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"Isn't it your day off? You can't stay away from this place, can you? Greg asked good naturedly.
"Greg. There's someone here who'd like to talk to you when you can spare a few minutes." Joe Bob said casually over the service counter.
"Everything's caught up. We're just waiting for the lunch changeover. I can go now." Greg said easily.
* * * * *
Joe Bob led Greg into the dining room, then said, "Greg, I'd like for you to meet my Uncle Derek. He's Mark's father."
"Nice to meet you. Can I get you anything before I sit down?" Greg asked pleasantly.
"No, thank you." Derek said sincerely, then continued, "Mark's missing and I've been talking to the people that he's met since he arrived here to see if any of them have any idea of what might have happened to him."
"Mark's missing?" Greg asked with surprise.
"I'm going to go get the guys something to eat, so you two can talk. Can I get you anything?" Joe Bob asked seriously.
Derek was distracted by the question and absently said, "A coffee, if you wouldn't mind."
Joe Bob nodded, then led Jim Bob and Beau away, toward the service counter.
* * * * *
"Mark's missing?" Greg asked again.
"Yes, since night before last, as near as we can tell." Derek said frankly.
"That's horrible. I don't know anything, but if there's something I can do to help find him, just let me know." Greg said with concern.
"Thank you." Derek said sincerely, then continued, "All I really need to know, right now, is if he gave any indication that he might be planning to run away or if you noticed anything that would make you suspect that he might be in some kind of trouble."
"No. Nothing like that. Joe Bob drove us over there and left me to talk with Mark for a few minutes. I don't think he really ever said anything about himself. He just talked to me about Joe Bob." Greg said thoughtfully.
"So you didn't get a 'feeling' that Mark might be anxious about something?" Derek asked to confirm.
"No. He seemed really calm and... friendly." Greg said frankly.
"Okay. Thank you, Greg. But if you think of anything else, please let me know." Derek said hopefully as he automatically gave Greg one of his business cards.
"You're a police detective?" Greg asked in astonishment.
"Only back in Michigan. This is personal." Derek assured him.
"Oh. Okay." Greg said with relief, then added, "I hope you find Mark, safe and well. I really liked him."
"I hope so, too." Derek said honestly.
* * * * *
"Here's your coffee. Are you guys all done?" Joe Bob asked as he approached.
"I need to get back to work." Greg said as he looked back toward the kitchen.
"Thank you for talking with me." Derek said sincerely.
"If there's anything else I can do, just ask." Greg said before hurrying away.
"Are you ready to go?" Derek asked Joe Bob curiously.
"I just got the guys some breakfast... another breakfast, that is. Do you mind waiting for them to finish?" Joe Bob asked hopefully.
Derek glanced around and spotted Jim Bob and Beau at a table near the front, both enjoying their food.
"That will be fine." Derek assured him.
"Is there anything else we can do to help find Mark?" Joe Bob asked as he sat down opposite from Derek.
"Not that I can think of at the moment. So far, nothing's stood out to me as being significant. Everything that I've come across tells me that Mark ran away... except that he didn't take hardly anything with him. It really doesn't make any sense." Derek said honestly before taking a cautious sip of his hot coffee.
"What? So is it like he was planning to just spend the night somewhere?" Joe Bob asked curiously.
"That's what it seems like. From the empty hangers in his closet and the state of the clothes in his dresser, I'd guess that he took 'something' with him, but it couldn't have been more than two changes of clothes." Derek said honestly.
"As far as I know, he hasn't met anyone but us since he's been here. The only place he's gone that wasn't with me was over to Grandpa Harlan's house." Joe Bob said thoughtfully.
"What about Priscilla? Doesn't she have a son around Mark's age?" Derek asked carefully.
"Dougie? He's a few years younger than Mark. I don't think him and Mark ever said a single word to each other. Besides that, Dougie's the kind of person that you don't really want to spend a lot of time around." Joe Bob said carefully.
"Kind of like Prissy?" Derek asked cautiously.
"Yeah." Joe Bob confirmed, then thought to add, "Anyway, Prissy wouldn't go along with doing anything that might get her into trouble."
"I suppose you're right. But I'm probably going to see if I can arrange a good time to talk with the family. It's not that I suspect them of anything, but they might unwittingly know something that could be significant." Derek said frankly.
Joe Bob thought for a moment, then said, "Aunt Alma and Mark talked to each other a lot."
"I didn't even know that Alma was still alive. She was almost a hundred years old the last time I saw her." Derek said frankly.
