Sunday, July 30, 2017
Phoenix from the Ashes Part 5
As always, many thanks to PJ and Rosemarie for all of their help.
It turned out that Alfred, who insisted that they be on a first name basis, was an agreeable man who was happy to simply sit and talk to Joaquin for a while. Once again, Shorty had allowed 'Keen to go in by himself while he went back to the bunkhouse to do some chores. The young man knew that his new teacher was going to talk to the vet when everything was done, but that didn't bother him as much as he thought it would. It made him feel cared for for the first time in years. Just the knowledge that someone cared enough to want to know, to be involved, to help. Really help. The boy sighed in contentment.
When they were done, Alfred called Shorty to have him come back and again, the three of them talked together.
"I'm impressed," Al admitted with a half-smile. "Phoenix told me a little about himself and his problems with learning, but I have a feeling that with a little hard work on both our parts, he'll even be able to give Mutt a run for his money."
"Mutt?" 'Keen asked, "Is that some sort of aid dog like I've seen on TV?"
"Nope, his name is Matthew, but everyone calls him Mutt. He seems to like it so that's what we call him," Shorty replied with a smile.
"Mutt...," 'Keen said quietly, trying not to laugh. "There's actually someone named Mutt."
"One of the smartest men on the resort," the big vet said proudly.
"Is he a teacher too?"
"He's head of our maintenance department, but don't let that fool you," Shorty said when he saw the look of astonishment on the boy's face. "He's a genius around here."
"Then why does he work maintenance?"
"Mutt is capable of many things," Alfred said quietly. "He has chosen maintenance because it's what pleases him. You'll meet him soon, and you can get to know him. He's an open book, and won't be offended if you, like so many others, ask him questions about why he chooses to do what he does."
'Keen chewed lightly on a finger nail as he thought about that. He looked hopefully up at his new teacher and asked shyly. "He's a genius? And you think I can be like him?"
Alfred smiled back, his eyes twinkling. "Yes, he is, and I do believe so. You have to be willing to put in the work though. Will you do that?"
The boy smiled at the two men. "Yeah, I think I can do that."
They talked a while longer before the retired professor noticed the time. "I'm sorry gentlemen, I have a class in about fifteen minutes. Phoenix, it was a pleasure to meet you. I'm looking forward to our time together."
"Me too." 'Keen smiled. "Thank you."
"Bye for now, Al," Shorty said with a grin as he put his coat and hat back on. "What time should I bring him by tomorrow?"
"Sounds good. We'll see you then. What kind of supplies is Phoenix going to need?"
"Just a few notebooks, pens, pencils. I'll develop a curriculum as we learn more about each other. For the time being I'll just be performing standard tests, nothing to be worried about, Phoenix." He smiled as he saw the youngster's face tense up at the word. "We're going to start out slowly, and work at your pace. That's the problem with a lot of schools, I think. They expect all children to learn at the same rate, and that's not realistic."
"Thanks again, Al. We'll see you tomorrow morning," Shorty said, handing the young man his jacket. "In the meantime, Phoenix, we'll have to run into town and buy those supplies. We can stop and have lunch there as well. Sound good?"
"Sounds great," the youngster replied, a genuine smile on his face as they walked back out into the daylight.
The drive into town was enjoyable for the two of them. They stopped at the store and bought the things Alfred had said they'd need, as well as some casual reading books that 'Keen had shown an interest in.
"Thanks, Shorty," the teen said as they got back into the truck to find a place to have lunch.
"You’re welcome!" Shorty replied with a grin. "I like the times we get to spend together."
'Keen couldn't help the shy smile that crossed his face. No one had ever told him they liked him, let alone enjoyed his company. He felt the same way about the veterinarian but couldn't find the words to say as much. Despite his worries, he found himself thinking of Shorty as the next best thing to a father he could hope for. He worried though that if he admitted that to the man, that the vet would distance himself, and 'Keen knew he couldn't bear that.
That evening dinner was delicious, as always, and very enjoyable. 'Keen actually found himself joining in on the conversation now and again, and blushed slightly when he saw Shorty smiling at him with pride in his eyes.
When ‘Keen went into the kitchen the next morning, the other men were just finishing their meal. “Sorry kiddo,” Bo said, looking embarrassed, “we couldn’t wait, we’re already behind schedule. You guys have a good day and we’ll see you around dinner, alright?” He smiled.
