff for your chapped lips, too. Then, the pizza will be ready and you can eat.”
“Why do you want me to wash my hair?” he demanded, the added power in his voice caused him to cough again.
“Well, it's not sanitary, buddy,” I said. “That's for starters. Second is your head probably itches—I know mine does if I go more than a day without washing it, yours must be like having bugs crawling on your head.”
At the mention of bugs he twitched and unconsciously scratched the side of his head.
“Third I think it'll make you feel better to have your hair clean. If you want, use the towel and get it wet and wash up. There's plenty of hand soap and people usually feel better when they can get clean.”
He stared at me. “So in order to get food you told me I could have, you want me to get cleaned up just because you think I'll like it?”
“Sure,” I said in a puzzled tone. “Why?”
“What do you get out of it? Why are you being such a pain in the ass? I'm hungry.”
“Well, if you're hungry, get clean. And if you keep your shit up, I'll go get you new underwear and socks and make you wear them before you can eat next time.” I stuck my chin out and nodded firmly at him, then turned and knotted the bag of garbage. I hoisted the bag up and was a little surprised to see that he was still standing in the doorway.
“What do you mean...next time?” He cleared his throat and coughed.
His voice was heartbreaking and I know I felt like telling him that everything was going to be okay. I wanted so badly to comfort him, someone who obviously had no one to just be kind to him. I had hope, though, since his tone of voice was less suspicious and more...hopeful?
“Why don't we talk about it while you eat? You want Coke again?”
His eyes darted around and then settled back on me. “Yeah.”
“Okay. Excuse me, gotta toss this bag out,” I said and he stepped back into the alley as I exited the store and tossed the bag into the dumpster. I heard the door move and whipped my head around, seeing it close behind me. “Shit! Dude, come on!”
I took two large strides to the door and, surprisingly, it drifted back toward me. The boy had backed off a few steps and was looking at me with a mix of fear and determination.
“You said it's not supposed to be open in winter; that it's cold out. You said that.”
I heaved a sigh and nodded, “Yeah, I did. But you know what? I locked myself out once. Had to call the manager to come down...bad scene, man. Sorry, didn't mean to jump on ya.”
He gave me a suspicious tilt of his head and then he shuffled over to the pizza oven and, with a quick glance to be sure where I was, opened the top door, then pulled his head back as a wave of heat rolled out. He glanced back inside and then let the door clang shut. The heat wave pushed the sour smell of him across the room.
“How do you know when it's done?”
“Timer, partly, but the best way is to lift the bottom of the pie and check the crust. Want to see?”
He took a step back and then glanced at the oven. “No.” He walked over to the bathroom door, skirting me, and then paused. “Shampoo?”
I grinned and pulled it back out of my pocket and tossed it to him. He fumbled but caught it and closed the door, the lock clicking in place. I checked the pie and pulled it from the oven and then shut the oven down. Then I got the mop out and wet it in the deep sink before wiping up the floor. By the time I was done with that he still hadn't emerged, so I grabbed a couple cups of Coke and sat down at the table.
My phone chimed and I checked the message from Sasha. 'Your project show up? Is that why you're late?'
'How is it going?'
'He's cleaning up in the bathroom before I let him eat. He's...kid needs someone, Sash.'
There was a significant delay and the bathroom door opened up. He was transformed, somewhat, between his clean face, broken out with some bumps that wanted to be zits, and hair—a golden blond mop and in need of a trim, but that pop of color from his hair made his green eyes stand out like new leaves in the spring.
My phone chimed again and I tore my eyes from his transformed face and down to the screen.
'Okay. Do your thing. Should I get sheets out for the futon?'
“Who's that?” he asked, his voice again laced with suspicion.
“My husband. He's wondering why I'm late.”
He frowned. “You're gay?”
“Yeah. Well, my husband is. Does that still count?”
He shifted on his feet and coughed into his hand. “I better go.”
“Wait, man,” I said, holding my hands up but remaining seated. “I'm still over here, on the other side of the table. No games, you can just eat and go. Promise.”
He looked at me suspiciously and then down at the food. He licked his lips. He took a step toward me and then another before giving up all pretense and sitting down across from me. I pushed a paper plate at him, which he largely ignored, and then he was gorging himself on pizza. I turned the sound off on my phone, then tilted it and took a stealthy picture of him and sent it to Sash.
“So somebody married you?” he asked.
“Yeah. Last summer.”
“You have kids?”
“Nah. Little brother, though,” I said in an offhand way. “He was in foster care and my folks adopted him.”
My screen brightened. 'Aw, he's adorable. Poor thing, look at those clothes.'
He chewed as he watched me going back and forth between him and my phone.
“How old was your brother when you got him?”
I looked up and thought. “Let's see, he was in eighth grade so...thirteen, maybe?”
“How did you...I mean, your parents...”
I looked at him and smiled. “How did I meet Lu? A mentoring program at school. He was kind of closed off, at first. Thought I was weird.” I paused and smiled wider, “Actually, he still thinks I'm weird.”
“Smart guy,” he muttered before taking another bite. He ate for a moment more and then asked, “How did you end up...how did he end up living with you?”
“He was just amazing, pretty much,” I said. I set my phone down and warmed to my subject. “Lu—short for Lucien—was living in a group home in town. I started out by hanging with him at the middle school and then I took him to lunch with me over at the high school, introduced him to people who could look out for him the following year.”
“Why wouldn't you be looking out for him? Why did he need others?”
“I was a senior,” I replied. “He needed people that would still be in school with him. He's really likable, too. Doesn't call me things like 'moron' for example.”
He leaned back and chewed his food then took a drink. He had a weird look on his face. “So why'd you end up with him, though?”
“I just loved him, man. I talked my folks into letting him come for some visits with me and our friends and, of course, my folks loved him, too. I couldn't have done it without my folks or without my friends. Everyone loves Lu.”
He frowned at me. “What kind of a name is Lucien? That doesn't sound real.”
“It's French. I guess his family was into keeping up some of that stuff; I mean his birth family. Want to see a picture of him?”
He picked a piece of cheese off the remains of the pizza, a full two-thirds of which he'd demolished already. I imagined I could hear his brain turning things over like a clockwork engine; spring noises, metal sheets making weird twanging sounds and colored candy-striped poles twirling along as he tried to decide what to do or say next.
I popped open my pictures and flipped to one of Lu and Robin and slid the phone over to him. He picked the phone up and looked down at the image.
“There's two guys here.” He covered his mouth and coughed lightly, holding it in.
“Lu has the glasses. The other one is his boyfriend, Robin.”
“Is that the secret?” he asked, dropping the phone. “You have to be gay, first? Did you sleep with him, that why you wanted him to stay with you?”
“Dude, that's sick,” I replied evenly. I knew he was saying that to protect himself, to push me back from whatever feeling was moving through him. Not only that, he was likely feeling threatened by my potentially being a predator based on whatever he'd encountered in his life. Even though I was miffed, I had to take it down a notch and remember I wasn't talking to someone with an average upbringing and home life.
“Tell you what. Let's call Lu up, huh? You want to ask him yourself?”
He frowned and appeared to think some more. “Why would he tell me if you did something to him?”
I sighed. “Look...I'm doing my best here, but you're accusing me of doing something pretty shitty. To be honest, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to prove to you that I didn't do something. How do I prove a negative, you know?”
He chewed his lower lip for a minute and then nodded. “Okay. Let's call him, if he exists.”
I frowned. “You're a pecker head,” I told him and flipped through my contacts and called Lu.
It rang a few times and then picked up. “Alec! What's up?”
“Hey Lu. What are you doing, bud?”
“Robin and I are watching some stupid movie he picked.” This was punctuated with some noise that was probably Robin smacking Lu, which would explain the giggles. “He's crap at movie picking, honestly. What's up? Why does your voice sound funny?”
“I got you on speaker,” I told him, sparing a glance at my guest to gauge his attitude. “I made a new friend, he might have some experiences like yours. You know, before you and I met.”
“Oh?” Lu said and his tone changed. “Is he listening then?”
“Yeah. He's a little worried you and I bumped uglies.”
“Oh, eww! Gross!”
“Hey!” I interjected. “I'm not exactly a troll, you know! Little respect!”
“Seriously? The thought of having sex with you is really just...no, gross. Besides, Robin takes all I need.”
“Don't you mean gives?”
“Depends,” he said and giggled as he got smacked again. “So, what is the new guys name?”
“You know, Lu, that's a good question. What is your name?”
Those eyes settled on me and a war played out across his face. His lips moved, opening once or twice but no sound emanated. He was torn, which was good since it was progress.
