Sunday, August 20, 2017
Phoenix from the Ashes Part 8
Written by Snarks, Rosemarie and PJ
Mutt sat beside Joaquin on his left while Shorty sat to his right, offering support and unconsciously acting as a buffer between the young man and the other adults. Once again, Gideon was on the speakerphone, listening intently.
"I'm... my name... my real name... is Joaquín Edward Striker. I'm from Seattle, Washington. My mother's name is Callie, and my father, Edward, well... he... he said we weren't his after he caught Mom cheating and taking drugs. He just took off. We haven't heard from him in more than five years now. I had no one to turn to," Joaquin’s voice broke on the last word.
"It's ok," Shorty said, putting a comforting arm around the boy's shoulders, "take your time."
Hesitantly, he told his story. It was obvious to all the men that the recollections were causing the boy pain, but they didn't interrupt. When he reached the part where he'd run away he stopped, obviously choked up with repressed tears.
He took a deep breath and concentrated on calming himself, Ick's taunts ringing in his ears. "The rest you all know. Gideon and Shorty caught up with me and... well, here I am," he finished, angrily wiping stray tears away. He hated to cry, and he especially hated to cry in front of other people who were more likely than not to make fun of a half-grown boy crying for any reason.
Gideon was glad he wasn't in the room because he could feel his blood pressure rising during the lad's recitation of events. If even half of what the boy had said was true, then he hoped the mother and her boyfriend were deep within some dark jail never to see the light again.
Joaquín, who had been looking at everything except the Sheriff, finally caught the man with his gaze. "I'm nearly eighteen years old," he said quietly but ardently. "Please, don't send me back, or to a foster home. I love it here!"
"But yet you ran away," Sheriff Grayson said wryly as he wrote in his notepad.
"Because I thought they were going to send me back," the boy replied with a guilty expression. "Me and Mutt walked in on a conversation, and... well... that's all I heard and I panicked."
"We understand that," James said solemnly, "but you can't keep running away every time you get scared."
Joaquin blushed hotly. "I know. I'm sorry," the boy said, looking up at the man. "I just can't bear to go back to them, and... and Ick told me all sorts of stories about what foster homes were like. I didn't want to leave my brothers, honest," he said earnestly, looking among the men, seekingsome sign of understanding, and perhaps forgiveness, “but I couldn't take them with me. It was... frightening enough just on my own, and I knew I couldn't take care of them on the road. I just kept hoping that they'd end up in a good place, with good people, until I could turn eighteen and get a job, and my own place, and then... I hoped I could get custody of them. I love them, James, and I miss them, and I want them back."
"Jare and Little Jake, they said... they said you might know someone who can help me get them back?" he asked hopefully.
James sat back in his chair thoughtfully. "We do have a good friend who handles the legal work for the resort. I'm sure he'd be willing to help you in any way he can... just as we told you that we would help you," he said, giving the youngster a not too subtle reminder.
Joaquin blushed again and looked down at his hands, unable to maintain eye contact with any of the men who sat around him.
Sheriff Grayson cleared his throat. "I have all the information I need for now. I'm going to head back to town and look into your story. The only reason I'm not taking you with me is because James and the others here have assured me that you're not going to be a flight risk. They're taking full responsibility for you, young man, which means that if you run off again, they're going to be in trouble with the law. Do you understand me?"
The youngster, still looking at his hands, nodded but didn't reply.
"The sheriff asked you a question, Joaquín," James said, a hint of iron in his voice.
"Yes Sheriff. I promise I won't run off again," the youth answered quietly.
"In that case my purpose here is done. Gideon, I'll talk to you soon," Sheriff Grayson said, looking toward the phone where the other man had been listening in.
"I've already got people checking into it. We'll get together later and compare notes."
"Sounds good. Goodbye then."
"Goodbye for now, Dusty," the other men chorused.
When the sheriff had gone, Gideon said, "Joaquín, you realize that if you'd told us all of this earlier, things would have been a lot easier on you. We could have begun proceedings to have you declared an emancipated minor. That means," he continued before the boy could ask, "that you would have been legally declared an adult and you wouldn't have had to go back to your mother as long as the courts agreed."
Joaquín picked up quickly on the last sentence, "If they'd agreed," he said. "I'm just a kid, well, you know what I mean. What if they'd decided that I was better off at their house? I mean, CPS came out a few times and mom was all… I dunno... like her old self and Ick made himself scarce. They kept deciding that that was where we belonged and the case was dropped. They came out three times."
"And you never said anything?" Gideon asked.
"What was the point?" the young man replied. "If they'd decided that we should be taken away we'd have been split up, sent to different places. No one would have taken the three of us. No one would have wanted Sammy, or even Mike, because of their... issues." His face fell. "But then I took off and left them to... who knows what. I did that to them. After protecting them for all those years, I... I..." he faltered, once again choked up and unable to prevent the tears that streamed down his cheeks. He put his face in his hands, ashamed, and cried quietly.
