Sunday, August 6, 2017
Phoenix from the Ashes Part 6
The teen was quiet, guilt still weighing heavily on his conscience for having run away and abandoning his brothers, but grateful now that he'd been able to open up to Mutt, even if it was just a little to start with. He'd been reluctant to share his story, but he felt that since he'd been at the resort for close to two full months and his eighteenth birthday was just around the corner, it would be safe. These men had all proven themselves honest and caring, and men of their word.
He'd had to admit that he was more than a little surprised when he first found out what the resort was for and had considered taking off again, but as promised, he'd spoken to Shorty about it and learned the difference between discipline and abuse, and had seen it in action on the rare occasion that the man had had to discipline Jarrod or Little Jake, and now and again, even Bo.
The first time he'd witnessed it he'd backed off and climbed the nearest tree to mull over what he'd seen. He was taken aback by how Shorty handled the twins, and that they'd been willing to accept punishment from him, even though they were nearly twenty-one.
He had also been surprised and relieved to find that it was a resort for gay men. Even though Ick had always called him a fag it had been done out of a desire to cut him down, not out of firm knowledge of 'Keen's sexual preferences. The teen had grown to hate that word since it had been aimed at him so often by the disgusting man. The part that had hurt was that his mother had never stuck up for him, or his brothers. Not even once.
'Keen had known from an early age that he was somehow different than his friends, though he had no words at the time to describe just how, but as they'd grown older and his friends began to talk about having crushes on girls, he, though he'd kept it to himself, found himself attracted to other boys. One in particular.
He'd never had the nerve to approach the other child and tell him, and so he'd pretended to be like the others, feeling alone and a little guilty for not having the nerve to speak up for himself.
Here, he knew he was safe to be, himself, to admit that yes, he was gay for the first time in his life, without worrying about cruel remarks.
He'd never known exactly how his mother would have reacted to that information, but he was sure it would have been yet another bout of unpleasantness. With Ick there, a beating would have been included. It might even have resulted in them flat out throwing him out of the home. As it was, he'd been the one who had chosen to leave which had given him a very slight feeling of some control over his life.
Knowing that he was finally safe brought a level of relief he'd never felt before. He'd admitted it to Shorty when he'd first found out, and the vet had only smiled and hugged him, patted him on the back and reassured him that it was alright.
Now he'd gone and told Mutt more about himself, and he could feel that some of the fear and guilt had begun to dissipate. The young man had left it up to him as to when and to whom he would tell his story, but counseled that it be soon, so Joaquín had allowed Mutt to call James, Jeff, Heath, Gideon and Shorty for a meeting. The time was drawing near, making the youth very nervous. He'd learned that all of his earliest fears had been unfounded and based solely on the horror stories that Ick had told him for the past three years, and that his brothers had most likely been placed with good families who could take care of them, but he still wanted his brothers back, and was willing to fight for them.
When it was time, Mutt led the young man to James's office.
"There are still no reports of a boy his age missing?" Shorty asked, uncomprehendingly. "What kind of parents don't notice their son is missing?"
"Do you suppose he ran away from a foster home? I hear that sometimes they're so overcrowded that kids can disappear for days without being noticed," Heath asked.
"He might be more than a runaway," James replied thoughtfully. "It could be that he was thrown out for some other reason. Drugs, theft, vandalism... "
"Even if he's been thrown out of his home, there would be some record of him somewhere. Birth certificate, school records...,” Heath insisted. "And if he was thrown out it wasn't because of drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. He hasn't shown any withdrawal symptoms since he's been with us. I'm willing to testify that he's not a behavioral case as you thought at the beginning when you said he'd tried to jump out of the car, Shorty. Just a really scared, uncertain kid."
"I knew the kid wasn't into drugs or weapons because Killer would have smelled it on him," Gideon acknowledged, his voice crackling just a little over the speaker phone. "And frankly, he was crazy about the kid. Killer is an easy dog to get along with once he knows you but he takes a while to warm up to most folks. He took to that boy immediately."