“He's not ready to say, Lu. Um, maybe you could—”
“Is it true?” he burst forth suddenly and then coughed dryly before pushing the rest of his question out. “Were you in the system?”
“Yeah, it's true,” Lu replied easily. “And it sucked ass. My bio-dad died and my bio-mom is nuts. But Alec was part of a mentoring program and, in his own weird way, he made everything happen. I have great parents, a beautiful boyfriend and friends that are the best family anyone could ask for. I'm going to college next year and it all started with Alec being willing to help me out, even when I wasn't sure I wanted him to.”
“Why...why didn't you want his help?”
“I guess I thought I could fix it myself. Although,” he said, his voice taking on a teasing tone, “I thought this one guy would just take me away from all my problems. I mean, I'm dating him now, and he is kind of like a superhero, just not like that. Plus, my brother is weird. Great, but weird.”
The boy looked at me and his eyes were still laced with mistrust, but they were also wet. I figured Lu was getting through to him, working his magic—and he thought I was the one with the super powers!
“How do I know you're not some guy trying to trick me into going somewhere and...something. Huh?”
“Alec, you want to hit me up with that hangout thing?”
“The video chat? Sure, give me a second.” I pulled the phone toward me and tapped a few buttons and, seconds later, Lu was looking back at me with Robin sitting in the background. “Here you are,” I said and handed the phone back to the kid.
“Hey. So, let me give you a tour,” Lu said. He started by introducing Robin and kissing him for demonstration reasons that weren't really clear. Then he wandered around the Kirkwood home and introducing people as he went—the adults, Jamie, Emily, Ash and Sean who were doing homework. He took the phone outside and showed him the cars, the stars and that he wasn't in downtown Albany like we were.
After that, Lu spoke directly to my guest. “That's it, buddy. That's about all I can show you of Sanitaria Springs. Look,” he said, pausing for a moment. “I've been kind of where you are. You have to decide to trust someone, sometime. If you give him a chance, he can help you. Alec might seem like he should be on meds, but he's the most loyal guy a kid in your position would ever want. I hope you make the right choice, man.”
I thanked Lu and disconnected the call. The kid leaned forward and took a room temperature slice and began to nibble on it. I got up and started to clean up—throwing out my cup, washing the last few things in the sink, just tidying up.
“So now what?” he said, his voice small. With more strength he continued, “Am I supposed to let you call the social workers in? Dump me into the system? Fuck you, been there, ain't going back. What else is there besides that?”
“Well, that's a good question,” I said. I wiped my hands on a towel and hung it up to dry. Turning to face him I leaned back against the counter. “I think you and I have to be honest with each other and give each other a little bit of trust to get started.”
“A little. Like, so far all the bad thoughts you had about why I'm being nice haven't amounted to shit, right? I'm not saying you're not still suspicious but you have to give me a little credit, right?”
“Yeah, okay. Maybe. So how much trust are you talking about, though?” he asked, crossing his arms.
“Well, enough for us to talk a little. I get that you don't trust me and, to be honest, I don't trust you even a little.”
“What? Why the fuck not?”
“Well, you live on the street so you're probably a thief or a druggie, right?” I asked, holding my hand out and trying to look reasonable.
“Fuck you! I don't do drugs!”
“But you do steal then, right?”
“Screw this!” he said and turned for the door.
“Oh, did that hurt your feelings?” I asked, my voice soft but firm. “Imagine how I feel when you accuse me of molesting my little brother.”
He paused, his upper lip working into a sneer, but he held his tongue.
I let that hang for a moment before I continued, my tone far more compassionate. “Look, I get that we don't really know each other and we don't have much trust between us. I get that, I do. Using stereotypes against each other won't help, not even a little. I just want you to see it goes both ways. I'm trying to help out someone who I don't know who calls me names and swears more than I ever did.”
“Why?” he demanded defiantly.
“Well, swearing just wasn't my thing, you know?”
“Not that, Moron!” he growled, which was kind of cute coming from the little guy. “Why do you want to help me so bad?”
The corner of my mouth tilted up and I pushed off from the counter and took my seat at the table. I waved to him and, grudgingly, he moved over and sat down across from me.
“After what happened with Lu, it took some time but...I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people. I wanted to help other kids, like Lu, stuck in a system that doesn't always work like it should. So I go to school, now, to be a social worker.”
“You have to go to school for that?” he sneered. “Just show up, say whatever is happening is fine and leave. That's all you need to know to do that job.”
“See, that's where you're wrong. The system needs better people to make it work like it should, and that's what I'm trying to do. I look at you and I wonder how someone could force a kid to make the choice to live on the street. How bad things must have been for you to decide that this was better, you know? It breaks me a little, inside. So I see you and I want to help. I want to know you. I want to make things better.”
“Why?” he asked, his voice softer.
“Because, man,” I said, smiling. “If your life gets better then you pass that on to someone else. If you understand how shitty things can be, you'll help someone else who's in a bad situation. Making things better isn't something one person can do; it takes all of us. All people. So we make it better, a little at a time. A person at a time.”
He looked at me a moment and then his face took on its familiar look of mistrust. “Great speech.”
“Thanks. I've been working on it, just in case I met someone like you,” I told him and grinned.
He looked away, crossed his arms again and looked back at me. “So, how's this supposed to work? What do you want from me?”
“Well, why don't we start with your name?”
He stared at me for a long time, so long that I thought he might not answer. But, at last, he sighed and let his arms drop out of their closed off, defensive posture and he said, “Micah. My name is Micah.”
I paused and then leaned forward, smiling widely. “Really? Micah?”
He crossed his arms again and scowled. “Yeah? So? What's wrong with it?”
I kept grinning back at him. “Nothing, I love it.”
It took me another week and a half to convince him to come to the apartment. He would visit, based on my schedule, and I'd give him enough food to get by until he saw me again. We spent most of the time getting to know each other a little bit and slowly inching towards building trust between us. I had kept Sasha and Lucien filled in on my progress as both were interested, though Sash was growing concerned. Winter in Albany isn't as bad as, say, Buffalo—we don't get the lake-effect snow like they do and thank goodness for that. But it does get dangerously cold and Micah had never been clear about where he was staying, just that it was out of the wind. He might have been out of the wind, but I had that cough of his to worry about.
Of course, Sasha and I had also discussed the cosmic connection of this boy named Micah—a name that Sasha said I was mumbling repeatedly during my ordeal in the hospital after having been stabbed. It took very little prodding for Lu to remember something similar and my sense of wanting to help intensified to religious zeal-like levels. I swore Lu to secrecy until we had a better handle on things, but I had never been so sure about having to do something before.
What finally brought things to a head were two things: Sasha insisting that I convince Micah to come to our apartment due to the cold snap, along with the dire winds we were getting and, second and the more likely of the two, that Micah's hideout had been demolished. I found this out on a Monday night, though I wasn't closing. I was pulling a pizza from the oven for delivery when I heard Dan holler, which was uncharacteristic for him.
“Hey, kiddo. You can hang out for a minute, but then you gotta go. Okay? I'm sorry.”
I turned and found Micah nodding meekly and sliding into a corner by a heater. His clothes were filthy, of course, though his face and hands were cleaner now, since he'd been coming to see me every closing shift. It was only a matter of time before his sour smell started to fill the space as he warmed up. I dropped the pizza into the box, closed it and put the order tag on it. I walked over to Dan and nudged him.
“Hey. I know this kid. Kinda quiet tonight, mind if I cut out?”
Dan looked at Micah and then at me. “His parents should be fucking beaten. Who lets their kid out like that? Get him cleaned up, yeah? You want to take some food? He looks too thin.”
“Thanks, Dan. I'll see you tomorrow?” I asked as I scooped a 'boli thing; they were Micah's favorite.
“Yeah, yeah. Wash his shit, will ya?” Dan added.
I snagged my coat and gloves and rounded the counter. “Come on, buddy. Let's get out of here. You want a hot chocolate?”
“Are you a moron?” he whispered. “Of course I want a hot chocolate!”
“You're kind of a dick, you know,” I told him as we walked into the biting cold. “You'd think you'd be nicer when someone offers to buy you something. Here, eat this.”
“Moron is nice,” he said and chuckled as he accepted the food. He'd been doing a little of that, lately, and I was feeling better about making progress with him—the chuckling I mean, not eating. Kid ate like a horse. But he also showed me something when he said, “I'm sorry. Yes, please.”