‘Keen returned their waves goodbye and immediately dismissed the other men from his thoughts for the time being, he turned them back to the older man. He still felt guilty about allowing Shorty to spend so much money and time on him. With all that though, he wondered what the veterinarian wanted from him in return. He had nothing.
His stomach froze. He still had a little over three hundred dollars. Should he tell the man to keep the money he had? But what if he had to run again? What if they found out who he was and where he came from. They'd have to, by law, send him back, and that thought frightened him.
"Phoenix? Phoenix!" a concerned voice said loudly, breaking into the teen's thoughts.
Startled, ‘Keen looked up into concerned blue eyes. "Are you all right Hon? You looked like you'd seen a ghost. Are you feeling sick again?"
Better to pretend that he felt sick than admit that he was, once again, thinking of running.
"Yeah, just a bit. I think once I wash my face and get something to eat I'll feel better," he replied.
After he washed, all that ‘Keen would accept to eat was a thick slice of still warm bread and butter. He insisted it was enough even though Shorty tried to get him to eat more. The boy refused, saying that it was more than enough to fill him up for the time being.
The veterinarian smiled, but there seemed to be a hint of sadness in the deep blue eyes. "Come on then, Phoenix. I have a few last-minute instructions for Little Jake and Jare before we head out to Alfred's."
‘Keen felt a little envious as the twins and Shorty greeted each other with smiles and jokes as though they hadn't seen each other only minutes before. He found himself becoming a little jealous of the attention the young men were getting.
When the boys turned to begin their daily chores, Shorty turned his attention back to ‘Keen.
"Don't forget, after your time with Al you'll be meeting Jeff and James today, alright Phoenix?" Shorty asked with a grin. He knew that the boy had been nervous about the meeting which was why they'd put it off for so long. But finally, last night, ‘Keen had said, "We might as well get this over with. I suppose I have to meet my..." He'd been about to say jailers but stopped himself.
"Benefactors is a good word, Phoenix," Shorty replied with a grin, knowing what the teen hadn't said.
"Yeah, ok," the youngster replied, somewhat shakily.
"Everything is going to be alright, Hon. You're safe here."
'Keen swallowed hard and nodded, following Shorty to Alfred's for his first session.
When the veterinarian went back a few hours later to pick the boy up he couldn't help but to notice the child's defeated expression.
"Want to talk about it?" the man asked kindly.
'Keen shrugged and shook his head as he looked everywhere except at Shorty. Because he had to get the youngster to James's office, the vet hadn't had time to stop and talk to Alfred as he'd planned, but he made a mental note to contact the instructor and make an appointment with him to discuss how the kid was doing.
Judging by the teen's expression it hadn't gone well, and he was going to do everything in his power to help.
"Well, hon, ready to go and meet James and Jeff?" Shorty asked in a light tone.
"Lead on," the boy replied dully.
The big veterinarian put his arm around the kid and they walked companionably toward the main building where James and Jeff had their offices. When they arrived, Shorty politely knocked on the resort owner's door and was quickly invited in. Jeff and James sat on the couch sipping cups of coffee. Two more cups were laid out and ready should their guests want a drink as well.
The two men put down their coffee and stood up, smiles of welcome on their faces.
"Phoenix!" James said, holding out his hand to shake the young man's. "It's so nice to finally meet you. My name is James Harrington. How do you like the resort so far?"
‘Keen smiled uncertainly. "I like it fine, sir. It's really beautiful. Shorty showed me some of it and he said he'd take me to see more after we're all set here."
"So, you've already been to see Alfred this morning?" James asked with a smile, still extending his hand to be shaken. 'Keen nodded and tried to shake hands like a man, like his... like the guy he'd once called his father... had told him to do.
"Ah, Al's a great guy. You'll learn a lot from him. I don't know if Shorty told you but he leads a few of the classes here at the resort," Jeff added, also holding out his hand. "I'm Jeff Markham by the way."
"Pleased to meet you," ‘Keen said politely as he shook hands with Jeff.
"Just call me Jeff, everyone does. We're not formal here. Have a seat!" he invited the newcomers. "Would you like some coffee, or tea?"
"Coffee, please," ‘Keen said quietly, expecting the adults to tell him he was too young for coffee. He was surprised when Jeff poured cups for both him and Shorty and then sat back down on the couch.