"Yeah. She's still around, but she ain't been quite right since Uncle George passed away." Joe Bob said quietly.
"And you say that she and Mark spent a lot of time together?" Derek asked cautiously.
"Yeah. From what I heard, when she first saw Mark, she thought that he was her brother." Joe Bob said carefully.
"But he still chose to spend time with her?" Derek asked cautiously.
"Yeah. I don't know how that worked out. But I thought you'd want to know that if you talk to Aunt Allie... you might not want to believe 'everything' she says." Joe Bob said carefully.
"Thanks, Joe Bob. I appreciate the heads up." Derek said honestly.
"Can I have some cookies?" Beau asked hopefully as he approached the table.
"Head on out to the car and I'll get you some." Joe Bob said with a smile at his younger brother, then looked to Derek and asked, "Are you ready?"
"Yes. I'll meet you out there." Derek said warmly.
* * * * *
"Did you want to go to the LGBT resource center, next? It's not too far from here." Joe Bob asked as he started the car.
"Yes. Thank you. I appreciate you going out of your way to help me." Derek said honestly.
"Don't you worry about that, none. I'll do whatever it takes to help you find Mark." Joe Bob said seriously.
* * * * *
"Good morning, gentlemen. Oh, it's you! Welcome back!" Boyce said happily when he noticed Jim Bob.
"Hi, Boyce. You probably remember my brother, Joe Bob. This is my Uncle Derek." Jim Bob said shyly.
"Yes. It's nice to see you again, Joe Bob. How can I help you today?" Boyce asked curiously.
"You remember Mark? Well, he's missing. Uncle Derek flew down here from Michigan to try and help find him." Jim Bob said honestly.
"And you automatically think because I'm gay that I kidnapped him? Is that it?" Boyce asked cautiously.
"No. Not at all." Derek assured him, then explained, "I'm just trying to retrace Mark's steps since he arrived in town."
"Oh. Well, I don't know how much help I can be, but I'll do whatever I can. Give me just a second. I think Hugh should be in on this." Boyce said seriously, then dashed into the back room.
Derek looked around the shop, taking in every little detail, until Boyce returned, with Hugh following a step behind.
"I assume that you'd like to ask us some questions." Boyce said seriously.
"Yes. If you wouldn't mind." Derek said honestly.
"What do you want to know?" Boyce asked cautiously.
"Let me spell it out. From what I've been able to gather, Mark left, of his own accord. He packed one or two things, like he was leaving for a night or the weekend, and nobody's seen or heard from him since. There was no sign of a struggle or evidence of foul play. Considering your place in the community, I thought that maybe you might be aware of something like this happening to someone else. I was hoping you could point me in the right direction." Derek said seriously.
Hugh and Boyce looked at each other for a moment before Hugh finally said, "I don't know anything about what happened to your son, but you should know that we hear quite a bit about the coyotes and the human traffickers that run through West Texas. If it's something like that, I don't know what to tell you. When it comes to boys, the police mostly look the other way. They call them delinquents and runaways and don't even try to help them. They see criminals, not victims."
"It's worse when they're gay. The police assume that they somehow deserve it." Boyce quietly added.
"Do you know where I could go or who I could talk to about finding Mark and getting him back?" Derek asked cautiously.
"Anyplace I've heard about that was doing anything like that has already been closed down, and most likely reopened somewhere else, under a new name. I know that it's a shot in the dark, but maybe you could check some of the seedier clubs around town." Hugh said uncertainly.
"But I wouldn't get my hopes up too much. From what I've heard, they're pretty good about moving the kids to places where they don't know anyone and can't get any help." Boyce added frankly.
After a moment to think about it, Derek cautiously asked, "If we were to assume that's what happened to Mark, how would they 'recruit' him?"
"A lot of it's either online or sometimes it's through those multi-player video games. Of course, I've also heard of them sending a group of the kids that they've already got under their control to 'recruit' others, you know, lure them in with the promise of sex, drugs, alcohol or money." Hugh said frankly.
"Although we're not involved in any of that, it's always possible that we might hear something. This is something of a crossroads, so to speak. Is there a number where we can get in touch if we hear something that might be relevant?" Boyce asked cautiously.
"Yes. Thank you." Derek said as he handed Boyce one of his business cards.
"You're a police detective?" Boyce asked in astonishment.
"Yes, when I'm on duty. But here and now, I'm a father." Derek said seriously.
"I promise, we'll call you if we hear anything at all." Boyce said sincerely.
"Thank you." Derek said gratefully, then led the way toward the door.