“Excellent. Next I plan to paper train you,” I said with a snicker. He pushed me and I laughed and told him he was a wimp. I had to be careful with comments like that, though. He was really small, and he was sensitive about it. I did it now and then, however, hoping to show him I meant it to be familiar, not disparaging, like what guys do with their friends. We stopped a few doors down and I got him a hot chocolate from the convenience store and then we were back outside.
“So, Alec...listen.” He paused and shuffled his feet. “Um, I lost my place.”
“Is that like losing your thought? Like train of thought? Left the station without you?”
“What? No!” He gave me a disgusted looked and muttered, “Moron,” under his breath. Then he explained. “My place. I was crashing at the Skylane Motel over on Central by the mall.”
“The mall? Jeez, Micah, that's a long way to walk.”
“Well, I get a shit load of pizza from you and stay out of the wind there; hole up for a day or two. It was for shit, but I can't go back, now.” He suddenly coughed and the sound was wet; it had been getting steadily worse. I knew I'd need to address that and soon.
“Okay, do you want me to ask why?”
“Not really,” he said with a shrug. “I was able to break into a room; the place was condemned, you know? But they finally tore it down, so...”
“So you ready to couch surf at my place? Meet my husband? Don't call him names, he won't like you much if you do.”
“I call you names, you like me.”
“You're awfully cocky today,” I told him, though I suspected he was masking being nervous.
“Well, yeah. I could crash there for a night,” he conceded, as if he'd be doing me a favor.
“I dunno,” I said, letting a sing song tone into my voice. “You might like it there.”
He stopped suddenly, and I turned to face him. The wind whipped around us savagely, digging frozen fingers in wherever it could. I thought I could even feel cold windy tentacles running up my sleeves and down the front of my coat. Micah stood before me, serious and defiant as if he were making a last, heroic stand against accepting help without sacrificing every last bit of his pride.
“Look, I just need a place to crash, okay? I know what happens if I stay, all right? I just don't want to have you stick me in the system because I don't want to fucking freeze, okay?” he said in a demanding tone, holding his hands in front of him like knives which he then moved to cover his mouth as a wracking cough took hold. He bent over and spat; a large wad of phlegm disappearing into the snow.
My breath plumed in front of me as I replied, “Look. I promise not to get you into the system until we have a plan. Okay?”
“Fuck does that mean?” he asked, putting his hands on his hips.
“It means it's cold, you're swearing at me for no reason and I want to go inside before my nuts fall off. Okay? Mind if we talk about it indoors?” I turned on my heel and walked for home. Frankly, he could turn and run. He was just stubborn enough to do it, too. But I was banking on having made a connection with him, and he knew he could only push me so far. Plus, I thought he kind of liked me. I went ahead and sent Sasha a text that I thought Micah might be coming with me so he could put the plan we'd laid out into action for just such an event.
“How do I know you won't carve me up like Dahmer and eat me later?” he asked, falling into step beside me, covering his mouth and coughing lightly.
“Spend all this time for a skinny runt like you? I don't think so, Little Bit.”
“If you fed me something besides fu- um, stupid pizza, I'd be filled out. Do you even believe in fruit?”
“Definitely. Sasha makes me eat pineapple all the time.”
“Pineapple is good. Why does he make you eat it?”
I turned and grinned at him. “You're too young to know.”
“Oh, I call bullshit right there,” he grumbled. I was frequently amused when he grumbled. I'm sure he thought he was intimidating or something, but I found it endearing that this short, skinny kid was practically growling at me as if he were actually dangerous.
We arrived at my apartment, a converted two story home in a fair neighborhood. I climbed the stairs and pulled my boots off at the top of the landing and placed them next to the radiator. Micah glanced at me. Then, a tad grudgingly, he put his shoes by my boots. We entered the apartment to the smell of food cooking.
“Hey, you're home early,” Sasha said as he walked out of the kitchen. He paused as he took in Micah, both the sight of him and his sour smell, which would only get worse out of the cold.
“Sash, this is my buddy, Little Bit. Say hello, Little Bit,” I said, patting Micah on the head.
“Cut it out, moron!” he said, shoving my hand away. He looked at Sasha and said, “My name is Micah. Don't pay any attention to him.”
“I try not to,” Sash said with a smile and held his hand out to Micah to shake, which he did. Then Sasha turned and hugged me.
“You don't pay me any attention? What's that about?” I asked, teasing.
“I have to use my Alec filter,” Sasha said to us both. “I think I'll just call him Micah, as long as he answers to it.”
“What's that smell?” Micah asked, his tone not quite getting the casual disinterest I'm sure he was aiming for, and following it with a cough that he covered with his hand.
“Oh, well, that's my chili. But,” Sasha said, eyeing Micah up and down, “I'm afraid you have to be clean to eat it.”
“Shit. Do I have to wipe up with a freaking washcloth again? What's with all the rules so you can eat?”
“Well,” Sasha said, clasping his hands together. “My rules are stricter than Alec's. I'm lucky Alec remembers to use the bathroom, some days.”
“Hey! Don't tell him everything, Sash! Jeez.”
“What rules?” Micah asked and narrowed his eyes.
“Well, Alec and I have been anticipating that you'd need a place, eventually, when you were comfortable enough—when you had enough trust in Alec.”
“I don't trust him,” Micah said with a snort and an insolent grin followed by another bought of coughing. “My place was condemned and they finally knocked it down.”
Sasha's eyes opened wide as he looked at me and then started to laugh. “Wow. Micah only decided to come stay with us because they tore his place down. We must really be the bottom of the barrel, Alec!”
“Hey, whoa, I didn't mean it like that. Well, I did but...come on! I wasn't trying to be a dick!” Micah said, squirming in front of Sash.
Sash, for his part, put a hand on his chin and lifted an eyebrow. “Like I was saying, we hoped you might get smart and come to stay, so we got you a few things because...well, you should have things, like any other kid. Plus, you stink.”
Sasha smiled. “So, I want you to go into the bathroom and take a shower. I want all your old clothes in the basket I left in there for you. I want you to put on the clean clothes I also set out into the bathroom for you. Then you can take the green toothbrush and clean your teeth and then, my friend, you can eat as much chili as you like.”
He looked back and forth between us and sighed heavily. “Fu- um, nuts. Fine.”
“Wow. Sash, you have the touch. I thought for sure he'd make some jerk comment asking if we had cameras in the bathroom or something,” I said, grinning at Sasha.
“What? Alec, are you fu- uh, screwing with me?”
“Yes, he is,” Sasha said, giving me the stink eye. He turned and addressed Micah. “You have to get used to him, to develop a filter for when he has his mouth open.”
“Yeah,” Micah said, giving me a touch of bravado. “He's got you all figured out, Alec. He sees through you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Go clean up, Little Bit.”
“Stop calling me that, moron,” he grumbled. With a sigh he headed to the bathroom and locked the door behind him.
“He's every bit as rough as you said,” Sash said as he headed back into the kitchen. Now that I saw Micah wasn't going to run back out into the cold, I pulled my coat off and was about to toss it on the back of the couch and follow after Sasha when he poked his head back out. “Uh, no. Hang your coat up. You have to set a good example.”
“You know how I feel about being an example.” I grinned at him and hung my coat up in the closet. In the bathroom I could hear the shower kick on and I joined him in the kitchen. I took a sniff of the chili and then leaned on the counter. “He's scared. I like him though, he's got some toughness to him.”
“Yeah, I can see that. I noticed he's trying to not say the word 'fuck'. Do you think that's out of respect?”
“A little. It's also cold out and he probably thinks we'll toss him out in the snow or something.” I paused, “Truthfully, I'm surprised he's showering. I mean, I'm glad. The little sponge baths he's been doing in the bathroom at work aren't enough, but I think it's huge that he's showing enough trust to be vulnerable like that. He probably needs to see a doctor, but I know we can't do it until we can get him as a placement.”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Sasha asked quietly. “You know I support you and my heart aches for him. But this is big, Alec. We're college students, not accomplished people with homes and careers. Our spare bedroom is loaded with crap, not a bedroom for a teen. Plus, we have no idea what his needs are going to be or how he's going to react once or if he settles in here.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said and thought for a moment. “I don't have a solid plan, Sash. My only goal was to help him if he wanted help; to see if he wanted to be saved. I think he does, but...I can either move forward and do my best or, what? Call CPS and dump him? I don't think I can do that, even though I don't know how bad he might be.”
Sasha stirred the chili thoroughly, then covered the pot and turned the heat off. He stepped in front of me and put his arms around my neck. “I just don't want you to be disappointed, but you're right; we can't just dump him. Besides that, maybe he was some sort of angel to guide you when you were in the hospital. Maybe this is a trade and we have to take care of him now. So, what's your plan?”