"Please guys, have a seat," Jeff quipped. "My neck is getting a crick looking up at you two standing there."
The two visitors sat and picked up their cups. The three men were rather surprised to find that the youngster drank his black.
"I used to drink it when we didn't have anything else in the house. I didn't like the taste at first, but I got used to it," he explained. "Now I have a hard time drinking it any other way," he laughed.
"We?" James asked casually.
"My br... I mean the Dru.... I mean...," the youth stammered, blushing furiously. He'd nearly tripped up again and said too much. He put his cup down angrily, the coffee sloshing out onto the table and the youngster sat back, arms crossed and lips clenched.
Shorty was about to tell the young man to wipe up the mess but James put up a gentle, restraining hand. He got up and brought over a roll of paper towels, tore one off and wiped the moisture up himself.
"You don't have to be afraid of us, Phoenix. We just want to help in any way we can," Jeff said gently.
Still discouraged from the disastrous 'lesson' with Alfred, and angry at himself for letting more slip than he meant to, 'Keen said angrily, "You can't help. No one can. No one ever could." His eyes flashed as he glared at Jeff. "The best thing any of you can do is to let me go on my way and forget you ever met me."
"You know we can't do that," James said quietly. "Gideon felt that this was the best place for you, and the rest of us agree. You told Heath that you were not too far from your eighteenth birthday. We'd like to keep you here and protect you as best we can until that day. Then, if you decide to leave, we can help you find a job and a place to live.
"Who's gonna hire me?" ‘Keen said, disbelief, confusion and anger warring for control of his voice. "I'm a midget and I'm dumb as a brick. What kind of work would I be qualified for?"
"With our help, and Alfred's, you can and will learn a lot of things that will carry over into your real life. And your height has no bearing on your capabilities," James reassured the youth.
"I can't learn. I've tried," ‘Keen replied tiredly. "Look, just... leave me alone, ok? I mean, if you're gonna make me stay here then I guess I've really got no choice. Figure out what kind of... I dunno... menial labor you can find for me to do and let me do it. It's the least I can do to pay you back for what you've done for me. But once I turn eighteen... I'm outta here."
"If you still feel that way once you're legally of age, then of course, you may leave. The offer to help you find employment and a place to live stands," Jeff said.
"This place to live...," ‘Keen began, thinking about his brothers and whether he could get custody of them once he was legal. He wondered if 'the place' would be big enough for the three of them. He realized that his chances of getting back the brothers he'd abandoned were slim, and his expression closed up again. "Never mind. If it happens it happens. If it doesn't, well, I haven't lost anything have I?"
Jeff was at a loss for words. He'd seen a lot of sadness in his lifetime, but to see the defeated young man before him nearly broke his heart. The teen was too young to be so jaded, and he was determined to help in any way he could.
"Phoenix, we're all here for you," he said. "If there's anything you need, anything you want to talk about, or even if you just feel like hanging around with us, James, myself, Shorty and any number of the other residents on the resort here are available. For anything."
"I hope that soon you'll be able to learn to trust us, Phoenix," James added. "We'd like to help more but can't if you withhold information. Understand?"
The youth's only response was a tired shrug. He sighed and looked up at Shorty listlessly, begging him with his eyes to please take him out and away from the two men. He didn't want to get his hopes up and distance seemed to be his best defense.
The veterinarian looked at his watch and said, "We'll have to go and rustle something up for lunch pretty soon. We don't want to be late. You know how those kids get when they have to wait," he joked.
‘Keen gritted his teeth, his anger starting to emerge again at Shorty's so-called joke. It seemed to him that none of these men had ever gone without food for any length of time if they could joke about it so casually.
Jeff wasn't blind to the boy's expression though he had no idea what had made the kid so upset. He tried to change the subject a little before the two left.
"I'd like to know how your studies go, Phoenix, if you wouldn't mind. Any of us would be willing to help you with your subjects if you want or need it. My husband Mutt has already offered his services. You only need to ask," he said with a smile.
"Won't need help. I ain't goin' back to Alfred. There's no point."
"What do you mean?" Shorty asked, concerned.
"I told you before, I'm stupid!" the boy said, glaring at the man. "I don't know anything! I got suspended from high school and never meant to go back for a reason, and I don't intend to go back to Alfred's. Ever. So, let's not waste his time or mine," ‘Keen said angrily. He began to storm off.