The man didn't say a word about the cigarettes that had gone missing from his glove compartment since Heath had vouched for the fact that the boy wasn't having nicotine withdrawal, but he did wonder what had become of the two packs that had mysteriously disappeared from his car that night.
“I still don’t understand how no one can't have noticed he’s gone,” Jeff protested.
"Even if he were still in school, it really isn't the school's job to follow up until they hear from either the parents or a CPS worker," Gideon explained. "What I don't get is that no one, absolutely no one, not neighbors or friends or even relatives have reported him missing."
"So, somewhere along the way someone dropped the ball,” James said grimly.
The men were all silent for a moment, each thinking of their own parents and how they'd been cared for growing up. None of them could imagine if they'd gone missing that their parents wouldn't have been on the phone calling everyone they knew for news of their child.
“Me and a bunch of my friends took off for a day," Shorty admitted. "I didn't tell Dan where I was going or with who," he continued, referring to his mentor and first lover. He looked at his friends with a grin before turning a sheepish expression in James's direction. "I still remember the hiding I got, if I hadn’t been gone the whole day; and if Dan hadn’t called the sheriff probably nothing would have come of it.”
The resort owner returned the grin. “I did something similar when I was a teenager," he said. "A bunch of us took off and went swimming about twenty miles away and were gone the entire day. We’re lucky all they did was tan our backsides.”
Jeff laughed and said, “I got whupped and given extra chores.” He groaned at the memory. “But the fact is that our folks were worried enough to send out people to look for us. They didn’t just brush us off and pretend we didn’t exist.”
"If your under aged child is on drugs then you get them help. If they run away, you look for them. Too many questions...,” the veterinarian trailed off. “How does a youngster disappear? How can any parent not care about their own child enough to look for them?”
No one noticed the shadow that darkened Jeff's eyes momentarily as he thought of his own husband's parents and how they'd run him out of the house when he'd come out to them about being gay.
"That's the problem, Shorty," Gideon sighed, "there are a lot of parents who feel that they tried everything to help their youngster and who just gave up because he or she didn't want help, or didn't feel they needed it. It's not because they don't love their child, it's because they don't know what else to do. I'm not saying that that's the case here, just one I've seen too often to ignore."
"So rather than report him missing they pretend he was never born?" Heath asked, uncomprehending. "I can't imagine anyone who would do that."
A look of sadness came over Shorty's face but was quickly masked. There was no point in torturing himself with the nightmare that had been his own reality as a child. Unwanted by both parents and grandparents. If it hadn't been for Dan, he probably would have ended up just like Phoenix, running scared and distrustful of all adults.
A heavy sigh came over the speakerphone once again. "It's unfortunate,” replied Gideon, “but it happens more often than we like to admit. Every year the bodies of unidentified kids are found, and no one ever claims them. Sometimes, if someone takes pity and has the money, they're buried, nameless. Otherwise they’re cremated and the cremains are left in a box on a dusty shelf somewhere with nothing but a number to identify them."
"What can we do to help this one, Gideon?" Shorty asked. "The worst thing he's admitted to me was stealing a fair amount of money when he ran away."
"Hmmm. Did you ever find out how much money he took?"
"He wasn't sure how much he'd started out with, but I counted a little over three hundred dollars. I know he's not a bad kid," Shorty continued. "He felt guilty that I was spending money on him when he had his own. When I showed him the baggie I'd dug up, that's when he admitted he'd stolen it."
"Where did you initially come across him?" asked James, frowning thoughtfully.
"Killer found him at a rest stop in Lewiston, Idaho. Crazy dog found him up a tree." Gideon huffed a laugh, despite the seriousness of the subject.
"When you found him, was he very dirty? Ragged? Worn out?" the resort owner asked thoughtfully.
"Not so filthy that he would have drawn attention if he'd gone into a restaurant. He'd obviously been making efforts to stay clean but he was disheveled," Gideon laughed ruefully. "I mean, Killer did find him up a tree. He'd hardly look clean and pressed. His sneakers were worn but I don't know if that was because of travel and weather or if those were the only ones he had."