I looked down into his eyes and said, “Well, we graduate MAPP class next week. I was thinking I'd talk to a professor of mine and see if I can get some guidance. I think we need to talk to Micah, though, and be honest about what we'd like to do.”
“The MAPP people said we had to have a room and a closet or dresser for him. That means we have a short amount of time to clean that room out, Alec.”
I groaned. “I know. Then we need the smoke detectors, the fire extinguisher...but Sash...that's just busywork, trivial stuff. We can make a difference, if he'll let us. I mean a life-changing, world-altering difference for him.”
“You're crazy. This is crazy. I can't believe we're doing this,” Sasha said and then started to laugh. “Well, I hope Lu likes the idea of being an uncle.”
“Even better, he and Robin will be up here next year. We can have some backup.”
Sasha sighed. “What about time for just you and me? You'll keep that in mind too, right?”
I grabbed his butt and pulled him to me. “Oh, personal time? That's code.”
“No,” he said, laughing and twisting in my embrace. “I'm talking about just time for us to talk, be together, be us. This is going to be a big change.”
“Well, he's a teen. Or a tween. Probably hit puberty. He'll probably go take a lot of showers so he can beat off, so we can talk then,” I said and winked.
“Hah. We need to dig out the cough syrup and go get some juice for him. That cough doesn't sound very good. I read somewhere pineapple juice was very good for fighting off colds.”
“Yeah. Besides, he doesn't need pineapple for it's other uses, yet,” I snickered.
Sasha pointed at me and said, “You better settle down in front of him. You make jokes like that and it could get us in trouble with the county or something.”
“Nah. He's a teen, they know all kinds of crap.”
“Love,” Sasha said, lowering his voice. “Do you want me to tell you who told me about the difference pineapple makes?”
I paused. “Strangely, I don't think I do.”
“Then behave, my dear. The world has already corrupted the poor thing enough.”
The shower kicked off and Sasha gave me a short kiss before letting me go. I went into our bedroom and put on sweat pants and a tee shirt and returned to the living room to find a clean Micah being given an inspection by Sasha.
“Well, you need to pay more attention to the space behind your ears; otherwise you get a lot of oily buildup. Let's get you some deodorant and comb that beautiful hair.”
Sasha walked past me and into the bathroom with Micah in his wake. Micah widened his eyes and shrugged as he walked past me, a 'what can you do?' sort of look on his face. I stopped him, holding him loosely by the shoulders. It was like seeing a different person, really. His golden blond hair was long and shone in the light; clean and falling in uneven waves. His face was unframed by the hoodie he usually wore under his shabby coat, and his huge green doe eyes that were probably disguising a lot of hurt were bright and sparkling. The shirt was a touch big for him and hung on his thin frame, open at the neck, a bit wide perhaps, revealing clean, pinkish skin. Probably he'd had the water on hot enough to scald. The kid was darned cute and his nervous smile had my heart breaking a little more for him.
“What?” he asked.
I smiled and patted his cheek. “You clean up real good, Little Bit.”
“Stop calling me that, moron,” he said, cracking a smile and pulling away to follow Sasha. I headed into the kitchen and started scooping chili onto a bowl and setting the shredded cheese in a dish on the counter in case anyone else wanted it. Of course I helped myself to a generous amount and stirred it in to get it nice and melted.
“You didn't say anything about a white glove inspection,” Micah groused, and coughed, as he entered the room with a smiling Sasha behind him.
“Piss him off and he takes out the rubber hose,” I quipped. Micah looked at me uncertainly and Sasha pointed at me sternly.
“Love, no jokes about violence, okay? None of it.”
“Um, okay,” I replied uncertainly, though I was thinking Sash had a reason. “Hungry, Little Bit?”
“Why do you think I showered?”
“'Cause you stunk,” I chuckled and handed him a bowl.
Sasha said he was just going to put Micah's things in the wash—we had an apartment-sized stacking unit that cost more than anything like that has a right to. He headed back out of the room, and I turned my attention to Micah.
He eagerly filled the bowl and I pointed to the cheese, which he heaped on top. He followed me out to the small living room and sat down in a chair before digging in with absolute glee. Sash sat beside me moments later and we ate, enjoying the enthusiasm of someone who didn't get to do so regularly, which was kind of twisted in a way.
Micah stood and looked down at Sasha. “Were you screwing with me about how much I can eat or not?”
“No, Micah, help yourself, sweetie,” Sash said to him and Micah tore back into the kitchen. Sash looked at me and smiled. “He likes my chili. How cool is that? I approve.”
I grinned, “Everyone likes your chili. I don't know how much he'll eat, but you did get toilet paper, right?”
He fixed me with the 'do you think I'm stupid?' glare before returning to his bowl. “Did you look at his feet? We need to give him some fungal cream; he has a terrible case of athlete's foot. I wouldn't be surprised if he has jock itch, too, or other health issues. Let's start with the easy stuff, though. And I'll get that cough syrup or he'll never get any sleep.”
Micah was back out with us and digging into his second bowl, sauce on his cheek. I got up and topped my own bowl off and grabbed some paper towels to use as napkins and went back into the living room and handed out the paper towels and taking time out to tell Micah food goes in his mouth and not his face. He stuck his tongue out at me. Sasha had turned the TV on and started the next episode of a Netflix show we were watching.
I'm not sure how many bowls Micah ate, but Sasha took it as a compliment. Sasha got up and paused the show, saying he'd be right back.
“Like the chili?”
I chuckled. “The 'F' word is back, eh?”
He paused for a moment, coughed his wet cough, and then asked in a speculative tone. “Does it bother you?”
“A little,” I admitted. “It has its place, no doubt. But it's kind of like...seasoning. You put to much of it in and it overwhelms everything else. Use just a pinch and it stands out. Besides, it's kind of aggressive and a little disrespectful and, honestly, I don't think Sash or I deserve it.”
His expression was one of mild concern, but he nodded anyway. “Yeah, okay. I'm sorry.”
“It's all good, Little Bit.”
Sasha returned with a handful of items and dumped them onto the table. “Okay, I'm sorry, I just couldn't take it any more. Micah? Sweetie, I want you to do a few things while we watch TV, okay?”
Micah frowned and glanced at the items. “Like what?”
“Well, I bet your toes itch and hurt some, right?” Sasha asked. Micah nodded and Sasha held up a tube of ointment. “This will help. Just a little at a time, spread it out in between and over your toes morning and night. Now, do you have the same problem with your crotch?”
“Do your nuts itch?” I asked.
“No.” He glared. “A little.”
“That's what this is for, then,” Sasha continued as if that exchange never happened. “I'm sure you've seen finger and toenail clippers and an emery board, so you can rock on with that stuff. Make sure you gather up the clippings. And I'm going to give you some medicine for that nasty cough; we'll get you some juice tomorrow. You need to push fluids.”
Sasha poured out the cough syrup into the little cup that comes with it, made sure Micah drank it all, then slid the other items toward Micah and resumed the show. I figured he was probably watching Micah from the corner of his eye, just to make sure he actually followed through, but he was good about telling people what he expected and then backing off.
Once the episode was over we let Micah pick something while we retreated to the little dining room table and set about doing our homework. Micah was intrigued by that and he never actually started a new show. He ended up asking us what we were doing and we spent part of our time explaining what we were learning and what our homework was.
A few hours later we folded the futon out and put sheets on it and a pillow and blanket for Micah. Sasha made him brush his teeth again, standing in the open doorway to make sure he did it. Micah bitched a little, but did as he was told.
He was passing me as I headed back toward the bathroom and I reached out and tousled his hair, but he flipped out as if I'd punched him.
“Don't fucking pull my hair!” he snarled and backed away from me like a scared animal.
“LB, I didn't, man,” I replied and put my hands up. “I was just messing it up a little, promise. You have thick hair, man. I just want to sink my fingers in it and mess it all up.”
His pupils were dilated and I took a few steps back to give him room. His gaze flickered to Sasha who was staying back, but concern was etched on his face. I turned my attention back to Micah, and he was wiping his eyes and blinking rapidly. Once more a piece of my heart melted and the desire to soothe him was nearly overwhelming.
“You okay, Micah?” I asked softly and squatted down so as to appear less intimidating.
“Of course I am,” he replied, his voice choked.
“Um, hey. Uh, I used to give Lu a goodnight hug, sort of tradition in our house. You, uh, mind?” I held up my hands tentatively in case he reacted poorly.