"Stop right there, young man," Shorty ordered. He'd had enough of the teen's negative attitude and was prepared to set him straight.
‘Keen stopped in his tracks, more surprised by the big man's sharp command than any desire to obey. He turned around to look at the men and then at Shorty. The vet had never raised his voice to him before, and the youngster worried that he'd finally gone too far.
"You've run away more than once. That's more than enough," the big man said sternly. "You can't keep running away from your problems, or from things that scare you."
"I'm not scared," the boy said, lifting his chin defiantly.
"Then stop running. Stop with the attitude, and stop putting yourself down. We've all seen what a smart kid you are. You're well spoken, except for the swearing, and while we're not sure where you came from yet, I know you were on the road for a while, and you managed to keep yourself safe and alive. That takes smarts, which you obviously have. Heath already told you that your difficulties in learning could be caused by malnutrition, and I plan to do whatever it takes to help you overcome that."
"As are we," James said kindly, gesturing to himself and Jeff. The two men stood up but kept their distance so that the young man wouldn't feel threatened.
‘Keen hesitated for just a moment. He wanted so badly to tell Shorty everything, but he was afraid. Afraid they'd send him back now that he'd gotten so far. Afraid to find out that his brothers had been mistreated by some foster family, or worse, split up. No one was going to want Sammy. They'd probably sent him to an institution somewhere, lost forever.
Their mother had been advised to do just that, but she used Sammy like a bargaining chip, getting money, goods and sympathy as the loving, struggling, brave single mother who wouldn't give up her disabled son. It had all been an act, and if her oldest son hadn't been there to take care of him, and their silent little brother, no one else would have. It would have only been a matter of time before his worst nightmares became reality. Now he had no idea what had happened to them, and he felt as though his heart would break.
The men saw the emotions crossing the youth's face but remained silent. Any further questions on their part would just cause the boy to shut down even more. They all knew that Phoenix would tell them his story in his own time. They only hoped it would be soon. They'd sent their findings to Gideon who had widened his search for a missing boy matching Phoenix's description, correcting the age and making the announcement further west and not just in Idaho where Gideon had first come across him.
"Ok, hon, I guess we'd better get a move on then," Shorty said with a smile.
'Keen shrugged and followed the older man out of the room after offering a polite goodbye to the other two.
"That wasn't so bad now, was it?" the older man smiled.
"I guess not, " ‘Keen admitted grudgingly, now that he'd calmed down a little. "So... when can I start working on the resort. Do you think that Mutt guy can use another hand?"
"You're going to focus on schooling right now, hon. But I know that either I or Mutt would love to have you as an extra hand."
'Keen gave a great, frustrated sigh and said, "When is everyone going to admit that I'm stupid and just give me some job to do?"
"Phoenix, I want you to stop that. You are not stupid," Shorty said sternly. "Stubborn, maybe," he said with a smile, "but not stupid in any way."
'Keen rolled his eyes a little and shrugged again, "Thanks," he said quietly. He knew that if the man had been there for the tests that Alfred had given him earlier, the veterinarian would have to admit that he was right.
The next morning, at Shorty's insistence, 'Keen reported at 9 as usual to Alfred's office. His stomach was still knotted and he felt the depression from the day before flood back. "Please don't leave me," he'd asked the big man quietly as Shorty was about to drop him off.
Without asking why, the veterinarian accompanied the teen into the building and sat with him while Alfred went over the test results.
‘Keen was shocked at the results of Alfred's testing. While, as he'd known, he had not done well in some things, he'd scored high in others. Alfred had explained the bell curve to him and he'd learned that with an IQ of 118 he scored on the high side of average intelligence, and had a natural talent for mechanics. As a result, ‘Keen agreed to study to earn his high school diploma.
In the meantime, Mutt had taken the teen under his wing and he and the others were teaching him everything they knew about how to care for the resort, even allowing the youngster to help with repairs to the resort's vehicles after Alfred released him from his studies.
The youth dove into every job he was given, happy to be of use and feeling at ease now that everyone had stopped asking him questions about who he really was and where he'd come from, and sometimes, not always, but sometimes, he was able to think about something other than his brothers. It was mostly at night that his guilt and worries assailed him, and he found it difficult to sleep without knowing what had become of them.
A week later Gideon still hadn't received any news of a missing seventeen-year-old matching ‘Keen's description. His heart sank as he realized that absolutely no one missed this boy, and that anything could have happened to him and there would have been no one to be there for him. No one knew who he was or where he came from, and apparently no one cared. No one except Gideon and the men of the resort, who were determined to find out about him.
The young man was becoming as much a part of the resort as the other residents. He'd long since put away his fears. He'd been a guest at James's house a few times, and he and Jax had hit it off immediately. James and Jeff had even hosted a party where Mutt, the twins, Ryan, Mike, Bo, Tris and many others were in attendance, listening to music, playing video and board games, and in general, just having a good time while eating a variety of homemade pizzas courtesy of Brendon and the other bakers.
He'd been a little surprised by Spencer showing up at the get together dressed as a woman, but he had to admit that Madame was entertaining and full of great ideas for things to do to pass the time. Ryan had brought his cat, Castiel, who was the star of the show with everyone vying for his attention.
Gideon had brought Killer to the resort a few times, letting Phoenix and the dog spend time together while he talked to Shorty, James and Jeff.
January turned to February, and he looked forward to his 18th birthday growing closer in the spring. He had grown attached to the land and the people, and when James and Jeff had asked him once again if he'd like to become a permanent resident, he'd promised to consider it.
There were worse places to be, he thought. Here he had steady work, a place to sleep and three meals a day as well as snacks. He, like the other residents, worked hard but was paid a decent wage. ‘Keen was still considered one of James's special guests, and a bank account containing his earnings from working on the resort had been set up in James's name, to be eventually turned over to Phoenix once he divulged his real full name and where he'd come from. Until then they couldn't fill out any official paperwork.
James was pleased with the results. The youth was flourishing. He smiled more, interacted with the other residents and guests well, and did quality work, according to Mutt and Shorty.
The closer ‘Keen got to his eighteenth birthday, the more comfortable he felt and he finally began to share small details about his life. One day when he and Mutt were sharing stories about how they'd grown up, the teen admitted to the older man that he'd left two brothers behind, and that he was worried about them. They were sitting in Mutt's office taking a much-needed break when he began to speak.
"I'd like to get them back," he said quietly. "I never wanted to leave them in the first place but I knew there was no way I could take them with me. I knew that they'd slow me down, and that with Sammy there... well, he kind of draws attention to himself when we're out in public. I nearly got caught a couple of times before I met Gideon, and I got into a couple of close calls... if I'd had them with me, we definitely would have been caught, and... well... not all the people I took rides with were, um...," the boy faltered.
"I understand," Mutt had replied, compassion in his eyes. "Go on."
"I want my brothers back, Mutt,” ‘Keen blurted out, near tears. "D'ya think Shorty can get them back for me? Maybe he can say he's a long-lost uncle and..."
"Shorty would never lie like that, not for anyone, Phoenix," Mutt said sadly. "I don't know what the laws are regarding a minor being given custody of two other minors, especially when they're disabled."
"I don't think of them as disabled,” ‘Keen said, looking into Mutt's eyes. "They're just my brothers, and I want them back. I miss them. Isn't there any way Shorty can get custody of them if I can't? Or James or Jeff? Or even you! Mutt, can you do it?"
"Well, we do have a lawyer for the resort, but you'd have to be honest with him." He held up a hand to forestall the boy's protest. "We all know that your real name isn't Phoenix. You'd have to tell him your full, real name, where you came from, why you left..."
"Do you think that the fact that I left them.... well... what d'ya think my chances are of getting custody of them? I don't even know where they are now... what if they put them away somewhere? Will I be able to get them out? Mutt... I don't know what to do!" the boy said, anguish, guilt and remorse in his face and tone.
Mutt drew the youth into a hug and said, "If anything can be done, then our lawyer will find a way to do it. But I can't make any promises, alright?"
The teen nodded into Mutt's chest.
Mutt could feel the youngster's tears soaking into his shirt and hugged him harder.
"If you're ready to tell the whole story now I'll call James and Jeff," Mutt said quietly. "Are you ready, Phoenix?"
"Joaquín," the boy whispered, his voice quavering, "My name is Joaquín.”
The name Joaquín is pronounced Wah-keen