"Now that we know who you are," Jeff said gently, "we can look up your mother and find out what happened to her and her boyfriend. And your brothers. What are their names?"
"Sammy... Samuel Tyler, and Mikael William Striker. Sammy is 12 and Mikael is only 7... actually," Joaquín said, his voice thickening again, "Mikey had his eighth birthday in January. I missed his birthday." He had always made sure that his brothers had something for their birthday, even though it had been only the three of them. Their mother had stopped caring after she got into drugs and his father had left, and Ick never cared.
"Well, you gave me your old street address, and all the information I need to track down your parents and brothers. Now that we have all of that information, we can begin to set things right for you,” Gideon said.
"But... Gideon...," Joaquín replied, his voice trembling slightly, "what if the judge or whoever won't give me back my brothers because I ran away? I mean... I just left them..."
"You had your reasons, Hon," Gideon countered. "I won't lie to you and tell you there won't be problems, but the fact is that you did take care of them pretty much exclusively for a little over five years and apparently you did a very good job. Not to mention that now you have people in your corner willing to fight for you. To speak up for you. Be character witnesses for you, myself included. That may help in your case."
"May?" Joaquin asked, his heart freezing in his chest.
"There are no absolutes, I wish I could say that there were. I'd like to be able to tell you that there will be no problems and that the judge will just give them to you, but I can't. It's going to take time and patience. And the fact that CPS was involved is going to make things more difficult for you."
"Just tell me what I need to do. I'll do anything," the young man said sincerely, clasping his hands together to keep them from shaking. “Do you think I can still get emancipated like you said?”
"Exactly when do you turn eighteen, Hon?"
"Just three more weeks. March 6th."
"To be honest, the process takes two months to even get onto the docket, and your birthday is so close that it's not going to be necessary. You'll be legal before the paperwork even clears," Gideon answered.
"Do... d'ya think there's any way I can get them back?" 'Keen asked hopefully.
"Well, that's another whole can of worms," Gideon sighed. "You'd have to get a job and a place to live that would..."
"I tried to get a job after I was suspended from school, but no one would hire me," Keen said desperately. "They'd either say I needed a high school diploma or experience, and I didn't have either. I won’t be able to find a place to live without a job, well, not a safe place,” ‘Keen said defeated, "and I can't bring Sammy and Mikey into another bad place."
“Well, maybe I can help you with that, Joaquín,” Gideon’s voice offered over the speaker. “Let me make a few phone calls and see what I can do.”
"And don't forget," Jeff added, "technically you've been working here for the past several weeks and you do have some pay saved up. You do have a place to live until a place is found for you and your brothers, and if I know James at all, he's already putting out feelers for apartments," he finished with a smile.
“Ok,” the teen whispered, not placing much hope in things working out his way.
"Where are you in your studies with Alfred?" James asked curiously.
"Al says I’m doing good," 'Keen answered, still sounding depressed. "He's got me due to take the tests soon, but I'm afraid. What if..."
"If you don't pass?" James interrupted gently. "Then you simply study harder and take them again. However, from what Al has been telling us, he's confident that you will earn your diploma with flying colors."
"We need you to believe in yourself as much as we do," Gideon said. "That's part of the battle right there. You've convinced yourself that you're too stupid to learn, and that's just not true."
'Keen was quiet for several minutes while he took that information in, then he nodded, "Thank you all," he said quietly. "I know you'd been doing a lot for me...,"
"We were glad to do it, Hon, and we'd do it again. Except that next time, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me the whole story immediately," Gid joked.
"But now... what about my brothers?" the boy asked nervously.
“We can check with Oliver," Gideon said. "I'm sure he knows someone in Washington, or at least someone who knows someone. We can find and file the appropriate paperwork necessary to obtain guardianship of your brothers once we locate them."
"All of us will speak on your behalf when the time arises," James assured the boy.
‘Keen's eyes widened and his breathing quickened with fear as he gripped the edge of the table with suddenly sweat slick hands. "What if you can't find a place for the three of us? What if I can't afford to pay the rent and all? Do I even have a chance at getting them?"
Without thinking, both Shorty and Mutt took one of the man-child's hands in theirs to still the tremors. Mutt noticed that even though the boy was sweating his hands were ice cold at the same time and he held on tighter, concern marring his features as he looked worriedly at the teenager.
Shorty once again put his arms around the youngster and held him close. "Shhhh," he whispered, "be still and listen, ok, Hon?"
When 'Keen nodded against his chest and relaxed.
Gideon cleared his throat then said, “I have an idea if you’re willing, Joaquín.”