“I'm not Lu,” he said, his voice rough. Even as he said so, he ambled forward and let me hold him. I kept the hug light, but firm enough that he knew it was happening. He sniffed then coughed lightly. I rubbed his back and whispered, “I'm sorry I startled you. Sleep well, okay?”
He nodded. “Okay.”
“No fair,” Sasha said as he approached us. “I cooked.”
“It was good chili,” Micah admitted and allowed Sash to hug him. Sasha said something in a low voice that I didn't catch, but Micah chuckled and, to my surprise, looked like he was lifting his hands to return the hug when Sasha let him go. There was an awkward moment when Sash realized Micah was attempting to return the hug, and Sasha handled it with his usual grace and just went back to hugging the little guy. Micah returned the hug, tentatively, but I admitted to myself that Sasha had the gift.
He got settled into the bed and I told him to wake us if he needed anything. With a cough, he nodded and pulled the blanket tight and I left him be.
I closed our door and changed for bed. Sasha was already in bed when I climbed next to him and he moved over to put his head on my chest and his hand on my stomach.
“Sash, he might hear,” I said, teasing.
“Hush, love,” he said and turned his head toward me and kissing me lightly. With a sigh he said, “Has Micah opened up about his past at all?”
“No, not really,” I said. “I'd have told you if he did, though.”
Sasha sighed and turned his face so that he could rest his cheek on my chest. “Someone abused him, Love. Badly.”
“Yeah,” I said forlornly. “Obviously someone used to yank him by the hair. Did he say anything to you? Tell you anything?”
He shook his head. “No. It was in the bathroom, when I was telling him to wash behind his ears and getting the deodorant for him. When he lifted the shirt to put the deodorant on the collar shifted—the shirt is too big for him, really. Anyway, I saw scars. I think they were cigarette burns, Love.”
Sasha sniffled. “You were right. We have to help him.”
Wednesday morning I awoke to the sounds of Micah's wet coughing. I stretched and hit the bathroom before heading out in to the living room. Sasha was sitting beside Micah and frowning down at a thermometer. He glanced up at me and shook his head.
“We have to get him to a doctor. He's got a fever.”
I paused. “Well, we could...take him to the clinic downtown, maybe. I've heard they don't require ID to be seen.”
“It's that or call social services and fight with them to keep him now, before we're ready.” Sasha patted Micah's shoulder as he protested, then stood and approached me. “His cough is worse. We have to do something and now.”
I nodded. “Okay. I can do it, no use in both of us missing a day of classes.”
Sasha narrowed his eyes. “I'm not going to be able to concentrate knowing he's so sick.”
I titled my head and smiled. “Aww. You like him.”
With a wicked look Sasha replied, “Actually, I just don't trust you to get this done. Doctors? Authority? Hah!”
He just laughed and went to get cleaned up. I went over and sat down beside Micah, who coughed and looked up at me miserably. “I'm not going to social services. I'll run away first.”
“The only kind of running you'll be doing is to the toilet,” I told him with a grin.
“This is your fault anyway,” he said, a little spark in his otherwise tired eyes. “All that crappy pizza. It's not good for you. What kind of a parent are you, anyway?”
“The fun one that lets you skip school and go to the movies once in a while. Sash is the strict one,” I said seriously. “He'd make both of us go to class.”
He chuckled and shook his head. Sasha was ready in short order and I got cleaned up quickly before getting an unhappy Micah to shower. I teased him that any pretty nurses would definitely fall for his sweaty bouquet and he tried to kick me.
By the time he was ready, Sasha had the car warmed up and we set out for the clinic in downtown Albany. Passing over the surface streets, we saw the Albany that was an odd mix of the old, classic architecture common to northeastern cities and their contemporary, largely ugly, replacements. Shops still lined the main avenue, but many were the variety that opened and closed within a few months.
The clinic was in a pretty crappy looking area known as Arbor Hill. The name might make one think of tree lined avenues with trendy brownstone homes. In reality there was the occasional dead tree, plenty of detritus, and old buildings that leaned against one another as drunks might for support that were now broken up into apartments.
Even so, we had to park almost a block away and walk back to the clinic. The waiting room was half full and a busy young woman was seated behind a low counter, looking down intently and appearing to be writing something. I glanced at my husband and Micah, then walked up to the counter. The nurse looked up at me, glanced at Micah and frowned.
“What's wrong, sweetie?” she asked.
He coughed and I decided I could add to his statement. “He's got a cough and a temperature that started this morning.”
She glanced at me and said, “How long has he had the cough?”
“Um, a little one, dry, about two weeks ago. Thought it was just the dry weather. The wet cough started Monday.”
“Okay. What have you been treating him with?”
Sasha stepped forward. “We've been giving him pineapple juice, water and soup. His appetite really went south yesterday morning.”
She glanced at a computer and hit a few keys. “Name?”
Her mouth twisted in a smile. “Not you, dad. My patient, here.”
“Oh!” I said, chuckling. “His name is, uh, Micah. Um, Winchester.”
“Winchester, huh?” she said, smiling as she typed. “And are you guys Sam and Dean?”
I glanced at Sasha whose lips were faintly curved. I glanced back at the nurse but she directed her next question to Micah.
“Sweetie, how old are you?”
“Twelve,” he said and coughed.
“Okay. Let's get you into a room. Dad? Can I get some more information from you for his chart?”
I paused and glanced at Sasha.
“It's okay, Dean,” he said. “I'll take care of him.”
She led them to a room and I trailed behind, waiting outside the door when she closed it. She looked at me firmly and said, “I need to know what I'm going to see here. I'm cutting you slack because he doesn't seem frightened of you and you're seeking treatment for him. But I swear, if that kid...” she trailed off but her look hardened.
I wet my lips and glanced around before meeting her gaze. “He's a street kid. I'm working to get him placed with me but I have to keep it under wraps because any mention of the county or social workers gets his Irish up. My husband and I will gladly step out of the room and let you question him. All I do know about his past is he has some scars on his shoulders and back; they look like cigarette burns.”
She crossed her arms and looked at me speculatively. “You're in school? You look young enough to be.”
“Yeah.” I pulled out my SUNY ID and she glanced at it before waving it away.
“Let's head in,” she said and we entered the room. Micah looked a little worried, but relaxed when I shook my head at him.
“Okay, buddy, I need to get a height and weight on you and then we'll check your blood pressure, listen to your lungs and generally check you out, okay? Do you want your dads in here for this?”
Micah covered his mouth and coughed. “Yes, please.”
“Okay. Hop over here on the scale,” she said and held him by the elbow as he toed off his sneakers and stepped onto the old scale. She nodded and had him step up against a measuring strip on the wall and then made notes in the computer. She directed him to remove his shirt and he glanced at Sasha, his look quite nervous.
“It's okay, sweetie. She needs to examine you.”
“You're pretty sick, Little Bit. If it makes you feel better you can flex for her, too,” I said. His lips curled into a smile and he muttered the familiar endearment 'moron' to me.
He pulled off his shirt and the nurse put a stethoscope to his chest and had him breathe. It sounded raspy and when she asked him to take a deep breath, she was rewarded with a spasm of coughs. I glanced at Sasha who mirrored my worried look. She kept moving the instrument and encouraging him to breathe. Then she moved to his back. She visibly faltered, but recovered admirably well and continued her exam.
She frowned. “Okay, I'm going to tell the doctor we need some X-rays. Micah, hon, there's a gown behind you. I'm going to talk to your dads in the hallway and let you change, okay? Just leave your underpants on.”
We patted Micah on the back and stepped out into the hall. No sooner was the door closed than Sasha was speaking.
“We're not his dads.”
“No shit?” she said with a wry grin. “But you are married and you are with a child here. So, look.” She paused and took a breath. “His injuries aren't recent, so it jives a bit with what you said.” She lifted her chin toward me and I nodded.
“I also think he'd have reacted either in surprise or negatively if he were uncomfortable. For instance, he might hunch in shame or embarrassment if me calling you his dads caused him stress.” She shook her head and continued, “He isn't in immediate danger, not from abuse or neglect. The fact that you're seeking medical care proves it isn't neglect, for the most part.”
“I'm sorry,” Sasha said with a shake of his head. “I'm kind of lost. How is it for the most part?”
She turned her gaze to him and explained, “If he hasn't been in your care then you couldn't be held liable for neglect. If, on the other hand, he was your son or your ward and he was this sick, then it could be. I'm going to ask him some questions but, as long as he doesn't seem to be in imminent danger, I don't have to report him. I can reasonably say he's safe. I'm going to get the okay from the doctor to x-ray him and then I'm going to give him a physical. You said you're seeking him as a placement?”
“Yeah. We graduate MAPP tonight—foster parent class,” I clarified as her brow wrinkled at the acronym. “The problem is he threatens to run if we get social services involved. I figured if we gave him some time to trust us, we can try and walk through the process.”
She sighed. “Okay. I'm pretty sure he has a chest infection, maybe even pneumonia. I'm going to keep the doc physically away from him because he's sort of a nosy prick. But,” she glanced back and forth between us and said, “I need a phone number from you guys. If he gets worse, he may need to be hospitalized.”
We quickly agreed and swapped phone numbers, texting them to her so she knew they were real. She tapped on the door and asked if it was okay to come in and he coughed that it was. Glancing at us she said, “If he doesn't improve quickly, you call me. Understand?”
“Yes,” we replied in unison. She nodded and entered the room.
“You want your dads in here for the exam?”
“Uh, yeah.” His reply was uncertain, but I couldn't tell why. We both entered the room and I shut the door behind us.
She proceeded to examine him and he told her about the jock itch and athletes foot creams he was applying. She checked him over thoroughly, doing a complete physical and taking blood as well. He was pretty embarrassed with the hernia check, but was pretty stoic about it.
She sat at the table and started entering information on the computer. As she did she said to Micah, “So dad says this wet cough started Monday. Is that right?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Before that it was just a cough. No crap to spit up.”
“And where were you living at that time?”
Micah looked at me in fear. I put a hand on his shoulder, “It's okay, Little Bit. She's like a lawyer; what you say is between you and her.”
She turned and smiled at him and explained the privacy laws that ruled the medical profession and he relaxed a bit. He told her about the hotel and that they had knocked it down Friday and that he'd been sleeping more or less in the elements for the weekend before he'd sought me out.
“Why did you wait so long, Micah?” she asked gently, her elbows resting on her knees and her face a mask of concern.
He gave a little shrug and said, “I didn't want to go back into the system. Moron here,” he said, pointing at me with his chin, “is going to school to be a social worker.”
“Ah,” she said as if she'd understood something enormous. “I understand. Do you feel safe with them, though, Micah?”
He glanced at me and then frowned. Returning his gaze to her he said, “If I tell you yes, he'll use it against me. I swear,” he said and paused to cough. “All the way home he'll be an asshole about it and keep telling Sa- uh, Sam that I like them and I like living with them.” Solemnly he said, “I'd rather pull one of my nuts off than give him that kind of ammunition. Capisce?”
She covered her mouth to smother laughter and then wagged her finger at him. “Don't you know it's impolite to use that kind of language? What kind of example are they setting?”
He crossed his arms and said, “Moron doesn't like me to swear.”
We ended up being there for about another 45 minutes, then we headed back home with pit stops to the store for more soup and juice and to fill his script for antibiotics. He did have an infection, but it wasn't pneumonia so there was that. Still, he looked pretty rough and we basically babied him. He'd never admit it, but he ate it up.
While Micah rested, Sasha and I put up the smoke detectors and spent the rest of the time cleaning out the spare room. Later that night, as Micah snored, we sat together and plotted how best to proceed with our temperamental charge. Later, in bed, Sasha admitted what I knew was the case, what I'd known would happen all along. He was attached to Micah, just as I knew I already was.
Swearing and all.
We both had classes Friday but neither of us would consider putting Micah out in the cold while we were gone. We were a little concerned about leaving him home alone, but we reasoned that anything he took—should he do so—would be easily replaced. He didn't seem to want to leave the apartment, which was good, but I'm sure a healthy part of his reasons why were because it was warm and there was food. Our adventure on Wednesday made it very clear to us that we needed the backing of the system to get him to a doctor if or when that need arose, for one thing. So Friday, after my mid-morning class, I walked over to one of my professors whose specialty was family law. He had office hours at weird times, and Friday at noon was one of them.
I tapped on his door and opened it, as the sign suggested. “Professor McCarthy?”
“Yes? Come in—oh, Mr. Kutsenko, isn't it? How are you?”
“Good, thank you, and you, Professor?”
“Well enough for winter I suppose. I'm so looking forward to spring so I can put the top down on the car, but then I'm sure you must have more pressing concerns than the weather.” He leaned back in his chair and waited expectantly for me, looking at me over the top of his glasses.
“Yeah, I have a hypothetical for you.”
“Oh, what fun,” he said with only a little sarcasm in his voice. “You'd better sit down then.”
He waved me to a chair and I dropped down into it. “So, here's the thing. Let's say a friend of mine, he comes across this street kid. Seems like a runaway. Establishes a rapport, gets some trust and then discovers there is evidence of past abuse.”
“Well, let me stop you there,” he said and pulled his reading glasses off and dangled them from a temple. “Your friend should know that, while rarely enforced, harboring a runaway is a crime. Should this child's parents choose to, they might try to sue or claim the child was coerced to run away. Now...go on.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, unhappy with that bit of news. “Um, so, let's say my friend just completed MAPP class but isn't certified, not quite yet, but wants to get this kid some help. Problem is, my friend is afraid DSS will take the kid from him and, I think, this kid would be afraid of that, too. In fact, the kid makes statements that make it seem likely he's had bad experiences with the system. In fact he's said he'd run away rather than going back in.”
“I see.” He paused and closed his eyes and let out a sigh. He tossed the reading glasses on his blotter and ran his palm along his forehead. “Jesus Christ. Okay, hypothetically speaking, your friend,” he said this last with obvious disbelief, “has a child who was abused and is likely in the system and listed as runaway or missing, somewhere. DSS might place him—on a temporary basis until a court date could be arranged—with your friend or they might place the child...how old did you say this imaginary child was?”
“Tween or early teen. Say twelve.” I made a note to ask Micah when his birthday was.
“Just so. There are several considerations for placing a child, not least of which will be his own history—violence, need for medication or if he has a drug related background. Due to his age and the difficulty of placing older children, a group home would be the likely thing, unless they feel your relationship with the child would bode better for keeping him stable and not running again. Uh, I mean your friend's relationship.”
“Sounds iffy. If they let my friend keep him, short term, what next?”
“A court date, likely within a few days. If the child is missing, then they will reach out to the county he originated from and then the bureaucracy takes over.” He sighed again and said, “Much will depend on his history, the circumstances of his running away and how much it would cost that county to send him elsewhere for care. Foster homes are less expensive than group homes, as a for instance. Kids in group homes need a higher level of care, in general. Sometimes they are simply harder to place because of their age, but that doesn't change the fact that group homes employ staff around the clock and that has to be paid for.”
I thought about that for a moment. “Would it do me any good to try to get a lawyer? I mean, I don't have the money, really, but if I had to—I mean, if my friend had to sell his car or something, I think he'd do it. Would that help?”
His feet hit the ground as he tilted his seat back to its horizontal position. “The lawyer could petition and cite precedent or family court law on your behalf, but you have no standing, legally, at this point. No, I'd say your friend is better off working behind the scenes to ensure the outcome he wants is the one pushed toward the judge.”
“What do you mean? How does that work?”
“Oh, come now, Mr. Kutsenko. You're quite clever.”
I thought for a moment, trying to find a way to tilt the odds in my favor. “Well, if I had any contacts in the county—since they make the recommendation where to place the child, right?”
“Okay, right, so if I had a contact then they might be able to help me keep the kid with me, right?”
“True. Keep in mind, if they feel it's what must be done, the county he originated from may want him back in their direct care. However, if it were in their financial best interests, they might be more amenable to letting him stay in a willing foster home than to step him up into a secure facility. Does this...fictional child,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “Does he have any violent tendencies? Drug use?”
“Not that I've seen. Um, that my friend has seen.”
He picked up his reading glasses and leaned back in his chair, idly chewing on the temple he'd been spinning idly before. “You say completed MAPP training but not yet certified?”
“Right. There were no plans to foster, but then this thing...”
“Okay, stop,” he said and tossed the glasses on his blotter again. “Do you have a dollar?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said and, at his waving a hand, I pulled my wallet out and gave him a dollar. He pulled a sheet of paper out and wrote me a receipt.
“Now you've retained counsel so we can drop this hypothetical bullshit,” he said with a huff. “Why do you assume this boy is a runaway?”
“He told me he'd been living in the Skyway Motel. He asked to stay with me when they knocked it down. He, um, he's been coming to see me at work for several weeks. I close up most nights at Cosmo's over off Western. I've been feeding him.”
He nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay, so, this is what I think. I have a friend over in the department. I'll put in a call, but only if I can see your place and see the child just so I can honestly say he seems to be in a good situation,” he said with deliberate tones. “I don't really know you, Mr. Kutsenko, and while I must advise you that harboring him is a crime, by the letter of the law, I don't see how you or any feeling, compassionate person could have done otherwise.
“I must also warn you, because it sounds like you are growing attached to this young man, that his problems could be far more than you might be able to manage. What kind of a support system do you have?”
“Well, my husband, my folks and some really close friends. But up here it's just my husband; we come up here for school and go home in the summer.”
He frowned. “Well, not ideal. Okay, look, you understand there are no guarantees?”
“Sure. Just...give me the best shot you can.”
“All right. Well, I'll stop this evening—what?”
I had winced at his statement. “Well, my husband and I have to sit down and talk to him. He's really afraid of the system and he's kind of rough around the edges. I have to prepare him. Also the room isn't quite ready for him.”
“Well, the room doesn't have to be ready until they inspect so you probably have the weekend. But I need to see a place fit for kids if I'm going to go to bat for you. Six?”
I swallowed. “Yeah. Here's the address.”
I started to text Sasha as soon as I left the office. My mind was swirling with excitement and possibilities and I did my best to tamp down on my fears of how Micah would react. I'd only known him a few weeks and he'd obviously been hurt by adults so I didn't know how far that would take me when I tried to explain how the world works. That brought me up short and I wondered who the hell I'd become that I was even thinking of doing such a thing. I'd spent most of my time trying to get around how the world works, not perpetuating it.
I pulled my boots off at the top of the stairs and entered the apartment. Micah had been watching TV, I think, but it was hard to tell because he had stood up quite quickly and fussed really fast before standing rigidly, his body trembling.
“Micah? What's wrong, Little Bit?”
His mouth opened slightly and his eyes darted toward the couch and then back to me. As I approached he grew visibly agitated, concerned that his eyes had given him away. I looked down to see a new stain on the used couch, something red. Probably some sort of juice and the glass it had come from. Must not have been much left in it, was my thought.
“Did you spill juice or soda or something?” I asked and then backed off his personal space so he didn't feel trapped. His eyes darted toward the door and I could see he was still, literally, scared stiff. So I turned and headed for the kitchen. “Probably should soak some of it with paper towels. Is there anything to drink left? Oh, and did you eat the rest of the chili or is there still some left for me?”
No sooner was I in the kitchen than I heard him rush quickly through the living room and open the front door.
“Micah,” I said, gently.
He paused. Coughed. His hand squeezed the door handle tightly, his knuckles white. A small whimper escaped him and I felt yet another pang of emotion for this poor kid.
“It's okay, Little Bit. It's a used couch. Whoever used to punish you, they're not here. That's not me. You're safe.” I kept my tone low and my hands down as I addressed him, willing him to feel the truth of my words.
He twitched and his head slowly turned. His huge eyes were dilated completely and his lower lip was trembling. He turned the door knob restlessly, torn between fleeing and trying to trust that I wouldn't hurt him; that this time would be different.
“Lu had a tough background, you know?” I said and leaned back against the counter. “I took him out to the old ruins in town one time and he just screamed, man. Total release of anger and anxiety.”
“You want me to scream or something?” he asked, his voice low and wavering.
“Nah, not really. I mean, if it helps, then maybe scream into a pillow or something. Neighbors probably would call the cops for someone screaming, you know?” I leaned forward a bit, still keeping my butt against the countertop and pitched my voice low. “I don't want the cops to find all the sex toys, capisce?”
His lower lip twitched as if a smile started and died in the space of a moment.
“The point is that I just gave him a hug, one of those crushing, can't breath kind of hugs, you know? He always said he felt better when he was getting a hug.” I held my arms out to him and told him it was okay. He looked at me uncertainly as his fingers uncurled from the doorknob. He sucked his lips in and I could see his eyes had begun to return to normal. All of a sudden he rushed to me, his arms like the branches of a sapling being so thin and yet quite strong. He burst into tears, great heaving sobs and all I could do was hold him, rub his back and tell him everything was going to be okay.
It must have been ten minutes before his grip faltered and his tears finally slowed. I was kind of amazed anyone had that much water in them. I got him a paper towel and he coughed and blew his nose and I asked if he wanted chili. He shook his head and I grabbed a bowl, telling him I hadn't had lunch—which was true, but more than that it seemed like an act of normalcy and I think he needed a big old dose of that. He stayed right with me until I pushed the door closed and walked over to sit on the couch with my food. He folded himself into the chair, looking small and pathetic.
“Did you shower today, Little Bit?”
“No. Was I supposed to? How many am I supposed to take, anyway?” His voice was raw and scratchy.
“I like morning showers, myself. But I guess it doesn't matter that much as long as you get clean. You should put that medicine on your feet and nuts right after you get clean, though” I replied easily. I chuckled, “Boy, you have strong arms. I figured for sure you were a total weakling.”
His lips twitched. “Don't you forget it, either. Moron.”
“I won't. It was a good hug,” I told him with a tone of approval, nodding and spooning more chili into my gob. I scraped the spoon on the bottom of the bowl, just moving it around. With a sigh I put it down on the table and sat back, turning myself to face him still scrunched in the chair.
“So, listen Little Bit, we have to have a serious talk. Do you feel up for it?”
He pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around his knees. “About what?”
I shrugged a little. “About what comes next, I guess. You know, I don't want to flip pizzas forever. I have a goal I'm working on, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah. Social worker. Useless...whatever. What's your point?”
I looked at him firmly, but spoke very softly. “Micah. Do you want to eat from garbage bins for the rest of your life? Or do you want something better?”
He wiped his eyes. “That's a dumb question.”
“Why don't you tell me anyway. Just so there's no confusion, okay?”
He cleared his throat. “I want better.”
“Okay. To get better we need to do a couple things that are going to make you nervous.” I decided against telling him I was also nervous.
“You're giving me to the county, aren't you?” he said, his voice broken and tears starting afresh.
“No, nope, I'm not doing that,” I told him firmly and sat forward. “I told you we'd work a plan out, right?”
“Yeah.” He nodded uncertainly.
“You've trusted me a little and I've never let you down, have I?” He shook his head, although it looked a little unwillingly.
“Okay, so, I talked to a professor of mine. He's a lawyer, he teaches us about family court law. He knows someone at the county. He's willing to talk to them so that they will go to the judge and say you should stay here, with us.”
His eyes narrowed. “Couldn't you just tell them I can stay? Why does there have to be a judge?”
“It's like this, Little Bit,” I told him. “I don't get to make those rules. In fact I can't get you into school or get you a doctor or dentist or anything because I'm not your legal guardian. You with me so far?”
He nodded slowly, then said, “But we did see a doctor.”
“Yes, we did, but we were really lucky with the one we saw. That wouldn't always be the case. We need to make you living here legal so luck doesn’t matter any longer.”
I leaned forward, wanting to be more persuasive, wanting him to see how sincere I was.
“Micah, we need to do this because that's how the law works. I have to work through the system in order to take care of you. You may not know this, but you have the right to an education and access to healthcare as a for instance. So what I have to do is get the spare room set up like a bedroom for you. Your own space. They have to see we made a spot for your own bed and a place to keep your stuff, among other things.”
“What sorts of other things?”
“Well, like we needed those smoke detectors in all the bedrooms and a fire extinguisher and other safety kind of stuff.”
He looked at me skeptically. “The county says you have to have all that to have a kid?”
“Yep. Kind of strict, too. They actually come to inspect the house to be sure. Um, but here's the thing, and I need for you to think about this and try to be honest, okay?”
He made no other reply but to look at me steadily.
“The county is going to find out you're a runaway. They will either have a record on you here or, if you're from somewhere else, they'll reach out to your old county,” I said and stood up as he started to shake his head and say 'no' over and over. “Chill, Micah, chill,” I told him and moved off the couch to squat before, but not touching, him. He glared at me.
“They'll make me go back to them, Alec. I can't go back. Can't.” His eyes were wet again and I reached out and took the fingers of one hand in mine.
“We got a lawyer, bud. We're going to fight to keep you, but I need your help. Do you think you can help me out?”
“How?” he asked, a tremble added to his scratchy voice.
“My lawyer, he says the first thing is to be sure that you weren't violent or on drugs. Now, you already told me about not being on drugs and I believe you, I do. But were you ever violent; did that have anything to do with why you ran away?”
He was shaking his head. He took a shuddering breath and then said, in a whisper, “My dad left when I was little. He just didn't come home one day. My mom, she's always been kind of mean. She says mean shit about me and my dad. She...”
“It's okay. Take your time. No rush, Little Bit.”
He looked away from me. “Do I have to? Can't I just stay here?”