* * * * *
As Joe Bob started the car, Jim Bob quietly said, "Mark wouldn't fall for something like that."
"I agree. And it doesn't make sense. He didn't have a working phone or Internet access for anyone to make contact with him." Derek said thoughtfully.
"Do you have anyplace else that you need to go? Or should I take you back to the house?" Joe Bob asked curiously.
"To the house, if you don't mind. I need to sit down and think about this for a while. The pieces aren't fitting together." Derek said distractedly.
"Just be sure to call us if there's anything that we can do to help." Joe Bob said seriously.
Derek smiled, then said, "Thank you for all that you've done today. I promise that I'll call if I think of anything."
"Do you think Mark's gonna be alright?" Beau asked from the back seat.
"I don't know, Beau. I hope so." Derek said gravely.
* * * * *
The ride continued on in silence until they finally arrived at the house.
After dropping Derek off at the front door, Joe Bob started driving back up the lane.
"Do you think Mark's alright?" Beau asked his brother quietly.
"I don't know." Joe Bob said honestly.
"We should've gone upstairs to see if Enoch was still there." Beau said seriously.
Jim Bob looked at Beau strangely at the statement.
"If Mark's gone, Enoch is, too. Mark wouldn't ever go anywhere without him." Joe Bob said seriously.
Although Jim Bob was curious, he could tell from Joe Bob's tone of voice that now was not the time to ask what he was talking about.
Beau considered Joe Bob's words, then seemed to accept his answer.
* * * * *
Since his ex-wife's car wasn't parked out front, Derek knew that she wasn't home, yet.
He went into the kitchen and fixed himself something simple for lunch as he thought about all that he had learned about his son since his arrival.
He barely even tasted the food as his mind went over and over all the little details.
Finally, he went upstairs, still feeling that there was something in the bedroom, some clue, that he was still overlooking.
* * * * *
"Dad looks stressed out." Mark said quietly.
"I still cannot think of anything we could do to alleviate his worry." Enoch said regretfully.
The boys watched as Derek made his way around the room, carefully examining everything that he encountered.
"Maybe, if we can pull him into a dream, we can get him to pull us both through the opening." Mark said uncertainly.
"Perhaps. But there is no guarantee that I could draw him into our dream place. And even if I could, there is the further possibility that he would not be able to believe or accept what we were telling him." Enoch said regretfully.
"Yeah. That's a lot of 'what-ifs'." Mark agreed.
"I'm sorry, Mark." Derek said under his breath as he sat down in the desk chair, seeming to accept his defeat.
"You don't have to be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong." Mark said in response, even though he knew that his father couldn't hear him.
Enoch draped an arm around Mark and held him firmly.
"I was right there, in the same house with you. I don't know how I let myself get distracted from what's most important. I never meant to hurt you." Derek said in anguish.
"You didn't hurt me." Mark said quickly, then realized that something was wrong. "I'm not crying. I should be crying."
"You can't cry, here." Enoch explained quietly.
"Oh. I didn't know that." Mark said softly.
Enoch gave him a gentle kiss to try and comfort him.
"When you came out to us... I should have reacted better. I should have told you that I love you and... so many other things. I never told you how proud I was." Derek said regretfully.
"You were?" Mark asked with surprise, then slowly asked, "Proud of what?"
"I should have told you 'why'." Derek said under his breath in a voice so low that Mark and Enoch moved closer, so that they could hear.
"I should have told you..." Derek was saying then he looked up, as if he had heard something.
Before Mark or Enoch knew what was happening, Derek was up out of the chair and leaving the room.
"What happened?" Mark asked in confusion.
"If I were to guess, I would say that someone probably knocked at the front door." Enoch said honestly.
"Oh." Mark said thoughtfully, then quietly asked, "What do you think he was about to say?"
"I have no idea." Enoch said honestly.
* * * * *
"Hello. Is this a good time?"
"Yes. It's good to see you again, Oz. It's a perfect time." Derek said as he stepped back to invite Oz into the house.
"How are things going? Made any progress?" Oz asked curiously.
"I've talked to a few people, but I can't say that I'm any closer than when I started. But I was wanting to ask you about the clubs around town. I've been told that a few of them... I don't know how to ask this, but it's been suggested that Mark might have been taken by human traffickers and may be... um..." Derek trailed off, not knowing how to say what he wanted to.
"Actually, I might have come across something, but I'll need to see your son's bedroom before I can say for sure." Oz said carefully.
"Why do you need to see his bedroom?" Derek asked cautiously.
"I just do. Can I see it, or not?" Oz asked seriously.