Shorty looked toward the phone and said, "Go on, Gideon. Tell him."
Gideon spoke again, "My partner and I live on my family's property. My brother, Roman, and I inherited it when our dad passed. Roman and Melissa and their three kids were happy in Washington and didn’t want to move to Maine. Then a year ago Melissa was killed in a car accident. The kids are out on their own and living their lives around Seattle. Roman knows he has a place here if he ever wants to come back home. Ken and I built a larger house on the land… it's big enough for Ken and I, and the three of you, if you want."
"We'll... we'll live with you then?" Joaquín asked, not sure if that would be the best idea but willing to do anything to get his brothers back.
"That's the idea that my partner and I had, certainly. There's enough room in the new house for all of us to live quite comfortably. We'd talked about the possibility of adopting kids in the past but we never quite seemed to have gotten around to it. So, I just talked to him and told him about your brothers. He suggested that we take all of you in before I even asked. The three of you would have your own rooms, if that's what you'd like. Since you're an adult you would pay something toward utilities and food but we can work out the math later. It would also prove that we have an added support system in place if needed."
"Would... would... I mean, it's tough, having three boys in the house. Mom always used to say..." his voice trailed off as he remembered some of the horrible things his mother used to say to him.
"In my family, I was the youngest of five kids. I know it can be hard, but it can also be rewarding," Gideon said, understanding what Joaquín hadn't said.
"Sammy can be a handful sometimes," the boy said apologetically. "I... I mean... I'm used to him... I don't want you to regret taking us in, and you might after... after we'd been with you and your partner for a while. I don't want us to be a burden on anyone."
"My partner, Ken, wants me to assure you that none of you would be a burden. His older brother is autistic. He's an advocate for people with autism and is also very active with the Autism Society, so Sam would have someone there for him, besides you, that has hands on experience."
"We also have an added bonus. Our friend Mark, if he doesn't mind being referred to as such," Gideon said, a hint of humor in his tone, "is a retired Special Ed teacher who rents the old house next door... the one my brothers and sisters and I grew up in. He works on his writing these days but he's been looking for something else to occupy his time so I just called him too. He’s offered to take care of Sam and Mike until we get home from work."
"Special Ed..." Joaquin echoed quietly as his thoughts whirled. It was all so much to take in at once. Was his luck finally changing for the better? Was there really a chance that Gideon and Ken could get custody of his brothers and that they could all live together in a house where they were actually wanted?
"You know that there are a lot of responsibilities to being your own man, Joaquín, as well as taking care of two brothers with disabilities, even with help, and working full time. You need to understand that now. And..." Gideon continued, his voice deepening slightly, “there can be no more five finger discounts. Ever."
"I won't! I promise!" the boy said fervently. “I never liked doing it," he admitted softly. "I always felt guilty. If it had only been me... but it wasn't. Someone had to take care of them," he finished, a plea for understanding in his eyes as he looked at the men around him.
He found himself squashed between Mutt and Shorty as they hugged him from either side, causing the other men in the room to smile.
"We understand that, Hon," Jeff said, still smiling softly after the two men had released the youngster. "We all know you did your best, and that's all anyone can ask of you. Things are different when you're an adult, expectations are higher, rules are more strict and consequences are more stringent."
"I... I understand," Joaquín said, his heart racing at the grim picture they painted. He would be better off with Gideon, certainly, but he worried about what would happen the first time Sammy had one of his meltdowns. Maybe they could handle one, or even two, but more than that he didn't know. And if the couple did decide they couldn't take it anymore, where would he and his brothers go from there?
"I'm going to let you all go home now. Joaquín," James said, looking at the kid in a way that made him slightly nervous, "I'm sure that Shorty is going to want to talk to you about running away and worrying everyone."
Joaquín swallowed against a lump that suddenly formed in his throat and looked up at Shorty. The man's face was unreadable which made him more nervous. He'd heard the words 'Have a talk' several times over the past couple of months mostly aimed at the twins and once or twice directed at Bo, and none of the other men had returned looking very happy... or comfortable.
"In the meantime, I’ll get a hold of Oliver and whoever he refers us to and we can get the appropriate forms for custody, once we find out where your brothers are. Since it all began in Seattle, we may have to file in both states, but I won't know for sure until we talk to him," Jeff said to the boy. "Go on home, get some rest and something else to eat if your stomach can handle it, or at least a hot drink." He glanced at Shorty, his expression asking the man to go easy on the kid. The veterinarian only nodded with a small smile of his own to reassure his friend.
‘Keen followed Shorty out of Heath’s office, down the hall to the front door of the infirmary then down the steps. The big vet slowed his pace when he realized that the boy was dragging his feet in an attempt to delay their arrival at the bunkhouse. He turned and waited for his young charge to catch up.