"So, you found him in a tree in a rest stop, and other than being tired and wearing worn sneakers, he didn't look as though he'd been traveling long?"
"Where are you going with this James?" Gideon asked.
"The same place Phoenix was going,” Shorty said quietly.
"You lost me," Gideon declared confusion evident in his voice.
"When we caught up with him a couple of weeks later, his sneakers were all but worn out and he was on his last set of clean clothes, according to him. When I asked him where we were he thought we were in South Dakota, he couldn't understand how he'd ended up going south instead of east," Shorty said.
"Which means that he may have just crossed the border between either Washington or Oregon to come to rest in Lewiston where he was still more or less fresh out," Gideon said, frowning as numbers whirled around in his head. "If we go with that, if he traveled in a more or less straight line, then he traveled a good two hundred and forty some odd miles more or less on foot in Idaho alone. He's young and on a good day might average forty miles in ten hours, however..."
"Young as he is he still had to stop to rest and eat, and the more he walked the more tired he would have become," Shorty said, catching on.
"Meaning he would have walked more slowly," Gideon continued. "On foot alone it might have taken him approximately eight or nine days, even shaving off a few hours for the times he accepted rides. The total walk would have taken longer as he struggled against bad weather."
"He would have been trying to avoid being noticed so he would either have laid low during the day or traveled through wooded or densely crowded areas to keep from being noticed," James conjectured.
"A day or so after I threw away his moldy old clothes he told me he'd tried to stop at local laundromats on the weekends but there was always some motherly sort who would comment on how strange it was that a boy his age would be doing his own laundry on a weekend, and ask where his parents were,” Shorty sighed. "He said he'd take whatever it was he'd been washing or drying and stuff it back in his bag, wet or damp, and leave before anyone could ask any more questions."
"That would explain why everything was moldy. He wasn't able to stay in one place long enough for his clothes to dry. The constant wet would explain why his sneakers were in such bad shape, but I wonder why he didn't stop to buy a new pair when the ones he was wearing started to rot?" Heath wondered aloud. He'd felt bad for the kid as it was but now that they were sitting there discussing what the youngster had gone through it was even worse.
"That could be the answer right there, Heath," Jeff said quietly, "he was by himself. He couldn't even walk into a laundromat without drawing attention. How was he going to get through a store with a bag that reeked of mold, and sneakers that were falling apart at the seams? He would most likely have drawn attention to himself if he'd stopped to buy fresh clothes and sneakers, even a new bag, looking the way he did. Store security would have had cameras on him from the moment he walked in."
"None of the motels or hotels had any records of a boy stopping to sleep for the night so he was walking and sleeping rough. And we're still not sure where his starting point was," Gideon said regretfully, “but now thanks to Shorty we can focus our search and be more specific about where he may have come from."
"That poor boy, walking so far by himself. All I can think of is how frightened he must have been, and of how bad things must have been where he came from that he thought walking in sleet, rain and mud was a better alternative than wherever he called home," Shorty said, barely restraining his anger at the youth's so-called parents. "Not to mention his hitchhiking. Children are taught from day one not to accept rides from strangers. When I think what could have happened..."
"Did he by any chance mention to you how many rides he accepted?" James asked hopefully.
"He didn't say specifically. He told me about an elderly man who drove him to a local police station where he ran before the officers could be notified. He said he took a couple of bus rides and that he'd gotten rides from several truckers. Then there was you. He didn't mention any others," Shorty replied, thinking back.
"I had put the word out with the truckers to contact me if they saw him,” Gideon said. "Gypsy Rose was the one who tipped me off that he was at the rest stop, so we knew where to find him," Gideon said, thinking hard. "When I think of how long he'd been traveling by himself... he was in more danger than even he could have imagined. If only I'd..."
"You had no control over who found him or what they would have done, Gideon. You can't blame yourself," James said staunchly. “It's like Shorty said, the schools teach us right out not to accept rides from strangers."
"Thank you, James," Gideon said, accepting the man's forgiveness but not willing to forgive himself just yet. "Thanks to all of you we now have more information than we did before and that could be all we needed. I think we’re that much closer to finding out who Phoenix is and where he came from. Hopefully he can fill in the blanks when he arrives."
"The question is, if we do find out where he came from... well," he sighed, "because of his age, will they make us return him?" Heath asked quietly.
That was when the men heard the door slam shut with enough force to rattle the windows.
"Shit!" came Mutt's voice just before he opened the door and ran out after Phoenix, also slamming the door.
“Looks like we got a runner. Take a look,” Jeff said, dashing to the door and pointing into the oncoming darkness.
The men gathered around the window in time to see the youngster pelting down the gravel driveway into the night and the mid-February cold with Mutt hot on his heels.
James immediately went into emergency mode. “We'll need everyone available to catch up with him. I'll call the others. You all grab your coats and gloves and split up. Don’t forget your cell phones!” he ordered. “And be careful out there! There’s most likely ice under that snow and I don’t want any broken bones.”
Shorty called ahead to Bo and the twins, telling them to saddle up some horses and begin their search for the runaway.
James called the security office and put them on the alert. "Call in everyone you can," he said to Duke. "Martin and Greg should stay behind with Harry, we're going to need someone to take over the shifts of the searchers. Take the ATVs or the snowmobiles if you have to, but we have to find him soon, the temperature is already dropping and there's snow in the forecast."
"Yes sir!" Duke replied smartly. He hung up the phone without saying goodbye and called in Coral and Ryan. Then he called Con and Brian to put them on the alert as well.
"Heading out now," was all that Con said before hanging up. He explained the situation to Brian as quickly as he could and the men geared up and headed out.
Jeff ran to the parking lot and took the van, while Heath started up the jeep and took off, spraying ice and gravel until his tires took hold. They chose their directions and the race against frostbite began.
Back at the office, the resort owner stared out the window and sighed. “Wait til I get my hands on that boy,” he said grimly.
“James, he’s scared,” Gideon said. “I’m not saying he did the smartest thing, taking off out there like that, but he’s been afraid since before he even got here that he was going to be sent back to whatever it was he was running from. We don’t know everything that he may have heard but I’m sure he did hear Heath say we might have to send him back, which would, unless we received permission to keep him, lead to him being returned to his parents, or sent to an overcrowded shelter or a foster home.”
“I understand that, Gid,” the older man said tiredly, running a hand through his silvering hair, “but even a ten-year-old should know not to run out into the freezing cold. I realize that you kids were more mature at that age and I’m probably unfairly comparing him to what any of you would have done.”
Gideon tried not to laugh at being referred to as a kid at the age of fifty-six, and wondered how Shorty would react to the label.
“But the fact is he was wrong and he'll have to face the consequences of what he did. I only pray that it don’t include frostbite or hypothermia,” the older man continued, grimly.
"I know he'll be fine," Gideon reassured his friend. "He's obviously been through a lot and he's tough, but he's still a kid. A scared kid."
"Yes, I get that," James sighed, "but I thought he'd have learned to trust us more by now."
"He'll be ok," the other man said again. "Just... do me a favor and call me when you've found him, alright?"
"I'll do that," the older man promised. "Goodbye for now, Gideon."
The search continued throughout the night, the prospects for the youngster being found safe plummeting with every second he was out in the cold. The men kept in contact with each other using their cell phones but there had still been no sign of ‘Keen or wherever he might have holed up for warmth.
James used the interior thermometer, placing it outside, to keep an eye on the exterior temperature. As the night wore on and morning approached it began to rise, but even then, it was only in the mid-twenties by the time he called the other men back to get warm and fed before continuing the search.
Shorty and Bo returned within an hour, cold to the bone. They’d tended to the horses, giving them a good rubdown, blankets and hot mash before going into the house to warm themselves up.
The veterinarian called James, "We'll just warm up some and then we'll head out with fresh horses."
The older man nodded even though he knew Shorty couldn't see it. "I'll help as well. I'm doing no one any good just staying here and hoping he'll come back."
The twins returned an hour or so later, saw to their horses and joined the others in the bunkhouse. They looked drawn and tired, and the big man ordered them off to bed.
"We can't, Shorty," Jarrod protested earnestly. "Not until we've found Phoenix. Please! We're no worse off than you and Bo, and you're going back out."
The veterinarian sighed. He knew that if he ordered the boys to remain at the bunkhouse that they'd most likely get up and start their own search as soon as he and Bo were gone, regardless of the consequences.
"Alright boys, though it's against my better judgement. I should tell you to stay here just in case Phoenix comes back..."
"Please?" Little Jake pleaded.
Coming to a decision, Shorty said, "Then get into warm clothes and eat something."
When Jare and Little Jake came back into the kitchen they found Bo just finishing up a slice of fresh rye bread with butter melting on top, washing the bites down with fresh hot coffee, while the veterinarian used some of the bread to make grilled cheese and ham sandwiches, and tomato soup to dunk them in.
At their inquiring looks, Shorty explained, "Brendon and Tris just came by and dropped all of this off," he said, pointing to the loaves of still warm bread as well as croissants and bagels. "I've called the others and they're going to meet us here to eat after they get changed. Then we can try to come up with another plan of action."
The twins sat down and devoured the food. They, like the others, hadn't eaten all night and they were ravenous.
"I was just about to eat Cutter's hot mash," Jarrod joked. "I have to admit, this is much better."
The other men arrived little by little, filling up the kitchen and living room, and gratefully ate their fill. The big veterinarian kept the coffee coming until they finally admitted they'd had enough.
James arrived with a map of the resort and each man pointed out which direction they'd gone in and how far they'd traveled.
"He'd have been easy enough to miss in the darkness," he admitted, "and even if he'd been in earshot it's doubtful that he'd have answered anyone who was calling for him. Now that it's lighter out we can start fresh. I'll be joining the search."
Jeff, who had been quietly sitting nearby said, "I was all up and down the main road outside the resort grounds and didn't see him, but if he's half as good at hiding as Gideon said I may have passed him without knowing it."
"You did the best you could," his friend said tiredly. "All of you. All we can hope for now is that we'll be able to find him today. If I have to, I'll call Dusty at the Sheriff’s office and he’ll put out the word. I hate to do that because it will cause more problems for the youngster than he's probably willing to deal with right now."
"We'll find him," Ryan chimed in. "I know we will. He can't have gotten far in the dark... could he?" he asked, looking at Coral with a worried expression.
His partner put an arm around the younger man and hugged him tightly. "We'll just have to do the best we can. If we don't find him today then James can do what he said, and call the Sheriff... if it were any other boy I'd say a night in jail would do him good, but Phoenix... without knowing more..."
"Joaquín," Mutt murmured distractedly. "He said his real name is Joaquín. And you're right, maybe another kid, but not him. We couldn't do that to him, no matter what." He looked up beseechingly at James. "You won't let that happen, will you? He was so scared."
"No," the older man reassured the young man, "I wouldn't let him spend the night in jail and we're not giving up. The important thing is that we find him and we'll take things from there."
“Joaquín. That's not the most common name I've ever heard. If it really is his name, then I should call Gideon so that he can start looking for lists of boys with that name. I can't imagine there are many," Shorty said, lost in thought.
"Do that," James said wearily. "We'll find him, one way or the other." He didn't realize how what he'd said sounded until he saw Mutt's reaction.
Jeff put his arms around his husband and hugged him tight. Mutt buried his head in the older man's shirt front and closed his eyes against impending tears.
The resort owner, looking down at his friend and his distraught husband said quietly, “You know we only have his best interest in mind and we’ll find him,” he reassured as he prepared to go out into the elements.
"Well then," the young physician said, standing up and reaching for his jacket, "we should probably get started again."