"Yes. Of course. It's right up here." Derek said as he led the way toward the stairs.
* * * * *
"Here it is." Derek said as he opened the door and stepped aside.
Oz took a step into the room, then looked around before saying, "Yeah. Okay."
"What?" Derek asked cautiously.
"Before I can tell you what I know, we need to come to an understanding." Oz said firmly.
"What do you want?" Derek asked cautiously.
"Here's the deal. If I get your son back then you keep quiet about where he's been. It'll be up to you to come up with a good story that people will believe. If you can't do that, then I can't help you." Oz said seriously.
"I could have you arrested for child abduction, or at the very least, aiding and abetting." Derek countered.
"I suppose you could do that. But then you'd lose what might be your only chance of ever seeing him again." Oz said coldly, not showing the slightest hint of being intimidated.
"Is that a threat?" Derek asked cautiously.
"No. It's an inconvenient fact. But you not wanting to believe it doesn't make it any less true." Oz said frankly.
"But, if I agree, what's to stop you from abducting other kids? How can I consider promising something like that, just to save my own son?" Derek asked in a conflicted tone.
"Listen. I didn't abduct him. I had nothing to do with the choices that he faced or the decisions that he made. If you find out that I'm lying about that, then our deal is off and you can feel free to tell anyone you want about what you discover. But right now, I'm giving you a chance, one chance, to get your son back. What happens next is completely up to you." Oz said seriously.
"What do I have to do?" Derek asked nearly under his breath.
"Just promise to keep your mouth shut. That's it." Oz said frankly.
Derek's mind quickly went back through what he'd been able to discover so far. He didn't have a single lead that had any real hope of panning out.
From what he knew of things, what Oz was saying might well be true. This might be his one and only chance to ever see his son again.
"Okay. Whatever it is, I promise, I won't tell anyone." Derek reluctantly agreed, bracing himself for whatever horror was about to be revealed to him.
Oz walked across the room, then squatted down slightly before extending his hand.
Derek watched in confusion, then had to fight to believe his eyes as another hand suddenly appeared in Oz's.
"Come on out, Mark." Oz said as he began to pull.
Derek staggered back and was fortunately able to find his way into the desk chair before his knees gave way.
Out of literal 'nothingness', Mark's upper body began to emerge.
"How the hell did you manage to get yourself in there, anyway?" Oz asked irritably as he continued to pull.
"It wasn't easy." Mark said as he struggled to get the rest of his body free.
"Mark?" Derek asked disbelievingly.
"Yeah. Just a minute, Dad." Mark said as he was finally able to get his feet under him.
"What?..." Derek began to say, but realized that the myriad of questions that he had couldn't be asked beyond that one word.
Mark reached out his arm, much as Oz had done, and out of the 'nothingness' a backpack appeared in his hand.
As soon as his backpack was on the ground, Mark once again thrust his hand out and Derek was amazed to see another hand grab onto him.
"Come on, E. You've got to push." Mark said as he pulled.
Derek watched in wide eyed wonder as his son was pulling on a disembodied arm with all his might.
"He's stuck." Mark said past clenched teeth.
"Let go, Mark. I'll work something out to get him through. Besides, I still haven't been able to get everything arranged for him." Oz said frankly.
"No way! If Enoch can't come through with me, then I'll go back until you can get us both out!" Mark said firmly.
Oz held Mark's gaze for a long moment before finally saying, "Fine! Move out of the way."
Although Mark was reluctant to let go of Enoch, even for an instant, he still had enough faith in Oz to follow his instructions.
As soon as Mark had stepped away, Oz held out his hand and the disembodied hand once again appeared in his.
Oz looked over toward Derek and said, "You didn't see this."
Derek dumbly nodded.
As Oz continued to hold the hand, he began to glow and his appearance began to change.
Large dark wings slowly became visible on his back and he became taller and more muscular.
"Come on. Get out of there." Oz said, then gave a firm yank.
In a sudden ::woosh::, there stood Enoch, every bit as wide eyed and disbelieving as Derek.
Mark smiled with relief and hurried to Enoch to pull him into his arms.
As he did, he felt Enoch go slack as he fell unconscious.
"Oz? Something's wrong with E." Mark said in panic.
"He's in shock. Get him into bed, under the blanket and crawl in next to him to keep him warm. He should be fine in a few minutes." Oz said seriously.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Derek asked as he watched his son help the unknown young man into the bed.
"Something warm to drink probably wouldn't hurt." Oz said absently as he kept close watch on Mark and Enoch.