As they entered the bunkhouse, the older man heard running and a door quietly close upstairs. He smiled knowing that Bo and the twins were giving him time alone with their young friend.
“Come on, Hon, let see if the guys left anything to eat,” the man said leading the way into the kitchen.
Shorty pulled the left-over beef stew from the fridge, dumped it into a pot and placed it on the stove to heat up. In the meantime, he buttered some of the French bread that was left over from last night’s dinner then placed it under the broiler to toast.
“Can you get a couple of bowls down for us, Joaquín?” the vet asked.
The young man retrieved the bowls, spoons and a couple of glasses that he filled with milk. He always chuckled when he saw the big guy drinking milk. Ick would have had a royal fit if anyone ever tried to get him to drink anything milder than Jack Daniels.
While Shorty prepared the meal, he asked Joaquin to chop up vegetables for a salad.
The two talked leisurely over their late lunch after which they cleaned up and took their discussion onto the couch in the living room.
"Would you like to have our talk about running away now?" the veterinarian asked, seemingly out of the blue.
Joaquin couldn't help but to swallow hard against the sudden lump in his throat. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, he took a breath and replied quietly, "Yeah, I guess now... before everyone else is here."
Shorty smiled gently in understanding and assured the teen that they'd be alone as the others had gone to bed.
This boy who has been abused by both his so-called Mother and her boyfriend or even boyfriends, did not need to be swatted by his new friend, a man he hoped he had grown to trust, whether he might deserve it or not. Shorty was not going to risk breaking that trust… yet.
“Joaquín,” the older man started the conversation, “if one of the twins had run off the way you did, they would be sitting here talking about their actions with warm butts.” Shorty chuckled to himself when he saw the boy’s eyes enlarge.
"That's... that's what I was worried about. I asked... you know, you beat on the twins sometimes, and sometimes even Bo. I've seen it. And I was afraid... I didn't want you to do the same thing to me. Are you?" he asked, trying to stiffen his spine to look taller and braver than he actually felt.
"First, I don't beat the twins or Bo," Shorty almost growled, "and if they told you that, then I need to have a talk with them."
"They... well they didn't say that... I mean... I saw you do it a few times and I hid, just in case... I mean... I was afraid if I was nearby you'd get me too," Joaquin admitted shame faced, "and I know you and me talked about what discipline was and what abuse was and how they're different, but... well both of them end up with someone crying, don't they?"
Relieved the big man nodded. "Yes, Hon, it does end up with someone crying. But, if you ask either one the twins, they'll tell you it ends with a clean slate and a bushel load of guilt dumped off their shoulders."
'Keen thought about the man's words for a little while then looked up at him and licked his lips nervously, "So... are you?" he asked again, not as bravely as he'd have liked.
"No, I'm not going to spank you this time, 'Keen," Shorty answered. "But I'll make this promise to you," he said with a look of steel, "if you ever run away from me... me or any of the people here... people who love you and want to keep you safe, then you and me are going to have a serious conversation." Shorty put a finger under the boy's chin, raising it so their eyes met. "A conversation between my hand and your butt."
Joaquin looked into the eyes of the man he thought of as a father and saw the concern and care there. He also saw that the man was deadly serious in what he said. Swallowing once more, the teen nodded as well as he could. "I won't run again. I promise," he said quietly.
"That's all I can ask of you, little boy," the vet said. "Just remember, a man's word is his bond so if you don't think you can keep that promise for any reason, you need to find any of us and tell us what's going on in that imaginative head of yours. Which, I think would be a very good idea for us to talk about now," Shorty said remembering why they were having this conversation. “I know you were afraid that we would have to send you back, why didn’t you come to one of us, or even Mutt, instead of running?”
'Keen felt as if a flood gate had been opened and he knew he wouldn't be able to close it again if he tried. He worried that his friend was going to get tired of hearing him 'kvetch' as Ick would have said. Instead, Shorty sat beside him and listened quietly, only asking a few questions.
When they finished, the veterinarian reached out toward the boy who seemed as though a light breeze would have knocked him over. He pulled the half-grown man child’s head onto his lap, pulled the afghan up over him, then sat back so his head rested on the back of the couch. Soon the two of them were sound asleep.
Shorty woke when he felt the weight on his lap move. He looked across the room to the clock over the fireplace. He gently shook ‘Keen’s shoulder. “Time to head up to bed, Hon.”
‘Keen sat up, feeling more rested than he had in a very long time…safe…yeah, safe… that’s what he left. He rubbed his eyes then stood when Shorty did. Without being prompted, he hugged the big guy.
“Thanks, Shorty,” he mumbled into the hard chest of this man that he knew would do anything to keep him safe. Then he released his grip and ran up the stairs to his room.