"Heath, I think you should stay back here with Jaxon then meet us at the infirmary when we do find him. There's no knowing what condition he'll be in and he's going to need you at your best. Go on, now," James said to the reluctant doctor. "Try to get some sleep. We'll call you as soon as we find him, I promise."
Heath wanted to argue but saw the logic of his partner's words and only nodded. He put on his gear and made his way home. Quietly he checked on his sleeping younger lover, left a note for him on the fridge then headed out toward the infirmary. Once there he took out several blankets and set them next to the dryer so he could put them in and they’d be warm once they notified him they had found ‘Keen and brought the young man in.
The others helped Shorty clear up the mess, then grabbed their gear to head out again. Bo reluctantly agreed to stay at the bunkhouse on the off chance that Joaquín returned. He promised the others that he'd call if and when the boy showed up. With nothing else to do in the meantime, he went out into the stables and helped the twins and Shorty ready three fresh horses. He looked on fondly as he saw the veterinarian checking the horses that had been out all night, patting their noses and giving them apples to munch on before mounting Taz and heading out.
He sighed mightily as he mucked out the stalls, and then made sure the horses were warm and had food and water before going back inside to wait.
The twins headed east, into the rising sun. They put on their sunglasses, adjusted their hats and set off.
James took his truck and Jeff took the van and they headed back out onto the main road in opposite directions.
As the others were leaving the bunkhouse, Coral turned to Ryan and insisted that he stay at home and get some sleep, despite his protests.
"You're going back out!" Ryan had argued. "Why can't I? I'm security too, and I'm used to long hours without sleep. You haven't slept either. How can you tell me to do something when you won't follow your own advice?" he asked, his green eyes flashing.
"Harry is here by himself now. Martin and Greg have opted to join the search. If something happens he'll need backup, and with everyone else on the alert and searching for Phoenix, you're going to be the only one here to help him if he needs it. So, I want you to get some sleep."
Before Ryan could protest further, Duke said, "We're going to need to be in top condition tonight if we're going to do our shift, Ry. Jake told me to stay home too, and get some sleep, so you're not going to be the only one here," the head of security said ruefully. "It’s just going to be the three of us, so we really need to remain here. It just makes sense, we can't leave the resort unprotected, no matter how much we're worried about Phoenix."
It was obvious that the young security officer was not going to agree until his partner put his foot down. "You are going to stay home. You are going to get some sleep. I'll be back as soon as I can, but in the meantime, you need to get your rest now, deal?"
Ryan considered the offer and grudgingly agreed. "Call me if you find him," he said grumpily.
Coral grinned and drew his boy in for a kiss. "I'll call if I find him, I promise. Now go home and get some sleep."
"'Kay," Ry pouted, arms crossed.
The big man pulled his fiance in for a hug and kissed him once again. "I love you, Angel," he whispered in Ryan's ear.
"I love you too, but I still think you're mean."
The older security officer grinned. "I can live with that. Now go on," he said, turning the younger man and giving him a little swat to get him going in the right direction.
Ryan scowled but did as he'd been told. Once inside their bungalow he allowed himself the luxury of a long, jaw cracking yawn as fatigue set in. He laid down on the bed, Castiel cuddled up to him after feeding him and was sure he'd never fall asleep, and that was the last thing he knew before his alarm went off to alert him to the fact that he had to get up for his shift. His stomach knotted when he realized how much time had passed with no word from Coral or the others, until he detected the scent of cooking. Sleepily, he walked into the kitchen only to find his fiancé there. The other man turned and smiled.
"I had to make sure you had something to eat before you go to work tonight," he explained.
Ryan rushed toward Coral, giving him a bone crushing hug. Even with everything else he had to worry about, it made the younger man feel special that his future husband would drop everything else just to make sure he was taken care of.
"So, no sign of Phoenix yet?" Ryan asked hesitantly.
"No one has called in yet, no." Coral replied with a frown that the younger man knew wasn't aimed at him. "The kid really knows how to hide."