Derek nodded, then hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
As soon as Mark had Enoch settled, he turned to Oz and asked, "What's wrong with him?"
"For nearly a hundred years, he's been existing in limbo. During that time he didn't have to eat, drink, sleep, breathe or anything else." Oz said seriously.
"Yeah, so?" Mark asked cautiously.
"Try turning over a car engine after it's been sitting idle for a hundred years and see how much luck you have with it." Oz said frankly.
"But you said he's going to be alright?" Mark asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Just give him a minute." Oz assured him.
Mark gave Enoch a quick kiss as he cuddled him close, then turned to Oz and quietly said, "I thought we had it all figured out when we decided to spend eternity together."
"Yeah. About that. Even if there were a way to work around the whole 'holy light' problem, it still wouldn't have been a good idea. Limbo is a place to stop along the way, it isn't a destination." Oz said frankly.
"I think we could have been happy there." Mark said frankly.
"You know how you don't have to eat or sleep when you're there?" Oz asked cautiously.
"No orgasms, either. It's a physiological response that becomes completely inactive in limbo." Oz said seriously.
"Oh..." Mark said as he looked back at Enoch.
"Mark?" Enoch asked in a weak whisper.
"How are you doing, E?" Mark asked with a smile, relieved that Enoch seemed to be recovering.
"Is it really true? Did we really make it?" Enoch asked hopefully.
"Yes. We really did. Everything's going to be alright now." Mark said joyfully as he hugged Enoch firmly.
"Actually, that remains to be seen." Oz said cautiously.
"What's wrong?" Mark asked as he turned slightly to look at Oz again.
Rather than answer, Oz pointed toward the bedroom door.
* * * * *
As Derek walked into the bedroom, he realized that everyone was looking at him.
"Did I miss something?" Derek asked as he placed a cup of hot tea on the edge of the desk.
"For the past few days, I've been arranging things and nudging them to go in the right direction... and keeping a certain blabby kid from telling you about Enoch, too early. But now that we're all here, in the same dimension, there are some things that need to be sorted out." Oz said frankly.
"Enoch, would you like some tea?" Mark asked gently.
"Yes. Please." Enoch said quietly, looking to be much more stable than he'd been earlier.
"What things?" Derek asked cautiously.
After helping Enoch to sit up, Mark handed him the cup of tea as he said, "Enoch doesn't officially exist. Mom's taking a job in New Mexico, you live in Michigan and as far as I know, I'm still living here in Texas. That's not going to work."
"What do you want to do about it?" Derek asked quietly.
"Let's look at what we can do, first." Oz suggested seriously.
"With Mom taking a new job, I don't think there's any way she'd agree to take on another kid." Mark said frankly.
"And you couldn't tell her about who Enoch really is. She couldn't handle it." Oz interjected.
"But you told me." Derek said cautiously.
"Yeah. Well, that wasn't my first choice, but with the way things turned out, it's the only way I could see to make this work." Oz said frankly.
"So, you two could come to Michigan and live with me." Derek suggested hesitantly.
"Do you want us to?" Mark asked his father seriously.
"Yes! Of course!" Derek said immediately.
Mark smiled at his father's reaction, then quietly said, "Then let's do that."
"But we still need to find a way to explain Enoch being here." Oz said seriously.
Derek thought for a moment, then said, "I know a few people, back in Michigan, who can make that happen."
"Dad?! Are you talking about doing something illegal?" Mark asked with surprise.
"Only a little. I mean, I assume that Enoch's an American citizen." Derek said, then looked at Enoch with question.
"Yes. I was born in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1883." Enoch said quietly.
"There you go. So, we're just going to get him the documentation to prove that he belongs here." Derek said with an uncomfortable smile.
Although Mark was uneasy about asking his father to do something that was clearly illegal, he couldn't help but agree that it was for the greater good and didn't really hurt anyone.
"Well, if you're going to be doing that in Michigan, you might not want to fly. I can't see that going well." Oz said frankly.
Derek nodded his agreement.
"So, I guess the big question is, what do we tell Mom?" Mark asked anxiously.
"I'll let you guys work that out. It sounds like you've got everything you need, so I'll be on my way." Oz said frankly.
"Before you go... What the hell are you?" Derek asked cautiously.
"It's funny you should mention hell..." Oz said with a smirk, then spread his wings as he faded from sight.
To Be Continued...
Now, there goes Oz, breaking more rules. He does that sometimes.
My gut reaction is that, fallen or not, someone who's an angel can still have at least some good in him, Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, why don't we?
I hope there will be another chapter soon.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher