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I was conflicted as we travelled further from town. It felt as though I was being 'set up' by my newfound companions.
I hadn't known any of them for more than a day or two. Although they seemed to be decent enough people, I can't say that I trusted them to any measurable degree.
That being said, if I'm being honest, I can't say that I trust much of anyone anymore. The experiences of my life thus far have proven to me that trusting people only leads to eventual pain and heartache... and sometimes incarceration.
The few times that my cynical good sense was overridden and I've given into the emotional urge to indulge in trust, I've lived to regret it.
I can honestly say that I walked into each unfortunate situation with my eyes wide open and made what seemed to be the most reasonable and favorable choice for myself at that time.
Some things worked and others turned out badly. But looking back, I can honestly say that I made the best decision that I could at the time with the information available to me.
There is such a thing as a 'no win' situation. When faced with a choice, I chose the path that took me to prison instead of the one that would have led to my death.
Do I like the way things turned out?
In hindsight, would it have been better for me to have made other choices?
But given what I did know at that time and the situation that I was in, I think I did as well as anyone could have.
Well... maybe one.
* * * * *
I broke out of my mental wandering and the late autumn scenery caught my attention. It was then that I realized that we weren't travelling out of town but rather to a different part of town... a seemingly more affluent part.
The dispersion of homes indicated that each was located on a larger than average plot of land compared to those we had passed earlier. They weren't exactly 'mansions' in the true sense of the word, but the homes were a bit bigger and nicer than the ones back in town.
Again, I didn't really know my companions that well. The woman on the lead motorcycle had invited some of us to her son's house for Thanksgiving dinner, but I'd only just met her and her invitation was the first I knew of her even having a son. By all indications, she was a biker, like the rest of us. She appeared to be a strong, yet very likable, woman.
However, the farther we went, the less likely it seemed that the beer drinking, Harley riding woman would have a relative who could afford to even set foot in this part of Kettle Falls.
Regardless, I had committed myself to this course of action. I could feel my adrenaline rising and was preparing myself to cut and run at the first indication of trouble.
* * * * *
When we finally turned into a driveway, I was surprised to find that the house was rather plain in its appearance. It wasn't ugly, but it wasn't a 'showplace', like so many of the others that we had passed.
As houses go, it was certainly big, I'll give it that much. But there weren't any fancy ornamental flowerbeds or spectacular 'features' on display as we arrived. It was a standard looking house with a standard looking lawn, reasonably kept, but unremarkable in every way.
* * * * *
I reluctantly got off my motorcycle and followed the others up to the front door. I felt the anxiety welling within me, threatening to overwhelm me.
Mona knocked firmly, which was somewhat comforting. It at least indicated to me that she expected to be welcomed into the home. At the first sign that she was 'sneaking' in, I would've jumped on my hog and tore ass outta there.
But then, much to my surprise, rather than wait for someone to answer, she opened the door and led the way inside.
I felt in that moment that it might be my last chance to cut and run.
If I followed her in, then I would be complicit in whatever happened next. Everything that I had gained in the years since I had been paroled could be endangered. Then again, I lost nearly everything when I fled President Ashwood's military thugs, gathering up the 'undesirables'. Everything I owned, all that was left of my 'worldly possessions' were with me on my motorcycle.
As I pondered my situation, my legs seemed to carry me forward without my conscious mind finding a satisfactory resolution.
"Are you sure that nobody's going to have a problem with us being here?" One of my companions asked Mona anxiously.
That question brought more relief to me than I can say. I wasn't the only one feeling incredibly out of place in this fancy neighborhood. I wasn't the only one to think that it was odd that Mona's son would turn out to be rich.
"I'd be very disappointed if my son was so selfish that he wouldn't share his good fortune with the people around him. I'd like to think that I raised him better than that." Mona said firmly.
As we walked in, I noticed that the entry hall was filled with family photos, dozens of them. All the pictures depicted the same two men and one young boy.
"Mona! I'm so glad you're here. I wasn't sure that you'd be coming." A reasonably handsome man said joyfully as he pulled Mona into a hug. I glanced from the man to the pictures and sure enough, it was him.
Although he had aged gracefully and could perhaps be described as appearing to be a bit more 'distinguished', it was certain that a number of years had passed since the most recent of the photographs were taken.
"From the way things were sounding the last time I talked to you, I thought you were going to have a houseful today. What happened?" Mona asked as she hugged him in return.
"I'm still expecting to. In fact, over a dozen more people have been invited since yesterday. This is just the calm before the storm." The man said as he finally released her.
"Guys, this is my son, Allen." Mona said simply. Although I had known that we would be visiting Mona's son, I didn't automatically assume that this was him because he and Mona appeared to be of a similar age, siblings perhaps, but I would certainly never assume that they were mother and son.
"Allen, these are the guys from the barbeque restaurant that I've been telling you about, Floyd and Monster." Mona said cheerfully, then looked toward me and continued, "And this young man trying to blend into the background is our newest friend, Lachlan."
"It's a pleasure to meet you all. I'm glad that Mona invited you. Just so you know, there are a lot of things going on right now. Due to the likelihood of people arriving at different times and the probability of some being called away unexpectedly, we've decided to have more of a buffet than a sit-down dinner." Allen said frankly, then stood aside and gestured toward the next room as he continued, "The dining room's through here. I think everything's set up and ready to go if you're ready to get started."
At Allen's motion, we left the entry hall and stepped into the living room. What I was seeing seemed to be at odds with what I had deduced upon arrival. This wasn't the living space of a rich person.
This was a home.
The furniture was comfortable and obviously 'broken in'. Things like the crocheted afghan draped over the back of the couch and other innocuous touches made the intimidatingly large room feel almost cozy.
"You can go back as often as you want, we're going to be restocking the food until we're sure that everyone's had a chance to eat their fill." Allen said, drawing my attention back to him.
I noticed that my companions were nodding their acknowledgement and I joined them.
"The bathroom's over there..." Allen began to say, but was interrupted by a knock on the door behind us.
He glanced in that direction, then looked back to us and quickly said, "If you need anything else, I plan to be running around here all afternoon. Just catch me as I pass through and let me know what I can do for you."
Before any of us could respond, Allen hurried past us to answer the door.
"He seems... nice..." Monster said uncertainly.
"He could have turned out worse." Mona said offhandedly, then casually continued, "Let's hit the chow line before all the best stuff is gone."
* * * * *
"What's wrong? Don't you see anything you like?" Mona asked me when she noticed that I was frozen in place before the massive collection of prepared food.
"No. Just the opposite. When I was invited to share in a family Thanksgiving dinner, I was kind of expecting a generic turkey with the obligatory green bean casserole; maybe some jellied cranberry sauce served in the shape of the can. I never expected it to be so extravagant. This incredible presentation would be appropriate for a five star restaurant."
"I hope it tastes as good as it looks." Monster said as he stepped forward to serve himself.
"I can't wait to find out." I said eagerly. I couldn't imagine that food presented so beautifully would be anything less than 'perfect'.
* * * * *
As I returned with my filled plate and a drink, I surveyed the layout of the living room before choosing a wingback chair near the fireplace. Not only was it out of the way, somewhat separate from the main seating area, but it also had a conveniently placed side table where I could set my drink.
Once I was settled into place, I noticed that Mona had taken the chair that matched mine and shared the side table.
After tasting a little of each of the offerings, I turned and quietly said, "Mona, if your son is a project manager, he might have missed his true calling. This food is not only beautifully presented, but also perfectly prepared. The balance of flavors is inspired."
Mona looked at me strangely, then slowly said, "My son? Allen? That boy screwed up Macaroni & Cheese because the directions didn't tell him to open the cheese packet."
"Really? Then did he hire someone to prepare this meal? Because if he did, I might talk to his catering company about getting a job with them. I would love to work in a kitchen that produces food like this."
"Sorry to burst your bubble, Kitten, but as far as I know, the person overseeing the cooking is JD. He doesn't have a catering company. In fact, he hasn't even graduated high school yet."
"Are you saying that a high schooler cooked this incredible meal?" I asked dubiously.
"Yes. I'm sure that he has a few people helping him, but everything that comes out of the kitchen is just the way that JD envisioned it." Mona said frankly, then grinned as she leaned in and conspiratorially whispered, "I've heard that he's something of a slavedriver."
"I can't wait to meet him."
"I'm guessing that he's probably busy at the moment. Why don't you stop and enjoy this meal and you can meet JD afterward and tell him how much you appreciate his cooking. Maybe, if you're really nice to him, he'll let you wash some dishes." Mona finished with a chuckle.
I took another bite and savored it for a moment before responding, "I would be honored."
* * * * *
"Boys, before you go in to get your food, let me introduce you to Mona's friends, Floyd, Monster and Lachlan. Guys, this is Jody, Jorry and Nick." Allen said as he led three teenagers into the living room.
My attention was drawn to the youngest of the teens since, unlike his companions, he looked as though he had been working. Not only were his hands noticeably dirty, but he even had a smudge of grease on his cheek.
It was then that I noticed him looking at me strangely. Given that I have facial tattoos, that's not too unusual. But there was something about the way that he was looking at me. It wasn't with recognition, but it also wasn't with the typical curiosity that I had become accustomed to.
Before I could decipher the meaning behind that look, the boy looked toward his older teenage companions and said, "I gotta go get cleaned up before I eat. Save me some of JD's turkey."
"You'd better hurry." The oldest of the teens said as he started walking toward the dining room.
The young teen started across the room in the opposite direction, toward the stairs.
"I know what he means about the turkey." Monster said into the silence that followed. "It melts in my mouth. I didn't even know that you could make turkey do that."
While I had tasted the turkey earlier, the other food selections had drawn most of my attention. I took another bite and critically analyzed both the taste and texture.
Monster was right. The turkey was exquisite. It was prepared perfectly in every detail.
* * * * *
"How is everyone enjoying the food? Did we miss anything?" A man asked as he walked into the room.
Since I had been told that JD was a high schooler, I knew that this wasn't him. The man was older than I was.
"Everything is wonderful, Ben. Be sure to tell JD that we're all enjoying the food very much." Mona said warmly.
"He'll be glad to hear that." Ben responded with a smile at her, then added, "But if you realize that anything's missing, just poke your head in the kitchen and let one of us know."
Just then I heard the front door open and a voice call out, "We didn't miss the food, did we?"
Ben laughed delightedly, then said, "No, Wil. We just got everything set out and we've decided to have an all-day-buffet instead of a sit-down dinner."
"Is Marc here?" Wil asked suddenly.
"Yeah, he's in the kitchen helping JD." Ben cautiously answered, obviously surprised by the question.
I noticed that the other three guys who had entered with Wil had most of their attention focused behind them and that they seemed to be excited about something.
"I'll go get him. Stay here. You need to see this too." Wil said quickly before dashing away.
"Floyd, Monster and Lauchlan, I'd like for you to meet Todd, Collin and Christian. That hyperactive little shit who just tore through here was Wil." Mona finished with a tender smile in the direction that he had gone.
"I've seen you guys in town. You make some awesome barbeque." One of the young men said appreciatively.
"Thanks. We thought that with all the Thanksgiving dinners being put on by everyone else today that we'd take a day off." Floyd said pleasantly.
"I'm sure that you've earned it."
"It's been a lot of hard work, but not only do we get to help people, but we get to look them right in the eyes while we're doing it. I swear, it changes you."
I hadn't been with the barbeque crew long enough to say that I'd been 'changed', but they were doing good, honest work and I was honored to be invited to join them. Of course, part of that had to do with a batch of baked beans that I had prepared for them at my 'audition'. It's entirely possible that they only invited me to join them to gain access to my secret recipe.
"We don't have time..." A man said as Wil led him into the room.
"If you'll hang on for one minute then you can get back to your gravy and I won't bother you anymore." Wil said firmly.
"It was icing."
"Whatever." Wil said dismissively, then asked, "Where's JD?"
"I thought he was right behind me... but to be honest, I doubt that he'll come out here willingly."
"Guys, who wants to help me go and kidnap him?" Wil asked as he looked around.
"I'll do it!" Todd immediately volunteered.
"Do you need Jody in here too? He's upstairs showering." The teenage boy, whom I deduced was Nick, asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Go get him. Tell him it's important." Wil said firmly.
Nick set his plate on the coffee table, then hurried up the stairs.
"What was so important that you needed me in here?" A teenage boy asked impatiently as he walked into the room drying his hands on a dishtowel.
"Hold on for a second. Nick just went to get Jody." Wil informed him.
I looked at the boy curiously... he somehow looked familiar, although I was fairly certain that I hadn't met him before.
As he glanced around the room, his gaze fixed on me and I saw him go visibly pale.
"What's wrong?" Wil asked with immediate concern at JD's drastic reaction.
"Lock?" JD gasped as tears welled in his eyes.
"Yeah." I answered cautiously, not able to think of any way that this boy could know who I was.
As the teenage boy walked slowly across the room toward me I stood to meet him. It was only then that I got a good look at his intense steel blue eyes.
The color was so distinctive that it immediately drew to mind the only two people I'd ever met with eyes like that before. One was my ex-girlfriend... by the way, don't ever stick your dick in crazy. It never ends well... Anyway, as I was saying, the only people I had ever met with eyes like that were Megara and her son...
"Spider?" I asked hesitantly, not able to believe that this could possibly be the fragile little boy from so many years before.
Rather than answer verbally, the teenage boy rolled up the left sleeve of his turtleneck shirt to expose the tattoos covering his arm. He turned his arm to expose his inner forearm, then traced one particular tattoo with his index finger.
I stared at the tattoos for a moment frozen in time. I didn't recognize some of them, they must have been done during my stay at Club Fed. But the others... The memories that I'd been suppressing for a decade flooded back to me. Memories of what had been done in my presence and what I had allowed to happen, filled my mind. The tattoo that Spider was showing me was the same as the tattoo on my forehead, a sword piercing a crescent moon.
"Do you know if I ever had a real name?" JD asked me cautiously.
"What?" I asked as I was jarred out of my stupefied state.
"When we talked to my mom, she said that she'd always called me Spider. I just wondered if maybe, since you were there, you might know if I ever had another name." JD carefully explained.
"No. Not that I know of." I said weakly, wishing that I had a better answer for this grown up version of the little boy that I had worried about so many years before.
"What did you need me for?" Jody asked as he hurried down the stairs while simultaneously pulling on his shirt.
"What? Oh, yeah. We brought you some visitors." One of the young men, either Collin or Christian said weakly.
"We thought we'd surprise you." The other one said in a matching tone of voice, then offhandedly added, "But JD beat us to the punch."
"Yeah. He's like that." Jody said as he walked to stand at JD's other side.
Collin, Christian and Todd moved aside to reveal two more people who had been standing behind them in the entry hall.
"Erika?!" JD said happily just as Jody exclaimed, "Erik!"
Jody left JD's side and ran to pull the astonishingly handsome young man into a firm hug.
The equally beautiful woman, presumably 'Erika', slowly walked toward where I was standing beside JD.
When she was a few feet away, she raised one hand and held out her index finger in JD's direction.
JD smiled and responded in kind.
Once they were close enough, they touched fingertips as they maintained their distance from each other.
"Erika, this is Lock. He's..." JD paused, then looked at me uncertainly before cautiously asking, "Are you my dad?"
"No." I said immediately, then quickly explained, "I was only with your mom for a few months when you were about four or five years old. I don't have any idea who your father was."
"Okay. I guess since we don't look anything alike... You're just the only person who I remember from before I was in the hospital."
"I'm sorry, Spider. If there was any way I could've been your dad, I would have been proud to do it. Unfortunately, things didn't work out so that it could be possible." I said regretfully, then thought to ask, "Why were you in the hospital?"
"Why don't we save that story until everyone's had a chance to get some food?" Marc interjected.
"I'm sorry, but I have to get back into the kitchen right now. I've got about a thousand profiteroles that aren't going to wait for me." JD said regretfully.
"I can help you if you..." I began to volunteer, but JD shook his head as he interrupted, "Not this time, Lock. It would really mean a lot to me if I could show you what I've been able to do with what you taught me."
JD then gave me a firm hug before hurrying back to his kitchen.
What I taught him? The amazing chef that I couldn't wait to meet turned out to be that skinny little boy who I used to take to work with me and let help me in the kitchen... mostly to get him away from his nutjob of a mother?
As I was caught up in trying to process what had just happened, Mona looked up from her chair and asked, "Okay. What am I missing here? Because I'm totally lost."
"Lock? I'm one of JD's fathers, my name is Ben Stone."
"I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Lachlan Tierney." I said formally as I offered my hand to him.
As he shook my hand, I suddenly realized that I had seen him before. I recognized him from his photograph on the dust cover of one of my favorite books.
"Benjamin Stone? The author of 'In the Service of the Aethers'?" I asked cautiously.
"Oh? You're the one who bought that?" Ben asked with a grin.
"It was an incredible book... wait, you didn't make that up, did you? That was from the stuff that Megara was always ranting about, wasn't it? When I read your book, I assumed that you must have stumbled onto the religion she was caught up in, but you heard about it from her, didn't you?" I asked as I put the pieces together.
"Sort of. Megara's worldview and beliefs were so disjointed and inconsistent that I took a few creative liberties so that I could construct an entire mythology based on her perception of the world. I prefer to think of it as a fictional account based on actual beliefs." Ben tried to explain.
"Excuse me! You know JD and Ben? Are you here meeting my family or am I here meeting yours?" Mona groused.
"He read one of my books, Mona. We don't know each other beyond that." Ben assured her.
"It's incredible that I'm getting to meet you. I really loved your book... I guess maybe because it helped to explain what Megara believed in. It helped me to sort out something that had been bothering me for a long time."
"Since you're a reader, have you, by chance, ever read 'Anathema Mythique' by JD Stone?" Ben asked in a leading tone.
"I read the first few pages of it, but it was way beyond me... JD Stone? Are you saying that Spider wrote that?" I asked disbelievingly.
"Yes. That and about six others since. Even though his books aren't top ten best sellers, he still has a loyal following."
"From what I heard in pri... the library I used to go to, JD Stone's books were fairly popular. People would read them as a way to escape from their reality. It sounded like they were exceptionally good at creating whole new worlds to get lost in."
"Yes. I suppose they are. Of course, if you take all of my book sales and JD's combined, they still don't come anywhere close to Jody's." Ben said as I followed his loving gaze toward the entry hall, where Jody was still hugging Erik and talking a mile a minute to him.
"He's a writer too?" I asked incredulously.
"He's Jody Grant, the author of the 'Benny Bear' series of children's books." Ben said proudly.
"Wait! I've heard of those!" I said as I looked at Jody again.
It seemed impossible that the barely teenage boy had been the author of one of the most beloved series of children's books in the past decade.
Then again, maybe they were so popular with kids because the person who wrote them spoke their language.
"Cliff and I have two 'official sons' and one that's unofficial. You've met JD and Jody. If all goes to plan, you'll also be able to meet Junior before very long. We just got word that he's in Kettle Falls and as soon as he's able, he's supposed to be coming here."
"Is he an author too?" I automatically asked.
"Strangely enough, no." Ben said thoughtfully, as though it had never occurred to him, then he continued, "But he is a doctor of psychology. There's a better than average chance that he'll publish at least a few articles about theories and findings related to his work."
The sound of a ringing phone interrupted us and it was only then that I realized that everyone in the room had been listening to our conversation.
"I've got it." Allen said as he raced into the room and picked up the handset of the phone before anyone could make a move toward it.
I listened along with everyone else as Allen said, "Thompson residence, this is Allen... Yes. He's right here."
Allen then passed the handset to Ben and said, "It's Ron Cooper."
* * * * *
For some reason I thought that the time I spent in college would be the hardest thing I'd ever have to do in my life. Starting out, when I chose to get a four-year degree in three years, I thought I was doing something remarkable.
Little did I know that one day I'd look back at those years as being virtually carefree. I had a clear objective. I had a plan on how to achieve it. What I didn't have was a clue of how precious that knowledge could be.
Although my job right out of college didn't pay well, I was grateful to get it. What I didn't expect was that the reality of the job turned out to be so different from my preconceived notions.
Fortunately, even though I had to work hard and keep myself motivated, I always knew that it was at least possible for me to succeed.
In the past weeks... I didn't know if it was even possible for me to survive.
Now, here I am in the hospital with eight sick and injured kids, and it's my job to help them deal with the incomprehensible nightmare that they've been through. I can barely deal with what I've been through.
For all my bookwork and training, I don't have any answers for them.
But I can't tell them that.
I doubt that they would understand that being shot, robbed and abandoned in the middle of nowhere for a week and nearly starving to death was never covered in my course studies.
I think the thing that amazes me most is that Mrs. Usher, who is over seventy years old, demonstrated more strength and calm in the face of adversity than the rest of us combined.
When the bullets started flying, Mrs. Usher automatically shielded Princess and Dog with her own body and defiantly looked our attackers right in the eyes as she did so. She was prepared to die, but not to give up her life frivolously. She was willing to sacrifice herself to protect the children.
If I had been as brave as her, I might have been able to protect Brian. Things happened so quickly that I can't be sure, but I still feel that there should have been something more that I could have done to prevent him from being shot.
Mr. Cooper also surprised me.
I've become used to him always being on top of things and totally in charge, but when push came to shove, he took the lead and did everything in his power to do what was best for us as individuals and as a group. I don't think I'll ever be that strong and self-assured. His strength and leadership in the face of so much violence and despair is what the rest of us depended on to get us through.
Andy is another one who surprised me. All my life, at least, ever since I was first brought to the children's home, I only ever saw him as being a meek librarian. I don't think it ever occurred to me to get to know him as a person.
I really don't know where Andy was or what he did during the shooting. The thing that I didn't expect was how he stepped up and took charge to administer first aid. Our vehicles were stolen and we only had the clothes on our backs, yet somehow Andy was able to improvise bandages, splints and a tourniquet out of almost nothing. If not for him, Darin, Diane and probably Brian would all be dead, having bled to death.
If that was all that Andy had done, I would be forever grateful to him. But after he had done everything that he could to stabilize the injured, he did his best to help calm and reassure the children.
Mr. Cooper, Mrs. Usher and I have the training and experience to help distressed children, but when the situation called for it, Andy got in there and helped just the same as the rest of us. To top it off, he seems to have formed a relationship with Hendrix, who none of the rest of us could reach.
* * * * *
Once we had all eaten, we went to the waiting room to wait for Mr. Cooper and Danny to finish their medical exams.
Brian hadn't rejoined us yet which, due to his injuries, wasn't that much of a surprise.
The kids were unusually quiet and some of them had fallen asleep, having their bellies full for the first time in a week.
I looked to Mrs. Usher, with Dog and Princess tucked under her arms on either side. Andy was sitting next to Hendrix who, while not being cuddled, had managed to use Andy's shoulder as a convenient pillow.
Kevin and Mike were sitting together, but nottogether. Both were looking anxiously down the hallway where Mr. Cooper had gone, but neither seemed to be inclined to do much more than sit and stare.
I, too, turned my attention down the hallway.
The hospital personnel were all rushing around, reminding me of a colony of ants, seemingly climbing over each other at times, but each dedicated to performing their own little task for the greater good.
I felt a rush of relief wash over me as Mr. Cooper walked into the hallway with his arm casually draped around Danny's shoulders.
Immediately following Mr. Cooper was Brian, being pushed in a wheelchair.
I watched them approach and suddenly realized that the man pushing Brian's wheelchair was JD's father, Cliff.
Without thought, I jumped up from my chair and ran to him.
"How are you doing, Michael?" Cliff asked warmly as he stopped the wheelchair and opened his arms to me.
Rather than answer, I fell into his arms as I broke into tears.
* * * * *
I don't know how long we stood there like that, with Cliff holding me while I sobbed into his shoulder.
It felt so good. It felt like, in that moment, I had everything that had been ripped away from me. I had safety and security and a home where people loved me.
As I finally pulled back so that I could look him in the eyes, I quietly said, "Thank you."
"I was worried about you. I'm glad that you're alright." Cliff said warmly.
If it were anyone else, I would have assumed the words to be obligatory. But I knew as soon as Cliff said them that he was sincere. He was worried about me.
"How are JD and Jody... and Ben?" I asked with concern.
"They're just fine." Cliff assured me, then continued, "In fact, Ron called Ben right before we came out here. If we can get everyone ready, we can go and see them right now."
"How are you doing, Brian?" I heard someone ask and turned to see that it was Kevin.
I had heard the boy speak so infrequently that I didn't immediately recognize his voice.
"The doctor said that it should be okay. I won't be up, walking around for a while. But he said that the worst that I'm going to end up with is a scar... which I'll be able to show off when I tell people about what happened to me." Brian said honestly.
I was astonished at how upbeat and optimistic Brian sounded. He had been in such a deep depression ever since I'd first met him that seeing him like this, he didn't seem like the same person at all.
"I can push him, Doctor." Kevin said as he more or less wedged himself between Cliff and the wheelchair.
"Sure, if you want to." Cliff said with surprise, then added, "But as soon as you're all ready to go, I'm going to be leaving with you."
"You said that I was going to be okay. Why do you have to go with me?" Brian asked cautiously.
Cliff laughed, then said, "Because I'm going to be having Thanksgiving dinner at the house where you're going."
"Oh." Brian said simply, then slowly asked, "Where are we going?"
I turned my attention to Cliff, since I was interested to know that as well.
"To my husband's cousin's ex-boss's house." Cliff said with a teasing grin.
After a moment to think about that, I slowly said, "Ben's cousin is Marc. I remember you introducing us. But I don't think I ever met his boss... or ex-boss."
"You already know the doctor?" Kevin asked me suspiciously.
"No. I go up and hug and cry all over every doctor that I meet. It's just something that I do." I said to him sarcastically. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted saying them. I was a doctor. It was important for me to maintain a professional demeanor so that my patients would know that I could be trusted and depended upon.
"I always thought you were probably a snarky prick, deep down inside." Kevin said with a grin at me.
His response surprised me. It occurred to me in that moment that maybe my 'professional' strategy wasn't as one-size-fits-all as I had been led to believe.
Even so, it was an opening. Thinking that I might not get a better chance to establish a dialogue with Kevin, I went for it.
"Yeah. But I have to keep it hidden or no one will take me seriously. I mean, I'm a young Latino man who works with kids. That's more than enough reasons for people to make assumptions about me before they've even met me. Having an attitude isn't likely to make them react to me any better." I said honestly.
"I get where you're coming from. Try being Filipino. People are always asking me where I'm really from... and how to make eggrolls... for some reason." Kevin finished uncertainly.
"Yeah, they talk to me in what they remember of their high school Spanish and overpronounce the words really super slowly, like I'm stupid or deaf or something." I said sympathetically.
"Yeah. They sometimes do that to me too. I guess I can pass for Mexican."
Brian was craning his neck, trying to follow along with our conversation. Knowing that it couldn't be a comfortable way to sit, I turned his chair so that he could be included.
"So what are we doing now?" Brian asked curiously.
"Waiting, I guess. Cliff said that he'd called for a ride for all of us." I said simply.
"So is Cliff his first name or his last? He asked me to call him Dr. Cliff."
"He's a pediatrician, so he's used to talking to younger kids. His real name is Dr. Clifton Grant."
"Hey! My last name's Grant. I wonder if we're related." Brian asked thoughtfully.
Despite the fact that Brian seemed to be in an uncharacteristically good mood, I knew that he had recently lost his immediate family in a car accident. Him speculating about the possibility of having a more distant relative could be seen as a very encouraging sign.
"From what I remember, Cliff has two married sisters. So I doubt that any of their kids would have the last name of Grant. But it's still possible that you two are related more distantly."
"Just how well do you know Dr. Grant?" Kevin asked curiously.
"You guys probably know about me being a resident at the home when I was your age, right?"
Both boys nodded.
"We got in a new guy, a kid who had been in the hospital for almost a whole year. When he showed up at the home, he couldn't talk at all and he was so afraid of women that he'd have a panic attack and go catatonic for days at a time if a woman got anywhere near him." I said slowly as I remembered all those years ago.
"So was Dr. Grant the doctor who made him better?" Kevin guessed.
"In a way." I answered with a smile at him, then explained, "Dr. Grant and his husband, Ben, adopted JD and made him their son. Eventually they were able to get JD to talk and try new things and embrace life. It was really amazing to see."
"So how do you figure into all of that?" Brian asked curiously.
"A little while after Cliff and Ben got JD, they were asked to take in another kid, his name was Jody. Mr. Cooper had asked me to watch after Jody while he was having a meeting with some prospective foster parents. Of course those foster parents turned out to be Cliff and Ben. I was there when they first met Jody and it was the first time that I had seen JD since he had left the home. He was so much better and he would even talk a little bit by then." I said with a smile at the memory, then continued, "JD and Jody asked if I could come over and visit them for the weekend..."
"They asked us to take you in as a foster child too." Cliff said as he joined our conversation.
"Oh yeah. That's right. But if you did that, then I would have aged out of the system before I finished high school and it would have been a big mess." I confirmed.
"So we did the next best thing. We invited Michael over to our house just about every weekend, so that he could spend time with the boys, and every now and then we'd hire him to babysit so that Ben and I could have a night out." Cliff said happily.
"So he's practically part of your family?" Brian asked to be sure.
"He is part of our family." Cliff said without hesitation.
It suddenly occurred to me that this was the perfect opening and I quickly said, "Speaking of that, Brian was curious to know if you two might be related, since you have the same last name."
Cliff looked at me, then down to Brian and said, "It's certainly possible. Later, when you're feeling up to it, we can have a long talk about our more distant relations."
"Are you ready to go?" A doctor asked Cliff as he approached our group.
"We're just waiting for a ride." Cliff said frankly.
"I know. That's what I mean. They're waiting for us in the lobby. Are you ready to go?"
"Everyone! This is Dr. Jerry Parish. He says that our rides are here, so let's start down to the lobby..."
"Hold on. Someone needs to go and get Mrs. Usher." Andy quickly interrupted.
"Where did she go?" Mr. Cooper asked as he looked around.
"She wanted to see how Diane was doing." Andy said frankly.
"Did she take Princess and Dog with her?"
"Yes." Andy answered simply.
"Do you want for me to go get her?" I cautiously asked.
"No. I'll do it. Why don't you go down with Cliff and help to keep our group together." Mr. Cooper said decisively.
I don't know how he does it. I have a question, he has an answer. He doesn't have to weigh the options, he just decides and considers it settled. I really seriously need to learn how to do that.
* * * * *
It took a minute to get everyone up and moving, but soon we were on our way.
Andy and Hendrix led the way. Kevin was pushing Brian's wheelchair, as though it was his rightful place.
Mike was walking by himself, keeping a respectful distance from anyone else. I noticed that he kept looking back to where Mr. Cooper had gone.
Danny had gone with Mr. Cooper, so I wasn't sure which one of them he was looking for.
Cliff and Dr. Parish walked ahead of me, and seemed to be carrying on their own private hushed conversation.
* * * * *
When we walked into the lobby, all thoughts of worry and responsibility were forgotten for a moment. Wil and Todd were standing there with glorious matching smiles.
"How ya doin', Dr. Ortiz?" Todd asked playfully.
Before I could even think about answering, Wil had engulfed me in a hug that knocked the wind out of me.
Typically, we're not the type of friends that hug. I'm used to looking at Wil as someone older than me, a little bit out of my league; not part of my peer group or generation. Even so, it was unexpectedly nice to be held like that, knowing that it was because someone cared about me.
When Todd realized that I wasn't able or willing to answer his question, he looked to Cliff and asked, "Where's Ron?"
"He went to get Mrs. Usher and the girls. He should be right behind us." Cliff answered, then looked to the younger men with Todd and Wil and said, "Collin and Christian, it's good to see you."
"When Ben said that he needed drivers, we volunteered..." Collin began to explain, but was cut off.
"Where is Ben? When I talked to him he said that he was going to come to pick us up." Cliff interrupted.
"He wanted to, but JD needed his help. I guess the Thanksgiving dinner kinda grew out of control. Wil and Todd were kind enough to volunteer to help us out."
"Well, it's good to see all of you. We're waiting on a few more people to join us, then we'll be ready to go."
"Before we do that, how many wheelchair lifts are we going to need?" Collin asked seriously.
"If you have one, Brian could use it. But if it's going to be a problem, I could get him some crutches."
"No. That's okay. We brought one. I just wasn't sure that that would be enough."
"Oh, good. While I don't think it would necessarily hurt Brian to use crutches, as his doctor I'd feel better if he had some time to heal before he starts stressing the injury."
"Don't worry Uncle Cliff. We've got it covered." Collin assured him.
Just then I saw Mrs. Usher walking toward us with Mr. Cooper, Danny and the girls.
After all that she had been through, it amazed me that Mrs Usher was up and walking around.
"How are you doing, Grandma?" I asked as she approached.
"I believe that I'm ready to settle in somewhere that I can get off my feet for a nice long while."
"From the sound of it, we're going to visit a friend of Cliff and Ben's and have dinner at his house. If that turns out to be too much for you, just let me know and I'll find a place where you can lay down for a little while." I told her gently.
"I don't know. All this excitement may end up being too much for me, but spending Thanksgiving with a group of new friends sounds lovely. I believe that I'd like to give it a try."
"Okay Grandma. But just let me know."
"Is she really your grandma? She doesn't look like you." Kevin asked curiously.
I felt an irrational anger rise within me at the question, probably because I had so few people in my life that I thought of as family. To have our relationship disparaged so casually made me want to lash out.
Fortunately, I was able to think reasonably before I said something that I couldn't take back.
Kevin had been combative since I'd known him. He appeared to push people away with his attitude, as a defense mechanism.
If I were to respond to his tactless question with hostility, I might well force him back into his defensive, perpetually shielded state.
"Mrs. Usher was in charge of the home when I was placed there. She's been an important part of my life since I was younger than you are. My blood family were too caught up in drinking and drugs to think about what was best for me. It was so bad that the state took me away from them. Because my blood family was worthless, I formed a family out of the people that I had been placed with."
"So you can just make your own family?"
"We all do what we have to do to help us deal. For me, that means replacing the people who failed me with people that I can trust."
"What if you don't have anyone you can trust?"
"Trust doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes you have to take a chance on someone to discover if they're worth trusting or not. In fact, it may even be necessary to give out some second chances every now and then, just so that you can be sure. But once you've determined that someone is worth your trust, then you've got someone who can watch your back and take some of the pressure off of you."
"Why didn't you tell me this before, instead of trying to get me to verbalizemy feelings?"
"Getting you to put your feelings into words was the first step in trying to get you to the point where we could talk about something like this. Until you were ready to join in a conversation with me, all I could do was talk at you, knowing full well that you weren't interested in anything that I had to say."
"So you adopted them?"
"In my heart, yeah. Mrs. Usher is the only one that I ever called by my family name for her. Even though I thought of Mr. Cooper, Cliff and Ben as though they were my uncles, I never called them that."
"With you talking to me like this, I don't know where you're coming from... Do you hate me like everyone else does?"
"Kevin, I don't hate you. I don't know you. All I know about you is what's in your file. I don't know what your favorite movie is, what hobbies you might have or if you like to listen to music. I know that I'm sometimes frustrated by my inability to get through to you, but I don't see that as being your fault. If I come across as being angry at you, I'm sorry. I really don't mean it that way."
"You guys can stay here and chat if you want, but the rest of us are leaving." Cliff interrupted.
"I think we're ready." I told him with a quick smile and started walking.
"Dr. Ortiz, can I call you Junior?" Kevin asked seriously as he started pushing Brian's wheelchair.
For some reason I felt as though I should refuse, but considering how long I had been trying to get through to Kevin, I wasn't about to miss out on the opportunity to redefine our relationship to be a bit more familiar.
"Yeah Kevin, I think I'd like that."
"What about me?" Brian asked anxiously.
"What about you?" I automatically responded.
"Can I call you Junior too?" Brian asked hopefully.
After walking through the automatic doors and into the parking area, I looked at Brian and said, "Yeah. If you want to."
After a moment to consider, I continued, "All this time I believed that it was necessary for me to hold up my credentials and force people to acknowledge them so that I could feel like I was being taken seriously. I guess I didn't think about how intimidating that could be from your point of view."
Kevin brought Brian's wheelchair to a stop beside an ATV with a wheelchair lift mechanism built in.
As Collin and Christian went to work getting Brian's wheelchair lined up, Kevin moved closer to my side and quietly said, "Seeing you hugging your family makes me have to look at you like a real person instead of a psychologist. If you can be a real person with me... I don't know. Maybe we could talk about stuff... you know, when you want to."
"Once things have settled down, we'll find a quiet place to talk for a while." I assured him, then thought to add, "Don't worry. I'm not going to be pushing you to verbalize your feelings. We'll just talk about whatever's bothering you and maybe together we can come up with some answers for you."
Kevin nodded as we watched Brian's wheelchair being hoisted onto the ATV.
As soon as Brian's wheelchair had been secured, Wil cheerfully called out, "All aboard!"
Kevin automatically got onto the ATV and took the seat beside Brian, then looked at me expectantly.
It took a moment for me to realize that he wanted me to go with them. Of course he wouldn't come out and say it, but even so, a week ago I never would have expected him to want to include me in anything.
I looked around to see if anyone else needed me to be doing anything before I committed myself to an action.
Andy and Hendrix were taking seats in an ATV with Collin. Mr. Cooper, Danny and Mike were doing the same with Christian.
Todd was leading Mrs. Usher, Princess and Dog to the next ATV in the row and it seemed as though the doctors had commandeered an ATV all their own. So not only did no one need me, if I didn't hurry, they'd be waiting on me.
* * * * *
"Where are we going?" Brian asked as Wil drove us out of the hospital.
"I already told you." I reminded him.
"Yeah. I mean where is it? How long will it take us to get there?" Brian pressed.
"How should I know? I guess it doesn't matter because it's going to take as long as it takes. Nothing we say or do will make it go any faster."
"Guys, I'm sorry I don't have any coats for you, but there's blankets back there if you want to get wrapped up." Wil said from the driver's seat.
I hadn't thought about the temperature outside, but since he mentioned it, I noticed that it was somewhat chilly.
I looked around at the other ATVs and saw that the others were all wrapping themselves in blankets.
I was about to grab a blanket to help Brian, since being in the wheelchair would likely impede him, but Kevin beat me to the punch.
I took a blanket and wrapped it around me as I watched Kevin's careful ministrations.
Brian seemed to be oblivious to the fact that Kevin was showing such care for him, but that was probably for the best. Both of them would probably be uncomfortable if any attention were brought to it.
* * * * *
When we left the hospital, the foreign landscape caught my attention. We were in a whole new place that was completely unfamiliar. It bore no resemblance to Florida, but it seemed just as different from the desolate hellhole where we had been stranded. Being in the heavily wooded Pacific Northwest was completely alien. I didn't have any sense of knowing where we were or where we were going.
I'm used to having a certain measure of control over my circumstances and a plan for what is going to happen to me next. It's hard to describe the sense of disquiet that travelling into the unknown caused to awaken within me.
The further we got from the hospital, the more rural our surroundings became. Although there were some clusters of houses along the way, there was nothing resembling a town as our vehicles raced into a more wooded area.
It also occurred to me that the size of our group could be a problem to accommodate. While I know that Colonel Kuznetsov had said that arrangements were being made, I couldn't see a practical way that we could be kept together. Of course, being as powerless as I was in this situation, my only real option was to put my trust in Mr. Cooper's judgement.
* * * * *
We traveled through Kettle Falls proper and continued on into a residential area.
I expected for us to pull into one of the driveways at any moment, but we continued on and on until we had emerged into a more affluent community.
I looked around at the other members of our group, but everyone seemed to be as mesmerized as I was.
Finally the lead vehicle, being driven by Christian, pulled into a long driveway which led up to a large house.
Nothing about the appearance of the house gave me any clue about what to expect.
I had to hold onto the knowledge that Cliff and Ben thought that this was a good thing.
"Are we gonna live here?" Brian asked as he stared wide-eyed at the house.
"We're going to have Thanksgiving dinner here. Mr. Cooper is making arrangements for where we'll be staying." I carefully explained.
"So you don't know where we're going next?" Kevin asked anxiously.
"I know that we're going somewhere safe and warm. Mr. Cooper will make sure of that." I said as I tried to assure the boys.
"How can you trust him that much?" Kevin asked cautiously.
"Well, I trust him because I've known him for years and he's never done me wrong." I said honestly, then slowly added, "But if you're asking how you can trust him, try looking at what he's done in the time that you've known him.
"Like what?" Kevin reluctantly asked.
"When he found out that the residents at the home were in danger, he got all of you out of there. No one told him he had to. No one paid him. He could have gone underground or traveled across the country by himself or with his cousin Darin. So everything that he's done, everything that he's gone through, everything that he's doing right this minute is because he cares for us." I told him as Wil drove us around to the side of the house where there was an impromptu parking lot.
"So, he doesn't get anything out of it?" Kevin asked cautiously.
"Only to know that the people he cares about are safe. That includes both of you." I said frankly.
Before Kevin could ask any more questions, Wil moved around the ATV and released Brian's wheelchair.
"What about you?" Kevin asked as he got out of the ATV to stand beside me.
"Are you asking if I care about you?" I asked to confirm my understanding.
"Yeah. Why are you here? Is it your job or is it something else?"
"I can't answer that." I said as I watched Wil lower Brian's wheelchair to the ground. "I did what I felt like I had to do. I never even considered doing anything else. I didn't examine my feelings to try and figure out why."
"But your job ended when you left Tallahassee, didn't it?" Kevin pressed.
"Yeah. I guess it did. I didn't think about it before, but I guess I'm unemployed now."
"I'm cold." Brian announced.
"Then let's go inside." Wil responded simply.
I moved behind Brian's wheelchair to push him, but Kevin once again wedged himself in. To take over the duty.
Although in some sense it was rude, I held my tongue and let Kevin make his contribution to the effort.
* * * * *
"Let me take your coats... or blankets, as the case may be." Cliff offered once we were inside.
"Do you need any help with that?" I asked, since it seemed as though my two charges were content to keep each other entertained.
"No. Why don't you go into the dining room, right over there, and get yourself something to eat?" Cliff asked as he indicated the way.
"Okay, but I want to hear all about what's happened since the last time I saw you." I said seriously.
"That's quite a bit to cover. Go ahead and have some food and we'll find some time to trade stories later." Cliff said warmly.
"Okay." I reluctantly agreed before walking into the living room and on through to the dining room.
* * * * *
I was home. Even though I was in a stranger's house, the sight and the smell of the food transported me. Over the years I must have come to associate JD's cooking with the positive things in my life. Considering the timing... I'm not suggesting a causal relationship, but if one were suggested, I could understand why.
"What do you want first?" Kevin asked, jarring me out of my introspection. I looked at him to find that he had been asking Brian.
"Actually, the first thing I need is the bathroom." Brian shyly admitted.
As I glanced around, I spotted Christian walking into the dining room.
"Christian, do you know where the bathroom is?" I quickly asked him.
"Right over there." Christian said as he pointed.
I glanced at Brian and Kevin to see that they had heard.
"Are you guys going to need any help?" I asked cautiously.
"We'll give it a try. If we have a problem, we'll come and get you." Kevin said confidently.
"Alright. Just let me know." I said as I watched Kevin push Brian away.
"JD did a great job. This food is amazing." Christian said as he started loading a plate.
"I can't believe with as bad as things are around the country that he was able to do all of this."
"He's been preparing for weeks, gathering supplies for today. Thanksgiving is a very special holiday for JD. It's like he's showing everyone in his life just how thankful he is to have them."
"It makes me wish that I had a talent that I could use to show people that I care about them." I said regretfully.
"You don't need to do anything extra. Everyone who knows you knows how you feel about them." Christian said as he leaned across the table to get some of JD's special sweet potatoes.
Knowing how good they were, I waited so that I could get some. As I waited, I said, "I'm sorry that I didn't take the opportunity to get to know you and Collin better."
"Don't worry about that. We could see that you were caught up in your own thing. It's like we were living in two different worlds. We would have been happy to include you if we'd had any indication that you'd be interested, but the few times we visited, you always seemed to be focused on JD and Jody." Christian said frankly.
"I guess that I never got good at relating to people my own age." I reluctantly admitted.
"You were fitting in and making a difference in the boys' lives. You were doing what you needed to do, both for them and for yourself. And if you think about it, that prepared you for the life you're leading today. You can relate to the kids and get into their heads."
I thought about that for a moment as I continued to fill my plate.
Finally, as we were walking toward the living room, I quietly said, "If you're right, then I've been doing the kids a disservice by always acting so professional with them."
"You're fine tuning your technique, finding what works best for you. Sometimes they'll need for you to be their friend, but other times they'll need you to be the professional. It's probably going to be a difficult balance at first, but if you can manage it, you'll probably be able to help a lot of kids who need it." Christian said as he led the way to one of the couches and took a seat beside Collin.
I took the seat next to him as I said, "Thank you, Christian. I think that's going to be a lot of help."
Christian flashed a quick grin in my direction, since his mouth was full, and I understood that my message had been received.
After taking a few bites of food, I looked around the room at the strange collection of people enjoying the meal. There were people like Ben and Cliff who were reasonably well-off professionals but there were also a few tattooed bikers. Everyone seemed to be comfortable with each other and were getting along reasonably well.
It appeared that Todd and Wil were the catalyst. Due to their work as bartenders as well as their relationship with Ben and Cliff, they were able to form a bridge between the two groups.
"Can we sit with you?" Kevin asked as he pushed Brian to my side.
"Sure. If you can find a place." I said as I noticed that they had already been to the dining room and filled plates for themselves.
Brian was holding two plates of food as Kevin maneuvered him into place.
"Oh, good. I'm glad you three are together." Mr. Cooper said as he approached us.
I looked at him curiously, since I couldn't think of any reason for his statement.
"What's going on?" I asked cautiously, not sure that I really wanted to know.
"I've been working on arranging places for everyone to stay. Let me tell you what I've come up with and tell me what you think about it." Mr. Cooper asked hopefully.
I looked to see that the boys were both paying attention before nodding for Mr. Cooper to continue.
"First of all, keep in mind that eventually we'll all be moving to a new place together. What I'm talking about right now is just temporary."
I nodded again.
"Well, when I mentioned what was going on, Cliff and Ben asked if it would be possible for Junior to stay at their place."
I couldn't help but smile at the announcement. Since I was a teenager, I had held onto the secret hope that someday they'd invite me to live with them.
Mr. Cooper continued, "Since you three seem to have come to some sort of an understanding between you, I wondered if you'd be interested in rooming together."
Although I didn't have a problem with the idea, I looked at the boys to see their reactions.
"Are you saying that we're going to be living with Dr. Grant?" Brian cautiously asked.
From the inflection that he used on Cliff's last name, there was no doubt in my mind that Brian was hoping that he'd have an opportunity to explore the possibility that he and Cliff were somehow related.
"You'll be staying with him for a short time, until other arrangements can be made." Mr. Cooper explained.
As much as I wanted to immediately agree, the more practical part of me forced me to ask, "Are they going to have enough room for all three of us?"
"They've said that they can make it work. Either you and JD can share his room and the boys can share Jody's, or the three of you can share one while JD and Jody share the other. Of course, if you remember, they have no problem with people camping out in their living room." Mr. Cooper finished with a smile at me.
"We used to do that just about every weekend." I explained to Brian and Kevin.
"What do you think?" Mr. Cooper asked me seriously.
I looked to the boys with question. Anyone who knew anything about me already knew what my answer would be if it were up to me alone.
"They asked if we could stay with them?" Kevin asked cautiously.
"As soon as I started talking about finding places for people to stay, Cliff made sure to request all three of you. He never even considered inviting any of the others." Mr. Cooper said seriously.
Kevin considered for a moment, then looked to Brian with question.
"He might be related to me." Brian said honestly, leaving no doubt as to his decision.
Kevin nodded at him, then looked to me uncertainly.
"I don't know what to say to you except that I want you to go with us. I don't know if we'll end up being refugees, roommates or maybe even possibly a family, but whatever happens next, I'd like for you to be a part of it."
"Is that Dr. Ortiz saying that this is what's best for me?" Kevin asked cautiously.
"No. This is Junior talking. It's personal." I answered honestly.
"Okay." Kevin quietly agreed, then added, "Besides, Brian needs someone to push him around and to help him in the bathroom."
"Fantastic! I'll let Cliff and Ben know." Mr. Cooper said happily before dashing away.