“You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, no you don't,” I told him soothingly. “I figured someone was beating on you and worse.” I decided not to mention counseling just yet, but it was obvious he needed a dose. “I just need to know why you ran away. It'll help the lawyer to make the judge see things our way; it's not because I'm being nosy about your business. But I have to remind you, even if you're embarrassed, the county will get your file. Hiding something important from me will only hurt our case to keep you here, buddy.”
He sniffed a few times and wiped his eyes with the back of his free hand. The fingers I held tightened slightly as he brought his huge eyes to bear on me.
“They took me away from my mom five or six times. It's a small town so I went to other towns, other schools.” He paused and said, “I went to different houses all around when I was younger. The last place, they...they would get so mad.” His voice wavered, dropping to a near-whisper and a tear tracked down his cheek. “Like, if I had a bad day at school? They'd get so mad. The man, Jerry, he punched me. I landed on my bedroom door and broke it and he got mad at me for that, too.”
“Was he the guy that grabbed your hair?”
He shook his head. “My mom. She used to get really mad at stuff, not even me. Just...her job or the neighbor. Then she'd get pissed at me just because she was already mad. She'd grab my hair and...” He paused, his mouth working but not passing actual words. He reached up to his shirt collar and pulled it out, slowly, to expose the burns.
“She always did it where clothes would hide it,” he said, his voice a whisper. “Said all I was good for was being an ashtray.” He turned his eyes to me again and said, “I can't go back. I'd rather die.”
“You won't,” I told him and hoped fervently I could keep that promise without having to run for the Mexican border with him. Hmm, tacos. “Look, we just have to tell our lawyer some of this so he knows, okay? He's going to talk to the county and I'll be with you every step.”
He looked at me for a long time, just staring with those innocent eyes. Finally, very quietly, he said, “Okay.”
“My God, son,” my father said and shook his head slowly. “That's remarkable. I had no idea you were doing all of this up there. I hate to ask, but how did you find time to study?” he asked with a chuckle.
“It wasn't easy, let me tell you. Micah's a handful, but Sasha and I have his number. We got our studying done and we passed everything, but it took more work than it should have.” I paused and added, “Along the way we fell in love with Micah. He's rambunctious, on days I'm being nice. Other days he's a pain in the ass. But...he's also a wonderful, loving and lovable kid.”
“I have an uneasy feeling. What happened after all this?” My mother asked. “Micah is still with you, then?”
“Yep,” I confirmed. “He's our foster placement. We cleaned out that room and moved the futon in there until we found a used bed—new mattress, we're not stupid.”
My parents looked at each other and I charged forward with a verbal tornado before they could say anything.
“We got him into school and he's pretty smart. He may have set a record for detentions in a quarter, but he's smart. We go to therapy every Saturday and he's making some progress. He's from St. Lawrence county way up by the Canadian border from a tiny town called Hopkinton. They had a file on him and the stuff he said was true and then some. I guess the county was going to put him in a group home somewhere because of his age, but they were pretty happy to have him placed with Sash and me. Kids like him, sometimes they respond well to pressure, so Sash has been massaging him a couple times a week.” I trailed off as they both turned from their silent conversation. Rather than let them jump in, in a fit of nerves, I continued.
“Kind of funny, that. Um, so, Micah responds really well to hugs—compression, you know? Makes him feel safe, releases some chemical in the brain and it helps him. So we were thinking a massage might be right for him, but he was kind of weird about it. So Sash gave me a massage right in front of him, right? And he's just staring like it's the weirdest thing he's ever seen. Well, when Sash got done he asked Micah if he'd like to give it a try. He was a little reluctant,” I said, nodding my head forward and giving them a knowing smile.
“He ended up liking it?” my father ventured.
“Well, he took his shirt off and hopped up on the table. Sasha worked on him for a bit and Micah just ate it up. Two days later he came home with an A on a test and asked for a massage as a reward.”
“A reward?” my mother chuckled. “After all you're going through for him, a reward?”
“Mom, you know kids don't see things that way. Look at what a jerk I was,” I said and smiled as she laughed. “Anyway, Sasha made him a deal so he can get rewarded with a massage for certain goals. Participating in therapy, longer stretches of not getting detention, keeping his room picked up and making good grades. It's been the absolute best thing to hold out for him as a reward, you know? He gets down to his skivvies and almost jumps on the table, he's so excited.”
“Couldn't that be an issue?” my mother asked. “For instance, could he be seeking that out as some sort of sexual thing? Or could either of you get in trouble for allegations of wrong-doing related to what you were just saying?”
I was already shaking my head. “It's all been documented. In fact, he's had one right in front of his worker after he went a week without a detention. It's documented in his therapy sessions and he talks about it in a positive light. He always feels better after a massage.”
My folks went back into their mode of silent communication and when they faced me, my mother took the lead.
“Sweetheart, your dad and I...we're not spring chickens. We can't handle raising another teen, not at our age and not with his problems. I feel horrible about his situation, but honey if you're asking what I think you're asking...then I'm afraid the answer has to be no.” Finished she placed her hands on the table and her face was set in an apologetic look.
“Not what I was asking, exactly,” I said. “What I want to do is fix up the basement for Sasha and me, for the summers and put Micah in my old room. Just for the summer. We'll be here to take care of him and handle his little outbursts and I'm not asking you to adopt him. Um, we're kind of thinking, one day, we will.”
“Alec, that's a huge responsibility!” my dad exclaimed. “Son, Lu was easy! This boy, he's been through a lot more and I'm not sure you realize what you're getting into. Not with your school requirements and...son, I don't know.”
“I understand and I hear you. I heard you when Sasha and I were planning all this, believe me. It's like having an all-nag all-the-time channel in my head.”
They both protested but I kept talking.
“We made it work. It wasn't easy, I'm not saying it was. But we can see him getting better. It's happening and it's because we're doing the work. If you guys can't get behind this, well, I get it. I do. But Micah is part of us, he's our responsibility. I promised him I wouldn't let him go into the system, just float away like he didn't matter. So Sasha and I have limited choices.” I held up my fingers as I ticked off the options, “We can try to keep our apartment in Albany, but the rent could be tough. We can try the basement thing here or try and camp out in Sasha's dad's basement which is totally less cool than ours.”
“So, this is really about you telling us rather than asking us, is that it?” my dad asked, tilting his head and challenging me.
I leaned back. “Not the way I'd want to say it, but yeah, Dad. I have to figure out how to take care of my little family, so I gotta check out my options.”
My parents looked at each other and then back at me. “I'm not sure about this, Alec. But I know you boys shouldn't be staying in Albany, not least of which because of the expense and the two of you only having part time jobs at best. Lu can't wait for you to get home. Of course, we miss you, too. We love Sasha, it'd be wonderful to have him here. But I have to be honest, this boy concerns me and how much you've taken on and how deeply you seem to be attached in such a short time. It's a huge burden for you.”
“It could be,” I admitted. “Sometimes it even is. But mostly, we're making a difference. A big difference. We're changing his life. I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for you to do what you did with Lu. I just need for us to come stay for the summer. I need that bit of help. I'll lifeguard again and take him with me to the pool so he can swim everyday. I'll ask Lu to take him sometimes so he can meet the guys. I won't even ask you guys to babysit, I promise.”
They took another long look at each other. “Well,” my dad said, “I can't say I'm sold on this venture, Alec, but you always have our support. We can try it, but if it doesn’t work out...”
I smiled widely. “It will. You have no idea how happy this makes me.”
“Well, when you get to deal with a moody, bored tween, you may not be so happy,” my mother said with a chuckle. Then she sighed and said, “So, do you have a picture of him? I don't think I'm ready to be called grandma, but...”
I grinned and pulled my phone out. “Sasha took this right after his first haircut. We took him to a salon and the lady was making a big fuss over him, so he was feeling pretty confident,” I said, turning my phone to her.
“Oh, such an angel,” my mom said with a fond smile. “I can't believe that face has the mouth you described.”
“I told him you wouldn't take any of his crap and to watch his mouth. He will, too. He's very clean with Sasha. I get his potty mouth once in a while, but he's really stepped it up in trying to be respectful.”
She shook her head. “Poor thing. Well,” she said and smiled at my father, “I guess you boys have work to do in the basement!”
Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed my story.ICYMI, I'm hearing from a tiny fraction of my readers about what they think, what they thought was funny or what pissed them off in a story. I pay money to host my site and post stories that you are reading. So, now that you've read, please don't assume someone else will say what they thought, go to my message board and leave a note, even as a guest. I did my job, reader, please do yours.